Paul and the Law
Paul, the observant Jew, taught this same “fulfillment” of the law of clean and unclean when he wrote: “I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus [i.e. as a Christian believer] that nothing is unclean [‘common,’ koinos] in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean” (Rom. 14:14). “Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean [katharos], but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense” (Rom. 14:20).
A man who writes this way is certainly not concerned with the distinction between clean and unclean meats and fish given in the law (except as these issues might affect an oversensitive, weak conscience, Rom. 14:15). Particularly significant (and contrary to what Herbert Armstrong of the Worldwide Church of God taught) is the fact that Paul uses both koinos (Rom. 14:14) = common or unclean by use, and katharos (Rom. 14:20) = clean by nature. Armstrong had alleged that Paul did not mean to include things which were unclean by nature (akathartos, the opposite of katharos). However, by saying that all things are katharos, he implies that nothing is akathartos. Matters of diet cannot therefore be decided merely from the law of clean and unclean given to Israel.
Standard commentaries confirm our point about Romans 14. “Paul’s norm [standard] is that no food is unclean of itself, a statement that stands in flat contradiction to the Torah. This fact alone establishes our conclusions…namely that in the new age of the Spirit, God’s demands on us are not mediated to us through the stipulations of the law.”¹
“This remarkable statement [Rom. 14:14] undercuts the whole distinction between clean and unclean foods on which Paul, like other observant Jews, had been brought up. Modern readers inevitably think of Mark 7:14-23 and Luke 11:41.”²
David Stern in his Jewish New Testament Commentary is remarkably frank. Of Romans 14:14 he says that Paul’s words are “nevertheless a surprising conclusion for a Jewish scholar who sat at the feet of Rabban Gamali’el to reach; indeed he had to be persuaded by the Lord Yeshua the Messiah himself, for the concept of ritual uncleanness pervades not only the Mishna, one of whose six major divisions, Taharot (“Ritual Uncleanness”) has this [issue of foods] as its central topic, but the Pentateuch itself (especially Lev. 11-17). The Bible does not always explain why some things are pure and others are not. Hygiene is not the issue; for if it were, there would be no reason to exclude Gentiles from the application of these laws. And the rabbis do not speculate much on the reasons.”³ Stern adds that since (in Judaism) the laws of ritual purity apply to Jews only, Paul’s statement “that nothing is unclean in itself should suffice to free any Gentile whose conscience still bothers him in regard to such matters.” Stern has not noted that Paul is writing as a Christian Jew, and it is Paul who makes it clear that the laws of clean and unclean food are no longer valid for him, as a Jewish believer in the Messiah. Paul does not confine this freedom to Gentile believers only but reckons himself as a formerly observant Jew no longer bound by the food laws. This is a strikingly interesting lesson about the nature of the New Covenant.
(1) D.R. de Lacey, “The Sabbath/Sunday question and the Law in the Pauline Corpus,” in D.A. Carson, ed., From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, Zondervan, 1982, p. 172.
(2) John Ziesler, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, London: SCM Press, 1989, p. 332.
(3) Jewish New Testament Publications, 1996, p. 435, emphasis his.