“Eating at the Table of Gentiles”?

There’s a point in A Polite Bribe when we approach the dramatic confrontation between Paul and Peter at Antioch. Paul thought that he, James, and Peter, had a deal: the message of Jesus could go to the gentiles. But in Antioch Paul is furious that Peter has betrayed this agreement, and denounces Peter to his face. The dialogue continues: “To [Paul’s] shock, he finds Jews and gentiles sitting at separate tables, and Peter eating with Jewish Christians only.”

A Polite Bribe shows Paul angrily standing up and shouting, and Peter shoved flat against the table, suggesting a very physical confrontation. Paul believes, rightly or wrongly, that Peter has gone back on his agreement. (This isn’t precisely what we find in Galatians 2:11–14, but the general depiction is fair enough.)

What was this dispute about? In A Polite Bribe, scholars are befuddled by this issue. The only suggestion they make is that Peter suddenly decided that everyone had to keep kosher. Really? Was someone showing up at their community dinners with pork, or what? Moreover, Paul never mentions kosher issues in his letters. What’s going on here?

There’s a better explanation, based on the Jewish Christian understanding, which gives us a totally new perspective to this whole dispute. This dispute was not about keeping kosher at all; it was about vegetarianism and meat sacrificed to idols. The Jewish Christian understanding becomes clear when we look at the Recognitions and Homilies, two documents either written by Jewish Christians or written with strong Jewish Christian influence.

For the Jewish Christians, “eating with the gentiles” has nothing to do with failure to keep kosher. It means eating at the table of demons. And for the Jewish Christian Ebionites, eating meat was eating at the table of demons. Eating meat allowed demons to take possession of you. Christians, therefore, should not be eating at the table of demons; they should not eat meat or things sacrificed to idols.

Just before the confrontation between Peter and Paul at Antioch, “certain men from James” conveyed to Peter an even more radical form of this requirement. For Jewish Christianity, not only does this mean not eating meat, it also means not eating with someone who is themselves possessed by a demon — that is, not eating with unbaptized and unrepentant pagans. The demon is always present in the unrepentant pagan, and therefore eating with them means eating with demons. Why should Christians endanger their own souls by sitting down with pagan meat-eaters possessed by demons?

This dispute was about vegetarianism and meat sacrificed to idols. It is either violence, or sharing a table with unrepentant violent people, which allows the demons to take possession in the first place. “Eating at the table of demons” means an unacceptable level of complicity with violence or with violent people. It was not about “Jewish customs” as we understand them today.

This is the real issue, and on this point, the letters of Paul and the Jewish Christian sources agree. Paul nowhere in his letters talks about kosher requirements as we understand them, but he talks a great deal about eating at the table of demons, eating meat, and eating meat sacrificed to idols (Romans 14, I Corinthians 8–10). Even Acts supports this view, putting a prohibition on “blood” and a prohibition against meat sacrificed to idols in the apostolic decree (Acts 15:29).

In the Recognitions and Homilies, Peter repeatedly pleads that he is unable to eat with Clement, with other pagans, or evidently other Jews, until they have been baptized. Why? Because they are possessed by demons. And what leads to demon possession? It’s bloodshed, including the killing of animals, and eating meat sacrificed to demons. If you eat at a table where demons are present — and demons are present in all meat-eaters and idol-worshipers — you are risking your own soul. We may regard this concern about demon possession as being superstitious, but whatever it was, it had nothing to do with the standard kosher requirements.

What is at issue here in “not eating with the gentiles” is not a question of Jewish identity, but of Christian identity. Once you are baptized, everything is fine; baptism drives out the demons. Peter says, “it lies with you, when you wish it, to come to our table; and not with us, who are not permitted to take food with any one who has not been baptized” (Recognitions 2.72). Peter says that “the things which are well-pleasing to God are these . . . to abstain from the table of devils, not to taste dead flesh, not to touch blood” (Homilies 7.4). God never wanted animals to be killed in the first place, and therefore does not ask for or desire animal sacrifices (Homilies 3.45).

Paul’s letters actually support the interpretation given by Peter in the Recognitions and Homilies. In all of his letters, Paul never discusses kosher regulations as we now understand them (not eating pork, not mixing milk with meat, and so forth). What Paul does discuss is the very same issues that the Jewish Christian sources mention: vegetarianism (Romans 14:1–3, 20–21), not eating at the table of demons (I Corinthians 10:20), and not eating meat sacrificed to idols (I Corinthians 10:25). Paul disagrees with Peter’s views (as expressed in the Recognitions and Homilies). But Paul frames the issue in almost exactly the same way — it is about what constitutes eating at the table of demons, about eating meat, and especially about eating meat sacrificed to idols.

In fact, even Acts supports this interpretation. The apostolic decree (Acts 15:29) forbids “blood,” things strangled, things offered to idols, and unchastity. For the Jewish Christians, forbidding “blood” meant a prohibition on eating meat. Forbidding “things strangled” implies, most likely, a prohibition on eating fish, which are typically killed by asphyxiation.

Peter may have concerns about “kosher,” but it is a very different and more radical concept of kosher. For the Jewish Christian leadership, eating meat and drinking wine was not kosher (Romans 14:20–21). This is not the traditional Jewish view of kosher, but a new, more radical, Jewish Christian view of what foods are proper for believers to eat.

5 Replies to ““Eating at the Table of Gentiles”?”

  1. Last weekend, I was reading your “Lost Religion” book and came across this theory for the first time. It is difficult for today’s choices. I do not like eating with meat eaters yet must at times. I could not reliably explain to so-called Christians why I won’t eat with them. I can’t obey Jewish laws. I no longer believe in demons; but do agree with “talking back” to thoughts (Evagrius). I would love to never have to watch another person eat a piece of meat; but don’t know how that could happen.
    Your books are unique. I have ordered Disciples.

  2. You won’t be disappointed by Disciples which is actually better than the first book. You will also appreciate The Origin of Christianity by Vaclavik.

  3. If Jesus’ earliest followers were “picky” about eating only with baptized (= “non-demon possessed”) people, is it possible that this notion derived from situations or perhaps from unknown but important religious leaders and/or sects-schools, rather than from Jesus? Apparently, Jesus was known, even to the point of infamy, for his “open table fellowship”, in which purity figured very little, if at all. The same applies to his views on other purity regulations, customs, and traditions. So – *IF* it is true that Jesus was “iconoclastic” per purity, how is it that his Jewish followers almost immediately developed a new purity system designed to deny table fellowship with the unbaptised and therefore (purportedly) “demon-possessed”?

    1. I discuss this problem in Disciples, p. 171-174, 176. Matthew 9:10 (and parallels) has the Pharisees ask, “why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

      The quick answer is that the answer to your question is “yes,” this idea of the “table of demons” likely did come from people other than Jesus. Remember that Peter at first did eat with the gentiles, and that it was only after certain men from James came that Peter reversed course, which so upset Paul. It was an unclear point in the early movement.

      The historical Jesus (if he were brought into the discussion) would likely feel ambivalent on the subject. This theory of the “table of demons” did come from the historical apostles (James and Peter), who were reacting to Paul’s too-easy accommodation to the habits of the wealthy. The apostles were extrapolating from what clearly was part of Jesus’ mission: to drive out demons, to heal the sick, and to abolish the animal sacrifices and meat-eating generally.

      Paul was extrapolating from a different part of Jesus’ mission, toleration for the outcast, although early meat-eating Christians were only “outcast” in terms of the Jewish Christian movement, not in terms of the larger society. Paul is dealing with the upper class, with the 1% of the ancient world who could actually afford to go to the meat-market and buy meat (I Corinthians 10:25). Moreover, these wealthier followers were providing important support for Paul’s mission. So he says, “eating meat? No problem!” Paul believed that the end of the world was imminent and that there was no point in haggling over these kinds of ethical niceties. Paul even goes vegetarian as a way of compromise: “I will never eat meat again, lest I cause my brother to stumble” (I Corinthians 8:13). So I can see the point of view of both sides.

      The apostles, remembering that Jesus was vegetarian and gave his life disrupting the animal sacrifice business in the temple, felt that Paul had betrayed the principles of the movement. They developed a theological idea (demon possession due to violence) which could plausibly be said to come from Jesus’ basic principles, but was likely not formulated that way by Jesus.

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