Recently, in responding to my commentary on 1 Timothy 4:3–5 about praying over food, Jerry posed a very good question. He asked what was the larger issue that Paul was addressing in this passage to Timothy. I’ve known the answer to this question for 40 years, but I had never actually written it out. So thank you Jerry for giving me the opportunity to do this. I hope this strengthens the reader in their trust in the immutable nature of the Word of Elohim, regardless of the lies and traditions of men that would tell us that the biblical dietary laws have been done away with.
1 Timothy 4:1–3 Doctrines of demons…forbidding to marry…abstain from foods [Gr. broma].
Asceticism—A Doctrine of Demons
What social and cultural forces were affecting the saints such that Paul had to instruct them to beware of “doctrines of demons” that were encouraging them not to marry and to abstain from eating meat?
Is the Greek word food (Gr. broma) as used in verse three a reference to “articles allowed or forbidden by the Jewish law” (i.e. Elohim’s Torah-law or law of Moses) as the well known Strong’s Concordance claims? Is The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (The TDNT)correct in its definition of this Greek word, when declares that broma relates to the “cultic and ascetic prescriptions of Judaism which are declared to be religiously indifferent by Jesus and early Christianity…[thus the] distinction between clean and unclean meats is done away” (vol 1. p. 642)—a claim that Arndt and Gingrich don’t even make in their touted Greek lexicon (nor do the lexicons by Vine or Thayer)?
Clearly, contrary to what some biblical scholars assert, Paul can’t be referring to the Torah here, since the Torah-law of Elohim neither prohibits marriage, but encourages it, nor does it command the abstention of eating biblically approved meats. In fact, the whole Levitical and tabernacle system revolved around the sacrifice and eating of kosher animals. To say these are doctrines of demons (as some Christian teachers claim) is blasphemy against YHVH Elohim’s Torah, which is the Creator’s very instructions to humans on how to live righteously and without sin (Ps 119:172; Deut 10:12; 1 John 3:4; 2:3–6; John 14:15).
The word foods or meats as found in 1 Tim 4:3 is the Greek word broma referring to “food in general.” However, contextually, Paul is using a narrower definition of foods or meats based on his statement in verse four where he refers to “every creature of Elohim” (v. 4). Creature is the Greek word ktisma, which literally means “creature,” and, as used in the NT, refers to living and breathing creatures as opposed to all other creations of Elohim such as plants and rocks (i.e. ibid., Jas 1:18; Rev 5:13; 8:9). Therefore, Paul is not referring to food in general (plants and animals) but specifically to food which edible animal meat as biblically defined.
Once again, if Paul isn’t referring to the Torah when he’s condemning these doctrines of demons that are calling for celibacy and the abstention of meat eating, then to what is he referring?
To the credit of The TDNT, in its brief explanation of 1 Tim 4:3, it sees Paul confronting the heretics in the church who were promoting the pagan Greek gnostic philosophy of asceticism, which devalued the earthly and the material (vol. 1., pp. 643 and 644). David Stern in his commentary on this scripture passage concurs, and states that Paul is here addressing the unbiblical concept of Greek asceticism, and not the biblical dietary laws. “‘Abstinence from foods’ does not mean [not] observing kashrut [i.e. the biblical dietary laws], although the false teachers probably did incorporate elements of the Jewish dietary laws into their ascetic practices” (Jewish NT Commentary, p. 644). Moreover, “Asceticism was on the rise in the Greco-Roman paganism, and although most teachers (both Jewish and Gentile) advocated marriage, the doctrine of celibacy was becoming more popular (especially among Gentiles, but some Essenes also seem to have practiced it)” (The IVP Bible Background Commentary—NT, by Craig Keener, p. 614). As evidence of the confusion in the minds of some Christian scholars, while trying to understand this passage, Keener goes on to say, contrary to Stern, that “abstaining from foods” probably refers to Jewish food laws” (ibid.). This statement, of course, is patently contrary to Scripture if by “Jewish food laws” he means the biblical dietary laws commanded in Leviticus 11 and elsewhere. If this is what Paul means, then he is referring to the biblical dietary laws as “doctrines of demons” (1 Tim 4:1), which is absurd and blasphemy against the Word of Elohim. If Keener, on the other hand, is referring to the many extra-biblical food restriction that had crept into Judaism—the traditions of men by which the word of Elohim had been made of non-effect, to which Yeshua made reference (Mark 7:13)—then he may have a point here, but he fails to make this point, and he leaves his explanation open to including the Torah-word of Elohim—a mistake he ought not have made.
As we have seen, several scholars have noted that Paul could not have been referring to the Torah when he talks about various doctrines of a demons, which advocated abstaining from marriage and not eating meat. Rather, Paul was referring to the Greek philosophy of asceticism, which had crept into some sects of Judaism including the Essenes, and was not now making inroads into early Christianity. So what is asceticism?
In its article on asceticism, The Encyclopedia Britannica (https://www.britannica.com/topic/asceticism) defines and then describes this religious-philosophical system as follows:
Asceticism, (from Greek askeō: “to exercise” or “to train”), the practice of the denial of physical or psychological desires in order to attain a spiritual ideal or goal. Hardly any religion has been without at least traces or some features of asceticism.
The origins of asceticism lie in man’s attempts to achieve various ultimate goals or ideals: development of the “whole” person, human creativity, ideas, the “self,” or skills demanding technical proficiency. Athletic askēsis (“training”), involving the ideal of bodily fitness and excellence, was developed to ensure the highest possible degree of physical fitness in an athlete. Among the ancient Greeks, athletes preparing for physical contests (e.g., the Olympic Games) disciplined their bodies by abstaining from various normal pleasures and by enduring difficult physical tests. In order to achieve a high proficiency in the skills of warfare, warriors also adopted various ascetical practices. The ancient Israelites, for example, abstained from sexual intercourse before going into battle.
The view that one ought to deny one’s lower desires—understood as sensuous, or bodily—in contrast with one’s spiritual desires and virtuous aspirations, became a central principle in ethical thought. Plato believed that it is necessary to suppress bodily desires so that the soul can be free to search for knowledge. This view was also propounded by Plotinus, a Greek philosopher of the 3rd century AD and one of the founders of Neoplatonism, a philosophy concerned with hierarchical levels of reality. The Stoics, among whom asceticism was primarily a discipline to achieve control over the promptings of the emotions, upheld the dignity of human nature and the wise man’s necessary imperturbability, which they believed would become possible through the suppression of the affective, or appetitive, part of man.
Christian writer, Jack Zavada describes asceticism as…
the practice of self-denial in an attempt to draw closer to God. It may include such disciplines as fasting, celibacy, wearing simple or uncomfortable clothing, poverty, sleep deprivation, and in extreme forms, flagellation, and self-mutilation.
Asceticism was common in the early Church when Christians pooled their money and practiced a simple, humble lifestyle. It took on more severe forms in the lives of the desert fathers, anchorite hermits who lived apart from others in the North African desert in the third and fourth centuries. They modeled their lives on John the Baptist, who lived in the wilderness, wore a camel hair garment and subsisted on locusts and wild honey.
This practice of strict self-denial received an endorsement from the early church father Augustine (354-430 AD), bishop of Hippo in North Africa, who wrote a rule or set of instructions for monks and nuns in his diocese.
Before he converted to Christianity, Augustine spent nine years as a Manichee, a religion that practiced poverty and celibacy. He was also influenced by the deprivations of the desert fathers. (https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-asceticism-700046)
From this, it shouldn’t be hard to see that certain forms of asceticism found there way into Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity in the form of a celibate priesthood, the dressing in colorless religious garb, as well as living a austere, cloistered and communal life. Even later Christian sects such as the Medieval Manichaens and possibly the Puritans may have been influenced by the unbiblical philosophy of asceticism.