The Watchtower Society (hereafter WTS) claims that Christians must abstain from certain types of blood transfusions and that the early Christian church understood this as a universal rule. Considering that the Greek Scriptures or New Testament doesn’t expressly state this, and that in the only place eating blood is mentioned the context shows the purpose was not to offend the Jews, the claim is very suspect.
WTS writers find it useful to appeal to certain early Christian writings. This is surprising since they also teach the great apostasy occurred right after the death of the apostle John, and as a practice refuse to accept the writings of “Church Fathers” as authoritative. Moreover, those who investigate these writings find that there was hardly ever agreement on any question, not even on the essentials. This is particularly noteworthy for Witnesses, who at times engage in ‘trinity’debates, and appeal to these texts as historical evidence for their position, only to experience that their opponents find other proof texts showing the opposite.
What is evident is that the Church Fathers disagreed strongly even on the question of the nature of Christ. We know that the views ranged from that of Arius, who held a position something like the WTS’, to Athanasius who developed what became the Trinity doctrine we know today. Using these men as an authority on blood is hardly honest when the WTS argues that they were part of an apostate Christendom. However, we can agree that their writings at least help document how the early Christians interpreted certain Bible texts.
Let’s consider the WTS’ appeal to some early Christian texts for support:
“And more than a hundred years later, in 177 C.E., in Lyons (now in France), when religious enemies falsely accused Christians of eating children, a woman named Biblis said: “How would such men eat children, when they are not allowed to eat the blood even of irrational animals?”-The Ecclesiastical History, by Eusebius, V, I, 26.
Early Christians abstained from eating any sort of blood. In this regard Tertullian (c. 155-a. 220 C.E.) pointed out in his work Apology (IX, 13, 14): “Let your error blush before the Christians, for we do not include even animals’ blood in our natural diet. We abstain on that account from things strangled or that die of themselves, that we may not in any way be polluted by blood, even if it is buried in the meat. Finally, when you are testing Christians, you offer them sausages full of blood; you are thoroughly well aware, of course, that among them it is forbidden; but you want to make them transgress.” Minucius Felix, a Roman lawyer who lived until about 250 C.E., made the same point, writing: “For us it is not permissible either to see or to hear of human slaughter; we have such a shrinking from human blood that at our meals we avoid the blood of animals used for food.”- Octavius, XXX, 6.” (Insight on the Scriptures, 1988, vol. 1, p. 346)
The question of blood was hardly central to the Christian faith in the early years. We do not find it expressed at all as an article of faith, and the few references the WTS has found merely document the practice of not eating blood as an argument against widespread accusations that Christians drank the blood of children (probably this popular myth originated in the ceremony of the Eucharist or the Lord’s Evening Meal). It must be observed that in none of these cases would it have been helpful for the Christian writers to give the background for this practice because it would have invalidated their argument.
In the brochure Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Question of Blood (1977) we find the same references as in Insight. We will also find a footnote on page 14 with what sounds like a wealth of further evidence:
“Other references (from the second and third centuries) supporting this application of Acts 15:28, 29 are found in: Origen’s Against Celsus VIII, 29, 30 and Commentary on Matthew XI, 12; Clement’s TheInstructor II, 7 and The Stromata IV, 15; TheClementineHomilies VII, 4, 8; Recognitionsof Clement IV, 36; Justin Martyr’s Dialogue XXXIV; Cyprian’s Treatises XII, 119; TheTeaching oftheTwelve Apostles VI; Constitutionsofthe HolyApostles VI, 12; Lucian’s On the Death of Peregrinus 16.”
What the Society fails to tell us is that the text of the Book of Acts existed in several versions in these early centuries. To some scribes the conclusion the apostolic council reached appeared strange, and they changed it to make it appear more correct. In the so-called Western texts, then, the apostles reached a different conclusion:
“(b) The Western text omits ‘what is strangled’ and adds a negative form of the Golden Rule in 15.20 and 29. . . . Concerning (b), it is obvious that the threefold prohibition . . . refers to moral injunctions to refrain from idolatry, unchastity and blood-shedding (or murder), to which is added the negative Golden Rule.” 1
The “western texts” were those used by a significant number of those early Christian writers, and these texts had already replaced the purely ritual rules in the original description of the Apostolic Council with moral rules. Obviously, then, these later copyists were not aware of the background of the blood prohibition, and struggled to understand the text. To make it more acceptable, they “corrected” the text to be a list of three moral laws: idolatry, unchastity and murder. And hardly anyone will deny that these rules apply to all Christians. No wonder the early Christian writers argued that the apostolic council still applied.
Concerning these texts, we read:
“Of the remaining types of texts which Westcott and Hort isolated, the so-called Western Type is both ancient and widespread. . . . Its date of origin must have been extremely early, perhaps before the middle of the second century. Marcion, Tatian, Justin, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian and Cyprian all made use to a greater or less extent of a Western form of text.” 2
So a significant number of early writers the WTS appeals to used a text indicating that when the apostles spoke of abstaining from blood they were talking about murder – shedding blood – not eating blood. It is no surprise, then, that these writers argued that the ruling of the council was still binding on Christians. The WTS distorts the evidence when it appeals to Cyprian and Tertullian to support its interpretation of the apostolic council.
Therefore when some early writers said they abstained from blood, this had nothing to do with the text of Acts 15, because as far as they knew it was forbidding murder, not the eating of blood. It is evident, of course, that the practice of not eating blood, at least among some early Christians, was based on the early decree from Jerusalem to avoid upsetting the Jews. But there is no explicit Biblical prohibition, merely a cultural development.
Many Christians today have similar cultural prohibitions: Some heed the Torah and avoid marriage between close relatives, most forbid polygamy, many observe Sunday as a ‘Christian Sabbath,’ etc., despite finding no explicit law about these in the New Testament. As Jehovah’s Witnesses we have many of our own taboos against such things as saying ‘good luck,’ toasting, and a number of things we consider “pagan,” again without finding support in the Bible. In some cases these are not even forbidden in the WTS’s literature anymore.
Likewise, by the time the question of not stumbling Jewish Christians had gone into the background, the counsel in Acts 15:28,29 had been extended and made into a cultural taboo, a law not to eat blood. The mechanisms behind this development are easy to understand. We see that even in the early Christian congregation many wanted to develop rules and regulations far beyond what were necessary for Christians under the Kingly law of love. It is particularly interesting to note that one of the texts the WTS appeals to is Tertullian’s On Modesty. Any JW reading this extremist text will have his belief reinforced that these Church Fathers often presented a perversion and a departure from the Christianity of the Apostles.
Furthermore, the fact that the decree was changed from a set of ritual rules into ethical rules demonstrates that the decree was understood as a temporary law by many copyists and early Christians. Despite the fact that some Christians have made exactly the same mistake as the WTS in interpreting the blood prohibition as eternal (like Martin Luther did), this textual evidence further reinforces the position that the decree was issued to avoid stumbling Jewish Christians, not as an eternal law.
Summary of evidence from the Christian Scriptures.
The writings of the Church Fathers give little support to the claim that the apostolic council created an eternal law against eating blood. The point can be argued, but it is a weak position. Furthermore, a blood transfusion is not the same as eating blood. Even more important, no opinions from the post apostolic era can change the direct evidence given in the New Testament itself:
- James himself states that these four injunctions were issued because the Torah was read in Jewish synagogues every Sabbath (Acts 15:21).
- As a list of universal rules for Christians, some, like murder and theft, are remarkably absent. The four requirements listed in Acts 15:20,29 are exactly the same as the compulsory rules for foreigners living in ancient Israel, and are listed in the same order (Lev 17:1 to 18:27).
- The words themselves are not in the form of a command, as a number of Greek experts have emphasized. This fact alone undermines the WTS’ argument.
- Later, James repeated that the letter was sent to avoid stumbling Jewish Christians, and recommended that Paul perform a Jewish ritual for the same reason. Abstaining from eating blood was then no more a Christian obligation than performing a Jewish ritual was. (Acts 21:23-25)
- Paul emphasized in his letter that the Christian freedom gave them a right to eat meat offered to idols, one of the things explicitly mentioned in Acts 15. However, even Paul noted that to avoid stumbling weaker ones they should abstain (1Co 8:1,4,7).
- Jesus stated that nothing coming from outside the body could defile a person, which would necessarily include meat with blood in it (Mr 7:15).
1. Bruce M. Metzger: A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, p. 430-1
2. Bruce M. Metzger: The Text of the New Testament, 1968, NY: Oxford University Press, p. 132