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 (katharidzon panta ta bromata, cleansing all the foods”), have caused many Christians to suppose that Jesus did away with the biblical food prohibitions and declared “clean” (טָהוֹר, tahor) what the Torah declares “unclean” (טָמֵא, tame). 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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  • [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 5

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  3. Think of it this way… if there had never even been any instructions to refrain from consuming abominable animals in the Hebrew canon, this chapter would still make perfect sense in it’s context, since they could have been eating anything, pork, bread, chicken, whatever, the Pharisees would have still objected to them not washing their hands first, (a ritual not found in the written Torah), and Jesus still would have said, “You leave the commandment in honor of your tradition”. Moreover, if Jesus were declaring the abominations clean, he too would be guilty of “leaving the commandment” in honor of his own new tradition. Jesus was not to disturb the Torah in any way, (if he existed historically, that’s debatable in itself, as for me, I like to believe he’s a legend in the minds of some great 1st century Rabbis)…so if he did, he would be guilty. But we know that the story says the disciples were eating bread, (food), not pig, (an abomination, not food), and they had dirty hands, which, cannot defile your heart. Only wicked thoughts emanate from the human heart and defile us. As for porky pig, Jesus saw 2000 of them drown and didn’t bother to save any of them, a marginal waste of food if they were edible.

  4. Another great application of the NT in harmony with the Tanakh by David Bivin.

    If the argument had been focused on “what” kind of food was acceptable and clean, then I doubt that pork or other impure and unclean foods would have been agreeable amoung the Pharisees and those who had heard Yeshua’s answer.
    There were unclean things, and detestable things. Pork was and continues to be detestable (an abomination) to God (Dueteronomy 14:1-8), because he remains constant.
    .
    The “how” of this discourse between Yeshua and the leading Pharisees is where the focus is at. Even then, if unclean foods had been the subject, Jews, in antiquity, would have most likely considered pork and other unclean animals as non-food items.

    AAB

  5. In this instance we have the Jew (Yeshua) contending with the Jews (P’rushim) —
    It would be my understanding that when saying “food” between Jews, could only refer to a substance that began with a “clean” animal, herb, fowl or fish. Those animals, herbs, fowls or fish that were “unclean” could not produce “food” but only “things.” Unclean would only lead to an abominable thing (i.e., not food).
    Only Gentiles would erroneously call “unclean” entities “food,.” which is true today as well.

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