To Eat or Not To Eat, That Is The Question

Romans chapter 14 is often quoted as proof that Paul (Rabbi Sha’ul of Tarsus) taught and believed that the dietary laws and holy days of the Torah (especially Shabbat) have been done away with.

This is very easy to do when we read those verses from a 21st century western Christian paradigm as if they were written to us, about things pertinent to us today, as instructions on how to live. They weren’t. They were written to a mixed congregation of new gentile believers, Jews who accepted Yeshua as Messiah and Jews who didn’t, but aimed mainly at the gentile believers living in that community (in 1st century Rome) and worshiping with their Jewish brethren in the synagogue. We’re reading someone else’s mail and we only have half the conversation.

It would take way too long to go right back to the beginning of the letter to give you the full context. For background, I would like to refer you to the excellent book, “The Mystery of Romans” by Mark D. Nanos. You should read it. Follow up with 3 books by Prof. Brad H Young (Professor of Biblical Studies at Oral Roberts University) – “Jesus, The Jewish Theologian”, “Paul, The Jewish Theologian”, and “Meet the Rabbis”. [I would like to thank Dr Skip Moen of At God’s Table ( for recommending those books to me, and for his insights into the Hebrew and Greek languages and cultures. They have been extremely helpful in my learning.]

Beginning in Romans 13:1, Paul is exhorting the gentile believers to “be subject to the governing authorities” (in the context of the letter, as Nanos points out, this refers to the leaders of the synagogue, not the pagan, Roman government). He goes on to talking about the “temple taxes” – the contributions that all Jews living in the diaspora made through the synagogue towards the upkeep and operations of the temple in Jerusalem (these are also mentioned in Acts).

When we get to Romans 14, bearing in mind the audience, Paul gives instructions about how to deal with those who are “weak in faith”. Who are these “weak in faith”? It is not completely clear; Nanos suggests that Paul may be referring to Jews who have not yet accepted Yeshua as Messiah (perhaps implied by the condition, “…not to quarrel over opinions”, which is a very “Jewish” thing to do), but it may also be referring to new believers coming into the community.

The understanding of verse 2 – One person believes he may eat anything, while the “weak person” eats only vegetables – is perhaps helped by Acts 15, the letter to the gentiles, in which James dictates the four minimum requirements for gentiles coming to faith in Yeshua to come into fellowship with their Jewish brethren in the synagogue; “abstinence from sexual immorality, meat sacrificed to idols, things strangled and from blood.” This may very well pertain to one who has the confidence to “eat whatever is sold in the marketplace” as contrasted with “I don’t know if it has been sacrificed to idols or not, therefore I won’t eat any meat at all” (c.f. 1 Cor 10).

We also tend to have a very limited view of the phrase “weak person”. The Greek ??????? – asthenon – has a much wider range of meanings than just “weak in faith” – it can also mean sick or poor. It is used in the LXX to translate the Hebrew root kaf-shin-lamed which in its various verb forms can mean fall, stumble, fail, cast down, ruin, overthrow(n), offense and offend. Paul almost certainly had this word in mind when he wrote the letter. Exactly what he meant must be determined from the context.

Verse 3 – “Let not the one who eats despise the one who doesn’t, and let not the one who doesn’t pass judgement on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.” Again, the context is whether or not one believes it is OK to eat meat sold in the marketplace. Paul says, “you’re not qualified to judge your brother in this matter”. (verse 4).

Rom 14:5 ESV – [5] One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.

One must be aware of the debates that took place between the two major rabbinic schools of thought in the 1st century Jewish world – Beyt Hillel and Beyt Shammai. It was a rabbinic custom that everyone should fast at least 2 days every week. (Note – this is not commanded in Torah but it was a custom of the rabbis, of whom Paul was one, of the house of Hillel). One group taught that it had to be two specific days, the other that it could be any two days (other than Shabbat as I understand it, but I could be wrong on that point) and that each individual was free to choose which two days on which they’d fast. Literally, one esteemed one day as better than another (for tasting), while another esteems all days alike. How do I know that this is about fasting?

Rom 14:6 ESV – [6] The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.

Eating or not eating and observance of specific days is clearly linked – Paul is talking here about the rabbinic custom of fasting and the dispute as to whether or not it had to be on any specific days or could be any day of the week.

Paul goes on to deal with the divisions that this was causing in the community:

Rom 14:10-13 ESV – [10] Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; [11] for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” [12] So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. [13] Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.

Rom 14:17-19 ESV – [17] For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. [18] Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. [19] So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

In other words, lets concentrate on the things that unite rather than the things that divide.

Now, verse 20:

Rom 14:20 ESV – [20] Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats.

“Everything is indeed clean…” – Paul is clearly talking about food as understood by the Jews of the 1st century. Unclean meats (that which God defined as unclean in Leviticus) were not considered to be food, therefore they cannot be included in “everything” in the context of this letter. Paul is referring again to food that may or may not have been sacrificed to idols. The same issue is addressed in 1 Cor 10 (almost exactly).

Just in case you doubt that this is in fact the context, the next verse removes all doubt:

Rom 14:21 ESV – [21] It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.

The word “meat” is the Greek word ???? – krea, a form of ????? – kreas – which has a very specific meaning: the flesh of an animal that has been sacrificed! I can assure you that it was the flesh of an animal that had been sacrificed in Rome it would not have been sacrificed to YHVH – it would only have been to an idol.

In summary, Romans 14 has absolutely nothing to do with the definition of what animals are considered food and what are not (the definitions given in Leviticus), nor does it have anything to do with the Feasts of YHVH or Sabbath (again, Leviticus 23). It is solely concerned with issues that confronted the community of faith living in a pagan city (in this case, Rome).

Rodney posted at כ״ה באב ה׳תשע״א (August 25, 2011) Category: Epistles, Sabbath, Torah