United Church of God

The Surprise Sayings of Jesus Christ: Did Jesus Declare All Meats Clean?

The Surprise Sayings of Jesus Christ

Did Jesus Declare All Meats Clean?

Login or Create an Account

With a UCG.org account you will be able to save items to read and study later!

Sign In | Sign Up


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 Mark 7:19, 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" (Mark 7:1-2). They asked Jesus, "Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?" (Mark 7:5).

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. Mark 7:3-4 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 Mark 7:2-4, 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, Matthew 23:23-28).

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 (Mark 7:15).

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" (Mark 7:21-23).

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" (Galatians 5:22-23). "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" (Mark 7:18-19).

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" (Acts 10:16-17) and "thought about the vision" (Acts 10:19). 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" (Acts 10:28).

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 (Acts 10:34-35; Acts 10:45-48). 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; Matthew 5:17-19).


  • efrenandalus

    I am Jewish and have read many Christian and Jewish commentaries on the subject and there is no doubt Jesus kept Kosher. But Gentiles , under the Jewish Law , are not sinning if they don't keep kosher. The importance of him keeping kosher is he must be by scripture also the Jewish Messiah , not just the Christian Messiah , and Christians should therefore be glad he kept kosher as a Messianic proof,
    What I find much more profund about Mark's Gospel , which I don't hear mentioned is that Mark INCLUDED these kosher debate passages. If Mark knew the kosher laws and this sophisticated debate , and believed in jesus , he also was very familiar with the rest of the Torah , and thought that proved Jesus was the Messiah also : he was a believer.
    I say that because Paul , may very well have had the same undersdanding of the Torah but in statements does not bring forward the classic Jewish views the same way Mark does.

  • jlnow

    I would propose a different explanation:

    Mark's gospel was written about 70 AD, long after the events of both his gospel and the book of Acts took place. Peter still didn't understand that all foods were clean when he had the trance recorded in Acts 10, and so rejected the 'unclean' foods (and was rebuked for doing so). By the time Mark wrote his gospel, it was understood that all foods were clean, and therefore Mark added his commentary at Mark 7:19.

    This is no different than Peter not understanding that Jesus must suffer and die (Matt 16:21-23). By the time that event was recorded in Matthew (also around 70 AD) Peter, of course, did know, but not at the time.

    The teachings Jesus was bringing were very different from what the apostles knew. It took time for them to absorb and fully understand those teachings. That's only natural.

  • Tovah

    Since Peter's vision included all kinds of four footed animals (no doubt a few aardvark, tasmanian devils, etc), reptiles (iguana on toast?) and birds of the air (vultures, ravens), good luck to you. The vision was to teach Peter about the inclusion of Gentiles into the Kingdom. It had nothing to do with food. Since the Torah was never given to Gentiles, I don't understand your problem that Jesus would never have abrogated the Torah. If he did it would disqualify him from being our sin bearer.

  • Steven Britt

    Clean and unclean meats is a part of the law of God, found in Leviticus 11, which Jesus Christ followed perfectly. Are you advocating that Jesus was teaching His disciples to do differently than He Himself did? Jesus taught in Matthew 5:18 that not even the smallest part of the law would pass away until heaven and earth pass away, and this is what the United Church of God teaches. However, you are advocating that Jesus did away with clean and unclean meats even before His death - I know of no one who holds this position because it makes His suffering and death logically unsound. If that were the case, He could just as easily have wiped away the whole system of requiring sacrifice for sin and He'd never even have to suffer and die - but He didn't. Instead of abolishing the requirement of sacrifice in the law, He became our sacrifice to fulfill the penalty of the law - in other words, He upheld the law. As He upheld the law, so should we, and we should walk as He walked (1 John 2:6)

  • sparkmanrl

    The claim that the parenthetical remark in Mark 7:19 is added by translators is an error. This parenthetical remark is present in the Greek and the translators did not add it. The assertion that translators added this remark either reflects an intentional misstatement or a lack of knowledge of Bible translation creation.

    KJV and NKJV were based on the Textus Receptus, the Greek New Testament compiled by Erasmus. Erasmus only had a limited number of late Greek manuscripts available to him. Thus, the manuscript evidence that was available to him was more recent in nature and further away from the original manuscripts (called autographs) than the more modern Nestle-Aland UBS Greek New Testament.

    The Nestle-Aland UBS Greek New Testament is what underlies more modern translations such as the New American Standard and the English Standard Version. The manuscript evidence underlying the Nestle Aland includes earlier manuscript evidence which is closer to the autographs.

    The NASB and ESV translators had nothing to do with adding this parenthetical phrase into their translations..they were already present in the underlying Greek Text.

  • Christian777
    This is a broad interpretation. one can use this to promote cannibalism, gluttony and eating poison.
  • egghead55425
    To conclude that dietary laws still apply, Larry needs to ignore the other verses which state that no food is unclean. For example, Romans 14:20 states all food is clean without ambiguity "For meat destroy not the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence." Again, in Acts 10:15 and Acts 11:9 God made it crystal clear to Peter that he was not to call any food unclean by telling Peter three times that "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common" You can't ignore relevant parts of the bible in order to justify your position. The great thing about the bible is that it often tells us the same thing in different ways over and over. I could go on by describing verses in which the rules were laid out for Gentiles which did not exclude any animals and other verses which point to all food being clean. Over and over the only reliable translation of the bible, the KJV tells us that all food is clean.
  • rjmoore007

    food for you is that which you are allowed to eat

  • tonynelson
    Matthew 5:17 states the Jesus did not come to change the law, but to fulfill it and that not a single word will be taken away, subsequently, I agree that the dietary restrictions had to still be in place and that he wasn't changing those laws. He was denying the validity of the man-made added tradition of ritual washing prior to eating. That being said, I am at a loss to understand how eating shrimp (for example) can be unclean in the context of Jesus' words. How to they make the heart unclean as it is clearly labeled an abomination in the Old Testament. If you apply his logic, that nothing unclean going in can cause the heart to be unclean then the only logical explanation is that God was commanding folks not to eat shrimp and the act of defying that is what causes the heart to be unclean...not the actual shrimp flesh passing through the body. God's laws have purpose and meaning. This seems to lessen the logic that God created these laws to protect humans. Additionally, the question is can using unclean hands dirty kosher food? Your logic dictates that it cannot, but once again this means that the purpose of these laws was not to protect people from disease in any way.
  • rjmoore007

    Shrimp and Pork are being proved to be bad for our health.... and what man does with them (see ecopig for example) will turn an abomination into and absolute abomination....

    But also consider this... we mop up the seas of the masses of shrimp (and such like) negatively impacting the ecology... when we were called to be good husbandsmen!!!

    Also consider, rat, other vermin, vultures etc... dog, cat, lion, tiger, hyena... I do not see Christians rushing out to buy a pound of hyena, or a leg of vulture for sunday lunch....

    But all meats are considered clean... derrrrr use common sense.... oh, and also understand terminologies and how things change language wise over the years.... when was the last time you ate a mincemeat pie (at Saturnalia) and it was anything but a pie with pieces of fruit in it.... Remember, the meat of an object is the bulk of it... the meat of an apple is the part that which we eat.... so meat is not animal flesh.

  • ericj58

    Good article, Mr. Walker. You seem to cover a lot of the common angles that have been asked on this topic. An interesting comment I read from an author from a book I read (The Harper Collins Visual Guide To The New Testament, Johnathan Reed-2007) who mentioned that zoo-archaeologists look at the animal bones found at a site - particularly Jerusalem during those times to determine if it was inhabited by Jews. They did this by whether swine bones are found there. Of which there wasn't because they were unclean (per Deut. and Lev.). My personal understanding is maybe this could be one example why gentile converts did not have an issue of not eating unclean food/meats because it either was not allowed or did not have such food in the city or community.

  • Join the conversation!

    Log in or register to post comments