|Peter's vision by Domenico Fetti, via Wikimedia Commons|
Could ancient Jews eat with Gentiles without violating the law?
It is safe to say that most readers of the New Testament (and many New Testament scholars) assume the answer is no. After all, (1) in Acts, when Peter returns from visiting Cornelius he is criticized for staying with uncircumcized men and "eating with them" (Acts 11:3). (2) In Galatians, Paul equates eating with Gentiles to living "like a Gentile (ethnikôs) and not like a Jew (ioudaikôs)" (Gal 2:12-14). These two passages seem parallel. (3) Since Peter responds to his critics by telling a story about clean and unclean food that concludes with the declaration, “what God has cleansed, do not regard as defiled” (11:9), readers of Acts routinely conclude that, from Luke's perspective at least, accepting Gentiles into the church meant doing away with the food laws.
I am not so sure. For one thing, Luke never explicitly draws the conclusion from Peter's vision or his encounter with Cornelius that the food laws were set aside. To the contrary, in the latter chapters of Acts Paul insists on his own continued fidelity to the Jewish way of life: Paul participates in temple worship to show that he “guards the law” (21:24); he also denies that he has done anything against the law (25:8) or his people’s ancestral customs (28:17).
Outside the New Testament, passages that emphasize the strictness with which some Jews observed the food laws also demonstrate that it was possible to "keep Kosher" in Gentile contexts: (1) Daniel and friends refuse the king's food and wine, requesting a diet of vegetables and water, but it was still the king's vegetables and water that they ate (Dan 1:8, 12). (2) Josephus describes a group of priests imprisoned in Rome who survived on a diet of figs and almonds out of piety toward God (Life 14). Martin Goodman concludes: "For pious Jews to eat with non-Jews, sharing a convivial table, was possible, but difficult" (Rome and Jerusalem 119).
Moreover, the food laws were interpreted differently by different Jews:
"It is important to remember that--notwithstanding many wide areas of absolute conformity--evolving Jewish law, even within the normative Orthodox wing alone, has never been monolithic. As a result, it is usual for all popular guides to the practice of kashruth (including cookbooks) to contain strong disclaimers and exhortations to the reader to consult local competent rabbinic authority at all times." - Gene Schram, "Meal customs (Jewish)" Anchor Bible Dictionary 4.649.If this is true for Orthodox Judaism today, how much more may we suppose that there was room for variety in the first century?
E.P. Sanders explains that in addition to the avoidance of pork, food sacrificed to idols and food containing blood posed "potential problems" for observant Jews. "There are possible problems with other foods, especially the main liquids, oil and wine. A libation to a pagan deity might have been offered from wine before it was sold; oil also might have an idolatrous connection." Aside from these restrictions, Gentile food could be fair game, although "some Jews were generally unwilling to eat pagan food, even when there might be no legal objection to it." On the other hand, Sanders suggests that Paul was not the only first-century Jew who advised eating whatever was set before them without asking questions of conscience: "In 1 Cor. 10.27, Paul advises Christians not to ask about the source of food when in someone else's house, and it is most likely that in the Diaspora some Jewish families followed the same practice" (E.P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief: 63 BCE – 66 CE. [Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992], 216).
To this evidence, we may add a passage from the Mishnah about Gentile wine and its use in idolatrous libations, which takes for granted that Jews could in some contexts eat with Gentiles:
"If an Israelite was eating with a gentile at a table, and he put flagons [of wine] on the table and flagons [of wine] on the side-table, and left the other there and went out, what is on the table is forbidden and what is on the side-table is permitted..." (Avodah Zarah 5.5).However we understand NT passages such as Acts 10-11 and Galatians 2, we need to set aside once and for all the idea that Jews believed eating with Gentiles meant violating the law. That simplistic assumption rests on a failure to engage early Jewish sources--and a failure of historical imagination.