Mark 7:19: Did Jesus Make “Unclean” Food “Clean”?

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One should not be too quick to throw out large portions of the Torah because of a four-word parenthetical comment by Mark at the end of a long halachic discussion.

Revised: 04-Jun-2013

Now when the Pharisees gathered together to him, with some of the scribes, who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands defiled, that is, unwashed…. And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with hands defiled?”…. And he called the people to him again, and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him…. Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)

(Mark 7:1-5, 14-19; RSV)

The last four words of Mark 7:19, καθαρίζων πάντα τὰ βρώματα (katharizōn panta ta brōmata, cleansing all the foods”), have caused many Christians to suppose that Jesus did away with the biblical food prohibitions and declared “clean” (טָהוֹר, ṭāhōr) what the Torah declares “unclean” (טָמֵא, ṭāmē). The way English versions of the Bible have translated this verse has strengthened the misunderstanding: “Thus he declared all foods clean” (RSV, NRSV and NAB); “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods ‘clean’” (NIV); “By saying this, he showed that every kind of food is acceptable” (NLT); “Thus he pronounced all foods clean” (NJB); “Thus He was making and declaring all foods [ceremonially] clean [that is, abolishing the ceremonial distinctions of the Levitical Law]” (AMP).

In the Torah “clean” and “unclean” are also used of permitted and forbidden food, and therefore, because of this passage, Christians usually have believed that the biblical food laws were abrogated by Jesus. However, one should not be too quick to throw out large portions of the Torah, in this case, portions of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, because of a four-word parenthetical comment[1] by Mark at the end of a long halachic discussion. Such a serious reversal of God’s commands and contradiction of God’s word would need explanation and discussion.

The Torah prohibits Jews from eating certain animals (Lev. 11; cf. Deut. 14; Negative Commandments #172-179). We can assume that Jesus would not have violated these commandments. (Otherwise, he would have been condemned by the words of Torah, and would have been a sinner.) Nor would he have taught others to violate the commandments since he himself taught, “Anyone who breaks them [the commandments of Torah] or teaches others to break them will be called ‘light’ [קַל, kal, that is, of no esteem]” (Matt 5:19). In other words, such a disciple could not become or remain part of the “Kingdom of Heaven,” a term that Jesus sometimes used to refer to his band of full-time disciples.[2]

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In summary, Jesus’ words must be read in context. When his words are read in the light of ancient Jewish culture and rabbinic literature, one finds that he did not contradict God-given commandments. He did not make kosher biblically prohibited categories of food. He did, however, challenge the dominant purity system of his day arguing that unwashed hands do not transfer ritual uncleanness to the body through food that is eaten. In addition, he drove home a moral point: the state of a person’s heart is more important than the state of his or her hands, and the heart is unaffected by the ritual purity of the hands.

First-century C.E. fresco from Pompeii depicting various fruits and wines in glass containers. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For more on the topics of Jesus, the commandments, and ritual purity, check out these JP articles:

  • [1] “It needs to be borne in mind that ‘declaring all foods clean’ is Mark’s interpretation of Jesus’ statement in 7:15, not Jesus’, and that Matthew seems to have a much less radical interpretation of the dominical saying” (Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 [AB 27; Garden City: Doubleday, 2000], 458). In fact, Mark’s editorial comment, “cleansing all the foods,” is missing entirely from Matthew’s parallel (Matt 15:17). “The syntax clearly marks out καθαρίζων πάντα τὰ βρώματα as a parenthetical editorial comment, since there is no masculine singular subject within the reported speech to which it can relate (hence the emendations found in some MSS, representing attempts to ‘correct’ the syntax by those who failed to recognize the nature of the clause…The subject therefore is Jesus (the subject of λέγει, v. 18a), whom Mark thus interprets as ‘cleansing all food’ in the sense of declaring that it is no longer to be regarded as ritually ‘unclean’” (R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text [NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002], 291; cf. 276). Mark’s interpretation may have been intentionally ambiguous. It faithfully describes the halachah for those who are concerned with halachic purity, and it even has a secondary application to Gentiles who are not responsible for the Torah food laws.
  • [2] Paul’s instructions about eating meat sold in the market or meat set before you by an unbeliever at a dinner to which you have been invited (1 Cor. 10:25-29) was directed at former Gentiles (now followers of Jesus) who lived in heathen environs and near pagan temples. Paul championed the status of believing Gentiles within the Edah (community), but he would not have instructed Jews to enter pagan homes or eat food offered to them by pagans. Former Gentiles who were members of the Edah were, by apostolic halachah, not obligated to keep all the commandments nor to circumcise their male children (Acts 15); however Jewish followers of Jesus were so obligated (Acts 21:18-24), and this obligation included the keeping of the community’s Oral Torah, its interpretation of the Written Torah.

Comments 4

  1. “Galatians 3:28
    28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

    Christ born by virgin mary through Holy Spirit his DNA most from Gods Holy Spirit Earth mother Mary likely Jewish so Jesus Christ Gods Son Yeshua is both in the flesh. Be blessed all.

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  • David N. Bivin

    David N. Bivin

    David N. Bivin is founder and editor of Jerusalem Perspective. A native of Cleveland, Oklahoma, U.S.A., Bivin has lived in Israel since 1963, when he came to Jerusalem on a Rotary Foundation Fellowship to do postgraduate work at the Hebrew University. He studied at the Hebrew…
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