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Mark 7 – Did Jesus Change the Biblical Dietary Laws?

Introduction

Many times, Mark chapter seven is used as a prooftext that Christians are no longer required to keep the dietary regulations found in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.  Many believe that when Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem, he changed their law, the law which was given to Moses by God himself, by now giving permission to all of his followers to eat whatever they choose.  Much of this understanding comes from ignorance of Second Temple Judaism and the Greek language.  In this teaching, I will show by historical evidence that Jesus was not speaking against the dietary laws found within the Pentateuch, but the traditions of the Jewish people of the first century, as well as that most of our modern Bible translations have made it a point to alter the rendition of verse 19 by means of translation to better fit their preconceived anti-Torah theology.

The Text of Mark 7 

“ (1)  Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem,  (2)  they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed.  (3)  (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders,  (4)  and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.)  (5)  And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”  (6) And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips,  but their heart is far from me;  in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men!’ (8)  You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of man!”  (9)  And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!  (10)  For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’ and ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die!’  (11)  But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, ‘Whatever you have gained from me is Corban,’ (that is, given to God)  (12)  then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother,  (13)  thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down, and many such things you do.” 

(14)  And he called the people to him again and said to them, ‘Hear me, all of you, and understand.  (15)  There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.’  (17)  And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable.  (18)  And he said to them, ‘Are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him?  (19)  Because it enters not into his heart but his stomach, and is expelled? (Thus, he declares all foods clean.) (20)  And he said, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him.  (21)  For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery,  (22)  coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness.  (23)  All of these evil things come from within a person, and they defile a person.’”
(Mark 7:1-23 ESV)

The Target Audience of Mark 7

When examining and exegeting a passage of Scripture, narrative and intended audiences must be taken into account.  The narrative audience is those who were the audience of the events taking place in the narrative.  In this case, the audience which surrounded Jesus that day were Jewish leaders (Pharisees & Scribes), his disciples, and everyday Jewish people (Mark 6:53-56).  However, the target audience to whom Mark/Peter are writing this gospel account is slightly different.

Many people today do not take into consideration that the Bible was not written to us, though God’s plan is that it was written for us.  What I am saying is that the text which we call the Gospel of Mark, was not written to Josh Ensley of Chatsworth, GA in the year 2018.  The document had a purpose for its composition and it was for an intended audience nearly 2000 years ago.  The audience of this document, contrary to popular belief, was not a Jewish audience.  The audience of this document was a gentile audience and the text supports this position.  Take for example the parenthetical statements within the text of Mark 7:

”(3)  (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders,  (4)  and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.)”
(Mark 7:3-4 ESV)

Mark breaks from the narrative to supply a lengthy parenthetical statement concerning the procedures and precautions that “the Jews” take when dealing with food consumption.  To a common Jewish person in the first century, this parenthetical statement would have been unnecessary; but to a gentile audience unfamiliar with Talmudic-Jewish customs, this would have been completely oblivious to them.  Thus, Mark uses precious amounts of papyri to help his audience understand the context of what is being discussed between Jesus and the Pharisees.  So, we can conclude that the audience within the text were most definitely Jewish, but the target audience of the text was gentile.

The Traditions of Men

In the first century, the oral law was a very integrated part of the Jewish believer’s life.  The oral law is not recorded in the books of Moses, but are additional laws that Pharisees and Rabbis believed were just as inspired, thus they were held as equal to the Law of Moses.  The oral law would eventually be written down and put into a 76 volume set of books known as the Babylonian Talmud.

A critical note that must be understood is that the oral law is what is known as the “Jewish Law,” though many believe the Torah/Pentateuch (first five books of Moses; Genesis-Deuteronomy) is the “Jewish Law.”  Nowhere in Scripture is the Torah labeled as “Jewish Law.”  The idea that the Torah is the “Jewish Law,” thus eliminating the requirement for any non-Jew to keep it, was an incorrect idea promoted by early Roman “church fathers” that was handed down through the Roman Catholic Church for centuries and eventually into her protestant daughter denominations.  With this being said, please understand that the oral law attested to be the Pharisees and Jewish leaders is the “Jewish Law,” and not the Torah.  The Torah was given to all of Israel, not just Judah.

The problem with the oral law (Talmud) is that it often manipulated the commandments of God in the Torah by promoting a way to justifiably break the Torah without actually “breaking” it.  An example lies in Mark 7.  Jesus, being a Jew by birth, though not a Jew by religious affiliation, disregards the oral law because he understands it to nullify the inspired commandments given by God to Moses.

(5)  And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”  (6) And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,  ‘This people honors me with their lips,  but their heart is far from me;  in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men!’ (8)  You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of man!”  (9)  And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!”
(Mark 7:5-9 ESV)

As stated earlier, Jesus understands that it is not necessary to wash your hands before you eat, though I am sure he believes that it is not a bad idea.  The fact is, nowhere in the Torah does it command us to wash our hands before we eat.  You can look all you want but it is simply absent from the text.  The problem here is that the Pharisees believed Jesus and his disciples were in transgression of God’s law because they neglected to wash their hands before they ate (v5).  To the Pharisees, this made you κοινός (common).  It must be noted here that being κοινός “common” is much different than being ἀκάθαρτος (“unclean,”) and being made “common” is completely unbiblical; thus, it is a doctrine/tradition of men. The idea of being “common” is rendered in many English translations, such as the ESV, as “defiled.”

Jesus responds harshly by quoting from the prophet Isaiah calling them hypocrites and asserting that they claim to be honoring God with their lips but their hearts prove otherwise.  The reason Jesus says this is because the Pharisees and Jewish leaders have neglected the commandments of God to hold to their traditions.  A Jewish leader of the first century would have refused to eat a perfectly clean animal, such as a cow or a deer, if they had not washed their hands.  Thus, the command given to Israel saying that a cow or a deer is clean and permitted to eat was then nullified by the man-made tradition that says you cannot eat it unless you wash your hands.  In other words, the Jewish leaders were disrespecting Jesus’ Father by forbidding the common people from eating what God gave as food.

Jesus takes it one step further by exposing yet another tradition of men that nullifies the commands of God.

“(9) And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!  (10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’ and ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die!’  (11)  But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, ‘Whatever you have gained from me is Corban,’ (that is, given to God)  (12)  then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother,  (13)  thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down, and many such things you do.””
(Mark 7:9-13 ESV)

In the first century, the Jewish leaders had something known as “Corban.”  Corban is when you dedicated all of your money and assets to the temple but were still able to withdraw from it when you needed it.  The main point of Corban is that what you donated to Corban was no longer considered yours, even though you could still access it.  Therefore, when the responsibility to take care of your elderly parents arose, you could donate all of your money to Corban and “legitimately” say that you had nothing to give to your parents; thus, the command to “honor your mother and father” could be voided by the tradition of Corban.  This is why Jesus was so upset with the traditions of men.  He saw clearly that they were sometimes strategically developed to pardon the people from having to obey the commandments of God.  Because Jesus spoke out against the oral law (traditions of the elders/men), he was seen as a rebel by the Jewish leaders.  Again, Jewish leaders believed that the oral law was just as authoritative as the written Torah, and for Jesus to speak against the oral law, the Pharisees believed he was a heretic; this is why they continued to seek his death.  Because the average Jewish audience of the text were so deeply influenced by the Pharisees and their oral law, there was some unlearning that was being promoted by Jesus here.  Because of that, Jesus is forced to give a deeper explanation to his actions and words towards the Jewish leaders.

(14)  And he called the people to him again and said to them, ‘Hear me, all of you, and understand.  (15)  There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.’  (17)  And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable.  (18)  And he said to them, ‘Are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him?  (19)  Because it enters not into his heart but his stomach, and is expelled? (Thus, he declares all foods clean.) (20)  And he said, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him.  (21)  For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery,  (22)  coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness.  (23)  All of these evil things come from within a person, and they defile a person.’”
(Mark 7:14-23 ESV)

Jesus speaks a quick parable to the people around him (v14-15).  As all other times when Jesus spoke in parables, there arose some confusion.  The disciples then gathered to him in a house after leaving the people to ask him about the parable and what it meant (v17).  Jesus then drops a seemingly outrageous line:

“Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him…” (7:18)

To a modern day gentile believer, this verse is a prooftext to support the idea that Jesus speaks against the dietary laws found in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.  The problem with this interpretation is that there has been a negligence of the surrounding context of this passage.  Jesus just finished speaking against the oral law, not the Torah.  And he is now explaining a parable to his Jewish disciples.  Jesus goes on to say that defiling comes from within a person, not from outside of a person.

Jesus asserts that from within a person comes evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness.  This is exactly what the Jewish leaders have committed by nullifying the commandments of God by their traditions.  Even in this case, by neglecting to provide for one’s mother or father by giving to Corban, murder has been committed.  This can further be understood in the letters of John, particularly 1 John, where John equates murder with neglecting to provide life-sustaining substances for those in need.

We must also remember that the object in question here was bread, not unclean animals. Jesus was simply telling the Jewish leaders that the dirt on his hands when he eats without first washing is not what defiles him, because nothing that goes in can defile you. What does that mean for unclean animals, though? Jesus affirms that it is not the unclean animal that, when you eat it, defiles you. The animal itself is not evil and is not defiling; the decision in your heart to transgress God’s commandment in honor of your desires is what defiles you when you eat an unclean animal. Let’s read again the words of Jesus concerning what defiles us.

(21)  For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery,  (22)  coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness.”
(Mark 7: 21-22 ESV).

Defiantly disobeying God comes from the heart, and it comes in the form of one or more of these issues that Jesus speaks of. But now, what about the statement that Mark makes saying, “Thus he declares all foods clean?” How can we really believe Jesus did not abolish the food laws in light of this statement? A closer look into the Greek of Mark 7:19 will help us understand.

An Examination of Mark 7:19’s Greek Text

Picking up from where we left off in 7:18, we will take a look at the Greek syntax and structure of verse 19.  My position is that the usually-rendered parenthetical statement at the end of v19 is a mistranslation and it should read as a continuation of Jesus’ words rather than a Markan parenthetical explanation.

Below is an interlinear Greek-English of Mark 7:19:

The portion of the text with a red box surround it is the ending which I believe is mistranslated.  Verse 19 is a continuation of the thought from verse 18, where Jesus speaks of the fact that the food which enters a person is not what defiles him.

The word καθαρίζων is a participle in the present tense and active voice.  The participle can be translated one of two way: 1) “purifying/purging/cleansing;” 2) “the one purifying/purging/cleansing.”  For the sake of smooth translation, the first translation option is preferred.

The problem with most translators begins with the fact that they neglect to translate the punctuation properly.  Just after the word “goes out,” there is a comma, not a period.  The Greek text suggests that there is no division in the sentence here; this is one sentence, not two.  Therefore, if one wishes to translate the ending of Mark 7:19 as “Thus, Jesus declares all foods clean,” one must completely ignore the punctuation of the Greek text by starting a new sentence with an entirely new subject (Jesus).

The next part of the problem lies within the supplying of words that are simply not in the text.  Literally the clause reads, “purifying/purging all foods.”  Most translators supply a subject (Jesus), verb (declares/declared), and a conjunction (thus) when rendering the clause (“Thus, Jesus declares all foods clean”).  Though I am not a fan of the King James Version, I propose the idea that the KJV translators translated this verse correctly, while the modern translations did not.  I believe this is because the KJV translation is nearly four centuries old and the influence of this anti-Torah doctrine was not as prevalent back then.  The KJV reads:

“Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?“
(Mark 7:19 KJV)

Since then, the majority of English translations supply non-existing subjects, verbs, and conjunctions to this clause, thus rendering it inaccurately. The most accurate way to translate this verse would be to continue it as the words of Jesus and to render it as: Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him?  (19)  Because it enters not into his heart but his stomach, and is expelled, cleansing all the foods?”

The point that Jesus is trying to make is that everything we eat will eventually be expelled by our bodies’ natural cleansing methods, but the problem with our hearts is that they will never purge the wickedness within unless we surrender to God and his will for our lives, which includes keeping his commandments and not our own, as Jesus has so eloquently told the Jewish leaders in this text.

Conclusion

Consider this: when Jesus spoke the words in 7:19, he had just moments before lashed out at the Jewish leaders for nullifying the commandments of God for their oral law.  If Jesus had literally, by his own oral words, nullified the dietary commands found in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, would he have not been hypocritical for doing exactly what he condemned others of doing?  Absolutely!  Would it not make sense then that Jesus was not speaking against the dietary laws in the Torah, but further explaining that defilement (being made common) comes from your heart, rather than what we eat?

The main point of Jesus’ words was that if you eat with unwashed hands, you might get a little dirt on your food (remember, only that which God says is food is food), but it will not make you this unbiblical idea of “common,” because all of that which makes you “common” is purged in your excrement and sent into the sewer.

Where do we go from here?  What do we do about our English translations that render this understanding incorrectly?  For me, I love the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible, but it renders this clause “Thus, he declared all foods clean.”  I simply make marginal notes that this is a mistranslation and continue on with my studies/reading. Ultimately, I would suggest continuing with an ESV with notes within it warning you of this clause.  No translation is perfect, and we will always be dealing with some sort of mistranslation; this just happens to be one that has majorly affected believers in terms of food laws.

I hope this teaching has enlightened you on a topic that is of much debate, and that you can now see more clearly the intent of our King’s words.  Our Messiah did not speak against the commands of his Father (otherwise he would have been disqualified from being the Messiah); rather, he spoke against the oral interpretations and doctrines of man that nullified the God-given commands.  You should do likewise; you should speak against the traditions of men who claim that Jesus abolished the food laws of God and should go back to the original and eternal relevance of the Leviticus 11 & Deuteronomy 14 dietary laws.  When we begin to see and read what Jesus actually meant in verses like this, we begin to see him for more of who he truly is: our Torah-teaching Messiah.

 ”(21)  For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery,  (22)  coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness.  (23)  All of these evil things come from within a person, and they defile a person.”
– Jesus Christ (Mark 7:21-23 ESV)

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