You may be wondering how we got from a discussion of the evidence of pagan religions and their influence on the writings of the New Testament to the 21st century and blood transfusions and organ donations. I recently received a question concerning the Bible prohibition regarding the eating of blood and the present day medical practice of using blood transfusions and organ transplants. Since there is obviously a connection with idolatry in Acts 15:20 and this issue, I am including my response to this question in this series on “The Bible and Paganism.” Perhaps there is more of a connection than we realize, at least on what is written in Acts 15.
Although there obviously had been the killing of animals in animal sacrifices in the very early days of the Bible (Abel, Genesis 4:4), there is not anything said that would indicate that it was a common practice until the days of Noah and following (Genesis 8:20; Genesis 12:7-9, etc.). It may be of significance also to note that up until that time there had been nothing said about the consumption of animals for food. At creation God had specified that the trees and herbs of the field were the food that was to sustain man. Following the flood man was permitted to eat animal flesh with the restriction that “… you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Genesis 9:4). This seems to be a regulation regarding respect for life and a prevention of cruelty to animals.
John Gill says this means “…while there is life in the blood, or while the creature is living; the meaning is, that a creature designed for food should be properly killed, and its blood let out; that it should not be devoured alive, as by a beast of prey; that raw flesh should not be eaten, as since by cannibals, and might be by riotous flesh eaters … The eating of any member or flesh of a creature while alive is forbidden.” Barnes says; “…the prohibition to eat the flesh with the blood of life is a needful restraint from savage cruelty.”
In other passages in the Old Testament the eating of blood is clearly and strongly prohibited. For example …
“Moreover, you shall eat no blood whatever, whether of fowl or of animal, in any of your dwelling places” (Leviticus 7:26).
“Only you shall not eat the blood; you shall pour it out on the earth like water” (Deuteronomy 12:16).
These and other statements in the Old Testament probably had to do with maintaining a respect for blood since blood was necessary for the atonement for sin. They were not to treat blood as a common thing. When blood was shed that meant that the life of the animal had been taken from it on account of man’s transgression. Every sacrifice offered under the law also was looking forward to the blood of Jesus that would take away the sin of the world. In other references there is a connection with idolatry and eating blood (Leviticus 19:26) which was, of course to be guarded against.
The only place abstaining from blood is mentioned in the New Testament is found in Acts 15:20, 29. But is this prohibition from the Old Testament what James is referring to when he proposes that the brethren in write to the Gentile Christians about refraining from blood and other things? Or is he referring to a something else? One of the first rules for understanding the Bible is that a passage, a command, an instruction must be considered in light of its context. To whom was it written? About what was it written? What do the verses before and after say?
Obviously the proposed letter was to be sent to Gentile Christians who had been bothered by the Judiazing teachers who had wanted to require them to be circumcised and observe the law of Moses. That question had been decisively settled by the brethren in the “Jerusalem conference.” No, the Gentiles did not have to bow to the demands of the Jewish brethren. Yes, they had met the requirement for being accepted in Christ on the basis of their obedient faith and nothing further should be bound upon them.
However, there were four things he proposes that they include as further instruction to these Gentile brethren. He says they should “…abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.”
There are some things about this verse (and verse 29) which should lead us to realize that the apostles are not here binding these things because they were prohibited in the Old Testament. Of course, fornication or sexual immorality of any description would have been wrong anywhere and among any people. Among the Gentiles it was a particular problem since ritual prostitution was common in many of the Greco-Roman religions prevalent in that day. Fornication wasn’t wrong because the law of Moses forbade it. It was wrong because it violated God’s original “one flesh” intent for the relationship of men and women in marriage. It is wrong for all people at all times.
There was also the matter of things sacrificed to idols that should clue us in to the fact that this was a limited instruction. When Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians he dealt with the matter of things offered to idols. “Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” (1 Corinthians 8:4). He is saying that the food offered to idols has been offered to something that does not exist! How can it be defiled or “polluted” by something that does not exist? He goes on to show that if one could eat without consciousness of the idol there was nothing wrong with eating such meat since an idol is nothing. But if one could not do so in good conscience (without consciousness of the idol) then he shouldn’t eat.
In this Paul does not contradict the teaching of the letter to the Gentiles (Acts 15:23-29). He does not forbid something here and then approve of the same thing in another place. And what does refraining from things strangled and from blood have to do with anything under consideration here? Here is where an understanding of the practices of the Gentiles in their many religions may help us to a better understanding of what was behind this instruction.
In the 2nd – 4th centuries in the worship of the “Magna Mater” or “great mother” (corresponding to Cybele/Artemis) and later in the religion of Mithraism there was the practice of the “Taurobolium” or ritualized “blood bath” in which a priestess (or priest) would place herself/himself underneath a platform on which a bull would be killed with its blood draining through a latticework onto the waiting priestess or priest. “The ceremony may be the spiritualized descent of the primitive oriental practice of drinking or being baptized in the blood of an animal, based upon a belief that the strength of brute creation could be acquired by consumption of its substance or contact with its blood.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taurobolium
That practice had its origin long before the New Testament period began. The earliest record of such dates from about 135 BC. By 159 AD it had been incorporated into the formal rites of the Magna Mater religion and later into Mithraism which was close kin to Magna Mater. Thus, from the standpoint of time, the pagan practice of the ritual use of blood in religious practice would probably have been an established practice when Acts 15:20 was written and some of the converts from various places in the Roman Empire could very well have witnessed or participated in some such ritual.
Verse 21 is explanatory: “For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” The idea here is not that the Gentiles would have been aware of the teaching of the Mosaic law, but that there were Jews throughout the Roman world who would be observing and judging the Gentile converts for their perceived violations of propriety. “The four prohibitions seem to have been a temporary arrangement adapted to the then existing condition of the Church, with a view to enabling Christian Jews and Gentiles to live in brotherly fellowship. The Jew was not to require more of his Gentile brother: the Gentile was not to concede less to his Jewish brother.” (Pulpit Commentary; Acts 15:21, via eSword).
“These four commands from Jerusalem to Antioch all dealt with pagan practices associated with idolatry. Most, if not all, of the Gentile converts in Antioch were saved out of paganism. The church leaders were exhorting the new Gentile believers to make a clean break from their old lifestyles and not offend their Jewish brothers and sisters in the church. The instructions were not intended to guarantee salvation but to promote peace within the early church.” (GotQuestions?).
There also is the very real possibility that there were some Christians in the various places where the gospel had gone who were still being influenced by their former pagan religious practices as we have already seen in 1 Cor. 6:12-20. Old habits are hard to break.
There are many people, even today, who eat blood in some way. The Maasai of Africa draw blood from cattle, mix it with milk and drink it as a part of their diet. The practice is not so common as formerly, but it still is practiced, not as a religious ritual but strictly as an item of their diet. In many places in Europe and in other parts of the world, blood pudding (black pudding or Christmas pudding) is common as also is blood sausage. These foods may have had their origin in paganism but are merely customary today without any thought of deriving something of the power of the animal from which the blood is taken.
If this instruction in Acts 15:20 about eating things strangled or eating blood was not about law but an expedient relating to the unity and harmony of Christians in a pagan society, then the instruction is not universal, having to do with all Christians for all time. It would apply where and for as long as there happened to be a danger of causing a rift between people over this issue or of leading someone to violate their conscience.
Now, what about blood transfusions and organ transplants? Today the Jehovah’s Witnesses hold that medical treatment requiring the transfusing of blood from a donor to a patient is forbidden by the biblical prohibition against eating blood. But is this the case?
Neither this passage in Acts nor any other reference in the Bible contemplates the use of blood as a medical treatment. We live in an age when the use of blood transfusions has resulted in the saving of countless lives. Rather than showing a callous disregard for life, one who donates blood does so out of concern for the lives and well being of others. When one donates blood, it is a gift of love, and yes, literally, a gift of life. When one receives blood, he or she receives the love of another human being.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:12-14).
The same would hold true for organ donation/transplant. Both blood donation and tissue/organ donation are gifts of life. The best illustration is a case I know about personally. Not too long ago a businessman in our little county seat town was dying of kidneys disease. In a gracious, generous, courageous act, a lady, one of his employees, donated one of her kidneys. The kidney was successfully transplanted, saving his life. I know this happened – I am acquainted with both of these people. Aside from Jesus’ sacrifice of himself for us, I have never known of a greater act of love than this.
That scenario has been repeated many times in many places by many different people. And perhaps millions more have pledged to donate organs after their death, enabling others an opportunity for longer life and better health. That is a far cry from the kind of thing forbidden in the Bible. Love is all I know to call it.