Eating pork and shellfish is prohibited in parts of the Old Testament, specifically in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. However, many Christians today do not follow these dietary restrictions, as they were part of the Mosaic Law which applied specifically to the Israelites. This article will examine the key biblical passages about pork and shellfish, look at the historical context, and explore how Christians interpret these verses today.
Dietary restrictions regarding pork and shellfish originate in the Old Testament books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. These rules formed part of the Mosaic Law which God gave to the Israelites after rescuing them from Egypt.
The purpose of the Mosaic Law was to set Israel apart from other nations as God’s holy people. The food laws served as a reminder to avoid pagan practices, promote good health, and provide spiritual object lessons.
While Christians are not bound to follow the Mosaic Law, examining the biblical dietary codes provides insight into Old Testament religion and practice. Understanding the culture and context helps modern readers grasp the full meaning and significance of these verses.
This article will provide an in-depth look at what the Bible says about pork and shellfish, including:
- Key verses in Leviticus and Deuteronomy prohibiting pork and shellfish
- The reasons behind these dietary restrictions
- How New Testament teaching changed these rules for Christians
- Common interpretations and applications for Christians today
By the end of this article, you will have a solid understanding of the main biblical passages concerning pork and shellfish, their historical context, and how Christians view them today.
Key Old Testament Verses Prohibiting Pork and Shellfish
The primary passages restricting pork and shellfish are found in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. Leviticus contains the most detailed regulations, listing specific animals that the Israelites may and may not eat.
Leviticus 11:7-8 on Pigs
And the swine, though he divide the hoof, and be clovenfooted, yet he cheweth not the cud; he is unclean to you. Of their flesh shall ye not eat, and their carcase shall ye not touch; they are unclean to you. (Leviticus 11:7-8 NKJV)
This verse clearly prohibits the Israelites from eating pork. It describes pigs as being unclean, therefore not to be used as food.
Leviticus 11:9-12 on Shellfish
These shall ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them shall ye eat. And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you: They shall be even an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcases in abomination. Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you. (Leviticus 11:9-12 NKJV)
Shellfish such as lobster, crab, shrimp and oysters are prohibited based on the criteria of not having fins and scales. They are called an “abomination”—something detestable or abhorrent. The Israelites are instructed not to eat shellfish or even touch their carcasses.
The book of Deuteronomy reiterates the regulations from Leviticus:
Thou shalt not eat any abominable thing. These are the beasts which ye shall eat…And the swine, because it divideth the hoof, yet cheweth not the cud, it is unclean unto you: ye shall not eat of their flesh, nor touch their dead carcase. These ye shall eat of all that are in the waters: all that have fins and scales shall ye eat: And whatsoever hath not fins and scales ye may not eat; it is unclean unto you. (Deuteronomy 14:3-10 NKJV)
Again, pork and shellfish are singled out and labeled unclean. The Israelites are prohibited from eating or touching them.
The Reasons Behind the Dietary Restrictions
The Bible does not directly explain why pork and shellfish in particular were prohibited. However, scholars have proposed several possible reasons:
Health regulations – The dietary laws likely had practical health benefits. Pork and shellfish spoil quickly in the Middle Eastern climate. Trichinosis found in pork could also make people sick. So avoiding these foods reduced the spread of foodborne illnesses.
Set Israel apart – By abstaining from certain foods, the Israelites distinguished themselves from neighboring pagan peoples. These regulations created a unique cultural identity and prevented assimilation with other nations.
Spiritual lessons – The clean and unclean animals were object lessons that taught deeper spiritual truths. Jews were to be spiritually “clean” as God’s holy people, just as they observed physical cleanness in diet.
Flatten class structures – Everyone followed the same food laws, regardless of social status. This prevented elites from using special diets to distinguish themselves from common people.
So the dietary codes likely had multiple interrelated purposes—both practical and religious. They reminded the Israelites of their special status as God’s chosen people.
How New Testament Teaching Changed These Rules for Christians
The New Testament brought significant changes in how followers of God related to biblical law. Jesus and the apostles taught that Christians are not required to follow the ritual purity laws, such as food regulations, that applied specifically to Israel. Several key passages changed the practice of the early church regarding diet.
Mark 7:1-23 – It’s not what goes in, but what comes out that defiles
In Mark 7, Jesus gets into a dispute with the Pharisees over eating with unwashed hands:
And he saith unto them, Are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him; Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats? (Mark 7:18-19 NKJV)
Jesus declared all foods clean and emphasized moral purity over ritual cleanness. The dietary laws could not make someone righteous before God.
Acts 10 – Peter’s vision leads to gentiles receiving the gospel
The book of Acts records a revolutionary vision given to the apostle Peter:
On the morrow, as they went on their journey, and drew nigh unto the city, Peter went up upon the housetop to pray about the sixth hour: And he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance, And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending upon him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. (Acts 10:9-15 NKJV)
This vision overturned the dietary laws, declaring all foods clean. As a result, the gospel spread beyond the Jews to the Gentiles. God was doing a new thing to reach all people.
Romans 14:1-23 – Do not judge others regarding food
The apostle Paul taught that no food is unclean in itself. Whether or not someone ate certain foods was up to their personal conscience and liberty in Christ.
I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean. Let not then your good be evil spoken of: For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. (Romans 14:14, 16-17 NKJV)
While some Christians may choose to abstain from pork or shellfish, they should not condemn those who feel free to eat them. Unity in Christ takes precedence over food regulations.
Common Christian Interpretations and Applications Today
Based on the teaching of the New Testament, most Christians believe that the Mosaic food laws do not apply literally today. However, believers interpret and apply these Old Testament verses in various ways. Here are some of the most common approaches:
Cultural health principles – While not mandatory, the prohibitions give wisdom for maintaining good health, especially in certain climates and conditions. But Christians have liberty to eat whatever they choose.
Principles for spiritual living – The clean and unclean animals provide object lessons about purity and holiness that point to righteous living. But food itself does not affect spirituality.
Avoid questionable practices – Christians should still be mindful of abstaining from things that may be unhealthy, lead others astray, have compromising associations, etc. Standards may vary across cultures.
Identity marker for Messianic Jews – Some believers who identify as Messianic Jews observe kosher dietary laws as part of preserving their Jewish heritage in Jesus. This is a matter of conscience and liberty.
Freedom in Christ – Christians emphasize their freedom from strict observance of the Mosaic Law. What matters most is loving God and neighbor.
So while most Christians do not prohibit pork and shellfish today, these Old Testament verses still provide valuable principles for wise, loving and righteous living. The ultimate focus is on the heart and spiritual life rather than external regulations.
Conclusion: Understanding the Biblical Context
The Old Testament dietary restrictions formed an integral part of the Mosaic Law which set Israel apart for God’s purposes. Abstaining from pork and shellfish reminded the Israelites of their holy calling and special relationship with Yahweh. While not mandatory for Christians, these regulations still give wisdom for healthy living and provide lessons for spiritual purity.
- Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 prohibit pork and shellfish for the Israelites but allow eating other animals like cattle, sheep and fish with fins and scales.
- Possible reasons for the food laws include health precautions, cultural identity markers, spiritual object lessons and equalizing social classes.
- Jesus declared all foods clean and emphasized moral purity over ritual cleanness (Mark 7:1-23).
- Peter’s vision overturned food restrictions, opening the way for Gentile evangelism (Acts 10).
- Paul taught that nothing is unclean in itself, but personal convictions should be respected (Romans 14:1-23).
- Christians see the laws as cultural health principles, pointers to righteousness, identity markers (for Messianic Jews), or freedom in Christ.
- The focus today is heart-level holiness and love for God and neighbor rather than external regulation.
Understanding the context and reasons behind Old Testament food laws provides great insight into the biblical text. Christians today endeavor to apply the heart and spirit of God’s instructions, even if the specific rules no longer apply literally. So while pork and shellfish may be on the menu, God’s people still strive to be holy and live according to biblical principles of faith and love.