Old Testament dietary restrictions and St. Paul

In Acts 21:25, St. Paul says, “As for the Gentiles who have come to believe, we sent them our decision that they abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage.”

I thought that Christians were not bound by the dietary laws of the Old Testament, since Jesus declared all foods clean. I have two questions about this passage. First of all, it seems that St. Paul is saying to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, and from all animal blood and all meat of strangled animals, regardless of whether the blood or meat came from an animal sacrificed to idols or not. However, in a different thread, someone said that we only have to be concerned with blood and meat that was in fact sacrificed to idols. If the latter is the case, why did St. Paul say this in such an ambiguous way?

My second issue is this: I thought that Christ declared all foods clean, regardless of where it came from. If Christians are supposed to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, why did Jesus declare all foods clean? I look forward to your answers!


Please don’t send me to Jim Blackburn’s article, “Why We Are Not Bound by Everything in the Old Law.” I have read this already, and Mr. Blackburn does not address the passage from Acts in question.

How about from St. Jerome:


In commenting on this passage Jerome says,

“Paul, here again let me question thee: Why didst thou shave thy head, why didst thou walk barefoot according to I (the) Jewish ceremonial law, why didst thou offer sacrifices, why were victims slain for thee according to the law? Thou wilt answer, doubtless, ‘To avoid giving offense to those of the Jews who had believed.’ To gain the Jews, thou didst pretend to be a Jew; and James and all the other elders taught thee this dissimulation. But thou didst not succeed in escaping, after all. For when thou wast on the point of being killed in a tumult which had arisen, thou wast rescued by the chief captain of the band, and was sent by him to Caesarea, guarded by a careful escort of soldiers, lest the Jews should kill thee as a dissembler, and a destroyer of the law; and from Caesarea coming to Rome, thou didst, in thine own hired house, preach Christ to both Jews and Gentiles, and thy. testimony was sealed under Nero’s sword.”
“We have learned, therefore, that through fear of the Jews both Peter and Paul alike pretended that they observed the precepts of the law. How could Paul have the assurance and effrontery to reprove in another what he had done himself ? I at least, or, I should rather say, others before me, have given such explanation of the matter as they deemed best, not defending the use of falsehood in the interest of religion, as you charge them with doing, but teaching the honorable exercise of a wise discretion; seeking both to show the wisdom of the apostles, and to restrain the shameless blasphemies of Porphyry, who says that Peter and Paul quarreled with each other in childish rivalry, and affirms that Paul had been inflamed with envy on account of the excellences of Peter, and had written boastfully of things which he either had not done, or, if he did them, had done with inexcusable presumption, reproving in another that which he himself had done. They, in answering him, gave the best interpretation of the passage which they could find; what interpretation have you to propound ? Surely you must intend to say something better than they have said, since you have rejected the opinion of the ancient commentators.”

These passages in Acts are a historical account of the conflict between Paul in Antioch and James in Jerusalem, arising from the contrasting local environments in which they are preaching the Gospel. Paul’s main concern is his Gentile converts, for whom Christianity is in many ways too Jewish, while James has the opposite problem. His Jerusalemites are worried that the new faith is drifting too far away from mainstream Judaism. The ruling that James handed down at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) was a compromise acceptable to both sides.

These are the four laws from the book of Leviticus that Gentiles were required to obey if they wanted to live in Israel among the Jews.

Jewish converts to Christianity were insisting that the laws of Moses still had to be obeyed and were trying to force the Gentile Christians to undergo circumcision. Enforcing these four Levitical laws was a brilliant decision. It satisfied the Hebrew Christians who insisted that the law of Moses still be kept and allowed them to feel comfortable living with Gentiles. It delighted the Gentile Christians who didn’t have get circumcised.

It is a story of the brilliance of the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the early Church. That’s all this passage is. Don’t read anything about diet and meat and idols into it for us today.


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