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Embodying the Hospitable Kingdom Community - An Excerpt from Reading Romans in Context

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reading romans in context

One of the most common themes found in Romans is the debate surrounding eating food sacrificed to idols. That may not mean much to us today, but when we look at the historical context the Jews lived in, we can understand better. Go ahead and take a look at how Reading Romans in Context uncovers that for us today.

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Romans has long been hailed as one of Paul’s most theological and even systematic letters. However, not everything in the letter is simply a timeless truth for every audience. Romans 14:1 – 15:13 appears in an extended set of teachings that inform the Christian life of obedience (Rom 12:1 – 15:13), and yet the passage is addressing tensions among the Christians specifically in Rome. Moreover, the issues at hand seem to concern religious purity. Now, modern Western believers are no strangers to church divisions and factional splits, but the central points of tension in Rome appear to relate to food preferences (14:2), observance of particular holy days (14:5), and perhaps also the use of wine (14:21). How does Paul set out to resolve the tension?

Paul separates the people involved into two groups: those who are “weak” in faith and those who are “strong” in faith. Paul does not represent either group as completely right or wrong, though he includes himself among the “strong” (15:1). His focus, instead, is on the attitude of “the strong” (see 14:1; 15:1), who have been treating “the weak” with contempt and judgment. With both sides in view, Paul urges each one to make choices regarding purity that lead to a clean conscience in their own reckoning and to foster unity and other-regard, with the example of Christ in mind (15:1 – 9)…

While we are not able to reconstruct, in detail, anything more about the specific situation among the Roman Christians, appeal to knowledge gained by 1 Maccabees (as well as other Second Temple Jewish texts) can help us to interpret Rom 14:1 – 15:13 in its sociohistorical context. By the account of many scholars, the events narrated in 1 Maccabees mark the beginning of a distinctive Jewish religious identity, and food habits are critically important in the demarcation of this identity.

1 Maccabees
“They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food.”

In 1 Cor 8:8 Paul says, “Food does not bring us near to God.” While most Protestant Christians today easily consent to this notion of the irrelevance of food choices to religious devotion, it was quite another thing for Jews in the first century. For most Jews, food was not merely stuff you put in your mouth for nourishment or enjoyment. Food choices (and limitations) were a matter of religious purity and distinctive of one’s social and religious identity.

One can better understand the full weight of the seriousness of how Jews treated their commitment to God’s commands about dietary purity by looking at the story of the Maccabees. First Maccabees, a text that appears in the OT Apocrypha, was written about a century before the birth of Christ and narrates, especially in the early chapters, the rule of a Greek tyrant named Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) who hated the Jews and their religion. We are told he plundered the Jerusalem temple (1:21 – 23), murdered Jews (1:24), set Jerusalem on fire (1:30), and imprisoned many of God’s people (1:32). We do not know exactly why Antiochus despised Judaism as much as he did, but we are told he strove for uniformity in (Greek) culture and religion throughout his dominion (1:42). Out of fear, many Jews submitted to his demands and “adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the Sabbath” (1:43). Antiochus put an end to the Jews’ sacrificial worship and even outlawed circumcision (1:48), with the hopes that “they would forget the Torah and change all the regulations” (1:49). There were those, however, who resisted. When the author of 1 Maccabees summarizes this resilience, he states: “But many in Israel stood strong and were resolved in their own minds not to eat what is impure. They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to desecrate the holy covenant; and they did die” (1:62 – 63). It became clear in these events that food became a social dividing line for devout Jews. The word “zeal” appears in 1 Maccabees as representative of Jewish passion for covenantal obedience, of which food purity became distinctive (2:24, 26 – 27, 50, 54, 58)…

Fourth Maccabees also records the persecution of Jews under Antiochus, but this text’s focus is on a Jewish philosophy of virtue. In chapter 5, Antiochus engages with a Jewish leader, scribe, and priest named Eleazar. On the same threat of execution we saw in 1 Maccabees, Eleazar takes the opportunity to engage in philosophical debate. Antiochus encourages Eleazar to eat unclean pork and save himself pain in his old age. He points out the weakness of the Jewish philosophy and desires Eleazar to transcend to a more logical (Greek) path (5:6 – 13).

Eleazar dared to parry Antiochus’s first argument by explaining that Jews trust the one true God, and that the food restrictions have their rationale in his higher purposes. In this particular text, the rationale given involves God’s knowing what is proper to human nature and what is best for their well-being (spiritual as well as physical): “These things which are favorable to our souls, he has instructed us to eat; but those which are troublesome to them he has forbidden” (5:26). He ends the first discourse by saying, “Mouth! You will neither defile my old age, nor my long life of obedience to the law. My fathers will welcome me as pure, not having shrunk before your ultimatum, even to death. You may tyrannize the ungodly; but you will not act as master over my thoughts about religion, either by your arguments or your actions” (5:36 – 38).

Much more could be said, but here we shall sum up what can be gleaned, especially about food purity, from the above material.

Zeal. Because of the Jewish conflict with Antiochus IV, a clear dividing line was drawn between those Jews who succumbed to Hellenistic assimilation and those who maintained the traditions and covenant demands of the forefathers. Thus, keeping the Torah’s dietary regulations (and even stricter habits) became a key indicator of true devotion to God. It was not that other aspects of religious life were devalued, but that this one, in particular, was seen to be a mark of Jewish covenantal obedience, of zeal for God’s law.

Identity. In large part due to the Maccabean Crisis, adherence to Jewish food laws became a signal of not only religious fidelity but also of in-group membership. Alongside circumcision and Sabbath keeping, maintaining a “holy diet” was a key way for Jews to strengthen their social identity.

Self-Control. Finally, the Jewish food laws were understood by many adherents as a prophylactic means of resisting indulgence and hedonism. Their ascetic consumption practices could be defended as
a move toward self-mastery. (Pgs 151-155)

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Order Reading Romans in Context from Zondervan Academic, available now.

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