35. Food Fight!

Paul was a major player in confronting early Christians about their need to set aside personal and heated differences over their food practices of the past to enjoy fellowship meals of mutual edification and submissive accord. A careful read of Paul’s letters to the Romans, Corinthians and Galatians clearly shows that some of the biggest divisions among early believers were sparked by radically different food customs and practices at the meals of the gathered community. Try to imagine the consternation of the Jewish Christian eating with a Gentile Christian. The Jew would be upset by the so-called unclean practices of the Gentile. The Gentile, not caring to adopt the ball and chain of the Jewish purity rituals would also be made to feel inferior for eating certain foods, in particular the meat from animals sacrificed to idols. Paul worked tirelessly to get all believers on the same page where sharing food was concerned; his letters, most certainly circulated and read at the shared meals of the early Christians, are filled with admonitions that they stop their petty bickering over food and the separatist notions these disputes fostered.

In his letter to the Galatians Paul wrote, “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group” (Gal 2:11-12). Apparently, Peter’s conviviality with Gentiles was met by separatist Christian Judaizers with such disapproval that he had begun to withdraw from meals at which Gentile Christians were present. Paul insists that it is not the Gentile Christians who must act more “Jewish” but the Jewish Christians who must live like Gentiles, and he publicly calls Peter to account for his legalistic behavior. Accusing Peter and the Galatians of being brainwashed, Paul instructs them to justify their actions solely on Christ, and resume their shared meals together, because “the table was a prime and powerful image in Paul’s world for boundary marking and community inclusion.”[1] Paul scolds Peter for succumbing to the pressures of some Jewish Christians who were still following the Jewish requirements for ritual purity. Imagine the irony if you can. This is the same Paul who once bragged of his righteous keeping of the law, and the same Peter who was with Jesus when he condemned the Pharisees for the blind way they assumed ritual purity was counted to them as righteousness. It is no wonder Paul confronts Peter to his face.

In post 36, we will continue this discussion!

~Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

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[1] Dennis E. Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist, p. 186.

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