In Defense of the Bible: Dietary Laws

Some persons criticize the Bible, and attempt to discredit its teachings on morality, by pointing to the Old Testament dietary laws. They suggest that some of the moral teachings of the Bible are as outdated, or as irrelevant to modern secular life, as rules about what one may and may not eat. This criticism is incorrect for two reasons.

1. First, discipline is not doctrine. The Old Testament dietary regulations are discipline. They are not in the same category as moral teachings, which are doctrine. All human persons are under the moral law, which is simply justice itself. But the Jewish dietary laws are merely discipline, and are not binding on persons outside the Jewish faith. Moreover, the Old Testament disciplines have all been dispensed by Christ and His Church. So Christians today are not under any of the Old Testament disciplines.

2. Second, the Old Testament disciplines were not foolish, as some persons suggest. They were useful in that they developed from older dietary rules aimed at avoiding foods that might be harmful to health. Thus, some foods were called “clean” and other foods, “unclean”, even during the time of Noah, prior to Abraham and Moses.

The original purpose of this distinction was practical: to identify the most suitable animals to be used for food. If people noticed that consuming pork (likely to be not thoroughly cooked by ancient methods) often resulted in grave illness, pork became seen as an unclean food. And the same would be true for other foods. Shellfish grow along shores, and so they can easily be contaminated by bacteria from human waste. So shellfish would be categorized as unclean.

Subsequently, when the Jewish dietary laws were established by God, these distinctions were adapted to an additional purpose: to function as a daily living parable for distinguishing between good and evil, between what is the will of God and what is contrary to the will of God. Since people generally eat food multiple times a day, this practice offers a daily opportunity to express one’s faith in God. But I stress that this discipline is a parable in action, a figure that is lived. What is important is not which animals/foods are categorized as clean or unclean, but rather a daily symbolic expression of the fundamental distinction in religion: what pleases God and what does not please God.

A Detailed Explanation Follows.

The Jewish Faith, as described in the Old Testament, had both doctrines and disciplines.

All the truths taught by God in the Old Testament remain true: on faith, on morals, on salvation, and on all subjects about which Sacred Scripture makes an assertion. In particular, the moral law does not change, because the moral law is the Justice inherent to the very Nature of God. And God is unchanging. Therefore, all expressions of the moral law in the Old Testament remain in force. And all the truths about God and salvation and all other subjects remain true. Even though the Jews did not fully understand the plan of God for the Messiah and for salvation, yet all that Divine Revelation taught them remains entirely true. We Christians understand these truths much more profoundly than before Christ arrived. But no falsehoods were taught by Sacred Scripture in the Old Testament. The Old Testament disciplines have been dispensed; but the Old Testament doctrines on faith, morals, and salvation, have not changed.

Examples of doctrines in the Old Testament include that God is One, that God created heaven and earth, and the Ten Commandments. The eternal moral law does not change. The eternal moral law is the same in the Old Testament as in the New Testament. There is a more profound expression of the eternal moral law in the New Testament. But the eternal moral law has not changed; nothing has been added, nothing has been taken away, and nothing has been changed. The reader of the Catechism of the Catholic Church will notice that the section on morality is based on the Ten Commandments. The Old Testament teachings on morality remain true, and have not changed. Yet Christians understand morality more profoundly, and they are called now not only to live moral lives, but to imitate Christ in lives of self-sacrifice and great holiness. Thus we have the new Commandment:

{13:34} “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, so also must you love one another.”

We are called to love even beyond what is required by the moral law, so that we imitate Christ in all that we do. We are called even to reach toward that perfection which we as finite creatures can never attain, the perfect Goodness of God.

{5:48} “Therefore, be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

In one sense, this commandment to love as Christ loves is new. But in another sense, this new commandment is old. For all that Christ would explicitly teach by word and example, was always implicit in the Old Testament.

[1 John]
{2:7} Most beloved, I am not writing to you a new commandment, but the old commandment, which you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the Word, which you have heard.
{2:8} Then too, I am writing to you a new commandment, which is the Truth in him and in you. For the darkness has passed away, and the true Light is now shining.

We understand the eternal moral law, and all the truths of the Faith, better by knowing Christ, His teachings, and His self-sacrifice on the Cross. The entire moral law is implicit in the single act of Jesus Christ dying for our salvation on the Cross. All that is immoral is contrary to Christ’s salvific death. All that is moral is in harmony with Christ’s salvific death. Each and every teaching of Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium, on faith and morals and salvation, is implicit in the single act of the Son of God dying for our salvation on the Cross: “though one blood drop, which thence did fall, accepted, would have served, He yet shed all….” [John Donne, Upon The Annunciation and Passion Falling Upon One Day (March 25th, 1608).]

The Old Testament also contains disciplines; these are practices, not truths. The Old Testament practices are changeable and dispensable, and in fact have been dispensed by Christ. All the truths of the Old Testament remain true, but the practices have been dispensed and replaced, we might even say transformed, into the New Testament practices. The Old Testament practices foreshadowed Christ, and now that we know Christ more fully than anyone knew Him before His Incarnation, the Old Testament disciplines have given way to the disciplines of the New Testament, which are greater since they proceed from a fuller understanding of doctrine. All good discipline is based on doctrine.

Examples of disciplines in the Old Testament include the dietary laws, the laws concerning ritual purity and impurity, also circumcision, animal sacrifices, and many other practices. This type of ‘law’ is not part of the doctrine of the moral law, but is a rule or discipline. Discipline is not doctrine. Every correct doctrine is an immutable truth. But every correct discipline is merely a practice, not a truth, and therefore is changeable and dispensable (i.e. it can be taken away). Now the Old Testament dietary laws, and the rules on ritual purity, and the rituals of animal sacrifice, and other disciplines, have been dispensed by Christ. However, all these disciplines were and still are a type of parable, a figure acted out in the lives of the Jewish people, which teach truths (on the spiritual level of meaning). And those teachings are still in effect. So the letter of those Old Testament disciplines has been dispensed, but the letter points to the spirit, for all good disciplines point to, and are ordered under, doctrines. The eternal moral law is that type of law which is doctrine, whereas many Old Testament laws are that type of law which is discipline, and which is therefore changeable and dispensable.

Saint Thomas Aquinas: “I answer that, As is clear from what has been said (101, 2; 102, 2), the legal ceremonies were ordained for a double purpose; the worship of God, and the foreshadowing of Christ. Now whoever worships God must needs worship Him by means of certain fixed things pertaining to external worship. But the fixing of the divine worship belongs to the ceremonies; just as the determining of our relations with our neighbor is a matter determined by the judicial precepts….” [Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 103, A. 1.]

By judicial precepts, St. Thomas means the eternal moral law. Certainly, the moral law has not changed between the Old and New Testaments, for the moral law is eternal. By means of the New Testament, we understand the moral law more profoundly, but the moral law itself has not changed. As for the purpose of the ceremonial laws (e.g. dietary laws), these had a practical purpose in providing exterior actions to accompany the interior worship of God, making that interior worship easier. For the human person is soul and body, not soul alone; and so our worship of God must be in body as well as in soul. But just as the soul is greater than the body, so also is the interior worship greater than the exterior worship.

Saint Thomas Aquinas: “The Old Law is said to be ‘forever’ simply and absolutely, as regards its moral precepts; but as regards the ceremonial precepts it lasts forever in respect of the reality which those ceremonies foreshadowed.” [Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 103, A. 2.]

The Old Testament disciplines pointed to spiritual realities in Christ, which continue into New Testament times and forever. Therefore, the Old Testament passages of Sacred Scripture describing these ceremonial precepts are not useless to Christians; the spiritual level of meaning of those passages is still in force and is still a useful figure for understanding Christ and the Christian Faith.

Dietary Laws

The dietary laws of the Old Testament are disciplines, not doctrines; they are not expressions of the unchanging moral law, but are changeable rules and practices. But the letter of these dietary rules also has a spiritual meaning. And this spiritual meaning is unchanging truth.

Before the Jewish Faith was established by God, human society knew only pagan religions, which did not distinguish moral good from moral evil. In order to avoid sin and to live a life pleasing to God, it is necessary for each and every human person to distinguish between good and evil every day. And so God wisely chose to give the Jewish people a living parable, in the form of the dietary laws, so that the Jews would have to consider the will of God in daily life, at every meal. In this way, they could more easily and more quickly incorporate into their lives the daily practice of distinguishing between acts that are good before God and acts that evil before God. So the distinction between clean and unclean foods was a metaphor, incorporated into daily life, for the distinction between good and evil.

God established the Jewish Faith, and He prepared the Jewish people, by grace and providence, and by Divine Revelation, for the arrival of the Messiah, the Son of God. But when Christ arrived and taught, and when He died and rose for our salvation, at that point in human history, the use of this practice of dietary laws, the use of the living metaphor for good and evil, was no longer necessary. This Old Testament discipline could be dispensed, and be replaced with the disciplines of the Catholic Christian faith.

In a sense the disciplines of the Old Testament, as a whole, have not so much been taken away as they have been transfigured into the New Testament disciplines. For we still distinguish between good and evil, between what is good before God and what is evil before God. And we still have exterior practices, and various rules and rulings, all of which are changeable, and all of which serve the higher things of the Faith.

Note: I’m considering writing a book, In Defense of the Bible, that would give a reply to each of the various criticisms and arguments posited against the Bible as the Word of God, and against its teachings.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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4 Responses to In Defense of the Bible: Dietary Laws

  1. Francisco says:

    Important article Ron. Also, such a book would be very beneficial. The seven ‘days’ of creation, the order of how things were created, are among other things that are criticized by some scientists or students of science. Also, the claim that our Bibles today cannot be infallible because of the many manual copysts errors from the original, making new copies add more errors from a previous erroneous copy (comparing it to the “telephone game”).

  2. Matt Z. says:

    This was a very helpful and useful post. There are many that bring up Old Testament disciplines to try to make liberal the doctrinal and dogmatic teachings of the Church.

    How would you respond to someone who says that divorce was once allowed in the Old Testament, but is now forbidden?

    • Ron Conte says:

      The Sacrament of Marriage is different from merely natural marriage. Natural marriage allowed for divorce and remarriage, under a dispensation from God, because divorce and remarriage in that case is not intrinsically evil. But for the Sacrament of Marriage, divorce and remarriage is intrinsically evil, so it cannot be permitted, even under a dispensation.

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