Jewish Customs in Christianity: Circumcision, Sabbath, Passover, Dietary Laws
By Stanley Scism
Christianity started in Judaism (the first believers were Jews, the first church was in Jerusalem, the first leaders of the church were Jews). Even through Jewish leaders (e.g. Peter, Paul), the good news reached non-Jews (= Gentiles, or, as Jews would say, goyim). The number of Gentiles responding to the faith eventually outnumbered the number of Jews, which, if the good news would spread to everyone, is inevitable since the Gentile population so outnumbers the Jewish. This started early—for instance, Paul in his letter to the Roman church lamented the Jewish lack of responsiveness to the faith, and he experienced Jewish rejection when he arrived in Rome. Paul, however, also argued, particularly in Galatians and Romans and also elsewhere, against requiring Gentiles to take on Jewish customs in order to be Christians.
As the Gentile believers outnumbered the Jews, Gentile culture and mores likewise gained impact at the expense of Jewish. Certain doctrines anathema to a Jewish audience, for instance the doctrine of the trinity, gained traction.
In response, some people have argued that, to revive Christianity to theological accuracy, we should research and restore the Jewish cultural base of Christianity. These efforts have included attempted persuasions, in various parts of the world, that Christians should practice circumcision, observe Saturday as Sabbath, practice Passover (Seder) meals and observed Jewish dietary restrictions. Scripture already addresses each of these items:
Circumcision was practiced before Abraham, was adopted by Abraham at God’s command as a sign of Abraham’s covenant with God. Circumcision was sometimes lackadaisically practiced—e.g. Moses forgot to circumcise his son, all of Israel had to be circumcised before entering Canaan under Joshua’s command. Before Jesus’ ministry, some Gentiles worshiped the one true God (YHWH) but did not undergo circumcision—these Gentiles were called ‘God-fearers’ and were appreciated by the Jewish community. When the good news spread that Jesus is the long-prophesied Messiah, some of these Gentiles (e.g. Cornelius) came to Jesus Christ. When Barnabas and Paul returned from Crete and Asia Minor to Antioch, they faced the fact that Jewish preachers had followed Gentile believers, telling them they had to follow Jewish ritual law, specifically circumcision. A conference was then called in Jerusalem at which church leaders, all Jewish, met, and decided that Gentiles did not have to obey Jewish law, except to avoid eating meat offered to idols, eating blood and strangled animals (because the blood was retained in the animal when it was strangled rather than the throat being cut and the blood drained), and sexual immorality.
After creating the universe, God rested on the seventh day, and Jews on this basis were to rest, and not work, on the seventh day as well. ‘Sabbath’ means ‘rest.’ Between the Old Testament and New Testament times, Jewish commentarians evolved an elaborate set of definitions of what constituted ‘rest’ and ‘work’—it is these additional, man-made laws, and not the original God-inspired rules, that Jesus disregarded, as is illustrated by the fact that when his disciples picked some heads of wheat while walking through a field, precisely as Moses had allowed, the Jewish leaders objected—that is, the disciples’ deeds obeyed Moses, but did not obey the much later Jewish additions to the text. Jesus strongly objected to this, declared it lawful to do good on the Sabbath and did good then, said the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath, and pronounced himself ‘Lord of the Sabbath’. The Sabbath-day command is the only one of the Ten Commands that Jesus did not confirm in the New Testament. The principle of people needing rest is still valid, and, because on the first day of the week Jesus was discovered to have risen, the church soon practiced meeting on the first day of the week, called it ‘the Lord’s Day’ and later, post-Biblical generations started calling Sunday ‘the Sabbath’. Many full-time ministers, because they work on Sunday, take another day of the week as their rest day, frequently Monday. If a person’s work schedule allows observing Sunday as a worship day and also Saturday as a rest day, the Scripture doesn’t prevent that, but certainly Jesus Christ objects to laws preventing people from doing good on their rest day and from rules that prevent needy people from being helped.
The Passover Meal originates in the rescue from Egypt, and was sufficiently important for Moses to slow down the speed of his narrative in Exodus long enough to detail exact Passover practice. When Jesus came, he just before his sacrifice of himself as the Lamb of God taking away the world’s sins, ate a Last Supper in Communion with his twelve disciples, and ‘blessed’ (from which we get ‘Eucharist’) the bread and wine. He also gave the meal a new meaning—now they were to eat it in remembrance of him, looking back to his sacrifice and forward to his return. Therefore, the Passover Meal has been replaced by Communion. Certainly no one is prevented from eating roast lamb, bitter herbs, and so on, particularly if the person is Jewish and doing this in celebration of God having rescued his/her people from slavery, but the meal must not ‘look forward’ to the Messiah, because to do that would be do deny that Jesus has already come in a human body.
Jewish dietary laws were enjoined by God through Moses, allowing them to eat certain foods and forbidding them to eat others, with some detail given in Leviticus. Jesus on earth told his disciples as he sent them out, to accept hospitality and eat what was set before them without raising questions of conscience. God later gave Peter a vision of a sheet containing many living creatures, and saying ‘kill and eat’ and adding ‘what God calls clean, don’t call unclean’. Paul still later writes Timothy, speaking against people who forbid certain foods, and says God has made all things good and they are to accepted with thanksgiving.
Health studies repeatedly confirm the health value of Moses’ dietary laws, saying for instance that a person should eat fish rather than shellfish, should not eat the meat of predators but instead of the large livestock bred for the purpose. Some other Scriptures also advise about food—e.g. Proverbs says a person should eat as much honey as possible without making oneself ill. In conclusion of all texts mentioned in this paragraph and the proceeding, a person may profitably observe Old Testament dietary health laws for health purposes, but may not enforce them as a requirement of the faith. Jewish custom of eating meat only occasionally in celebration, and eating more fish, fruit and vegetables instead, is widely recommended as part of a Mediterranean diet.
Regarding meat offered to idols, the church had a majority and minority view: the majority believed a person should not eat meat offered to idols, believing the meat to be demonically contaminated because many of the idols represented pagan gods which were really demons—John in Revelation speaks in favor of people not eating meat offered to idols, and many former pagans have testified that they used to worship demons. Paul takes the minority position that the idol is only a piece of metal, stone or wood, can’t impact the meat either for good or evil, and therefore the meat is fine to eat, but he says that the meat is not as important as a fellow believer’s conscience, and so the person who in strong faith understands that the meat is not contaminated should not therefore violate the weak faith of a person who does not understand this and might therefore start with eating meat offered to idols and go from there to idolatry. Even Paul, in the midst of defending freedom of diet, mentions that he does not want the saints to partake of the ‘table of demons’, and so says ‘all things are legal, but not are beneficial.’ Therefore, a believer must make sure he/she does not violate not only his/her own conscience, but also the conscience of other people present