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In Acts 15:19-20, James renders his judgment on the matter of the Gentiles that Peter has brought before the Jerusalem council:

It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.

NIV (emphasis mine)

What associations would the word ἀλισγημάτων (translated here as "polluted") have evoked in a first century context? When I hear "polluted" I think of smoke stacks or oil spills or scattered plastics and the like—none of which I imagine would have come to mind of the original audience.

Reading with a modern lens, it would seem "polluted" it used metaphorically here in describing the effects of idols, but for a metaphor to work it has to refer to something concrete. Is "polluted" a good translation choice here for that concrete reality? And what would the word ἀλισγημάτων have brought to mind in its original context?

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BDAG points out that it derives from "to make ceremonially impure":

ἀλίσγημα, ατος, τό (cp. Anecd. Gr. p. 377, 1; Hesych.; Suda; from ἀλισγέω ‘make ceremonially impure’ LXX) pollution ἀπέχεσθαι τῶν ἀ. τῶν εἰδώλων avoid pollution (pl. denotes separate acts) by images (of deities) Ac 15:20 (ἀπέχεσθαι ἐκ τῶν ἀλισγημάτων τῶν ἐθνῶν τῆς Βαβυλῶνος ParJer 7:37 [=7:32 H.]).

Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 44). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Paul provides somewhat of a treatise on the subject in 1 Corinthians 10:

KJV 1Co 10:14  Wherefore, my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry.  1Co 10:15  I speak as to wise men; judge ye what I say.  1Co 10:16  The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?  1Co 10:17  For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.  1Co 10:18  Behold Israel after the flesh: are not they which eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar?  1Co 10:19  What say I then? that the idol is any thing, or that which is offered in sacrifice to idols is any thing?  1Co 10:20  But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils.  1Co 10:21  Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord's table, and of the table of devils.  1Co 10:22  Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? are we stronger than he?  Do All to the Glory of God 1Co 10:23  All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.  1Co 10:24  Let no man seek his own, but every man another's wealth.  1Co 10:25  Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake:  1Co 10:26  For the earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof.  1Co 10:27  If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast, and ye be disposed to go; whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake.  1Co 10:28  But if any man say unto you, This is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake that shewed it, and for conscience sake: for the earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof:  1Co 10:29  Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other: for why is my liberty judged of another man's conscience?  1Co 10:30  For if I by grace be a partaker, why am I evil spoken of for that for which I give thanks?  1Co 10:31  Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.  1Co 10:32  Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God:  1Co 10:33  Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.

Paul seems to be saying that eating foods offered to idols is a "partaking" of the idol and thus a form of idolatry. However, he also fields the objection that there ARE no other gods! He says that it is fine that the Corinthians are clever enough to realize that but they must take into account the consciences of those who do not have that knowledge and to abstain from eating if their consciences are bothered by the liberty of the Corinthians.

James, the Lord's brother (who seems to have eclipsed the apostle of the same name) may have had a "weaker conscience" per Paul or his mention of the prevalence of the teaching of the Torah may indicate that he had in mind the consciences of others ala Paul.

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    (+1). There is a paradox here: eating foods offered to idols is seen as a form of idolatry. But if there are no other gods (which is: idols do not exist), why bother? Just taking into account the consciences of those who do not have that knowledge? I was wondering if that is all. The word used here is mainly associated with sacramental impurity, whereas to be careful towards your neighbor is a rather moral issue. Is Paul addressing the issue of eating that food per se (knowing it is that kind of food, eating it on purpose)? Are there any hints in his letters, in this respect? Thank you. – Constantin Jinga Apr 26 '18 at 7:51
  • @ConstantinJinga Perhaps 1 Corinthians 6:18? – Ruminator Apr 26 '18 at 10:08
  • Yes, indeed, sexual immorality is seen as a moral + sacramental issue. It is a very good example for that. Still I was wondering about that eating, are there any places in Paul, where he is trating this issue in the same way, as sacramental + moral? Or as theological + moral? – Constantin Jinga Apr 26 '18 at 14:01
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Preamble

Reading down some verses, the actual content of James' letter is given:

For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us, no greater burden be added to you except these necessary things: to keep away from things offered to idols, and blood, and things strangled, and fornication. By keeping yourselves from such things you will do well. Farewell.
-- Acts 15:28-29

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So, it becomes clear that the "pollutions of idols" of Acts 20:22 that concerned James, was εἰδωλόθυτος (Strong's G1494 - eidōlothytos, i.e sacrificed to idols, the flesh left over from the heathen sacrifices)

ἀλισγημάτων, given as "pollutions" in Acts 22:20, is the plural of ἀλίσγημα (Strong's G234 - alisgēma), which is the only occurrence in the NT. However, there are two instances in the LXX of a related verb ἀλισγέω, which means: to pollute, destroy the purity of, destroy the sanctity of:

And Daniel purposed in his heart, that he would not defile himself ἀλισγηθῇ with the king's table, nor with the wine of his drink: and he intreated the chief of the eunuchs that he might not defile himself.
-- Daniel 1:8 (Brenton LXX)
The life of him that dependeth on another man's table is not to be counted for a life; for he polluteth himself αλισγησει ψυχην αυτου with other men's meat: but a wise man well nurtured will beware thereof.
-- Sirach 40:29 (Brenton LXX)

It is interesting to note that Brenton chose "defile himself" for the verb in Daniel 1:8, but "polluteth himself" in Sirach 40:29. It is unlikely this was unintentional. Daniel was a son of Israel, and one of his great concerns was ritual purity. The wisdom being shared in Sirach, on the other hand, is generic (no mention of idols, only "other men's meat"), and is applicable advice for all men, even those who have no concern with ritual purity.

Conclusion

James is writing on behalf of the Apostles to advise the "Gentiles" of the essentials of the Law that would be pertinent to their lives, and even though he mentions idols, his concern is not with ritual purity, but their good health. The final salutation in the letter is ἔρρωσθε (Strong's G4517 - rhōnnymi: "farewell"), which could just as easily been given as "Good health!"

James is apologetic in his letter:

Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment:
-- Acts 15:24 (KJV)

So James' mind clearly could not have been fixed on the ritual aspects of the Law, but rather on those aspects that were relevant to lives of the Gentile believers, i.e. their good health.

ἀλισγημάτων could be given in Acts 22:20 as either "pollutions" or "defilements", but since James' target audience is Gentile, and his intent is not religious in nature, one might just as well follow Brenton's lead and give it as "pollutions".

  • How might food offered to idols less healthy than food that is not offered? Are you suggesting that offered to an idol is somehow transubstantiated? Doesn't Paul agree with the Corinthian's notion that since an idol is nothing then offering food to them is of no effect? – Ruminator Apr 14 '18 at 0:50
  • @Ruminator it is not prepared properly, i.e not drained of blood - it is not kosher! – enegue Apr 14 '18 at 0:52
  • That's a different matter from "pollution from idols" which is dealt with separately. I think you've missed the boat. – Ruminator Apr 14 '18 at 1:04

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