Between ritual and moral purity: Early christian views on dietary laws

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The problem at the basis of the discussion of Christian dietary laws is rather similar to that at the basis of the discussion of the Jewish food laws - how could there said to be impurity in the world, stemming from bodily things which were not responsible for any moral action? How could a body without a soul be "really" evil? This question was complicated by the view that inherent defilement was a Jewish idea, which Christians should not adopt. The first imperative of most commentators is to insist that the Christian view of impurity does not imply evil residing in the bodily world, while the Jewish view isthat itdoes. Therefore, impurityinthe Old Test amentitiseither a prohibition on fooddirecte datimproving the humansoul, whether in the short term (historical solutions) or the long term (ascetic solutions), or a symbol for other prohibitions. New Testament texts were treated in a similar way: the patristic view is that negative or positive status given to food is a result of the human disposition towards it - and its objective is changing the behaviour of humans. The symbolic method of exegesis, however, is much less prevalent in the discussion of Christian observances than in Old Testament exegesis, as it usually implied the rejection of the practical binding force of prohibitions or obligations. Christian writers understood defilement to be synonymous with evil, and could not comprehend the possibility of impurity which does have a clear moral value; they therefore had to find a moral way of thinking about defilement which did not clash with their worldview. The exegesis and theorizing of Christian thinkers on both Jewish and Christian food laws represents a process of de-reification, an attempt to deconstruct the perceived idea of impurity and to construct it anew on the foundation of the human conscience and choice. This move was greatly facilitated by the agency of demons, beings hovering on the borderline of the corporeal and incorporeal, and thus bridging the natural and the moral realm.36 While this deconstruction may appear at first to undermine the basis for a "real" distinction between various foods, it appears that it is rather an attempt to maintain the system of hierarchies created by traditional food distinctions while using a new moral language which accords with the cosmological and anthropological outlook of the new religion.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAuthoritative Texts and Reception History
Subtitle of host publicationAspects and Approaches
EditorsPaul Anderson, Jennifer Koosed, Dan Batovici, Kristin De Troyer
PublisherBrill Academic Publishers
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)9789004300866
StatePublished - 2017

Publication series

NameBiblical Interpretation Series
ISSN (Electronic)0928-0731

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Religious studies


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