Novatian "On Jewish Foods" (Review)

Below is a short review I wrote up that covers Novatian's work "On Jewish Foods." If you want to get an idea of how he did exegesis and thought about the end-goal of biblical interpretation, you may find this review helpful. Enjoy.

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Novatian’s epistle, written to a group of believers with whom he evidently has some cherished relationship, commences much in the same way that we find the New Testament letters beginning. Initiated with a very pastoral tone and several words of encouragement, Novatian, echoing the frequent sentiments of the Apostle Paul, longed to be in contact with those from whom he was separated (1.1). Having already written two letters to this particular group of Christians—one challenging Jewish views of circumcision and another challenging Jewish views of the Sabbath (1.7)—Novatian places in view, here, Jewish ideals regarding foods (1.7).

In the exordium, Novatian challenges the believers to hold fast to traditions (1.5) and to be on the defensive, guarding themselves from heretics and Jewish blasphemers who hand down “irregular” traditions (2.5). For Novatian, a blasphemer is classified as a person or persons who label something “human” that is in fact, “spiritual” (2.1). His bone-of-contention with the Jewish people at this juncture, then, is that they call or treat the Law as “human” when they should refer to and understand it as “spiritual.” The hermeneutic principle for testing whether or not an entity should be taken as “spiritual,” is to examine whether or not it aligns with the character of God and reveal His majesty (2.3).

Novatian then proceeds to exegete Genesis 1-3, where he makes a curious hermeneutical move. He argues that prior to the deception of humanity, fruit was eaten (2.6), fruit which is perched in trees and therefore closer to the heavens. However, after the fall, humans were “bowed down” to the soil to toil the land and to pluck grain, that is to say, that they were now closer to Hell. With all of this work, humans needed more protein and thus, to use his phrase “meat was added” (2.7). Enter: The Law. The Law of the Jewish people began, problematically according to Novatian, to distinguish “clean” animals from unclean animals (and thus, clean food from unclean food; 2.10-17). Novatian took issue with this because in Gen. 1, God created the animals and saw that they were “good,” but the Jewish people immediately turned around and began calling some of them “unclean” or deeming them not good. Applying his hermeneutic principle stated above, Novatian argues that such an approach leads to the conclusion that if God is the Creator of all animals, then when the Jewish people call some animals unclean, then God must also be unclean, which is something that certainly does not align with His character or reveal His majesty.

He asserts then, that what God has created “must” be understood as “clean” (3.1) otherwise, “To find fault with creation is to find fault with its Author” (3.1). The Jewish people, he claims, understood such principles at first. However, it was when they were in Egypt, Novatian suggests, that they “lost their good morals…among a barbarous people” (3.2). At this point in their history, the Ten Commandments were issued—which, for Novatian were “nothing new”—but simply a reminder of what they had forgotten (3.3). What they had forgotten—or lost—was how to understand the “spiritual” aspect of things like the Law.

Here, Novatian proceeds to show his audience how they can understand these things in a true “spiritual” sense. Thus, he begins to offer a spiritual exegesis of the “clean” and “unclean” taxonomy of animals. He says that such a classification is really about (3.7) clean and unclean humans, not animals. In other words, Novatian takes these passages in a euphemistic sort of way. For example, that this is actually about humans, argues Novatian, can be seen by recognizing that “in animals we find portrayed human traits, deeds and acts of will that determine” whether they are clean or not (3.7). The statement about “chewing cud” then, is actually a reference to humans that always have the “divine commandments in their mouths” (3.7) and the “cloven hoof” is representative of the path of innocence, justice and virtue that humans can take (3.8). The Law, which is a “mirror,” shows these simple traits in animals, which, if humans fail to see them and to take note, reveals that they themselves are truly ignorant of the “spiritual” way of life (3.12).

Novatian proceeds to give more examples like these by referring to fish, camels, swine, weasels, skinks and more (3.13-24) pushing his argument further that, if even animals are born with these characteristics and can live them out, then, when humans fail to uphold them, they must be seen as reprehensible (3.24). In their ignorance and clouded judgment, the Jewish people, totally missing the “spiritual” sense of such things, even went on to choose, says Novatian, the “bitter” food of the Egyptians and to reject the “manna” provided by God (4.5). This they deserved, he contends.

Novatian’s next step is to assert that even Christ, Himself of Jewish descent, acknowledged the “cleanliness” of all foods and as such, understood the true, spiritual sense of things (5.2-5). He also appeals to apostolic authority by citing a number of Pauline passages that undercut the “unclean foods” argument often espoused by the Jewish people (5.6-9). “True and holy and pure food,” says Novatian, is actually not that which is edible but rather, “an upright faith, immaculate conscience and innocent spirit” (5.10). Even Jesus says that His “food” is “to do the will of He who sent Him” (5.13). After feeling as though he has made his point, Novatian actually launches into an argument, which asserts that, while these passages are not really about edibles, persons must still refrain from gluttony or fulfilling an incessant drive to satiate their appetites with food or drink (6.3; 6.6).

“Temperance,” “frugality” and “moderation” are all virtues that cannot be overlooked by the Christian (6.2-5). Though “freedom” (from the literal Jewish interpretations of the Law) has been given to Christians, they are not “free” to merely do as they please or to act in ways that diminish God’s character or majesty. For example, this “freedom” does not make an allowance for eating food sacrificed to idols or other deities (7.1-2). The point then, is that Christians should, in understanding the difference between the “spiritual” and the “human,” “observe the Rule of Truth in all things and give thanks to God through Jesus Christ, His Son, our Lord, to whom be praise, honor and glory forever” (7.2) for this is a true, spiritual act of worship.

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