A common objection to the Catholic faith is the idea that the Bible forbids the drinking of blood, yet Catholics claim to drink the blood of Christ in the Eucharist.

It's true that the Old Testament forbids consuming blood, but what is the status of this requirement for Christians?

Soon we will look at drinking Christ's blood specifically, but here let's look at the Old Testament prohibition on consuming animal blood . . .


Animal Blood as Food

Neither Christianity nor Judaism are vegetarian religions. Both acknowledge the possibility of eating animals. Biblical Judaism even mandates it, with the requirement of consuming the Passover lamb.

But what parts of an animal are okay to eat?

Here in America, we are used to eating the flesh of various animals--the muscles or "meat." But there are other parts, including the organs, the bones (which can be ground up as meal), and the blood.

Often, if you don't grow up eating something, it will make you squeamish.

I'm pretty adventurous for an American. I enjoy a lot of international foods. I not only will eat sushi (raw fish) without batting an eye, I'll even eat durian-flavored foods (note: the smell of durian is indescribable; the closest thing I can compare it to is burning rubber).

But as an American, I personally find the idea of consuming animal blood an incredibly squeamish idea.

I mean . . . YUCK!


Different Strokes for Different Folks

I have to acknowledge, though, that people in many other cultures--including Christian ones--feel differently.

Animal blood is consumed in various ways, either as an ingredient in foods or as a beverage.

This includes countries all over the world--in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

Even in England (America's primary parent country!) blood is a principal ingredient in black pudding (a kind of sausage; ecky thump!).

Blood was certainly both an ingredient and a beverage in the ancient world.

So what does the Old Testament have to say about it?


Eating Blood in General

Eating blood was forbidden in the Law of Moses. For example, Leviticus and Deuteronomy state:

Leviticus 17

10 If any man of the house of Israel or of the strangers that sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people.

11For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life.

12 Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood.

13 Any man also of the people of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, who takes in hunting any beast or bird that may be eaten shall pour out its blood and cover it with dust.


Deuteronomy 12

23 Only be sure that you do not eat the blood; for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the flesh.

24 You shall not eat it; you shall pour it out upon the earth like water.


The Blood Is the Life

Both of these passages cite a reason why blood is not to be eaten: The blood is the life of the flesh.

The Leviticus passage adds an extra note: "I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life."

This indicates the purpose for which the children of Israel are permitted to use blood: It is to be offered to God in sacrifice.

This offering of blood to God is similar to the way that fat was also reserved to God:

Leviticus 3

16 And the priest shall burn them on the altar as food offered by fire for a pleasing odor. All fat is the Lord’s.

17 It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations, in all your dwelling places, that you eat neither fat nor blood.

Both fat and blood were thus seen as reserved to God in sacrifice.

This raises a question . . .


Does This Still Apply Today?

It's clear that the way God wishes us to sacrifice has changed. No longer do we offer the blood (and fat) of bulls and goats.

Instead, Christ has sacrificed himself on the Cross once for all, and today he perpetually offers himself in heaven and through the sacrifice of the Mass.

With the change in the manner of sacrifice, one might suppose that the requirements concerning blood and fat in the Old Testament have also passed away.


A Natural Law Requirement?

One could maintain that the requirements are still in effect if one could find a basis for them in natural law--that is, a reason why it is contrary to human nature to consume blood or fat.

That would be difficult to do.

In the case of blood, there are such things as blood-borne illnesses which could be contracted, particularly by eating uncooked blood, but not all blood is infected.

Further, there are also food-borne illnesses in general, which can also be contracted, particularly by eating uncooked food.

The case of fat is even harder to argue, because fat is one of the principal sources of calories in our food (the other two being proteins and carbohydrates). In fact, fat is the most calorie-rich (and most flavor-enhancing) of the three.

This points to something else, which also applies to blood: Meat is shot through with both fat and blood.

No matter how carefully you trim away the fat, some fat remains in the meat. If it doesn't then the meat is tough and unappetizing. It's the fat marbling in the meat that is part of what makes it taste good.

Similarly, no matter how carefully you drain the meat, some blood remains in it.

Without the use of industrial processes that were unavailable in the ancient world (and in any ordinary kitchen today), there is no way to eliminate all blood or fat from meat.

That suggests that what we're dealing with here is symbolism.


Blood as Symbol of Life

It's clear that blood makes a good symbol for the life of the flesh.

Today we know why flowing blood is essential to living organisms: It's what brings the things cells need (nutrients, oxygen) in order to maintain their metabolic life processes.

They didn't know that in the ancient world, but they did know that if an animal didn't have blood flowing through it's veins, it wouldn't live, and if you drained the blood from an animal (or a human, for that matter), it would die.

There is thus a fitting basis for the symbolism of blood as the life of the flesh.

But if this is symbolism then it won't automatically carry over into the dietary requirements of the Christian age, any more than other Old Testament ritual practices do.


God Speaks to Noah

There is, however, one Old Testament passage that a person might appeal to as an argument that it would. After the Great Flood has subsided, we read:

Genesis 9

1 And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.

2 The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered.

3 Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.

4 Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.

This gift of meat is said to be made with Noah and his sons, and you could suppose that it--together with the requirement not to eat blood--applies to all mankind.

Certainly some have taken it this way, particularly in the Jewish community.

However, this is not necessarily the case.

Note that the gift of meat found in vv. 3-4 is distinct from and precedes the covenant that God establishes with Noah, his descendants, and all living creatures (cf. vv. 9ff).

One could take the gift of meat in this instance as something that God gave Noah and his sons, but it applies to later peoples in different ways.

In particular, the prohibition on blood in v. 4 may be intended for the children of Israel, as a reminder to them, without addressing whether it applies to other peoples, just as the sabbath is referred to in pre-Mosaic times as a reminder to the children of Israel, without implying that other peoples were expected to keep the sabbath. (They weren't.)

We then can't settle the question from this passage by itself and need to turn elsewhere for more information . . .


Jesus Speaks

In Mark's Gospel there is a passage that has a bearing on this question:

Mark 7

18 And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him,

19 since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)

Jesus here is articulating a general principle that what comes into the body from outside does not defile us morally. (Instead, the evil thoughts that come from within us do).

This applies both to dirt on our hands (what Jesus was talking about in the original context) and to foods (an implication Mark draws out).

Mark thus points out that Jesus' statement implies that all foods are, in principle, clean. Eating them does not defile a person.

That would include foods made with blood, for there were such foods in the ancient world, just as there are now.


The Jerusalem Council

The dispute about what foods could be eaten continued for some time in the early Church, with different Christians taking different positions.

To help keep peace between Jewish and Gentile Christians, the Council of Jerusalem issued a pastoral directive: "that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity" (Acts 15:29).

The reason for this is explained by James: "For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every sabbath in the synagogues" (Acts 15:21).

It would thus help Jewish Christians if Gentile Christians refrained from certain things thought to violate the Mosaic Law.

We know from other passages, however, that such things were not automatically wrong in and of themselves:

  • Some, such as unchastity, were.
  • Others, like food sacrificed to idols, were not, though even St. Paul could recommend refraining from them when it would cause another to violate his conscience (1 Cor. 8:4-13).

So which category does blood go in?


The Church Reveals the Answer

We've already seen that it's not possible to avoid eating blood, since some always remains in the meat.

We've seen that the basis of the blood prohibition involves symbolism and is linked to Jewish sacrificial ritual that has passed away.

And we've seen that Jesus articulated a principle that would result in all foods being clean, apparently including the ancient ones made with blood.

If these are not enough, however, there is the practice of the Church down through the centuries.

Blood has been eaten in many Christian lands for the last twenty centuries, without the Church prohibiting this practice.

If God guides the Church, as he does, then we can look to this to settle the matter.

Thus the Pontifical Biblical Commission noted in 2008:

The other example is more delicate: “You must not eat any fat or any blood.” (Lev 3.17; 7.26; Deut 12.23–24); the New Testament takes up this prohibition unrestrictedly, to the point of imposing it upon Christians coming from paganism (Acts 15.29; 21.25).

From the viewpoint of exegesis the explicit reason for this prohibition is not exactly theological, it rather reflects a symbolical representation: “the life (nepheš) of all flesh is in the blood” (Lev 17.11, 14; Deut 12.23).

After the apostolic era the Church did not feel obliged to make this a basis for formulating precise rules for the butcher and the kitchen, and still less in our own times to prohibit blood transfusion.

The trans-cultural value underlying the particular decision of the Church in Acts 15 was a desire to foster the harmonious integration of the various groups, albeit at the price of a provisional compromise [The Bible and Morality].

So though, as an American who didn't grow up consuming foods made with blood, I find the idea of eating blood utterly unappetizing (to say the least), it is not forbidden by Catholic moral theology or practice.


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