Revisiting biblical dietary laws and other anachronisms of scripture

Dr. GottFor years I’ve kept a simple news clipping published in the Daily Herald, a traditional newspaper in Arlington Heights, Illinois, where I worked for 7 years.

The clipping featured a short column by Dr. Peter Gott, a physician whose column on health was syndicated all across the country.

A reader had written Dr. Gott with the following question: “Based on the dietary laws in the Bible, my wife believes that it is unhealthy to eat pork and shellfish. This is causing quite a disagreement. Can you tell us whether pork is less healthful than any other meat and whether shellfish is less healthful than any other seafood.”

Dr. Gott replied most simply, telling his reader:

“In interpreting biblical laws, it is important to put them into perspective. You have to remember that they were the products of a nonscientific age, long before infectious agents were even dreamed about. 

The Bible prohibited pork because pigs had a tendency to be infected with trichinosis, parasitic roundworms that could make people who ate undercooked pork susceptive to severe infections. Modern pork is largely free of such risks, therefore, its consumption is safe. Eating raw pork is a rarity, even though the meat is free of trichinosis. 

The same is true for shellfish, which centuries ago was a common cause of food poisoning. Today, however, commercial oyster and clam beds are regulated carefully by appropriate public health authorities, so these shellfish do not ordinarily carry anywhere near the risks posed by their ancient brethren.”

What an interesting choice of words to close his advice. “Ancient brethren.” It says a lot about the attitudes that lead people to take ancient aspects of the bible literally. Then they seek out people with similar attitudes and call them “brethren.”

Ancient laws

The Bible not only documents ancient dietary laws, but also lists warnings against contact with women who menstruate and homosexuals too.

We now understand the full biology of the female body. Back when the Bible was written, that was certainly not the case. Women were also discriminated against in civil and equal rights, treated as property and even murdered for infidelity. The patriarchal society from which the Bible emanated feared women’s bodies in ways that we no longer need in modern times. However there are still many men who do fear women. Some of those men hold positions of great power and still try to control what women can do in society, even to the point of legislating their personal and reproductive rights. But women aren’t buying it. 

Being gay is not a demonic issue

The same goes for homosexuality, which along with mental illness was viewed as a sign of an accursed condition like demon possession or a permanent state of sin. We now understand the brain chemistry of mental illness. Educated people no longer speak of mental illness in terms of demon-possession.

Education matters

Educated people also understand that homosexuality is not a “choice” but a rather common biological orientation estimated by many to constitute as much as 20% of the American population. Some experts place the figure lower, at 10% or so, while some like to believe that the homosexual population is relative miniscule, as low as 1-2%.

That would not reflect the seemingly panicked reaction many conservatives espouse on the prospects of gay marriage being legalized in many states across America. Fears over the so-called gay “agenda” also indicate that securing equal civil rights for gay people is considered anti-American and certainly anti-biblical.

Discriminating minds

But that old clipping by Dr. Peter Gott seems to counter the fears and anachronistic beliefs by which some people still choose to use as grounds for discrimination against all sorts of formerly mysterious aspects of human culture that are now better understood through science and medicine.

Getting past the fears and acknowledging the fact that the bible is no longer absolutely right about many topics is hard for people who equally fear the intellectual requirement to think about their faith and culture rather than live by terms that are black and white.

But as we learned from cultural wars over slavery, racism and women’s rights, society does not collapse when fearful attitudes are forsaken and replaced by practices and policies that are more enlightened, tolerant and civil.

In fact those are principles that Jesus would have liked just fine. He lived by them most certainly, and expects us to do the same.

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