November 24, 2022

Acts 15:20, Eating Strangled Meat and Blood, The Jerusalem Council in Acts


Excerpts from “The crucial issue of eating blood and strangled meat from the decree of the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15:20”

Yeo Toon Hang, 2015, ThM Thesis
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The issues of “eating blood” and “eating strangled meat” appear to be rather unessential, for they seem to refer to a religious rule for diet. For most people, these issues will never be their concern or might never pertain to them throughout their whole lives. The related issue, “eating the food sacrificed to idols,” is quite foreign to most American and European Christians, for they do not live in countries where they are surrounded by pagan temples, idols, and idol foods. However, to those who live in Asia, these issues are part of their daily lives. In some places, temples and shrines are located on almost every single block of the street. 

In the Oriental Christian community, these issues of “eating blood” and “strangled meat” have received a lot of attention because different interpretations regarding the controversy have caused much confusion. One faction sees that God’s command to humans not to eat blood or meat that contained blood was meant for believers both in the Old Testament and the New Testament, yet the other group, believes that these four prohibitions should not apply to contemporary Christians, for the decree was to help to establish a relational bridge between Jewish Christian and Gentile believers. Ironically, we have seen some churches and “godly” followers of Christ endeavoring to be faithful to their interpretations of the truth, yet being led to separate from each other due to their different positions on this matter.

Because existing interpretations on the issues of “eating the strangled meat” and “eating blood” from different scholars provide contradictory advice to their readers, surely these interpretations have confused many as well. Actually, misunderstandings about what the Bible teaches will be likely to mislead believers, especially since many think that Paul holds different perspectives even in his own letters. For Paul comments, “we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat” (1 Cor. 8:8 NASB) and “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify” (10:23 NASB).

In response to these problems of different views and questions regarding Paul’s view, we will attempt to find a reasonable interpretation that provides practical value, and, through this study, we hope we will help churches and Christians that have been affected by these issues.

The question of the prohibition of eating blood and strangled meat was raised in the decree of the Council of Jerusalem. When Gentiles began to be converted to Christianity, some Jewish Christians came to Paul and Barnabas and required that Gentile believers be circumcised in order to be saved (Acts 15:1). Paul and Barnabas debated with them, and this event led them to go to Jerusalem to seek an answer from the leadership of the Jerusalem church. After long debates and testimonies, the Council made its judgment, with James’ leadership, and issued a decree for the Gentile believers. James concluded, “Therefore, I am determining not to trouble the Gentiles when they convert to God, but to write them in order to abstain from (things) of defilement of idols, and the fornication, and the strangled meat, and the blood” (Acts 15:20). The same matters were mentioned again in the same context when the letter to the Gentile churches was written, but in a different order. The letter concludes, “that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols, blood, things strangled, and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Goodbye” (Acts 15:29). The third appearance of the same content may be found at the end of Paul’s third missionary journey. He ended his trip with a visit to Jerusalem. While in Jerusalem, Paul went to visit James and all the leaders of the Jerusalem church. They brought out again the issue about the letter of the council which warned about abstinence from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality (Acts 21:25). Luke records James’ conclusion three times in Acts, and thus it should be worthwhile for us to study it carefully.

Our study will begin with defining the prohibitions against eating strangled meat and blood. Some believe that these two prohibitions are actually one issue. Let us see what scholars say about this matter.

The Meaning of Abstaining from the Blood

What does the blood mean in this decree of the Council of Jerusalem? From a Jewish Christian perspective, David H. Stem comments that it could be “drinking animals’ blood, or failing to remove it from meat, or figurative, a metaphor for murder.”  (David H. Stem, Jewish  New Testament Commentary (Clarksville: Jewish New Testament, 1992), 277) 

Actually, most scholars define the blood in this context as falling into all of or one of these three meanings.

Marshall sees blood in the Decree as blood itself, or blood within the meat, and as a food regulation. He believes that Jewish Christians who were accustomed to Jewish law adhered to the food regulations from Leviticus 17:8-13. (Marshall, Acts, 243, 253)

Wycliffe believes that in the context blood refers to food or diet, and James’
proposal of abstaining from the blood is merely to prevent Gentile believers from unintentionally offending their Jewish brothers and sisters:

The blood refers to the pagan custom of using blood as a food. The last two requirements involved the same offense, for the Jew who believed that “the life is in the blood” (Lev 17: 11) regarded the eating of any blood particularly offensive. The decree was issued to the Gentile churches not as means of salvation but as basis for fellowship, in the spirit of Paul’s exhortation that those who were strong in faith should be willing to restrict their liberty in such matters rather than offend the weaker brothers. (Harrison, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, 1152).

In Schnabel’s view, the word refers to abstinence from “the spilling of blood” (murder), and, quite possibly, means a prohibition from eating blood products. (Schnabel, Acts, 64)

 Witherington sees the abstinence of blood as related to drinking or tasting blood during the worship of idols in pagan temples, and he believes that the word could mean “murdering.” (Witherington, Acts, 464. Stem holds the same position, yet he believes that it could also refer to the abstinence from eating meat that had blood in it. Stem, Jewish New Testament Commentary, 148)

Yehoshua comments, “[James] renders the Christian interpretation of table fellowship impossible. Scholars should have known that the eating of bacon, even ‘well done,’ next to a Jewish believer, would certainly offend him, as all the Jewish believers continued to keep the Law of Moses (and dietary laws) after the resurrection.”  (Yehoshua, Lifting of the Veil, 150)

In summary, the prohibition of “eating blood” refers to a literal drinking of animals’ blood or blood products, and eating meat that still contained blood from it. It is quite convincing to say the definition of “eating blood” is related to pagan worship.

Are These Two Issues Considered as One?

Acts 15:20 says, “but to write them in order to abstain from things of defilement of idols, and the fornication, and the strangled meat and the blood.”

Wycliffe and F.F. Bruce see the issues of abstaining from “strangled meat” and “eating blood” as connected, and one issue. Bruce comments that these two abstinences should be the same. The reference to “the strangled meat and the blood” means “eating flesh with blood in it... was expressly forbidden in Jewish law (Lev 17:10-14) because the life or soul (Heb. nephesh) resided in blood. The prohibition goes back to Gen. 9:4.” (F.F. Brace, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 300)

Bruce believes that 

At a later time, when the issue dealt with by the apostolic council was no longer a live one, the provisions moved by James and adopted by other leaders were modified so as to become purely ethical injunctions; thus the Western text makes James propose that Gentile converts “abstain from idolatry, from fornication and from bloodshed.” (Bruce, The Book of the Acts, p. 296)

Yehoshua comments that “scholars like to connect strangled with the fourth rule, blood, but however logical this may seem, it is not what Yakov [James] meant.” He explains that James would have added other regulations regarding permissible kinds of animals in Leviticus 11 if he wanted to be more cautious. (Yehoshua, Lifting of the Veil, 143)

Cyprian and Tertullian both observe that these two rules fall one right after the other in the list, and we should consider them as the same issue. These two prohibitions are about the abstinence from eating blood and meats containing blood. (Yehoshua, Lifting of the Veil, 149)

My conclusion is that the prohibitions regarding strangled meat and the blood have two major meanings. 

First is the rule for the Gentile believers to stop eating blood as food, for it has been offered to idols. In other words, this prohibition against drinking blood is associated with the prohibition against defilement by idols. 

The second is related to the previous point: to abstain from the meat with blood in it, which is the meat sacrificed to idols.

Acts 15:20 Conclusion

 Luke’s presentation of the Apostolic Decree is to confirm that the gospel is for both Jew and Gentile. James’ decision is not his personal opinion but his exposition of the prophecy of Amos 9:11-12 based on Peter, and on Paul and Barnabas’ testimonies (Acts 15:16-18). An official letter is written and sent to Gentle Christians of Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia for affirming the teaching of salvation by grace alone and through faith alone, yet it requires them to abstain from things that are defiled by idols, from fornication, from strangled meat, and from blood.

The analysis of the original text shows that “strangled meat” may be defined as animals slaughtered without having the blood drained from them, and eating them is unlawful because blood represents life according to Mosaic law. “Blood” indicates “blood of human beings,” “blood of animals” or “blood that is in meat”; the word is a reminder of the commandment of not murdering, and of Jewish tradition of prohibiting from eating blood and meat containing blood.

From our analysis of its socio-historical background, we discover that these prohibitions are related to the contemporary pagan culture. “Idol food,” “fornication,” “strangled meat” and “blood” are affiliated with the rituals of pagan worship. Moreover, “strangled meat” and “blood” refer to pagan delicacies, and these two terms may point to “murder.” If the Judaism of the time saw “idolatry, illicit sexuality and bloodshed” (Peter J. Tomson, Paul and the Jewish Law: Halakha in the Letters of the Apostle to the Gentiles (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 179.)

 As three cardinal sins, we may understand “these prohibitions presumably represent the minimum ethical standard Hellenistic Jews required of proselytes, which the decree adopts for Gentile converts to Christianity.” (Cheung, Idol Food in Corinth, 178.)

The study of the context of Acts 15:19-20 shows that James’ determination must be interpreted within the contexts of Acts 15:16-18 (pre-text) and 15:21 (post-text). The former context is related to Moses’ law for Gentile sojourners who lived among Israelites in Leviticus 17-18, and it was common knowledge for all Gentile sojourners. Therefore, it must not be applied as a normative teaching in today’s society. Also, the context of Acts 15:21 is James’ reminder to Gentile believers to be sensitive to Mosaic law that had been practiced by Jews for generations. In other words, these prohibitions are a pragmatic compromise and a reminder of the continuity of the authority of the Bible. (Bauckham, “James and the Jerusalem Church,” 464.)

Is Paul Consistent with the Jerusalem Council?

The related issues in Paul’s epistles, [are] especially in Galatians 2, 1 Corinthians 8-10, and Romans 14-15. Some readers may be confused due to the apparent inconsistency between the decree and Paul’s teachings regarding permission for eating food offered to idols.

The main message of Galatians is to direct us to see the fundamental teaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; nobody, neither Jews nor Gentiles alike, can be justified by works of the Law, but are rather justified through faith in Jesus Christ (Gal 2:16). Therefore, the Gentile converts become like Jewish Christians, and they too are justified by grace through faith, not by observing the law. We believe that Paul’s message to the Galatians is the same as that of James; James’ conclusion of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:19-21) is to reaffirm the Gospel of grace alone, and the decree is unifying for Jewish Christians and Gentile believers through reducing the obstacles of fellowship. (p. 63)

For 1 Corinthians 8-10, the message concerns the issue of knowledge and love. According to Paul, the Corinthians might know that idols were nothing, and that food that was offered to idols was nothing. However, Paul reminded them to be aware of those who are weaker in faith; the stronger ones should not practice their freedom without considering others. Paul’s message was to lead them to a deeper consideration, which was “love.” Therefore, he repeatedly warned them to consider, or to benefit others, although they did have privileges. Loving others meant setting aside one’s rights and putting others before oneself; loving others meant doing all things for the glory of the Lord, not for himself or herself (1 Cor 10:31). Besides emphasizing the message of loving others, Paul also helps us see the actuality of involvement in worshiping pagan gods and its relationship with fornication or practicing prostitution. In addition, temple worship in 1 Corinthians 10 is related to fornication in 1 Corinthians 6, which explains that the prohibition of fornication in the decree of the council could be related to temple prostitution during the feast. (pp. 63-64)

The main message of Romans 14 -15 is about unity in the church. Some scholars see Paul as trying to reconcile between the strong and the weak. (Michael F. Bird, “The Letter to the Romans,” in All Things to All Cultures (eds. Mark Harding and Alanna Nobbs; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 187)

With logical and persuasive writing, Paul presented his argument by stressing God’s plan of salvation for both Jews and Gentiles (chs.1-11). This salvation was first to Jews, then to the Gentiles. God’s redemptive history started since the fall of humanity. God’s original covenant of grace was fulfilled through Christ’s work (Rom 5:14-18). Jews and Gentiles were the same now before God, and all had to believe in Christ in order to be justified. Therefore, in the practical section of the letter, namely chapters 12 to 15, Paul urges them to serve together in one body, and let no issue such as food preferences due to dietary laws split the church. Paul’s purpose in reminding them is to have peace and a unified spirit in the church. (Ben Witherington III and Darlene Hyatt, Paul's Letter to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 327) (p. 64)

Paul’s view toward the four prohibitions in the Apostolic Decree is not different from James’ since they both acknowledge that all are saved by grace through faith, not by observing the Law of Moses. (p. 64)

The result shows us James’ determination in writing the Apostolic Decree to Gentile-Christians not as a theological order, yet for sociological and pragmatic reasons. In other words, this decree was applicable to the situation of the time and for certain areas, so it is not normative. (p. 81)

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