We have been imagining the Apostles Peter, Paul and James gathered together in Jerusalem where Paul has just finished participating in a Temple ritual with four men from the Jerusalem congregation. Afterwards, Peter and James meet with him, congratulating and thanking him for his participation. On their way back to the Upper Room, they pass a Ya’akov BaTevah (Jack in the Box).  What with the New Covenant having been in effect for about 20 years already, wouldn’t all that kosher stuff be kind of passé by now? Couldn’t they just stop off for a Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburger®?

We saw last time that the Torah teaches that the status of clean/unclean, permitted or disallowed foods is determined by what God says to a particular group of people. For example, that Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburger® is prohibited because God says so, that is, it is prohibited to Jews. There is nothing intrinsic about pig flesh that makes it unclean: not its sanitary/unsanitary status, not its caloric content, nothing! Bacon is prohibited to Jews because God says so, but if the Pope wants to eat a ham sandwich, God can, without contradiction, say “B’teiavon!” (hearty appetite!)

Those who believe the kosher laws are abrogated now that Jesus has come will often point to a parenthetical statement in Mark 7 as proof. However, Mark 7, rightly understood, supports what the Torah says about the indifferent ontological (that is, intrinsic) status of pig flesh and other foods which are non-kosher to Jews. There is nothing about the foods themselves that makes them to be disallowed.

Here is the account in Mark.

14 After He called the crowd to Him again, He began saying to them, “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man. 16 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”]  17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, His disciples questioned Him about the parable. 18 And He said to them, “Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, 19 because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.) 20 And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. 21 For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22 deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. 23 All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”

There has been much debate about some details of this text due to available textual variants and some grammatical details. However, this discussion is far too technical for our considerations here. Let’s just point out that the words “Thus he declared” are not in the Greek text, but are supplied by translators. For now, let’s assume that the text means to say that Yeshua declared all foods clean. What might that mean?

We need to recognize that this is a scribal comment. It is parenthetical statement, an interpretation, not an alleged quote from Yeshua. But it is still there in the Bible and we must deal with it. Why is it there?

To answer this question, one must consider what audience this gospel is written to. The universal answer to this question is, “to a Gentile Roman audience.” One of the ways we know that is how often Mark’s Gospel explains Jewish, in this case, Aramaic, terms to its readers. (See Mark 3:17; 5:41; 7:11, 34; 14:36; 15:22, 34), and also the parenthetical comment explaining Jewish purity customs in our context here, Mark 7:3-4: For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they[a]carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they [b]cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the [c]washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) These explanations are only necessary because the readers are not Jews!

While at its roots, the Yeshua-believing community was Jewish, in quick order it became predominantly Gentile, and this was doubly so in some locations. These non-Jews would naturally be both interested in and confused about how Jewish cultural norms were meant to condition their own conduct as Yeshua-believers. This confusion was all the more likely because the movement was in flux in its earliest days with all kinds of opinions floating around, and false teachers popping up with their pet emphases.

As we know also from reading the Letter to the Romans, there was confusion about what foods were permitted. Aside from the issue of food offered to idols, there was also the issue of Jewish norms and the extent to which they were binding on non-Jews, or not. It is just such an issue that the scribe or perhaps Mark himself is addressing in this parenthetical statement. The statement is declaring what the Torah had already established: that there was nothing intrinsically unclean about any food. The Torah related issue is this: has God forbidden this food to you?  We will see from other texts we to be explored later that this is indeed the right way to interpret the Markan data.

There is a further point being made in the Markan context, and it is this: God is more concerned about what comes out of you than what goes into you. This must not be taken to mean that all kosher laws are cancelled. The text’s ruling that it is what comes out of a man that (truly) defiles him rather than what goes into him is like the prophet’s statement, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Did this mean that sacrifices were cancelled? No, it meant that on a hierarchy of values, sacrifices were no substitute for the greater priority, mercy. Similarly, Yeshua speaks in Matthew 23 of “the weightier matters of the law” which ought not to be neglected by people who are instead obsessed with minutiae. But on the other hand, he says the minutiae also ought not to be neglected. He is not abolishing the minutiae but reminding us to not major in the minors and forget that the majors are of pivotal importance.

No, Yeshua is not cancelling the food laws. The text is putting things in order: (1) Gentiles need not fear that they are eating ritually contaminated foods unless God has specifically forbidden such foods to them; (2) Don’t let your concerns about matters of ritual purity cause you to forget that God’s greater concern should be yours as well: to cleanse yourself of “fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”

For a wonderful article that more fully explores the First Century and New Testament context for this interpretation, see David J. Rudolph, “Jesus and the Food Laws: A Reassessment of Mark 7:19b.” Evangelical Quarterly 74:4 (2002), 291-311.  You may also find the paper by searching on Dr Rudolph’s site, here: http://www.rabbidavid.net/essays/ 

The conclusion of his splendid article bears quoting: 

The classic reading of Mark 7:19b [that Jesus terminated the food laws] suffers from a number of historical-literary context problems. The alternative reading (Mark found in Jesus’ teaching a basis for Gentile exemption from the Leviticus 11 dietary laws) does not share these problems and is consistent with the available evidence, including Matthew’s parallel account. mark’s parenthetical comment was specifically intended for Gentile Christians, not Jewish Christians . . ., and may have served to establish theological justification for the Apostolic Decree that exempted Gentile Christians from the food laws. Pauline halakhic influence behind Mark’s editorial insertion is plausible. The study further suggests that Jesus was a Torah faithful Jew who observed the biblical dietary laws and that his disciples (all Jews!) did the same as well. The continuing validity of Israel’s dietary laws for Jewish Christians raises a number of compelling questions for modern Christian theology, which continues to associate clean/unclean food distinctions with legalism for Jewish Christians. This reassessment of Mark 7:19b helps to correct such a false association and offers a more balanced perspective on how Jesus’ teaching and Mark’s editorial comment were perceived in the early decades of the Church.

Mark 7:19b is written to a Gentile audience, and there is nothing here which releases Peter, Paul, James, or us Yeshua-believing Jews to eat that Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburger®. Nor does the text justify others calling us legalists for abstaining!