Sunday, February 22, 2009

Evangelical Scholarship on Jews and Judaism 1: Purity

One puzzling feature about Peter's lunch-time vision in Acts 10 is that the four-cornered sheet contained clean as well as unclean food. So instead of replying, "Never, Lord, I have never eaten anything common and unclean" (10:14), Peter might have selected a clean animal from the menu and been on his way.

F.F. Bruce suggests that Peter "was scandalized by the unholy mixture of clean animals with unclean" (206 n. 18), but offers no evidence that such a combination was considered unholy.

Ben Witherington III supplies the lack, drawing on a 1983 AUSS article by Colin House, which in turn appears to rely on F.F. Bruce (see p. 147). Witherington puts the argument this way:
"Peter assumed that because of the considerable presence of unclean animals and the possible problem of contamination, there was nothing fit to eat in the sheet" (Witherington, Acts, 350).
No evidence? No problem:
"It may be true that no known ruling specified that clean animals were automatically made unclean by mere contact with unclean ones, but it stands to reason that this was often assumed to be the case in early Judaism. It was after all assumed in early Judaism that a person incurred uncleanness by mere contact with an unclean person, and it would be natural to assume the same with animals" (Witherington, Acts, 350 n. 95).
There are at least a couple issues here:
  1. Arguments about early Jewish belief should never rest on what "stands to reason" or what is "natural."
  2. This particular argument represents a failure of imagination: Think of all the Jewish shepherds trying to keep their pure sheep from weasels, mice, lizards of various kinds, and all creatures that swarm upon the earth (cf. Lev 11).


Anonymous said...

Your point 2 presupposes that humans are entirely consistent in the way they establish, use and maintain boundaries, in this case with matters of cleanness. If that were so, we could be on much safer grounds when comes to inferring what we don't have explicit evidence for in the past. I think human inconsistency cuts against Ben's comment as well as your critique of it. It would probably be better to qualify our responses as "likely" or "unlikely" on this kind of issue apart from written evidence (which may only reflect one set of practices within a group).

Jim Miller

randomly organized said...

Help me to see where it says that there were clean as well as unclean? Unless I am missing something it is a thought imposed on the verse. It doesn't say there wasn't clean but it also doesn't say that there were. What am I missing?

d. miller said...

Good point, Jim, and thanks for the comment. I don't want to err by assuming that humans are entirely consistent. Still, I think it is helpful to test proposals by an imaginative historical reconstruction. Ben's scenario fails this, admittedly subjective and partial, 'Is it livable?' test. Since Ben's scenario would have been so hard to implement, one would expect to find evidence for it somewhere in our surviving literature. In this case, the lack of evidence is a problem.

d. miller said...

Randomly Organized: Acts 10:12 says the sheet contained "all four-footed animals, reptiles and birds of the air." Most English translations have "all kinds of," which amounts to the same thing. Some kinds were unclean, to be sure, but not all four-footed animals were unclean.

One could infer from Peter's response that Luke meant to say all kinds of unclean animals, etc., but one might also conclude that Peter's response doesn't correspond perfectly to the vision as Luke describes it.

randomly organized said...

Absolutely, I agree. My point is that the inference makes this a either way Scripture. Luke being the one who wrote both the vision and the response would have been the one to clarify the meaning. It can be inferred that he clarified it in Peter's response.

That said, it might be as you suggest—all meaning every four-footed animals both clean and unclean.

My read on this is that Luke is writing in such a way as to show the purity of the believers in the F.C. He goes out of his way to show the rituals to which they maintain.

So, while I am not sure that Luke didn't intend for there to be clean on the sheet he doesn't go out of his way to tell us there were—only that there were unclean.

Thanks for the response!