The Command to Abstain From Blood at Acts Chapter 15—What The Watchtower Left Out
“For the holy spirit and we ourselves have favored adding no further burden to you, except these necessary things, to keep yourselves free from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication.” Acts 15:28, 29 (NWT)
For most of the thirty-plus years I spent as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I was in agreement with the Society’s stand on blood transfusions. Acts chapter 15 (quoted above) made it clear to me that Christians were to “abstain from blood,” and I was convinced that transfusing blood was simply another way of “eating” it. I did often struggle, though, with the Pharisaical rules about blood that The Watchtower kept heaping on our heads, such as not giving pets a blood transfusion or not storing our own blood to use in an emergency. However, the decision that Peter, James, and the other Christians handed down at Acts 15 kept me on board with the “no blood transfusion” policy. It wasn’t until I did some basic research on the context of Acts 15 that I discovered what The Watchtower had left out—and for me, that discovery completely changed the meaning of what took place at the Jerusalem meeting!
The book of Acts gives us an exciting account of how Christianity began and grew after the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. In those early decades, Christianity was considered to be a sect of the Jewish religion. It wasn’t until after the temple was destroyed that it became obvious to Christians that God’s favor had been removed from the Jews as a group, to give time for the full number of the Gentiles to be “grafted in” (Rom. 11:25). As the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul understood this from the outset of his ministry, but he was careful not to offend his Jewish Christian brothers. The majority of them were not able to accept Jesus’ complete fulfillment of the Law, so they continued to keep the Law, believing they were still bound by it because it had come directly from God. The difference was that now they realized it did not lead to salvation—only Jesus as the promised Messiah saved them from their sins and opened the way to heaven.
This Jewish Christian mindset is described at Acts 21:17-26:
When we got into Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. But on the following [day] Paul went in with us to James; and all the older men were present. And he greeted them and began giving in detail an account of the things God did among the nations through his ministry. After hearing this they began to glorify God, and they said to him: “You behold, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews; and they are all zealous for the Law. But they have heard it rumored about you that you have been teaching all the Jews among the nations an apostasy from Moses, telling them neither to circumcise their children nor to walk in the [solemn] customs. What, then, is to be done about it? In any case they are going to hear you have arrived. Therefore do this which we tell you: We have four men with a vow upon themselves. Take these men along and cleanse yourself ceremonially with them and take care of their expenses, that they may have their heads shaved. And so everybody will know that there is nothing to the rumors they were told about you, but that you are walking orderly, you yourself also keeping the Law. As for the believers from among the nations, we have sent out, rendering our decision that they should keep themselves from what is sacrificed to idols as well as from blood and what is strangled and from fornication.” Then Paul took the men along the next day and cleansed himself ceremonially with them and went into the temple, to give notice of the days to be fulfilled for the ceremonial cleansing, until the offering should be presented for each one of them. (NWT)
Those Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were especially sensitive to the belief that Christianity was a sect of Judaism. They wanted Paul to show that he still kept the ceremonial law, and they repeated the commands from the Jerusalem Council to assure themselves that Paul’s converts among the Gentiles were in accord with Jewish customs of the day.
A knowledge of those customs is crucial to an accurate understanding of the prohibition of blood in Acts 15. By the time Jesus was born in the first century, many Gentiles were disenchanted with the Greek and Roman religions because of their polytheism and gross immorality. These Gentiles were attracted, instead, to the Jewish religion because it offered them a stable, moral way of life. However, if they wanted to meet and worship with the Jews, these Gentiles would have to become official proselytes of Judaism. Normally, this would require the Gentiles to become what the Jews termed “Righteous Proselytes”—converts fully committed and bound by all doctrines and precepts of the Law. They were to be circumcised, immersed in a “mikvah,” and were assigned a tribe.
Most Gentile men were not willing to make such a serious (and painful) commitment, so the Jews decided to accept the fellowship of these lesser converts as “Proselytes of the Gate” (also called “resident aliens,” “devout men” or “Godfearers”). Cornelius was one of these. They followed some of the Jewish customs, but were not required to be circumcised or comply with all of the laws of the Torah. Rather, they were bound by the Seven Precepts of Noah, as follows:
1. Do not worship idols.
2. Do not blaspheme God’s name.
3. Do not murder.
4. Do not commit immoral sexual acts.
5. Do not steal.
6. Do not eat flesh with the blood in it.
7. Do not rebel against the rulers.
With this in mind, the Jerusalem Council described at Acts 15 makes a lot of sense. The Jewish Christians had to decide which type of proselyte to Judaism these Gentile Christians should become—Righteous Proselytes (requiring circumcision) or Proselytes of the Gate. From the requirements placed upon them at Acts 15:28, 29, regarding fornication and not eating things sacrificed to idols, things strangled, and blood, it is apparent that the apostles and elders of the Jerusalem congregation deemed that these Gentile Christians would be accepted as Proselytes of the Gate.
Although the Apostle Paul realized that Christianity was much larger and more encompassing than merely another sect of Judaism, he did not make an issue of it at that Jerusalem Council or later when he was asked to take part in a vow at the temple. He probably knew that time would tell and that eventually Jewish Christians would come to appreciate that Jesus had fulfilled all of the Law.
So where does that leave us as Christians today? Since we do not have to first become Jewish Proselytes of the Gate, are we still under the Seven Precepts of Noah? A study of Paul’s letters written after the Jerusalem Council reveals that Paul repeated, for Christians, all of the Seven Precepts of Noah EXCEPT the ones involving eating things sacrificed to idols, things strangled, and blood. Not only did he not repeat these commands for Christians, he SPECIFICALLY RESCINDED them at I Corinthians 10:25. There he assured Christians: “Everything that is sold in a meat market keep eating, making no inquiry on account of your conscience.” (NWT)
In the first century, many Jews and Jewish Christians were vegetarians because almost all of the meat sold in the markets had been offered to pagan idols, had been strangled, and, therefore, had not been properly bled according to Jewish Law. Paul said to eat it anyway! The only reason a Christian wouldn’t eat meat with blood in it would be in deference to someone else’s conscience, not his own. Eating blood might stumble a weaker brother, in that day a Jewish Christian brother who still clung to the Law.
How clear is that? Would you not think that Fred Franz would do a little basic research on the context of Acts 15 before he issued his despicable edict that would result in thousands of wrongful deaths among Jehovah’s Witnesses? As I’ve written in my other blogs, The Watchtower has a dark history of leaving out a great deal of crucial information regarding the context surrounding its doctrines. So far, in my opinion, this one is the worst!