The biblical dietary laws are mostly ignored today. But were there reasons for God calling certain animals unclean? Did Jesus eat pork and shellfish?
Eat This, Not That! is a multimedia company that educates people on making wise eating choices. Though the Bible isn’t a book about diet, there is an entire chapter in the Old Testament that could be labeled the Bible’s version of “Eat This, Not That.”
Leviticus 11 devotes 47 verses to help us make a distinction “between the animal that may be eaten [eat this] and the animal that may not be eaten [not that]” (Leviticus 11:47). Additional guidance is also given in Deuteronomy 14. The Bible labels these “clean” and “unclean” meats.
Here’s an overview of what Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 teach us:
- Clean mammals have a divided hoof and chew their cud. This means animals like cattle, goats and deer were created to be eaten, but mammals like pigs and rodents were not.
- Clean fish have fins and scales. This means fish like cod, salmon, trout and tuna are fine for human consumption, but other water creatures like lobsters, shrimp, crab and catfish are not.
- Clean birds include chicken, turkey, duck and quail. Unclean birds include vultures, seagulls, hawks and eagles.
Unfortunately, most people (other than observant Jews) completely ignore these dietary laws. They are usually seen as ancient Jewish ceremonial laws that are not relevant today.
But consider this: What if these aren’t irrelevant ancient laws. Could God, the Creator of the human and animal kingdoms, have specifically designed some animals to be eaten and other animals to not be eaten? If this is the case, then these laws actually represent vital wisdom imparted from the Creator for our own good.
Why is it that most people who profess the Bible as their guide have no problem eating a pepperoni pizza, pork chops or a shrimp cocktail? Did Jesus eat those meats when He walked the earth 2,000 years ago?
Jesus created the biblical food laws
To answer that question, we have to remember who Jesus Christ was. Before He came to earth, He was, with God the Father, the Creator of all things and the One who gave the laws in the Old Testament (John 1:3; Ephesians 3:9; Colossians 1:16-18). He spoke to Moses and described which animals they could (and couldn’t) eat in intricate detail (Leviticus 11:2).
He was also the One who gave other dietary laws that are accepted as sound health principles today—such as avoiding animal fat and not consuming blood (Leviticus 3:17). As the Creator, He created all living things to fulfill different functions in the earth’s ecosystem. Some animals were created to be eaten by human beings, and others were designed to serve other purposes.
For example, crustaceans like clams, oysters, lobsters, crabs and shrimp were designed to fulfill specific purposes, such as to act as natural water filters. They consume bacteria, viruses and parasites that are found in the earth’s bodies of water. That is a function for which God created them and perhaps why He categorized them as unfit for human consumption.
In his book What Would Jesus Eat? Don Colbert M.D. provides many reasons he believes pork should be avoided. He writes, “Pigs eat enormous amounts of food, and this dilutes the hydrochloric acid in the pig’s stomach. This in turns allows toxins, viruses, parasites, and bacteria to be absorbed into the animal’s flesh. … They will eat garbage, feces, and even decaying flesh. All that is eaten usually becomes part of the pig’s own flesh. Pigs readily harbor parasites including Trichinella, the pork tapeworm, and toxoplasmosis” (2002, p. 49).
We may not understand why all the animals are listed as unclean, but God does because He created them.
So if Jesus created the laws of clean and unclean meats, why would He come to earth and eat those meats? The answer is He didn’t.
Consider these three reasons:
- Jesus never broke His own law.
If you go back and read the listing of clean and unclean meats closely, you will discover that these are laws. “This is the law of the animals and the birds and every living creature that moves in the waters, and of every creature that creeps on the earth” (Leviticus 11:46). Eating swine (the most common unclean meat discussed in the Bible) is called an “abomination” (Isaiah 66:3, 17). The Scriptures are very clear that Jesus never sinned (1 Peter 2:22; 2 Corinthians 5:21; John 8:29).
- Jesus was never accused of eating unclean meats.
Typically an argument from silence isn’t the strongest, but sometimes silence can make a powerful statement. Most people with a basic knowledge of Jesus’ life know that the Pharisees were not His biggest fans. They watched Him very closely in an attempt to catch Him doing anything that could be construed as sinful to disqualify Him in the people’s eyes.
The Gospels record many of their accusations. For instance, they accused Him of breaking the Sabbath (Matthew 12:10), blasphemy (John 10:33) and encouraging people to withhold taxes to Rome (Luke 23:2). Of course, all of the accusations were outrageous and easily proven false.
Now think about this: If Jesus had eaten pork or any other unclean meat, what would have happened? The Pharisees would have found out and trumpeted it on the housetops to the Judean community. And certainly such an accusation would have discredited Jesus. But it was an accusation the Pharisees didn’t make—because it never happened.
- Jesus didn’t treat pigs like food.
Consider a fascinating event in Christ’s life. Mark 5 describes Jesus’ encounter with a man possessed by multiple demons who caused him to harm himself and do bizarre things (Mark 5:2-5). When Jesus commanded the demons to leave this man, they requested to be sent into “a large herd of swine” feeding nearby (verses 11-12).
“And at once Jesus gave them permission. Then the unclean spirits went out and entered the swine; … and the herd ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and drowned in the sea” (verse 13, emphasis added).
Another account in Jesus’ ministry showed that He was careful not to waste food (John 6:12). If Jesus had considered pigs appropriate to eat, would He have allowed the demons to destroy 2,000 of them? That was enough pork to feed hundreds, maybe thousands, of people. But this did not concern Jesus because He didn’t consider the swine to be food. It’s also impossible to ignore the connection between demons—called unclean spirits—being attracted to and given permission to enter unclean animals.
No, Jesus never let pork, shellfish or any other unclean meat pass between His lips. When He ate meat, He ate only clean meats—such as fish with fins and scales, lamb, goat and beef. If you are a Christian who tries to follow Jesus’ example, it’s time to start eating like He did.
A listing of biblically clean and unclean animals is available as an infographic in the Life, Hope & Truth Learning Center. To learn more about this topic, read “Clean and Unclean Animals: Does God Care What Meats We Eat?” and “Mark 7: Did Jesus Purify Unclean Meats?”