The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Feb 6, 2018

Can Christians eat sushi? A serious question in light of the Noahic and Apostolic prohibition of blood.

In both my undergrad Hermeneutics and seminary NT Intro classes, I like to focus on the authoritative Apostolic Council of Acts 15--specifically, how it responds to the issue of the Gentiles and whether or not they have to keep the Torah. The Apostolic Council answers with a definitive "no", through James' official "krinō de",  to the question of whether or not Gentiles need to be circumcised to be saved (Acts 15:1) and whether or not Gentiles need to follow the Torah to be in good standing with God (15:5). In other words, Gentiles do not need the Torah (defined as the body of laws given specifically to Israel as a nation) for either salvation or sanctification. Paul reinforces this theological principle in much of his writing, especially Galatians.

However, James makes clear there are certain transcendent principles wrapped up in the Torah that Gentiles need to be aware of and obey (v. 20): clearly, anything thats smacks of idolatry or immorality (porneia, all immoral sin, not just adultery--what a counter-cultural thought in the 1st century!) need to be avoided. He also, however, mentions "things strangled," and "blood." [It's worth noting that there are a variety of interpretations regarding the significance of these 4 prohibitions being lumped together; no time to get into that today! I will mention, however, that all are probably closely linked to pagan idolatry, though David Instone-Brewer has made an intriguing case that "pniktos" refers to infanticide via "smothering" rather than strangling; you can read his article here] In my opinion, the prohibition of blood is a transcendent principle, since it goes all the way back to the Noahic commands in Genesis 9:1-7, given before Abraham was ever born.

Now, fortunately, the red juice in a "medium rare" steak or burger is apparently not blood (see this article). However. blood sausage and other dishes that actually contain blood are out of the question for Gentile (and Jewish) Christians. Once again, this prohibition against eating blood (which I assume is what James means by "blood" in v. 20) has existed from the very beginnings of when the Lord allowed humanity to eat meat. I do not deny that "blood" in Acts 15 is linked to pagan idolatry (though that was not the context in Genesis 9), but this does not mitigate the broader principle any more than "fornication" (porneia) in the same context would be limited strictly to cultic prostitution or other idolatry-linked immorality.

However, one of my NT Intro seminary students, James, raised an interesting question: what about sushi? Technically, fish has blood, and technically, the blood is not drained in real sushi (from what I understand). Does this mean that raw fish, as generally prepared, is prohibited for all Christians, Gentile and Jewish?

I honestly don't know the answer to this. From the modern Jewish perspective, apparently raw fish is ok, as this Rabbi states (with thanks to another of my students, Alonso, for sharing this link). This is addressed in Jewish commentary here (from what I understand). However, whether or not this would represent a biblical (as opposed to traditional) reading, I don't know.

Once again, I see no way of getting around a full prohibition of intentionally eating blood at least in regards to land animals, so blood sausage, etc. is out. Nor does the prohibition apply strictly to when it's linked to pagan idolatry, in my opinion, in light of the fact that it originates with the Noahic Covenant. So, there is one huge issue that needs to be grappled with:
What constitutes a biblical definition of "blood"??
In other words, would Moses (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) and his original audience naturally think of "fish" when writing the words of Genesis 9:3-4?

There's a hint in the Torah itself that he may not have been thinking of fish. In Leviticus 7:26, the prohibition against blood is apparently clarified by the preposition l attached to two nouns: "ōph" ("bird") and buhēmah ("beast"). The word for "fish" (dagah) does not occur here (though that is actually a rare word), nor do we see any of the key terminology describing "fish" from, e.g., Leviticus  11:9. So although in a modern scientific sense fish have "blood," as far as Moses is concerned it's not close enough to count.

Unfortunately, being a New Testament specialist rather than an OT guy, I'm totally out of my depth here (pun not intended!). I can only conclude with four thoughts:
1. We Gentiles are not under the Torah (i.e., the body of Laws meant specifically for Israel), and thus we can enjoy our barbecue pork (so long as we do not cause our brother or sister to stumble).
2. However, the Torah is still applicable to us and is meant for our instruction (for one of the better discussions on this, see  William Combs' article in the Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal here).
3. There are, however, transcendent principles going back to the pre-Abraham era that still apply to us, especially when reiterated at the Apostolic Council of Acts 15. This includes the prohibition against eating blood (all meat that we eat should have been subjected to a reasonable effort to remove the blood).
4. Whether or not sushi would fall under that prohibition is, in my opinion, still an open question and needs to be addressed by an Old Testament scholar (to my knowledge none have done so yet; please point me in the right direction of I'm wrong!)

With thanks to my seminary students Alonso and James for their dialogue on this, as well as my friend Alex in North Carolina!


  1. Maybe you should get these students to interact with Peter's vision, in which he is commanded to "slay and eat," which, at face value, sounds like eating raw bloody flesh. I think the questions that would need to be answered would be: Does the vision, in fact, imply this action; if so, does it in fact supercede the Noahic prohibition as well as the Mosaic?

    1. A fair question, but personally I have my doubts that:
      1. "Slay and eat" would mean "eat raw" (the scandal for Peter is not the manner of eating here, but rather the object that he would be eating. Peter states this explicitly--pan koinon ē akatharon).
      2. That, if I've understood the "blood" in James' decree correctly, a later event would somehow be overturned by a previous event. In other words, assuming James' is acting with Spirit-led authority here, we would essentially end up a contradiction: God's earlier command to Peter contradicts James' decree. Surely James was not wrong in his decree (the entire tone of Luke's narrative paints the Apostolic Council in a very positive light). The only way to get around this would be to argue that "blood" only refers to that associated with pagan sacrifice, which is possible, but then by the same logic we could also argue that porneia only applies to cultic matters as well. Without further qualification by
      3. that God's personal object lesson to Peter, which was only meant to reinforce a great truth (witness to Gentiles and accept them as brothers and sisters) becomes binding upon all Christians everywhere, overturning the Noahic Covenant. If that was the Lord's intention, I would expect a few more clues in the text.

  2. I think Acts 15:20 refers to pagan idolatry. Our Western minds tend to reinterpret idolatry into our own context, but this was a huge problem in the NT era (your point 2). It does not necessarily follow that the prohibition against fornication here is restricted to sex with temple priestesses, though Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 6 seems to back up the problems there.

  3. My personal take on this passage has been to see it in connection with "the life of the creature as being in the blood." I.e., more of a warning against eating one of God's creatures with the life still in it. I don't see how it can be against blood as such, because all meat is going to have some blood in it, and I believe the Hebrews were well aware of this. I see the reference then to the "spilling the blood on the ground," as having special importance here, with the emphasis falling more on how the creature is killed than any sense of uncleanness within the blood. Perhaps there's some application here to killing the creatures in a humane way?

    So, for example, I might see application in this passage to such exotic dishes as that Mongolian delicacy of carving slices off a living donkey and chowing down, which have the added benefit of seeming particularly abhorrent somehow.

    This is just going completely off the cuff here, though, so I'm open to the insights of others.