Monday, May 22, 2006

Is Fermented Mare's Milk Unclean?

One of the common contentions about Luther's "justification by faith alone" is that its implication, that the Catholic and (implicitly) the Orthodox churches had gotten the intent of Paul's letters fundamentally wrong is just unbelievable. In recent years this is frequently also be buttressed with claims that various modern scholars (N.T. Wright, etc.) have shown that Paul's real issue was not "how can I get a gracious God" but "how can there be table fellowship between Gentile and Jews believers in Jesus?"

As I have argued before, I do not think that "justification by faith alone" being the answer to the second question precludes it being the answer to the first. Moreover I think that even on the second question, the church was giving a very different answer by the fifth century than what Paul gave. (You'll have to follow the link to find out why I think that.)

It is fascinating confirmation of the problem that misinterpretation of Paul had led to in the Orthdox Church that by the thirteenth century, the Russian clerics were erecting new boundaries of clean and unclean foods to distinguish themselves for the heathen nations. William of Rubruck, a Latin cleric of amazing fortitude and great pastoral skill encountered this problem while passing through the lands of the Mongol empire in today's Ukraine and southern Russia. There he met Christian people, such as the Alans or As (descendants of the Scythians, ancestors of today's Ossetes), as well as fugitive Russians (or Ruthenians) and Hungarians. The good priest found that these Christians living on the steppe had a serious problem:

They [i.e. the Ossetes] also asked, as did many other Christians -- Ruthenians and Hungarians -- whether they could be saved, as they had to drink cosmos [this is Rubruck's term for koumiss or fermented mare's milk] and to eat carrion and animals slaughtered by Saracens [i.e. Muslims], and other infidels, which indeed those Greek and Ruthenian priests consider the same as carrion or as sacrificed to idols; and also seeing that they did not know the times of fasting nor could they observe them even if they did know them. Then I put them on the right path as well as I could, teaching them and comforting them in the faith (from the translation in Mission to Asia, chapter 11, p. 110).

Such food laws were a sometimes insuperable obstacle to evangelism:

On the day of Pentecost a certain Saracen [Muslim] came to us, and while he was talking to us we began to explain the faith to him. Hearing of the favors of God shown to the human race in the Incarnation, of the resurrection of the dead and of the Last Judgment, and hearing that sins are washed away in baptism, he said he wished to be baptized. While we were getting ready to baptize him he suddenly got on to his horse, saying he was going home to discuss the matter with his wife.

When he spoke with us on the following day, he told us that by no means dare he receive baptism, seeing that then he would not be able to drink cosmos; for the Christians of that district said that no one who was truly a Christian ought to drink it, and without that drink it would be impossible to live in that desert. By no manner of means could I shift him from this opinion. This story will prove to you that they are far removed from the faith on account of this opinion, which has flourished among them because of the Ruthenians, of whom there are very great numbers in their midst (from Mission to Asia, chapter 12, p. 111).

The contrast with the Church of the East is striking -- they not only allowed fermented mare's milk, but appear to have had a certain ceremonial role for it (more here). Indeed the priests of the Church of the East were compelled to participate in the seasonal offerings of "first fruits" from white horses:

On the ninth day of the month of May the soothsayers [shamans, or bö’e] collect all the white mares of the herd and consecrate them. The Christian priests are also obliged to assemble there with their thurible. Then they cast new cosmos on the ground and they make a great feast on that day, for that is when they count on drinking fresh cosmos for the first time, just as with us in some places they do with the wine on the feast of Bartholomew or Sixtus and with fruit on the feast of James and Christopher (from Mission to Asia, chapter 35, p. 198).

Undoubtedly it was this association with the Mongol native religion which was the occasion for the Eastern Orthodox priests to ban all consumption of koumiss for their flock. (I think there are deeper reasons, which I will get to below.)

William of Rubruck does not tell us what arguments he used this proscription, but that he enjoyed the drink is clear from his description of its taste:

As long as one is drinking, it bites the tongue like vinegar; when one stops, it leaves on the tongue the taste of milk of almonds and greatly delights the inner man; it even intoxicates those who have not a very good hear. It also greatly provokes urine (from Mission to Asia, chapter 4, pp. 98-99).

In fact when he was passing through the Caucasus region on his return he looked longingly at the "cosmos" that one of the Mongol commanders in Georgia was drinking in his presence:

I was in Baachu's [=Baiju's] house and he gave us wine to drink; he himself however drank cosmos, which I would have preferred to have, if he had given it to me. The wine was new and special, but cosmos is a more satisfying drink for a hungry man (from Mission to Asia, chapter 37, p. 212).

I wonder if Baiju had just assumed that, as a cleric, of course William of Rubruck wouldn't drink koumiss.

The Eastern Orthodox treatment of fermented mare's milk as unclean was not some theologically unreflective folk opinion. William of Rubruck's statement that the Greek and Ruthenian priests treat koumiss "as sacrificed to idols" shows that they were using New Testament categories to analyze this cross-cultural issue, but coming to conclusions exactly opposite of what Paul was saying.

In fact the Russian church formalized the uncleanness of koumiss in decisions that made Christian sacramental life on the steppe flatly impossible. In 1274, the Metropolitan Cyrill called a synod to deal with important issues. At it, Feognost' the bishop of Pereyslavl' and Saray (the capital of Mongol rule in Eastern Europe) had to ask whether priests who have lived on the steppe -- and hence had consumed Mongol food -- and priests who had committed murder could celebrate the liturgy (see Charles Halperin, Tatar Yoke, pp. 73-74).

What possible reading of Paul could make sense of treating a normal and healthy food (fermented mare's milk) as unclean, and the drinking of it an offense in God's sight on something of the same level as murder? The reading in which Paul in Galatians and Romans is primarily attacking the Jewish adherence to the law of Moses as something that is out of date and to be replaced by the new law of Christ. In other words, it is not that religious practice (special days and foods and drinks) is in itself unconnected to salvation, but that Mosaic law now needs to be replaced by Christian religious practice. In other words the problem of the Galatians was not that they were observing days and years and foods, but that they were observing the wrong, Mosaic, days, and years, and foods, not the right days, and years, and foods, as proclaimed by the church.

Such an interpretation was the long-standing reading of Paul in the Greek churches. In the thirteenth century, it was especially attractive to an oppressed Russian people. They eagerly associated their position under Mongol rule with the Jewish position under Greco-Roman rule, and like the Jews, treated the exclusion of the "Gentiles" from table fellowship with God's people as a central part of their defense against the conqueror. To the Judaizers, any Gentile who wished to be part of God's family would have to live just like a Jew, food, calendar, dress, and all, and likewise to the Russian Orthodox, any Mongol who wished to be saved would have to come to live like a Russian, as indeed a few Mongols did.

Nationalist attitudes in the Eastern Orthodox church have long been recognized as damaging to evangelism, but it is worth noting that an important condition for their flourishing stems from this reading of Paul that sees him as not saying anything about Law in general, still less the moral law, only the particular Jewish laws. Paul's understanding of culture was passed by and the exclusivism of Jewish kosher law was replaced by a new exclusivism of a particular ethnic Christian culture.

A church that has done has indeed fundamentally misunderstood Paul.