The Sanctity of Blood—An Ancient Controversy
JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES are well known for their refusal to accept blood transfusions. Why do they take such a stand? Because the Bible clearly shows that blood represents a creature’s life, or soul, and is thus sacred. When Noah was given permission to eat animal flesh after the Flood, he was strictly warned: “Only flesh with its soul—its blood—you must not eat.” (Genesis 9:4) This prohibition was specifically repeated in the Law that God gave to the nation of Israel. (Leviticus 17:10) Later, Christians, too, were required by holy spirit and the apostles to “keep abstaining from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication.”—Acts 15:28, 29.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are one of the few groups that still observe the divine prohibition against eating blood. Are they unreasonable in this? Moreover, it seems that today they are alone in concluding that this prohibition applies also to blood transfusions. Are they the only Bible students ever to have done so?
Eating Blood—God’s View and Man’s
To discuss the first question first: The fact is, respect for the sanctity of blood has long distinguished God’s servants from the nations in general. Throughout history, blood has been used freely as nourishment, even as a poison, as well as to inspire prophetesses, to bind conspirators together, to seal treaties. On the other hand, God’s view of the matter was well described by Bible scholar Joseph Benson: “It ought to be observed, that this prohibition of eating blood, given to Noah and all his posterity, and repeated to the Israelites, in a most solemn manner, under the Mosaic dispensation, has never been revoked, but, on the contrary, has been confirmed under the New Testament, Acts xv.; and thereby made of perpetual obligation.”*
Throughout the centuries, many have tried to abide faithfully by this divine law. For example, in 177 C.E., when religious enemies falsely accused Christians of eating children, a woman named Biblis protested: “How would such men eat children, when they are not allowed to eat the blood even of irrational animals?”* Tertullian (about 160-230 C.E.) confirmed that Christians of his day refused to eat blood. And Minucius Felix, a Roman lawyer who lived until about 250 C.E., asserted: “We have such a shrinking from human blood that at our meals we avoid the blood of animals used for food.”*
A few centuries later, during the Trullan council held at Constantinople in 692 C.E., the following rule was set forth: “The eating of the blood of animals is forbidden in Holy Scripture. A cleric who partakes of blood is to be punished by deposition, a layman with excommunication.”*
Then, about 200 years later, Regino, the abbot of Prüm in what is now Germany, showed that the Biblical prohibition of eating blood was still respected in his day. He wrote: “The apostles’ letter sent from Jerusalem advises that these things must necessarily be observed. (Acts 15) Also [Christians must abstain from eating] something caught by a beast, for that too is likewise strangled; and from blood, that is, it must not be eaten with blood. . . .
“At the same time, this must also be considered: that a thing strangled, and blood, are viewed in the same way as idolatry and fornication. Wherefore, it should be proclaimed to all what a grievous sin it is to eat blood, since it is placed together with idols and fornication. If anyone shall violate these commands of the Lord and the apostles, let him be suspended from the communion of the church until he should appropriately repent.”*
In the 12th century, blood was still widely viewed as sacred. For example, clergyman Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) wrote: “In A.D. 1125, Otho, bishop of Bamberg, was instrumental in converting the Pomeranians . . . It deserves to be noticed, that, among the instructions given to these people relating to their new religion, they were forbidden to eat blood, or animals that had been strangled; from which it appears that at this time, in Europe as well as in all other parts of the Christian world, such food was thought to be unlawful.”*
The 17th-century theologian Étienne de Courcelles (1586-1659) was equally convinced that Christians should not eat blood. He explains Acts 15:28, 29 in these words:
“The apostles did not intend here to transmit injunctions about avoiding things from which nature would shrink back, and which were prohibited by the laws of the Gentiles, but only about things which at that time generally held sway, and in which the recently-converted Gentiles would not have thought themselves sinning, unless admonished. For just as it is granted that they knew that they must avoid every form of idol worship, yet they did not immediately grasp that things sacrificed to idols were to be shunned; in the same way, although they would reckon it a crime to shed human blood, yet they did not think the same about eating animal [blood]. The apostles, by their decree, wished to remedy the ignorance of these persons; whereby relieving them of the yoke of circumcision and other legal precepts, they nonetheless advised that those things must be retained that were already observed from antiquity by the foreigners remaining among the Israelites, [things] such as were transmitted to Noah and his sons.”*
During the 18th century, the renowned scientist and Bible student Sir Isaac Newton expressed his interest in the sanctity of blood. He declared: “This law [of abstaining from blood] was ancienter than the days of Moses, being given to Noah and his sons, long before the days of Abraham: and therefore when the Apostles and Elders in the Council at Jerusalem declared that the Gentiles were not obliged to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses, they excepted this law of abstaining from blood, and things strangled, as being an earlier law of God, imposed not on the sons of Abraham only, but on all nations.”*
Even today the prohibition of eating blood is still recognized in some quarters. For example, the Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, published in 1982, states: “The implication seems very clear that we are still to respect the sanctity of the blood, since God has appointed it to be a symbol of the atoning blood of Jesus Christ. Therefore it is not to be consumed by any believer who wishes to be obedient to Scripture.”
Hence, many have held—and some still do—that the prohibition of eating blood should be observed by believers. Jehovah’s Witnesses agree with them. Surely, the fact that most “Christians” today do not follow this Scriptural law does not make the Witnesses unreasonable. Rather, it is another indication of how far Christendom has strayed from true Christianity.
But what about blood in transfusions? Even orthodox Jews, who scrupulously avoid the eating of blood, appear to have no objection to this practice. For example, the work Jewish Medical Ethics says: “Blood donations have been invariably permitted, even if given for temporary storage in blood banks, or for payment.” Is it, then, only Jehovah’s Witnesses who have felt that the command to abstain from blood applies to blood transfusions?
The Medical Use of Blood
First, how would the early Christians have viewed the medical use of blood in general? Hundreds of years before the apostles, a physician wrote to King Esarhaddon about the treatment he was giving to the king’s son. He reported: “Shamash-shumu-ukin is doing much better; the king, my lord, can be happy. Starting with the 22nd day I give (him) blood to drink, he will drink (it) for 3 days. For 3 more days I shall give (him blood) for internal application.”* Would any faithful Jew of that day, or any true Christian later, have approved of such treatment?
The second-century physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia describes how blood was used in his day to treat epilepsy: “I have seen persons holding a cup below the wound of a man recently slaughtered, and drinking a draught of the blood!”* The first-century naturalist Pliny also reports that human blood was used to treat epilepsy. In fact, blood continued to be used for medical purposes well into our Common Era. Historian Reay Tannahill gives an example: “In 1483, for example, Louis XI of France was dying. ‘Every day he grew worse, and the medicines profited him nothing, though of a strange character; for he vehemently hoped to recover by the human blood which he took and swallowed from certain children.’”*
Yes, the medical use of whole blood has a long history. Doubtless, many believed in its healing power—although Aretaeus had his doubts. Nevertheless, the Scriptures allow no exceptions to the command to ‘abstain from blood.’ But, it may be objected, these “treatments” involved taking blood in through the mouth—drinking it. What about the medical use of blood by transfusion?
Transfusion and the Apostolic Decree
The first blood transfusion on record is considered to have taken place in 1492 and was performed on Pope Innocent VIII. Here is a contemporary account: “Meanwhile, in the city [of Rome] tribulations and deaths have never ceased; for, first of all, three ten-year-old boys, from whose veins a certain Jewish physician (who had promised that the pope would be restored to health) extracted blood, died without delay. For, in fact, the Jew had told them he wanted to heal the pontiff, if only he could have a certain quantity of human blood and indeed young; which, therefore, he ordered to be extracted from three boys, to whom after the blood-letting he gave a ducat for each; and shortly thereafter they died. The Jew indeed fled, and the pope was not healed.”*
In the second half of the 17th century, there were further experiments with blood transfusions. The Italian physician Bartolomeo Santinelli doubted their medical value. But he opposed them for another reason too. Here is what he wrote:
“Let it be allowed to cross the boundaries of medicine for a little while, and in order to satisfy abundantly the curious reader, since the unsuitableness of transfusion has already been proved by medical reasons, let it be permitted to confirm that further by monuments of the sacred pages, for thus its repugnance will become known not only to physicians but to all sorts of learned men. . . . Although indeed the prohibition of the use of blood would have in view only that man should not eat it, for which reason it would seem to pertain less to our cause, nonetheless the purpose of that injunction is contrary to today’s transfusion [practice], so that the one who employs it [blood transfusion] would appear to oppose God who extends clemency.”*
Yes, to Santinelli, blood transfusions were against God’s law. Danish scholar Thomas Bartholin was of the same opinion. In 1673, he wrote: “Transfusion surgery by novices has exceeded limits in recent years, since it has infused through an opened vein into the heart of a sick man not only invigorating liquids, but warm blood of animals or [blood] from one man into another . . . Indeed the learned man Elsholtz (in chap. 7 of the New Clyster) pleads as an excuse that the Apostolic decree must in fact be understood with regard to the eating of blood done through the mouth, not at all with regard to infusion by the veins, but either manner of taking [blood] accords with one and the same purpose, that by this blood a sick body be nourished or restored [to health].”*
Clearly, then, the question of whether blood should be used as food or for transfusions is not a uniquely modern problem. It is an ancient controversy. Those earlier blood transfusions were not successful medically, but what especially concerned certain scholars was the fact that they violated God’s law.
Modern blood transfusions have been more successful in terms of patients surviving the treatment. Nevertheless, like sincere Bible students before them, Jehovah’s Witnesses today cannot agree with the widespread medical use of a substance in ways prohibited by God. However misunderstood their stand may be, the Witnesses are determined for their part to obey the apostolic decree, “Keep abstaining from . . . blood.”—Acts 15:29; 5:29.
The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments, by Joseph Benson, New York, 1839, Volume I, page 43.
The Ecclesiastical History, by Eusebius, V. i. 26, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge and London, 1980, page 419.
See also Octavius, by Minucius Felix, chapter 30, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge and London, 1977, page 409.
A History of the Councils of the Church, From the Original Documents, by Charles Joseph Hefele, Edinburgh, 1896, page 232.
Libri duo de ecclesiasticis disciplinis et religione Christiana (Two Books Concerning the Ecclesiastical Teachings and the Christian Religion), by Regino; see Migne’s Patrologia Latina, Volume 132, Paris, 1853, columns 354, 355.
The Theological and Miscellaneous Works, by Joseph Priestley, Volume IX (1818), page 366.
Diatriba de esu sanguinis inter Christianos (Discourse Concerning the Eating of Blood Among Christians), by Étienne de Courcelles; see Opera theologica (Theological Works), Amsterdam, 1675, page 971.
The Chronology of Antient Kingdoms Amended, by Sir Isaac Newton, Dublin, 1728, page 184.
Letters From Assyrian Scholars to the Kings Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal, Part I: Texts, by Simo Parpola, Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1970, page 201.
The Extant Works of Aretæus, the Cappadocian, edited and translated by Francis Adams, London, 1856, page 471.
Flesh and Blood, A History of the Cannibal Complex, by Reay Tannahill, New York (1975), pages 63, 64.
Diario della Città di Roma di Stefano Infessura (Diary of the City of Rome), edited by Oreste Tommasini, Rome, 1890, pages 275, 276.
Confusio transfusionis, sive confutatio operationis transfundentis sanguinem de individuo ad individuum (A Confounding of Transfusion, or a Refutation of the Operation of Transfusing Blood From Individual to Individual), by Bartolomeo Santinelli, Rome, 1668, pages 130, 131.
De sanguine vetito disquisitio medica (A Medical Disquisition Concerning the Prohibition of Blood), by Thomas Bartholin, Frankfurt, 1673, page 11.
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Respect for the sanctity of blood has long distinguished God’s servants from the nations in general
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“We have such a shrinking from human blood that at our meals we avoid the blood of animals used for food.”—Minucius Felix
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“A cleric who partakes of blood is to be punished by deposition, a layman with excommunication”
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“It should be proclaimed to all what a grievous sin it is to eat blood, since it is placed together with idols and fornication”
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‘The one who employs blood transfusion would appear to oppose God who extends clemency.’—17th-century doctor
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‘Taking blood through the mouth or through the veins has one and the same purpose, that by this blood a sick body be nourished or restored to health.’—17th-century scholar
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Depiction of a proposed blood transfusion from a dog, 1693
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Patient receiving transfusion of lamb’s blood, 1874