Some time ago a special guest from Israel visited Ambassador College. We took him to dinner following his lecture. We had explained to him the basic teachings of the Church of God. And as we discussed that evening our relationship to the original Jerusalem Church, we ordered our dinners. Turtle soup and shrimp salad for him. Lamb for us. "Wait a moment!" he said as he caught the waiter's attention. "Make that another lamb..."
Our Israeli friend, a secular Jew, immediately understood why we had ordered lamb. It is clean food, fit for human consumption. Turtle and shrimp are not. They are biblically "unclean meats."
As a secular Jew, our Israeli friend reasoned that while among gentiles he would eat like gentiles. When we ordered lamb, his conscience must have smitten him. He, a Jew, adopting the dietary customs of the gentiles. We, Jews inwardly, living according to the biblical precept. We shared a delightful evening.
As Christians we were following the pattern of life of Christ's first chief apostle who said: "... I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean" (Acts 10:14, Revised Standard Version throughout except where otherwise designated).
It is the same pattern of life Noah followed (Genesis 8:20). The same pattern of life Moses instructed the Israelites to follow (Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14). But what about Paul's comments to the Roman and Jewish brethren in the city of Rome? He wrote, "I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean" (Romans 14:14, King James Version).
Did Jesus persuade Paul that unclean foods were somehow clean? And persuade Noah and Moses the opposite? Did Jesus lead Peter to believe one way and Paul another? What did Paul mean in Romans14:14?
One would think, with the increase in linguistic skills, that modern scholars would have corrected translation errors in Romans 14.
Three times the 1611 translators incorrectly used the English word unclean to render the Greek root word koinos in verse 14.
Earlier translators did insert a preferable rendering in the margin — the English word common.
Remember Peter's vision of the great sheet let down from heaven (Acts 10:9-16) with all sorts of creatures? Peter, in a trance, was asked to kill and eat what he saw. He immediately responded"... No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean." Common? Unclean? Why not simply unclean?
Here Peter's expression is correctly rendered by the various versions. Peter used two Greek words to express two distinct matters — koinos and akathartos. The former word is rendered correctly here as common. The latter as unclean.
But in Romans 14:14 Paul did not use the word akathartos, meaning unclean. He used in each of the three cases the Greek root word koinos, meaning common. Paul therefore was not speaking of unclean meats being somehow clean. His comments should have been rendered:
"I know, and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is common of itself; but it is common for anyone who thinks it common." There is no contradiction between Peter and Paul or Noah, Moses and Paul.
What then are we to understand by Paul's statement — "that nothing is common of itself"?
Clean farm animals, torn of beasts, were commonly eaten by the gentiles. But God inspired Moses to instruct Israel to avoid eating any torn clean animal (Exodus 22:31).
Sometimes a clean animal dies of itself. What does the law say: "You shall not eat anything that dies of itself ... for you are a people holy to the Lord your God" (Deuteronomy 14:21). Here again, clean farm animals that died of themselves were forbidden to Israel.
Such practice among the gentiles would give rise to the expression that meats could be "common" — koinos in Greek — that is, forbidden — though eaten by gentiles commonly and in their spiritual ignorance.
Sheep, goats, calves, doves and pigeons — creatures sacrificed at the temple of God — are clean animals by nature. When killed by wild beasts or upon natural death, they become common. That is why Paul wrote that "there is nothing common of itself." It is a circumstance that happens to the flesh that renders it common to God's people.
Another act that rendered a clean animal common was offering it to an idol (Acts 15:29). Later, as the Greek converts understood that an idol was nothing, it was permitted (see I Corinthians 8).
Greek vegetarians converted to Christ thought all meat was improper to eat, that is, common. That is why Paul wrote: "... nothing is common in itself; but it is common for anyone who thinks it common. If your brother [a vegetarian] is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love..." (Romans 14:14-15, RSV corrected).