The Torah Abstentions Today

The apostles’ explicit affirmation of the continuity of certain of the Torah’s abstentions  should prompt reflection in Christian communions.

David Hamstra

The question of which Old Testament ritual abstentions should continue to be practiced by Christians has been disputed from the inception of the movement. Jesus taught His followers to do all that God instructs in the Torah—the first five books of the Old Testament—and the Prophets—the rest of the Old Testament (Matt. 5:17–19). This requirement did not last only “until” Jesus had realized His re-creative work on the Cross. Jesus used the same “until” qualifier in parallel to teach that “as long as heaven and earth exist” the need to follow the things commanded in the Old Testament will also exist. Thus, Christians ought to attend to even the smallest things that are written in the Old Testament until the entire process of salvation as anticipated therein is realized.

From the perspective of the Sermon on the Mount, the question is not whether Christians should continue to observe the instructions of the Torah, but in what manner. The manner of this observance is perhaps more disputed in church history when it comes to abstentions in the Decalogue that enjoin rituals that regulate how humans relate to God than those that regulate how we relate to one another. Should Christians continue to abstain from bowing down before images and from working on the seventh day or observe the meanings of those rituals in some other way? To be clear, in this article, the term rituals is not used to describe meaningless, rote behaviors but rather practices, including acts of performance and abstention, by which we regulate our relationships, in this case, our relationship with God.

The apostles interpreted the discontinuity and continuity of Torah rituals, distinguishing those whose meanings, because of the work of Christ, were to be honored by Gentile Christians without practicing them from two categories of ritual abstentions that Christians should continue to practice because of the nature of the church. Those two categories largely overlap and have meanings that go back to terms God presented for humanity’s relationship with Him from our origins. The overlapping concord and salvation-historical continuity of these categories of abstentions in Scripture implies that contemporary Christians should consider how to find meaning in practicing them today.


Ritual Continuity and Discontinuity

Paul taught that when Christians respond to Christ’s sacrifice for our sins by putting bold, open sin out of the community of believers, Christians spiritually apply a meaning of the Torah’s instructions to abstain from leaven during the Passover and Festival of Unleavened Bread (1 Cor. 5:7, 8). In the Torah, Passover was integrated into the ritual system of sacrificial-sanctuary-priestly worship that is the background against which the author of Hebrews interpreted Jesus as our sacrifice and priest (Heb. 8:3–6). While they differ in the specifics of interpretation, Christians broadly agree that Jesus’ sacrificial death, resurrection, and ascension to priestly ministry in heaven changed the manner of observing laws pertaining to sanctuary worship (7:12) because animal sacrifices are not God’s ultimate will for how we should worship Him (10:5–10). Therefore, although there is much to explore in this area, this study will take it as a given that, as with the Paschal abstention from leaven, Christians observe the spiritual meanings of the Torah’s sanctuary-sacrificial-priestly rituals as they affiliate with Jesus Christ by faith such that they need not continue to perform them. However, the example of Paul’s purification offerings suggests that the apostles considered all Christians at liberty to perform these rituals if and when they found it expeditious to do so, especially for the sake of reaching others with the gospel (Acts 21:26).

But when the Jerusalem Council was asked to settle the question of whether non-Jewish Christians needed to have the ritual of circumcision performed on them in the way that converts to Judaism did, it held that practicing certain Old Testament ritual abstentions—all of which applied to foreigners residing in Israel—continued to have meaning for Gentile Christians. It specifically enjoined abstention from things offered to idols, consuming blood, which includes eating meat from animals slaughtered by strangulation, and sexual immorality (Acts 15:17–20, 28, 29). It did not rule on whether the ritual of circumcision should or should not be performed on the sexual organs of male Gentile Christians, but it was clear about what Gentile Christians should not do with their sexual organs.

Sexual immorality is often taken to be primarily an offense against other creatures (typically humans, but also animals in cases of bestiality), and, indeed, it finds its place in the Decalogue alongside the prohibitions against murder and theft. But according to the teachings of Paul, sexual immorality abuses both the individual believer’s body-sanctuary (1 Cor. 6:18–20) and the body temple of Christ (6:15), that is, the church as the community of those who receive the benefit of Christ’s Passover sacrifice (5:1, 6). The moral significance of ritual abstention from sexual immorality for Paul is also explained by his teaching in Ephesians 5:22 to 32 that sexual relationships ought to embody meanings that pertain to the church’s relationship with God. Paul’s view of sexual immorality as something Christians abstain from primarily (but not necessarily exclusively) for God seems to have also been held by the Jerusalem Council because they included it with other abstentions that regulate one’s relationship with God.

Also, note well that the Jerusalem Council did not consider abstention from working on the Sabbath according to the Torah to be a disputed practice along with circumcision. Rather, James argued, without qualification or caveat, that Gentile Christians should continue to practice the aforementioned abstentions because they were assumed to have already accessed Torah instruction during the Sabbath (Acts 15:21). And from that Torah instruction, they would have learned the ritual abstentions that foreigners residing in Israel had to practice. Thus, given that the church started as a minority Jewish community into which Gentiles were rapidly integrated—which for James had eschatological significance (Acts 15:15–18)—and given that Paul anticipated a continuing eschatological integration of Jews into the church (Rom. 11:24–27), it is most plausible that the apostles turned to the Torah’s instructions for resident foreigners living in community with Israel in order to settle the circumcision dispute.


Resident Foreigners in the Torah

One line of textual evidence for this hypothesis is that the list of abstentions in the Jerusalem Council’s letter followed the same order as the instructions for resident foreigners in Leviticus 17 and 18 (Acts 15:29). According to Leviticus 17:8 to 16, resident foreigners were to abstain from offering sacrifices anywhere but the Lord’s meeting tent (vss. 8, 9), which effectively prohibited idolatry, and from consuming blood (vss. 10–14). And in chapter 18, which is a speech from the Lord to Moses for the Israelites (vss. 1, 2) that prohibits various sexually immoral acts, verse 26 extends those prohibitions to resident foreigners. According to the Torah, resident foreigners were to receive the same annual instruction in the law as Israelites (Deut. 31:10–13), which is consistent with James’s expectation that the Gentile Christians had been similarly instructed.

Yet the Torah’s instruction for resident foreigners goes beyond that given in Leviticus 17 and 18. Resident foreigners also had access to the sanctuary-sacrificial-priestly worship system (17:8, 9). This access may have been conditional in certain respects on an implied, fuller integration into the covenant community via circumcision (as applied to those who kept the first Passover in Exodus 12:48 and the ongoing option to keep Passover). On this interpretation, resident foreigners who were required to abstain from work and fast on the Day of Atonement would have been this circumcised group because the penalty for failing to do so was being “cut off” from “his people,” which usually refers to the covenant community (Lev. 16:29; 23:29). On the other hand, a circumcision requirement for resident foreigners to participate may have been too important to have been left unexplicit. On this more expansive interpretation, the people from whom uncircumcised resident foreigners were threatened with being cut off would have been their native community (17:10). Regardless, resident foreigners who lived with Israelites had the option of joining in the festivities—along with women, children, servants, etc.—during the Festivals of Weeks and Booths when the Israelite men were required to travel to the sanctuary (Deut. 16:11, 14, 16).

Questions around how exactly resident foreigners could participate in the sanctuary-sacrificial-priestly worship system are more complex than the above summary can represent. But the previously considered evidence for salvation-historical discontinuity in the practice of these sorts of rituals means that further elaboration is not required for the purpose of this study into the continuity of ritual abstentions. Of more interest is an additional ritual performance related to diet found in Leviticus 17 that was not included in the Jerusalem Council’s teaching: Resident foreigners, along with Israelites, were required to perform a purification ritual if they ate an animal that had died a natural death (vss. 15, 16; but contrast with Deuteronomy 14:21). It may be that the council interpreted this and other Torah purification rituals as meaningful in terms of the sanctuary worship system (Heb. 9:10) such that their meanings were continued in baptism and they no longer needed to be practiced (John 13:10). Regardless, the council consensus only taught the continuity of certain ritual abstentions, and the goal of this study is to trace the contours of the apostles’ interpretation of the Torah on that point.

There were, in fact, other abstentions that the resident foreigner was to practice beyond those specified in Leviticus 17 and 18. Leviticus 20:2 penalized any resident foreigners who practiced the idolatrous Molech sacrifice. And Exodus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 5:14 specified that foreigners who lived with Israelites were to be afforded Sabbath rest. Finally, resident foreigners were penalized for blasphemy (Lev. 24:16) and murder (vss. 21, 22). Abstaining from murder, while not a ritual as stipulated in this study, is related in terms of its salvation-historical origin to the meaning of abstaining from blood. To better understand the meaning of this and the other resident foreigner abstentions in the church, it is helpful to consider the origins of their meanings.


Original Meaning for Humanity in the Torah

The Torah does not present its instructions as an abstracted, decontextualized law code but rather as a way of living that makes sense within a metanarrative frame, which is itself Torah instruction. Thus, the story of human origins followed by the story of Israel’s origins is a horizon within which Christians should interpret the significance of the ritual abstentions considered here. And within that story, the abstentions that the Torah commanded the non-Israelites residing in Israel to practice had continuity with terms presented by God for our common progenitors’ relationship with Him long before He distinguished His covenant people from the rest of the nations via circumcision (Gen. 17:10).

God set forth from humanity’s inception that humans, both male and female, and not idols, are the image of God (Gen. 1:27). God blessed this male-femaleness with fertility (vs. 28) and provided that individual, male/female counterparts be conjoined in an exclusive, indissoluble, procreative union (2:23, 24), from which sexual immorality deviates. Then God set apart the seventh day as humanity’s day of blessing by ceasing from His work on it (2:2, 3). God also set up two trees in Eden bearing fruit unto life and death, showing that matters of dietary performance and abstention can have profound meanings for our relationship with Him (1:29, 30; 2:16, 17; 3:17–19). Diet became connected to the meaning of life and death under God once more after the Flood, when God permitted humanity’s second progenitors, Noah and his family, to eat meat but commanded them to both abstain from consuming blood and penalized murder out of a respect for the God-givenness of life (9:4–6).

Dru Johnson notes that the primordial ritual abstention from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was meaningful only in conjunction with the ritual performance entailed in the prior command to eat freely from all the other trees of Eden (Gen. 2:16).This suggests that, beyond matters of diet, the meanings of ritual abstentions that go back to humanity’s origins form the boundaries of our relationship with God but should not be construed as the substance in which that relationship subsists. Rather, the abstentions circumscribe a wide field of action in which humanity receives God’s abundant provision. Thus, both ritual abstention and performance, rightly ordered so as to foreground divine liberality, are necessary for humans to flourish in relationship with God.

Abstaining from blasphemy against God’s name does not apparently originate in terms presented by God to Adam and Eve’s or Noah’s families. While God gave Adam the decision of what names to call the animals He created (Gen. 2:19, 20), humans did not call on God’s personal name, “Yahweh,” until well after Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden (4:26). Blasphemy is mentioned in Scripture only after God reintroduced His personal name to Moses (Ex. 6:3; Lev. 24:11). Although abstaining from blasphemy against God was not enjoined by the Jerusalem Council, it was taught by Jesus (Matt. 12:31; Mark 3:29). Blasphemy against God is a characteristic of God’s enemies in Revelation 13:6 and subject to church discipline, according to 1 Timothy 1:20. Therefore, although its meaning relates to a term on which humans began to relate to God between the Fall and the Flood—a term later re-established by God before the Exodus—we find no salvation historical discontinuity in the case of blasphemy. In this view, blaspheming God instead of calling on His name is an abuse of the power of calling the names of things given to humanity at our origin.

Thus, the Jerusalem Council did not attempt to provide an exhaustive list of ritual abstentions that applied to resident foreigners living in Israel nor an exhaustive list of which rituals Christians were to continue to practice. If it had intended to, it would be expected to find abstention from blasphemy on its list. Rather, the broad New Testament application of the Torah’s instructions for the resident foreigner abstentions in the apostolic church indicates that the apostles expected that Gentile Christians would continue to practice all such abstentions and not observe their spiritual meanings only.

In contradistinction, the discontinuities evident in sanctuary, priesthood, and sacrificial worship practices across salvation history require some additional interpretive framework(s) to discern their continuities of meaning. Various frameworks have been proposed, some more compatible with this study than others. But a tota scriptura approach implies that satisfactory frameworks should do more than offer a biblical rationale for why for institutions, roles, and practices ought to continue in practice or in spiritual meaning only. They should also account for the biblical evidence of continuity/discontinuity of discrete institutions, roles, and practices.

Suffice it to consider a specific role: the priesthood. In Eden, all humanity is arguably a priesthood. In Genesis 2:15, serve and keep connote priestly functions. After the covenant at Sinai, only Aaron’s sons and their sons could be priests (Num. 18:7). But now, in Christ, all believers are in some sense priests according to 1 Peter 2:5, and 9. The point of this example, which remains to be more fully developed, is that we do not find these kinds of discontinuities across the biblical record of salvation history with respect to the sinfulness of performing worship rituals before images, the respect due to God’s name, the uniqueness of the seventh day, the exclusiveness of the male-female sexual relationship, nor the God-givenness of life as represented by blood.


Corresponding Holiness in the Torah

Worship, respect, uniqueness, exclusiveness, and God-givenness—these are all aspects of being set apart in holiness. Peter taught that during their earthly “sojourn” (1 Peter 1:17), Christians should deny their lusts or cravings (vs. 14) and be holy corresponding to God’s holiness in “every way of life” (vss. 15, 16), citing an expression from the Torah by which God gave the purpose for certain ritual abstentions: “‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” Here Peter quoted the latter of two nearly identical exhortations found in Leviticus 11:44 and 45 that enclose an instruction for Israel to abstain from a general class of unclean meat (the swarming things): “‘Sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy’” (vs. 44, NRSV, italics supplied) and “‘be holy, for I am holy’” (vs. 45, NRSV, italics supplied). The other unclean meats are classified in what precedes this conclusion to Leviticus 11, a speech from God for Moses and Aaron to relay to Israel. Its conclusion gives the reason for the ritual abstention from the unclean meats: God’s people’s holiness should correspond to God’s holiness, for which purpose He set them apart from Egypt (11:44, 45). The speech’s conclusion ends with a summary of the classes of unclean meat (vss. 46, 47).

Peter’s audience in Asia Minor apparently had struggled to deny their lusts with respect to ritual abstention from sexual immorality and idolatry (1 Peter 4:2, 3), which we will soon find are also corresponding-holiness practices. But the source of his broadly applied and unqualified quotation of the Levitical corresponding-holiness exhortation also suggests that Peter did not interpret his vision of the sheet with “all kinds of four-footed animals” (Acts 10:12, NKJV) to mean that ritual abstention from unclean meat should no longer be practiced, but rather that he was not to consider “‘any person common or unclean’” (10:28, ESV). Common, in the New Testament, refers to a Jewish category of ritual impurity that went beyond the Torah’s instructions about uncleanness by construing otherwise clean things as in some way defiled because of contact or proximity with the unclean. In his vision, Peter was unwilling to eat any of the clean animals on the sheet because they had been made “common” due to their association with the “unclean” animals (vs. 14). The Torah does not instruct Israelites to refuse hospitality to/from Gentiles for reasons of ritual uncleanness, so abstaining from such would have been practiced in order to avoid becoming impure because of contact with or proximity to Gentiles who might be unclean or have contacted the unclean.

Despite his vision and subsequent experience with the God-fearing Gentile Cornelius, the question of associating with the uncircumcised continued to vex Peter, likely up to the Jerusalem Council. But where the Jerusalem Council identifies a category of Torah instruction according to which the church can be a community of Jews and Gentiles living together without requiring circumcision, Peter appears to have later identified another category of Torah instruction that sets the church as God’s holy community apart from immoral Gentile practices (1 Peter 4:2, 3) without requiring circumcision. For, Leviticus 11:44 and 45 is not the only Torah instruction that shows God’s people how to live in correspondence with His holiness.

A nearly identical exhortation to that quoted in 1 Peter 1:16 occurs in Leviticus 19:1 to 4, which introduces a speech from God for Moses to relay to all of Israel in an assembly. According to J. H. Hertz, this chapter “occupies the central position in Leviticus” and thus, of the Torah as a whole.The introduction of chapter 19 is set off from the rest of the speech first by the imperative: “‘“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy”’” (vs. 2, NKJV). It is further demarcated by the double enclosure of the practices that this entails with the refrain, “‘I am the Lord your God’” (vss. 3, 4), which begins resounding again later in the speech, becoming more frequent toward its conclusion. This speech introduction enjoins the respect of parents, the practice of Sabbaths, and the prohibition of idolatry. These are given in the reverse order of the Decalogue, even switching to “mother and father” (vs. 3, NIV), which, for Roy E. Gane, can be interpreted as an “intertextual chiasm.”3 The “Sabbaths” in verse 3, taken in the context of the preceding and following commandments, are not annual festivals like Passover but the weekly Sabbath as a recurring event, as in Exodus 31:13. While this introduction could make corresponding holiness the subject of the whole speech, corresponding holiness in Leviticus 19 is most closely associated with the speech introduction.

This speech introduction is distinguished as a literary subunit of the speech. The refrains do not recur until Leviticus 19:10, and the other reiterations of the commandments, which feature in verses 11, 12, and 30, are not in Decalogue order. But the intertextual chiasm with the fifth, fourth, and third commandments and the two “‘I am the Lord your God’” refrains in quick succession connote a distinct connection between the center of the Decalogue and corresponding holiness.

The final Levitical corresponding-holiness exhortation is found in Leviticus 20:26: “‘Be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be Mine’” (NKJV, italics supplied). It is preceded in verse 7 of the same chapter by a similar exhortation, but this time using a reflexive verb as in 11:44, “‘Sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy’” (NRSV). Here in 20:7, the rationale of corresponding holiness—“‘for holy am I’”—is not explicit yet does not require repetition in view of the similar exhortations in 11:44 and 20:26.

Leviticus 20 is a speech from the Lord to Moses for Israel (vss. 1, 2) about Israelites and resident foreigners abstaining from the Molech sacrifice (vss. 3–5) and Israelites abstaining from spiritualistic or occult practices (vss. 6, 27), cursing one’s parents and sexual immorality (vss. 9–21), and unclean meat (vs. 25). They were to do (or not do) these things, along with all the other instructions God gave to Israel (vss. 8, 22) because the Lord had made them holy by separating Israel from the other peoples. And so, as God’s possession, the people’s holiness must correspond to God’s holiness (vss. 8, 26). In verse 26, the instruction to be holy is most closely associated by proximity with abstaining from unclean meat, as in Leviticus 11:44 and 45, and spiritualistic practices. In verse 7, it is most closely associated with the general instruction to follow the other Torah instructions and the specific instructions to abstain from spiritualistic practices and cursing one’s parents.

Furthermore, the instruction to abstain from the Molech sacrifice in Leviticus 20:2 to 5 is a specific implication of 19:4, which has to do with corresponding holiness. And the instructions about abstaining from sexual immorality in 20:10 to 21 begin with the instruction to abstain from cursing one’s parents, which is an implication of the command to respect one’s parents in Leviticus 19:3. Therefore, the subject of the whole speech in Leviticus 20 is national holiness corresponding to God’s holiness.

Like the resident foreigner instructions, the corresponding holiness instructions relate to meanings regarding humanity’s relationship with God that go back to our origins. Both cursing one’s parents and sexual immorality disrupt the terms established by God for human fertility from creation (Gen. 1:28; 2:24). By associating respect for parents and sexual morality, on the one hand, and abstaining from blood and penalizing murder, on the other, the instructions for corresponding holiness and resident foreigners unite love for God and love for each other (Matt. 22:37–40). “The words, ‘ye shall be holy,’ are the keynote of the whole chapter, and must be read in connection with its various precepts; reverence for parents, consideration for the needy, prompt wages for reasonable hours, honourable dealing, no talebearing or malice, love of one’s neighbour and cordiality to the alien, equal justice to rich and poor, just measures and balances—together with abhorrence of everything unclean, irrational, or heathen.”4 This is also the case for Peter’s interpretation of Torah for the church: Purity motivates “brotherly love” replaces “deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all slander” (1 Peter 1:22, 2:1, CSB). This study has isolated ritual morality in terms of our relationship with God for analysis here because it is questioned with respect to the seventh day and bowing to images in our time, as it was with respect to circumcision and eating things sacrificed to idols in the apostles’ time. But one should not overlook the unity of the moral outlook, which cares for both kinds of relationships, inculcated by the abstentions of the Torah that continue in the New Testament (Rom. 1:29, 30).

For our relationship with God, both the abstention from unclean meat and from spiritualistic practices are meaningful in terms that go back to our common origins. As previously noted, a single dietary abstention had epochal meaning for humanity’s relationship with God immediately following creation and in relation to the Fall, but the distinction between clean and unclean meat, along with the blood, became relevant as God was about to judge humanity and renew it through Noah and his family. Though animal sacrifice was practiced immediately after the fall (Gen. 4:4), clean and unclean animals do not appear in the story of origins until they board Noah’s ark by fourteens and twos, respectively (7:2). That there was more than one breeding pair of clean animals available not only indicates that the clean animals alone were those fit to sacrifice (8:20), but also that such were the only kind fit to eat because after the Flood, God would, for the first time, grant permission for humans to eat animals (9:3). Accordingly, the clean/unclean categories by which the Torah classifies animals as suitable/unsuitable for offering as food-gifts to God (Num. 28:2) are the same as those which apply to human food, for a sacrifice is typically a meal in which some of the food is offered to God. Furthermore, Jiří Moskala has shown that unclean meats were distinct from other forms of uncleanness in the Torah in that their uncleanness was not a temporary condition and there was no ritual remedy for such uncleanness, indicating that the unsuitability of unclean animals for food is linked to the enduring structure of God’s creation.5

This interpretation, that the terms for relating to God that applied to Noah still apply to all humanity, is well represented in later developments in Jewish thought, though they differed as to the particulars. Jubilees 7:20 even holds that Noah taught his descendants to abstain from, among other things, “uncleanness” or “impurity” (6:38; 7:21). And unclean meat may not have even been considered an option for food by first-century God-fearing (Acts 13:16, 26) Gentiles turning to Christ who were already observing the Torah’s instructions to abstain from consuming blood and food that was implicated in idolatry.

Spiritualistic practices also violate meanings set for our relationship with God at our origins in that they all seek aid or guidance from spirits (Isa. 8:19) or “gods” (1 Sam. 28:13) apart from the Spirit of God who initiated the Creation sequence that culminated in the creation of humanity (Gen. 1:1, 2). Thus, those who practice spiritualism violate the first commandment and other instructions to have an exclusive relationship with our one true Creator God (Ex. 20:3; Deut. 5:7; 6:4). While such practices do not necessarily involve bowing or sacrificing to idols, as with the Molech sacrifice and idolatry in general (Lev. 20:5; Ex. 34:15), they are expressions of infidelity that, according to the Torah, make people unclean (Lev. 19:31) and violate the nation’s relationship with God in a way comparable to that in which adultery violates a marriage relationship (Lev. 20:6; Deut. 31:16).

Before drawing implications, we should note that when God gives the reason for the priestly corresponding holiness abstentions that Aaron and his descendants were to practice, Leviticus 21:8 uses a similar expression: “‘He shall be holy to you, for I the Lord, who sanctify you, am holy’” (NKJV). The priests were not to contact the bodies of the dead except for close relatives (vss. 1–3), not to cut their bodies or hair (presumably because of mourning [vs. 5]), and not to marry women who had had sexual relations with other men (vs. 7). They were also to penalize their daughters for promiscuity (vs. 9). In addition, the high priest was forbidden from tending to the dead altogether (vs. 11). Of these abstentions, only those relating to sexuality deal with terms presented by God for relating to humanity at our common origins, for while death was always to be avoided (Gen. 2:17; 6:17, 18), tending to the dead is not presented in the Creation or Flood accounts but enters the Torah’s story with Abraham (Gen. 23:4).

For Peter, the whole church is “a holy priesthood” and “a royal priesthood and a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:5, 9, KJV). Peter’s church as a holy nation is not a geopolitical power but a spiritual temple in which all are to offer “spiritual sacrifices” (vs. 5, NKJV). It is “sojourning” (1 Peter 1:17; 2:11, KJV) and thus is at war, not with other nations, but with the “fleshly lusts” that assault the soul (2:11, KJV) and threaten corresponding holiness (1:14­–16). This implies that in the church there is no priestly clan with separate rituals because all are priests. Accordingly, Peter does not quote, “‘he [the priest] shall be holy’” (Lev. 21:8, NKJV), but “you [plural] shall be holy’” (1 Peter 1:16, NRSVUE). Thus, Peter’s quotation relates only to that which makes God’s people a nation whose holiness corresponds to God’s holiness (Lev. 20:26).

The instructions in Leviticus 20:8 and 22 to keep and do all the Torah’s instructions as a feature of national corresponding holiness are not included in this analysis of specific cases of continuity/discontinuity because of their general nature. Nevertheless, we should not overlook the observance of the whole Torah for the sake of corresponding holiness, which is in continuity with Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 5:17 to 19, although, as noted earlier, that raises the question of how Christians are to observe the different kinds of instructions therein. The way that the apostles interpreted the Torah’s categories of instruction means that we should not assume based on the instructions in Leviticus 20:8 and 22 that Peter’s teaching about corresponding holiness requires that we either continue to practice every Torah ritual or discontinue all of them and observe their spiritual meanings only. Rather we should seek to understand how the apostles interpreted the continuity and discontinuity of different categories of Torah instruction for the church community as a sojourning holy nation in which Gentiles reside together with Jews (1 Peter 2:9–11; Acts 15:14–18).

For the apostles, the Holiness Code of Leviticus 17 to 26—a series of instructions, among other subjects, about ritual performances and abstentions related to respect for God’s holy things—was not undifferentiated with respect to purpose such that, because its performances are now spiritually observed without the need to practice them, the church must decide on some other basis which of its abstentions to continue practicing. It is uncontroversial to note that for some first-century Jews, as in 1 Peter 1:14, certain abstentions in the Holiness Code required the denial of natural desires for the sake of holiness. It is also uncontroversial to note that some of the Holiness Code’s instructions for Israelites were extended to resident foreigners. But, as noted, the practices by which Israel as a distinct people was to correspond to God’s holiness were distinguished from the other holiness practices—such as the animal sacrifices of the sanctuary-sacrificial-priestly worship system (Lev. 19:5–8)—by a distinct introduction (19:1–3) and distinct speeches (chapters 11; 20). They were also distinguished from the rituals by which the priests corresponded to God’s holiness in that the national corresponding-holiness rituals related to terms set by God for His relationship with humanity at its origins. Therefore, the national holiness-correspondence ritual abstentions—along with the general instruction to observe the Torah—formed a special subset of the Holiness Code that explained how all Israel was to maintain its identity as God’s holy people, and the subset of resident foreigner instructions explained how those of other nations could live in community with God’s people.

With the classification of these ritual abstentions clarified, we will find that there is a broad concord between the resident foreigner abstentions enjoined and implied by the Jerusalem Council and those implied by the teaching of Peter. One might infer from the absence of any specific abstention in the immediate context of 1 Peter 1:16 that Peter quoted Leviticus to transform the meaning of corresponding holiness such that Christians need not practice a certain class of Torah instructions. However, when received against the background of the Jerusalem Council’s teaching, as opposed to the majority of later Christian tradition, it is more reasonable to conclude that the introductory formula of 1 Peter 1:16, “for it is written,” was not a mere rhetorical flourish. Nor was it narrowly intended to call to mind specific ritual abstentions from unclean meat, sexual immorality, or idolatry. Rather, the overlap between the abstentions called to mind in the quoted minimal form of the Levitical corresponding-holiness exhortations—“‘Be holy, for I am holy’”—and the background of the abstentions promulgated by the Jerusalem Council makes it most likely that Peter knew that his audience, already instructed in the Torah (Acts 15:21), would understand his quotation to imply the concord and continuity of a set of similar and related practices.





The Concord and Continuity of Resident Foreigner and National Corresponding Holiness Ritual Abstentions

The concord between the resident foreigner and corresponding holiness abstentions is explicit in that, as previously noted, a prohibition of the Molech sacrifice for resident foreigners was given in a speech dealing with corresponding holiness (20:2). But categorized more broadly according to the principles set forth in the Decalogue, these practices are the same across three out of five abstentions each (see table): idolatry, the Sabbath, and sexual immorality. In addition, both sets of practices include dietary abstentions related to the eating of meat: from things sacrificed to idols and blood for resident foreigners according to the Jerusalem Council, on the one hand, and from unclean meat for corresponding holiness as implied by Peter’s quotation of Leviticus 11:44 and 45, on the other. The three non-dietary abstentions to be practiced both by resident foreigners and for corresponding holiness—from idolatry, working on the seventh day, and sexual immorality—were either taught or implied by the Jerusalem Council, which placed “no greater burden” (Acts 15:28, NLT) on the Gentiles coming to Christ than to abstain from idolatry, blood, and sexual immorality because the Torah is taught every Sabbath (vs. 21).

Although the penalty for spirit mediums was implied for resident foreigners in Torah instruction (Lev. 20:23, 27), unlike the Molech sacrifice (vs. 2), the corresponding holiness rituals of abstaining from spiritualistic practices and unclean meat were not explicitly applied to resident foreigners. Regardless, casting out evil spirits was a prominent feature of the apostles’ ministry (Acts 8:9–13, 18–24; 16:16–18; 19:13–20), not to mention that of Jesus Christ, so spiritualism would evidently not have been a matter of controversy at the time of the Jerusalem Council.

Thus, it is more consistent with the rest of apostolic teaching about ritual abstentions to interpret the Jerusalem Council’s determination to “lay no greater burden” (Acts 15:28, NLT) on the “Gentiles turning to God” (vs. 19) in reference to disputed practices. The pressing issue was circumcision (vs. 5), which was not a national corresponding-holiness ritual. But sexual immorality and meat from idolatrous sacrifices were also topics of dispute, as evidenced in 1 Corinthians 5 and 6; 8; and 10:14 to 33, where Paul gave more detailed teaching than the Jerusalem Council on these matters. That these abstentions are mentioned in the messages to the churches in Pergamum and Thyatira suggests they remained a source of tension throughout the apostolic era (Rev. 2:14, 20). Abstention from blood is not mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament, but by including it in their list, the Jerusalem Council showed their work. The hermeneutic according to which they had derived their conclusion (that practicing the Torah’s abstentions for resident foreigners had ongoing meaning for non-Jewish converts) would have been evident to non-Jewish believers who already had been receiving Torah instruction. Given this background, it is plausible that Peter’s audience would have inferred from his quotation of the Levitical corresponding holiness exhortation and teaching on the church as a sojourning holy nation that they should continue practicing the corresponding holiness abstentions. For that would only entail an additional dietary abstention—from unclean meat, which at least some non-Jewish converts were already probably practicing—and abstaining from spiritualistic practices.

Regarding dietary abstentions and idolatry, Paul taught that, regardless of considerations of conscience in the market and at home (1 Cor. 8:1–13; 10:24–33), Christians must not affiliate with demonic powers by eating foods in a ritual manner that had been offered to idols (10:18–22). Therefore, it seems most consistent to conclude that whatever else is meant by Romans 14 and 1 Timothy 4:1 to 5, they should not be interpreted in a way that negates the ongoing meaning of all dietary abstentions for believers. In teaching the Romans how to amicably handle differences of opinion around unspecified observances involving food and days, Paul did not explicitly portray abstaining from food sacrificed to idols and from blood as matters of indifference. Nor is it likely that the demonic teaching about unspecified dietary abstentions that Paul told Timothy to counter in Ephesus was Torah-derived, since the same false teachers also forbade marriage, which is not the Torah’s instruction. Rather, in the absence of explicit evidence to the contrary and because Paul promulgated the Jerusalem Council’s decision (Acts 16:4) and taught against sexual immorality and ritually eating things sacrificed to idols, we should assume that neither did he dissent from the Jerusalem Council’s teaching about abstaining from consuming blood.

If the Jerusalem Counsel had intended to hand down an exhaustive list of Torah abstentions that non-Jewish Christians were to continue practicing, it is reasonable to expect that abstentions from spiritualistic practices and, as previously noted, blasphemy, would have been included, and the same could also have been the case for unclean meat. Just as consuming blood was not mentioned after the Jerusalem Council, unclean meat was not specified in the New Testament after Peter’s vision of the sheet and its interpretation. This implies that it was not a disputed issue during the time of the apostles. Furthermore, Paul’s description of “the Gentiles” as practicing “all uncleanness with greediness” in willful ignorance and contrary to how the Ephesian believers had been taught the way of Christ could include a reference to Gentile consumption of unclean meat (Eph. 4:17–20, NKJV, italics supplied). In Paul’s vice lists, uncleanness without a qualifier is routinely associated with sexual immorality (Rom. 1:24; 2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19) and also covetousness (Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5). But, by the broader category that includes “fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness” (Eph 5:3, NKJV, italics supplied), those already practicing the dietary abstentions taught by the Jerusalem Council may well have taken Paul to mean that abstaining from unclean meats continued to be a practice of self-denial that, like abstaining from sexual immorality, distinguished God’s people from the Gentiles (Eph. 4:17). Speculation aside, Paul’s description of uncleanness as motivated by greed implies that abstaining from that which is unclean fortifies God’s people against covetousness (Ex. 20:17; Deut. 5:21), which Paul identifies with idolatry (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5).

In view of the broad overlap and interconnections among the corresponding holiness abstentions—which separate God’s people from the Gentiles—and the resident foreigner abstentions—which allow Gentiles to reside with Israelites—it seems, perhaps counterintuitively, that certain corresponding-holiness rituals that set Israel apart were not originally intended for Israel alone. Because the meanings of the corresponding-holiness abstentions also relate to terms presented by God for His relationship with the progenitors of all humanity and, by extension, their offspring, what set Israel apart by observing these rituals was that they were the means by which God had restored abstentions that the other nations should have observed all along and were to come to admire because of Israel’s witness (Deut. 4:6). That witness was extended by the apostles, who framed their teaching about the Torah abstentions that non-Jewish Christians should continue to practice with the need to distinguish the church from the rest of humanity that does not regard God (i.e., “the Gentiles” [Eph. 4:17–19; 1 Peter 2:9–12]). This salvation-historical continuity indicates that the Jerusalem Council’s letter was not a temporary stop on a trajectory toward abandoning most Old Testament ritual abstentions altogether, but rather reflected a subset of a larger set of practices that should continue to regulate humanity’s relationship with God.



The apostles discerned how certain ritual abstentions that are meaningful for all humanity in terms of our origins are distinguished in the Torah from other ritual practices that had meanings for God’s covenant nation in terms of the promised Messiah—meanings that people of any nation observe without the need for continued ritual practice when they affiliate with Jesus Christ. By tracing how the apostles, with apologies to Plato, “carved the Torah at its joints,”6 we have found that it has categories of specific, overlapping ritual abstentions that applied to resident foreigners in God’s covenant nation and set apart the nation in correspondence to God’s holiness. These Torah abstentions have meanings for our relationship with God that are continuous in salvation history from humanity’s common origins (with the sole exception of abstaining from blasphemy) and that the apostles interpreted their continued practice as meaningful because of the nature of the church as a holy community of Jews and uncircumcised Gentiles. On this view, the apostles left not only normative teachings about which Torah practices to continue and discontinue; they also left normative hermeneutical examples to follow when similar controversies arise in contemporary Christian communities. And if the example of the Jerusalem Council is continuity of practice for ritual abstentions related to, but not found in, the Decalogue, such as from eating what has been sacrificed to an idol or consuming blood, then how much more ought Christians to practice abstentions in the Decalogue itself, such as from bowing down to images or working on the seventh day?

Further research could develop the meaning of resident foreigner/sojourner relative to the nature of the church and these categories of ritual abstention. More can and should be written about how the practice of the resident-foreigner and national corresponding holiness ritual abstentions are realized by God’s promise to write His Torah in our hearts and how this discloses a vision for ethics, morality, and human flourishing beyond mere abstention. Rituals expand interpretive horizons but are not self-interpreting (Deut. 6:20–25). Without adequate teaching, too many labor under an inadequately meaningful, at best, or, at worst, transactional understanding of how these abstentions regulate their relationship with God. Some theological research has already addressed the moral meanings of these ritual abstentions, but there is more to be developed. It is also crucial further to develop interpretive guidelines for when concessions to the invariance of these abstentions due the exigencies of a sinful world have biblical warrant.

Further, it must be granted that, as with everything properly hermeneutical, the understanding of a practice is always determined by its implementation in a way that may make the force of the evidence above difficult to appreciate for Christians who do not abstain from bowing down to images, from working on the seventh day of the week, from sexual intimacy that does not embody the church’s intimacy with Christ according to the creation paradigm (Eph. 5:31, 32), or from consuming blood. Regardless, the apostles’ explicit affirmation of the continuity of certain of the Torah’s resident foreigner abstentions should prompt reflection in Christian communions on how they can all be practiced in ways that are meaningful for Christians today. Further, given Peter’s implicit affirmation of the national corresponding holiness abstentions and how greatly they overlap with the resident foreigner abstentions, Christians who practice the latter ought to be predisposed toward the former. Finally, Christians who practice the other resident foreigner and corresponding holiness abstentions ought to consider practicing the dietary and Sabbath-work abstentions, for they are given in the same categories of Torah instruction and are a major part and implication of the Jerusalem Council’s teaching, respectively.

At a minimum, the evidence of salvation historical continuity from human origins to the rest of Torah instruction and the apostles’ teaching is sufficient to conclude that Christians who practice the ritual abstentions that set apart Christ’s church as a sojourning holy nation in which uncircumcised Gentiles reside with Jews are not necessarily collapsing the distinctions between Jewish and Christian identity (Gal. 2:14). Rather, those who practice these ritual abstentions and not all the Torah’s other rituals are brothers and sisters in Christ who have sought to interpret the Old Testament the same way as the Jerusalem Council and the apostle Peter by discerning within it certain practices that God established as boundaries that we might better flourish in loving relationship with Him.



David Hamstra is a ThD student in theological and historical studies at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A., and Lead Pastor of the Edmonton Central Seventh-day Adventist Church in Alberta, Canada.



1. Dru Johnson, Knowledge by Ritual: A Biblical Prolegomenon to Sacramental Theology (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2016), 141, 142.

2. J. H. Hertz, ed., The Pentateuch and Haftorahs (London: Soncino, 1960), 497.

3. Roy Gane, Leviticus, Numbers, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2004), 335.

4. Hertz, Pentateuch and Haftorahs, 497, 498.

5. Jiří Moskala, “The Validity of the Levitical Food Laws of Clean and Unclean Animals: A Case Study of Biblical Hermeneutics,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 22:2 (2011): 3–31.

6. Plato, Phaedrus, 265e.