Many assume Jesus' statements in Mark 7 did away with the dietary restrictions recorded in the Old Testament. How should we understand Christ's words?
In this series of articles we have examined statements of Jesus Christ that when understood correctly are surprisingly different in meaning from the way they are commonly understood. In the case of dietary restrictions recorded in the Bible, the surprise may be the result of understanding not just what Jesus said but what He did not say in the Gospel of Mark.
Many believe that in His encounter with the Pharisees recorded in Mark 7:1-23, Jesus abrogated the laws of clean and unclean meats revealed in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. In fact, many modern translations of the New Testament insert additional words into the text of Mark 7:19 to reflect this understanding. For example, the New International Version ends the verse with: "(In saying this, Jesus declared all foods 'clean')."
The New King James Version has "thus purifying all foods" and includes the marginal explanation: "NU [an abbreviation for the text used by many New Testament translations] sets off the final phrase as Mark's comment, that Jesus has declared all foods clean."
But is this textual variation correct? Does it capture the meaning of the passage in question? What exactly did Jesus mean by His statement?
Context provides the answer
One of the foundational principles for understanding a scriptural passage is to examine the context. What is the topic of discussion here?
We should first notice that the subject is food in general, not which meats are clean or unclean . The Greek word broma, used in verse 19, simply means food. An entirely different Greek word, kreas, is used in the New Testament where meat—animal flesh —is specifically intended (see Romans 14:21; 1 Corinthians 13:8). So this passage concerns the general subject of food rather than meat. But a closer look shows that more is involved.
The first two verses help us understand the context: "Then the Pharisees and some of the scribes came together to Him, having come from Jerusalem. Now when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault" (verses 1-2). They asked Jesus, "Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?" (verse 5).
Now we see the subject further clarified. It concerns eating "with unwashed hands." Why was this of concern to the scribes and Pharisees?
The covenant God made with Israel at Mount Sinai was based on many laws and other instructions that ensured ritual purity. Jewish observance, however, often went beyond these in embracing the "oral law" or "tradition of the elders"—passed on by word of mouth and consisting of many additional man-made requirements and prohibitions tacked onto God's laws. Verses 3-4 of Mark 7 provide a brief explanation of the specific practice the Pharisees and scribes were referring to in this account: "For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders ..."
Notice that food laws are not in question here. The topic is ritual purity based on the religious traditions of the oral law. The disciples were being criticized for not following the proper procedure of ceremonial hand-washing prescribed by these revered religious traditions.
The Jewish New Testament Commentary, explaining the background of verses 2-4, offers a description of this custom: "Mark's explanation of a ... ritual handwashing, in these verses corresponds to the details set forth in Mishna tractate Yadayim [the Mishna is a later written version of the oral tradition]. In the marketplace one may touch ceremonially impure things; the impurity is removed by rinsing up to the wrist. Orthodox Jews today observe [ritual hand-washing] before meals. The rationale for it has nothing to do with hygiene but is based on the idea that 'a man's home is his Temple,' with the dining table his altar, the food his sacrifice and himself the cohen (priest). Since the Tanakh [Old Testament] requires cohanim [priests] to be ceremonially pure before offering sacrifices on the altar, the Oral Torah requires the same before eating a meal" (David Stern, 1995).
By the time of Christ many had made these additional practices a top priority and in so doing sometimes overlooked and even violated the fundamental principles of the law of God (Matthew 23:1-4, 23-28).
Spiritual principle of purification
After decrying the hypocrisy of this and other religious traditions and practices of the day, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter. He explains that what defiles a person (in the eyes of God) comes not from the outside —by what one puts into his mouth—but from within (verse 15).
He said it is far more important to concentrate on what comes out of your heart than what you put into your mouth. Jesus explains: "For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man" (verses 21-23).
Some of these same qualities are listed in Galatians 5:19-21 as "works of the flesh." They are contrasted with the "fruit of the Spirit" (verses 22-23). "Love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness [and] self-control" are qualities of a spiritually purified heart.
The ceremonial washings and purification practices of the Old Covenant were physical representations of the spiritual purification to be offered in the New Covenant (Hebrews 9:11-14). Hebrews 9:23 tells us: "Therefore it was necessary that the copies of the things in the heavens [referring to the tabernacle, altar, priests, etc.] should be purified with these [ceremonial purifications], but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these." So the apostle Paul writes that Jesus "gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works" (Titus 2:14).
"Blessed are the pure in heart" is one of the fundamental teachings of Christ (Matthew 5:8).
Unwashed hands don't defile the heart
In Mark 7 Jesus explains that ceremonial washing is not necessary for spiritual purity or sound spiritual health. He points out that "whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods" (verses 18-19).
Jesus is simply stating here that any dirt or other incidental impurities not removed through elaborate hand-washing will be purged out by the human digestive system in a manner that has no bearing on the heart and mind of a person. Since spiritual purification involves the heart, ceremonial washings are ineffective and unnecessary in preventing spiritual defilement.
Several Bible scholars recognize the error of interpreting this passage as an abrogation of the laws of clean and unclean meats. Certain grammatical factors, as well as the context of Scripture, determine how to properly translate verse 19. The Greek word translated "purifying" is a participle and must agree in grammatical gender with the noun it describes. Because this participle has a masculine ending, it cannot refer to "stomach," which is in the feminine gender in Greek. Thus many scholars instead relate "purifying" back to "He said."
However, another alternative provides a better explanation. The expression "is eliminated" in the New King James Version is a euphemistic rendering of what the original King James Version translates as "goeth out into the draught." "Draught" (draft) is an archaic way to translate the Greek word aphedron, which means "a place where the human waste discharges are dumped, a privy, sink, toilet" (BibleWorks software). Aphedron is a masculine-gender noun, so "purifying" can refer to the end result of human waste, the toilet.
The Commentary on the New Testament: Interpretation of Mark explains the passage on the basis of this pertinent information: "The translation ... 'This he said, making all meats clean' makes the participial clause ['purifying all foods'] a remark by Mark ... that Jesus makes all foods clean— a remark ... that we cannot accept ... He is explaining to his disciples how no food defiles a man ... As far as this thought is concerned, Jesus expresses it already in the preceding clause: 'and goes out into the privy.' What he now adds is that the privy [the end result of the digestive process] 'makes all food clean' ... for all foods have their course through the body only, never touch the heart, and thus end in the privy ... Since the disciples are so dense, the Lord is compelled to give them so coarse an explanation. In this, however, he in no way abrogates the Levitical laws concerning foods" (R.C.H. Lenski, pp. 297-298, emphasis added).
The Jewish New Testament Commentary, in its note on verse 19, summarizes well the overall meaning of this passage: "Yeshua [Jesus] did not, as many suppose, abrogate the laws of kashrut [kosher] and thus declare ham kosher! Since the beginning of the chapter the subject has been ritual purity ... and not kashrut at all! There is not the slightest hint anywhere that foods in this verse can be anything other than what the Bible allows Jews to eat, in other words, kosher foods ...
"Rather, Yeshua is continuing his discussion of spiritual prioritizing (v. 11). He teaches that tohar (purity) is not primarily ritual or physical, but spiritual (vv. 14-23). On this ground he does not entirely overrule the Pharisaic/rabbinic elaborations of the laws of purity, but he does demote them to subsidiary importance."
Peter's testimony is significant
Can we find other biblical evidence that this view is correct, that Jesus never changed the biblical food laws? We find a telling event from the life of Peter well after Jesus' death and resurrection.
Peter is a central figure in the early Church. Jesus charged Peter to strengthen the brethren (Luke 22:32). Peter delivered a powerful sermon that led to the conversion of thousands (Acts 2:14-41). His boldly claiming the name of Christ resulted in the miraculous healing of a lame man. He powerfully preached on repentance to those who gathered to witness the miracle (Acts 3:1-26). Later the mere passing of Peter's shadow over the sick resulted in dramatic healings (Acts 5:15).
Surely Peter would have understood something as fundamental as whether Jesus had repealed the laws of clean and unclean meat. Yet, years after Christ's death and resurrection, when he experienced a vision of unclean animals accompanied by a voice telling him to "kill and eat," notice Peter's spontaneous response: "Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean" (Acts 10:14, emphasis added throughout).
Ironically, many believe the purpose of this vision was to do away with the dietary restrictions regarding clean and unclean meats. Overlooked is the significance of Peter's initial response. He obviously did not consider these laws as having been rescinded by Christ!
This strange vision came to Peter three times, yet he still "wondered within himself what this vision which he had seen meant" (verses 16-17) and "thought about the vision" (verse 19). Peter did not jump to conclusions as too many do today. He already knew what the vision did not mean. Later God revealed the true meaning: "God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean" (verse 28).
Peter came to realize that the significance of the vision was that God was opening the way of salvation to gentiles (non-Israelites), so Peter shortly thereafter baptized the first uncircumcised gentiles God called into the Church (verses 34-35, 45-48). Peter was never to eat unclean animals, but he did learn this vital lesson in the plan of God.
Lessons for today
The moral of this story is that food laws and righteousness are not mutually exclusive. God gave His food laws for sound reasons. True righteousness entails submission and obedience to all of God's Word (Psalm 119:172; Matthew 4:4; 5:17-19). GN