Is It Wrong To Eat Blood (Acts 15:29)?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, December 16, 2009 at 1:54pm
A RECENT QUESTION: Does Acts 15:28-29 forbid the eating of blood? In our culture cooked blood is one of our dishes and is very popular. What is the point here?
REPLY: Acts 15:28-29 is part of the letter sent out to Gentile Christians by the Jerusalem council, for the purpose of reducing conflict between Gentile Christians and Christians from the Jewish background. These verses read, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell” (ESV).
The question is whether these prohibitions are intended to be universal and permanent, or whether they are situational, i.e., applying only to the Gentile Christians in the context of the above-mentioned conflict. What makes the former conclusion difficult is that at least one of the forbidden things is shown elsewhere in the NT to be a matter of opinion, i.e., not wrong in itself but something that should be avoided if it causes weaker brothers to stumble. I am referring here to the first item, eating meat sacrificed to idols. In Romans 14, 1 Cor. 8, and 1 Cor. 10:23-33, Paul declares that this is not wrong for those who have “knowledge,” i.e., who understand that idols are nothing. This seems to show that these four things are not firbidden here because they are a part of the moral law as such and are always wrong. This conclusion is also warranted by the fact that there are many things that are obviously always wrong from the standpoint of the universal moral law (e.g., lying, stealing) that are NOT included in this list.
But on the other hand, it is true that one of the prohibitions (against sexual immorality or fornication; Greek, “porneia”) IS obviously part of the universal moral law (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:12-20; Col. 3:5). This cannot be just a matter of opinion.
Thus we must ask, WHY are these four items, including the reference to “blood,” listed together here as things that the Gentile Christians must avoid? The best answer is that these are activities (1) for which Gentiles as such were particularly noted, and (2) which were especially offensive to the Jews. Thus in the interest of church unity (unity between the Gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians), the former are told to be especially careful to avoid these four things, even the ones that were not wrong in themselves. They were to do so in the spirit of love (Rom. 14:15), respecting the conscience of weaker brethren.
Why were the Jews specifically offended by these four things which they associated with the Gentile culture? Sexual immorality is always wrong, and the Jews would always be opposed to it based on the seventh commandment; but this was a sin that was especially rampant among the Gentiles. Thus it was incumbent upon the Gentile Christians to try extra hard to avoid it. For the monotheistic, Yahweh-worshiping Jews, no sin was worse than idolatry; thus eating meat that was taken from a sacrifice offered to idols would be greatly repulsive to them, even if there is nothing inherently wrong therewith. Thus the Gentiles should avoid such meat, in the interests of unity.
But why include the eating of blood and of something strangled (thus retaining its blood in its flesh) in the list of prohibitions? These were things forbidden to Jews by the Law of Moses (see Lev. 3:17; 7:26-27; 17:10, 14; 19:26; Deut. 12:16, 23), but are they still forbidden for Christians? No. The Law of Moses was part of the Old Covenant that was set aside by Christ and replaced by the New Covenant. Thus these prohibitions no longer apply. These practices are in the category of eating meat offered to idols: They were especially offensive to the first-century Jews, and the Gentile Christians were told to avoid them in the interests of love and of church unity. The same rule would apply today in any culture where eating blood is (wrongly) understood to be a grave sin. If there is no such danger of its causing serious disruption in the church, then this practice, as merely a matter of opinion today, can be engaged in without sin.
Some try to avoid the difficulty of explaining this prohibition by following a textual tradition that takes the reference to blood to mean SHEDDING blood (i.e., murder) rather than EATING blood. This is not the preferred explanation, though. It does not really fit the context of Jewish-Gentile disunity.
On this text, and on the matter of eating blood specifically, I recommend the commentary on Acts by R. C. H. Lenski. (He has an excellent commentary set on the entire NT.) Here is his conclusion regarding the inclusion of blood and things strangled in the list of prohibitions: “James mentions these two points because the Jewish Christians were especially sensitive regarding them. They, too, knew that these points of the law were abrogated but they still felt a horror of eating blood or any meat that had retained the blood. The Gentile Christians were asked to respect this feeling and thus from motives of brotherly love, and from these alone, to refrain from eating blood and meat that still had its blood” (616).