“Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)
~Mark 7:18-19 (NIV)
This is one of the most popular “proof-texts” used by Christians in support of the belief that it is now acceptable to throw away the food laws given in Torah (Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14) and eat whatever they want. While I have touched on this passage in the past—particularly in my messages Does The New Testament Void Old Testament Dietary Laws? and Get Up Peter! Kill And Eat!—I want to take some time to really dive into this text and show, quite thoroughly, that it absolutely cannot mean that we are suddenly allowed to eat pigs and shellfish and rodents and anything else listed as the abomination.
Hermeneutics is a big, fancy word that is defined as “the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts.” There are primarily four laws in hermeneutics that should be considered as we approach a passage like Mark 7, particularly as it related to its use as a “proof-text” to the notion that the food laws in Torah are abolished. These are laws in the same sense as natural laws, such as the laws of gravity or thermodynamics—they exist and are set whether you want to believe it or not. This is in contrast to man-made laws created to meet the societal needs of a nation or community in a given time period, such as traffic laws or immigration laws, which can be adjusted or eliminated if the needs of the society change. So, let’s take a look at these four laws of hermeneutics:
- Scripture Interprets Scripture: I often say that The Bible cannot contradict itself, so when people think that something one part of The Bible says conflicts with something else The Bible says chances are that they’re interpreting something wrong.
- Context Interprets Scripture: It is very important that we consider first the verses immediately before and after the text we are using, the entire chapter the text is taken from, the overall theme in the biblical book it is taken from, and finally the overall context of The Bible as a whole to ensure we do not wrongly interpret a single statement and subsequently create a wrong doctrine or theology from that statement.
- Intent Interprets Scripture: It is critically important to proper interpretation of a passage that we consider what the author of that statement meant by what he said, or if quoting someone else (as The Gospels so often do with the sayings of Yeshua) what that person meant when they made their original statements as quoted.
- The Clear Interprets The Obscure/Vague: Something I often warn against is using vague statements from post-Torah biblical writings to override the clear commandments of the Torah itself. People do this quite often, and it is a dangerous practice. When you have a clear statement in Scripture that drives doctrine it always governs the interpretation of statements that are more vague or potentially open to interpretation, not the other way around. Using vague statements to interpret The Bible is a quick path to heresy.
I want you to keep these principles in mind as you read through this message. While they are often so prevalent in other writings I have put out, they will be critical to the evaluation of Mark 7 and why the passage simply cannot present an abolishment of the food laws outlined in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.
Defining Food Biblically
The first major problem with the interpretation of Mark 7:19 used by a majority of Christians today is that the entire thing is based on a statement listed in parenthesis: Jesus declared all foods clean. Interestingly, this statement is not even included in a large number of Bible translations, but I want to wait a little bit before we start reviewing several other translations.
Before we go too far into this I want to consider what the definition of the word “food” is as often used in Scripture. The word used here in Mark 7:19 is the Greek word bromata (βρώματα), which is a variation of the root word bróma (βρῶμα). Bróma is defined by Strong’s Concordance as: “food, especially as allowed or forbidden by Jewish law”. In other words, the word is defining food in terms of the food laws from Torah, and must be understood as such.
So, whatever is true about this passage and whatever the correct interpretation is, it is built around food being defined by the Leviticus food laws. This means that if there is any truth at all to the parenthetically inserted statement Jesus declared all foods clean, assuming it is validly part of the original manuscript at all (more on that in a moment), it would be saying that He declared all foods biblically clean according to Torah to be clean.
Now, you might be thinking: “Why would Yeshua need to declare clean foods to be clean?” I’m glad you asked! This takes us to our next point of consideration in the study of this so often misunderstood passage.
Did You Wash Your Hands?
You know you’re mom told you many, many times as a child, “You go into that bathroom and wash your hands before you eat!” What many seem to miss about Mark 7 is that the entire context of the passage, including the controversial statement in verse 19, pertains to whether or not the disciples washed their hands before they ate some bread. Let’s take a look.
Now the Pharisees and some of the Torah scholars who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Yeshua. And they saw that some of His disciples were eating bread with unclean hands, that is, not washed. (For the Pharisees and all Jewish people do not eat unless they wash their hands up to the elbow, keeping the tradition of the elders. And when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they perform a ritual washing. There are many other traditions they have received and hold, such as the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels.)
~Mark 7:1-4 (TLV)
The statements we read in verses 18 and 19 are the conclusion of a scenario that starts with these statements from verses 1 through 4. As we can see, from another parenthetical note, the tradition of the elders referred to here was not merely running to a basin and washing your hands before eating, but an extensive ritual. If you have ever been to a formal Passover Seder conducted in strict Jewish traditions you may have noticed that there is a hand-washing ritual that repeatedly takes place throughout the course of the service. This practice is very similar and possibly rooted in the same tradition mentioned here in Mark 7.
It’s not a bad idea to wash your hands before you eat. In fact, science tells us that we better wash our hands before eating at least most of the time if we want to avoid diseases. The discovery that washing your hands prevents the spread of disease is said to have been identified during the black plague in Europe when people were literally dying from a disease that was spreading rapidly. As it turned out, when people started washing their hands before eating, it is said, the spread of the disease was rapidly diminished.
Consider this statement from the Babylonian Talmud that relates to how much of the arm should be washed in such rituals: “Generally, the term yad that is written in the Torah includes the entire biceps area of the upper arm. But with regard to vows one follows the ordinary language of people, in which the word yad means the forearm until the elbow; and with regard to sanctifying the hands and feet in the Temple the halakha is learned as a tradition that the word yad is referring only to the hand up to the wrist.” Considering that the Talmud is a record of Jewish teachings, often dealing with conflicting views and interpretations of Torah, we can see here that debates about ritual washing were going on long before the record of Mark 7.
The Pharisees and Torah scholars questioned Yeshua, “Why don’t Your disciples walk according to the tradition of the elders? Why do they eat bread with unwashed hands?”
~Mark 7:5 (TLV)
I’m going to pause our walk through the statements of Mark 7 here because what Yeshua says in reply to this question is actually going to take us down a completely different path that has nothing to do with food at all, not even the bread that is the source of the context in the passage. In fact, where it will go spans far beyond just the individual hand-washing ritual that makes up the direct context of this passage. But before we move on, there is another passage we must look at. It is from Matthew 15, where the same story Mark records here is told from a slightly different angle. In Matthew’s Gospel we have a sister-passage to Mark 7:18-19. Here’s what it says:
“Are you also still lacking understanding?” Yeshua said. “Don’t you grasp that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and then is ejected into the sewer? But the things that proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart, and those things make the man unholy. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, and slander. These are the things that make the man unholy; but to eat with unwashed hands does not make the man unholy.”
~Matthew 15:16-20 (TLV, emphasis added)
Do you see that? Yeshua gives the same statements here about the digestive process of foods, but then He is quoted as saying what causes a man to be defiled, but eating [bread] without washing your hands does not defile you. Consider what Jonathan Klawans states in his book Impurity And Sin In Ancient Judaism:
Mark 7:15, even in its immediate context, is not nearly as radical as some have made it out to be. In Mark 7, Jesus’s disciples are eating with unwashed hands. If one ignores the explanatory gloss in 7:19b (“thus he declared all foods pure”), the entire passage can be understood as a discussion of hand washing, not the food laws. This is precisely how the parallel in Matthew would have it. In Matthew, the dispute from beginning to end concerns not the food laws, but the issue of eating with unwashed hands. If Jesus rejected the food laws, he would be rejecting an aspect of the Torah itself. But if Jesus rejected the Pharisaic requirement of hand washing, he would still be well within the bounds of opinions held by law-observant first-century Jews.
The fact is that Mark 7:15 need not be read as an outright rejection of anything, even just hand washing, let alone the food laws. As James D.G. Dunn argues, “the ‘not … but’ antithesis need not be understood as an ‘either … or,’ but rather with the force of ‘more important than’.” This interpretation can best be seen in Mark 2:17, where Jesus says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Here if the “not … but” structure is to be understood as an “either … or,” then the verse would mean that Jesus wished to associate only with sinners. Jesus’s disciples were not all sinners, and in fact they are on occasion depicted as being alarmed at Jesus’s more challenging teachings and actions (e.g. Matt. 7:28-29). The “not … but” structure of Mark 2:17 connotes a shift in priorities away from what would have been assumed. This is how Matthew 15:11 and Mark 7:15 are to be read as well. Jesus here suggests that his followers would be better off if more attention were paid to what comes out of the mouth than what comes in. Mark 7:15 does not necessarily suggest an abrogation of ritual practice any more than 2:17 suggests an exclusion of righteous people from Jesus’s following.
I find that last statement of particular interest. To say that Yeshua was abrogating the food laws in Mark 7 is like saying that the Gospel is exclusive to sinners, meaning that those who were already living righteously by Torah would then be ineligible to receive salvation through Yeshua. That sounds absurd, doesn’t it? Well, using Mark 7, a passage that is contextually dealing with the exaltation of man-made traditions, to claim an abrogation of a Torah commandment—the food laws—is equally absurd. Especially when we have the exact same story recorded in Matthew where, as Klawans points out, the passage from beginning to end says nothing that can be interpreted as pertaining to the food laws, it is clearly talking about this hand washing ritual.
The second law of hermeneutics listed above is that context drives interpretation of Scripture. Nothing—absolutely, positively NOTHING—in Mark 7 is contextually about the food laws from Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. Consider also what Daniel Juster says in his book Jewish Roots: Understanding Your Jewish Faith, as his statements are in harmony with what I have shared:
Yeshua did not directly teach that the food laws or the biblical heritage of Jews was then at an end. Indeed the statement, “Jesus declared all foods clean” may be a scribal addition, as noted in English versions by brackets. We cannot be sure that it comes from Mark himself. Let us assume that it does. If so, it does not say, as often misquoted, that “all things are clean,” but that all foods are clean. A food could be defined as that which was listed as acceptable in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy. Hence, the passage may only mean that foods not ritually treated according to the extra-biblical Pharisaic tradition are yet acceptable for eating. When we turn to the parallel of Matthew 15:20, this becomes almost certain—for Yeshua there concludes that, “eating with unwashed hands does not make [him] ‘unclean.’”
Something else to consider is that the word unclean used in Mark 7:2 from the Tree Of Life Version of The Bible (as cited above) is the Greek word koinos (κοινός). If you have read my article Get Up Peter! Kill And Eat! then you know that this word is used for man-made religious rules. When looking at Acts 10, as I do in that message, this contrasts in Peter’s vision with akathartos (ἀκάθαρτος), which refers specifically to things deemed unclean in The Torah.
Like its use in Acts 10, many translations render koinos in Mark 7:2 as “common”, others “defiled”, showing that this is certainly referencing the violation of a man-made religious rule and not a transgressing of God’s Torah. And so it is that the whole of Mark 7 is dealing with a matter of violating a tradition and not a commandment.
The “Jesus” Of The Jesus Seminar
Birger A. Pearson published an essay titled The Gospel According To The “Jesus Seminar” where he assesses a group known as the Jesus Seminar, convened in 1985 as a group of scholars and led by Robert W. Funk, with the “mission” to assess the sayings of “Jesus”. In assessing these sayings, the Jesus Seminar set up a color-code system: Red for things Yeshua absolutely said, Pink for things He probably said, Gray for things He probably didn’t say but may still reflect His beliefs, and Black for things where there is no possible way He said them or anything like them. The views of the Jesus Seminar addressed by Pearson are from Funk’s book The Five Gospels. The full article is published in Pearson’s book The Emergence Of The Christian Religion: Essays On Early Christianity. The claims of Pearson’s conclusions include: The Jesus of the Jesus Seminar is a non-Jewish Jesus, The ideology of the Jesus Seminar is one of “secularization”, and In robbing Jesus of his Jewishness, the Jesus Seminar has finally robbed him of his religion.
Essentially, he is claiming that this Jesus Seminar presents a secularized “Jesus”, which would ultimately, in my conclusion of Pearson’s concluding statements, lead to a secular Christianity. Perhaps, with such efforts driven by the so-called “leading scholars” of Christian religion just one generation ago, it is no wonder that today’s Christianity is so worldly. But this is not the focus of our study, so let’s take a look at Pearson’s assessment of the Jesus Seminar’s review of Yeshua’s statements in Mark 7:
The assumption that Jesus had regular contact with gentiles in their urban centers leads to a gross misunderstanding of Jesus’ relationship to the Jewish Law. We have already encountered the claim that Jesus advocated violating one of the Ten Commandments (160, 317). Thus, it is no surprise to find the Jesus Seminar claiming that Jesus set about “undermining the whole way of life” by hurling “a categorical challenge to the laws governing pollution and purity” (69). This claim is based on the saying “It’s not what goes into a person from the outside that can defile; rather it’s what comes out of the person that defiles” (Mark 7:14 || Matt 15:11 || Gos. Thom. 14, colored pink). The saying in question, set in the context of Jesus’ challenge to a specific Pharisaic halakah regarding hand washing, does not represent “a categorical challenge to the laws,” because there were no such “laws” in the Torah, only in this case, a Pharisaic opinion regarding purity. In Mark 7:19b (without par.) we read (in the RSV) the following parenthetical comment: “(Thus he declared all foods clean).” This is clearly a late gloss representing a gentile Christian misunderstanding of Jesus’ saying. Though the Jesus Seminar takes no notice of this gloss in its translation, its interpretation of the saying is in accord with this gentile misunderstanding and is just as perverse an interpretation of Jesus’ own pronouncement.
Similarly, Jesus’ injunction to traveling disciples, “Whenever you enter a town and they welcome you, eat whatever is set before you” (Luke 10:18, colored pink), is taken by the Jesus Seminar as an indication that Jesus advocated a nonobservance of kosher laws (319) or indeed that “Jesus apparently ignored, or deliberately transgressed, food laws” (481, commenting on the [obviously secondary] parallel in Gos. Thom. 14). But this interpretation is possible only if we accept the assumption of the Jesus Seminar that Jesus regularly dined in gentile homes, which we have no reason to believe is the case. In fact, there is not a single instance in the Jesus tradition, including the database accepted by the seminar as authentic, in which is can be shown that Jesus violates, or counsels others to violate, the Jewish Law.
Consistent with the Jesus Seminar’s portrayal of Jesus as a habitual violator of the Law is its representation of him as a “party animal” with a reputation for being “a glutton and a drunk” (e.g., 49, 180, 303). This view of Jesus, given prominence in The Five Gospels, is ultimately based on a saying of Jesus that the scholars color gray: “Just remember, John appeared on the scene neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He is demented.’ The son of Adam came both eating and drinking, and they say, ‘There’s a glutton and a drunk, a crony of the toll collectors and sinners!’” (Matt 11:18-19 || Luke 7:33-34, “Q”). The contrast set up by Jesus between himself and the ascetic John the Baptist appealed to the seminar, but a gray vote resulted because of the presence in the saying of the supposedly “apocalyptic” figure of the Son of Man (which the seminar translates as “son of Adam”).
Most concerning about what Pearson presents here is that the “Jesus” of the Jesus Seminar appears to be something other than the Hebrew Messiah Yeshua we read about in the Gospels and prophesied throughout the Hebrew Bible (The Tanakh, often referred to—in error—as the “Old Testament”). The Apostle Paul warns us against anyone who would present another “Jesus” from the Messiah Yeshua that he and the other Apostles boldly declared (2 Corinthians 11:4).
What is interesting is that Pearson brings up another statement less often used as an argument in favor of discarding the Leviticus 11 food laws, that being the advise to eat whatever is set before you. I have heard missionaries claim that this is essential in earning an audience to deliver the Gospel, saying that they have eaten spiders, cockroaches, and all manner of things that would make even the most liberal swine-eating western Christian’s stomach turn. But we see absolutely no indication that Yeshua or any of the other Apostles made it a habit of dining with non-Jews. Until, that is, we get to Acts 10.
I have often noted that in Acts 10 we find Peter contemplating the meaning of a vision, as he continually declares “I have never eaten anything common or unclean.” In this we see that Yeshua could not have declared pigs and other forbidden meats now permissible in Mark 7 because if that were the case, Peter would not be making such a statement in Acts 10—an event that occurred some ten years later. But there is also something else to note here, and that is that Peter acknowledged in Acts 10, again a decade after the ministry of Yeshua, that it is unlawful for a Jew to dine with a Gentile.
If we can draw a general conclusion that Yeshua’s declaration to eat whatever is set before you is in the context of going into Jewish homes, as the Gospel was not opened to Gentiles in this capacity until Acts 10, then eating whatever is set before you refers only to the kosher foods offered in the Jewish homes being visited at that time. There is no reason to believe that Yeshua, in saying that, opened a loophole to eat anything unclean—even if it should be offered to you in a home you are visiting. If you invite me to dinner and try serving up some unclean thing, be prepared to get schooled!
Yeshua And Torah
“Do not think that I came to abolish the Torah or the Prophets! I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”
~Matthew 5:17 (TLV)
Here we see perhaps the clearest statement in all of the Gospel records of Yeshua’s attitude toward Torah. For some reason, which I have never been able to fully grasp, the common interpretation of this passage is that Yeshua did not come to abolish Torah, but to abolish Torah. It sounds ridiculous when you say it like that, but most Christians seem to think that the word “fulfill” in this statement means that Torah has ended.
This is what happens, unfortunately, when people take a passage like this and try to give it meaning based on what it says from its translation into their language, in our case English, and interpret that translated passage from their own modern cultural bias, in our case American/Western culture in the twenty-first century. But if we look at the words abolish and fulfill in the Greek language used here, we find out that these are words diametrically opposed to each other.
Abolish — Greek kataluó (καταλύω) — destroy, overthrow, tear down, unyoke, unharness.
Fulfill — Greek pléroó (πληρόω) — accomplish, amply supplied, complete, fully carry, fully preach/teach.
Another way to properly understand fulfill is to break it down into two root words: Fill full. In other words, Yeshua was saying: “Do not think that I came to abolish the Torah or the Prophets! I did not come to destroy them, overthrow them, unyoke them, or tear them down, but rather to accomplish them through you, supply them to you, complete them in your presence as an example, fully carry you in them, and fully preach and teach them to you—I came to fill you full of Torah.” This, of course, is completely in harmony with Jeremiah 31:32 (TLV) and Hebrews 8:10 and 10:16 (TLV) where the seal of the new covenant is revealed to be the placing of Torah in the mind and writing it on the heart of the true Believer by God Himself. Yeshua came so that we could have Torah put into our mind and written on our heart—meaning that it is what we think about and what we become passionate about—not to abolish it and eliminate the need to follow it.
John van Maaren is a Ph.D. candidate at McMaster University and a professor of Jewish studies at Israel Institute of Biblical Studies and Rosen School of Hebrew, both in The Netherlands. Consider what he states in his published paper Does Mark’s Jesus Abrogate Torah? Jesus’ Purity: Logion and its Illustration in Mark 7:15–23 (emphasis added):
However, it is still conspicuous that, according to the traditional reading, Mark 7:1–23 represents the only instance among the four gospels where Jesus is portrayed rejecting Torah. No other passage in Mark, much less the other three gospels, demonstrates the same degree of ignorance of Torah. The traditional reading, then, makes Mark 7:1–23 an anomaly in the early Jesus tradition and raises the suspicion that a later ritual/moral dichotomy may be anachronistically retrojected onto Mark.
Think about that for a moment. Throughout the Gospel record the context of Yeshua’s attitude of Torah is in harmony with Matthew 5:17 where He came to fill His followers with His Father’s Torah, the seal of the new covenant as stated in Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8, 10. But then we have this lone passage and a statement in parenthesis that many scholars believe was inserted into the text later, whether by Mark himself or, seemingly more likely, a later scribe who put it in as a note for understanding, and people who cannot seem to grasp the need for context take this one statement and, against everything else in The Gospel records, want to use it to say: “See, ‘Jesus’ changed the food laws and made it OK to eat bacon and ham sandwiches now!”
To draw such a conclusion means that we must ignore everything else The Gospels say about Torah and Yeshua’s view of it—an important point of the context of the Gospels as a whole. In fact, it also requires us to take the same stance of what the Apostles later say in their letters sent out to the various communities of Believers in the first century. So much of the time Christians equally like to use Paul’s claims to promote an abolishing of the food laws and other parts of Torah as well. They forget, miss, or are simply ignorant of the fact that Paul’s entire defense of himself when being accused of teaching against Torah is found in Acts 24:14, where he says: “But this I confess to you, that according to the Way (which they call a sect), I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything written in the Torah and the Prophets.” Take, for example, A.N. Wilson who proposes a unique perspective in his book Paul: The Mind Of The Apostle:
It was highly unlikely that the historical Jesus ever broke with Judaism, or disputed with his fellow-Jews about, let us say, the dietary laws. Acts makes plain that, well after the death of Jesus, his followers in Jerusalem observed the dietary laws, and the requirement that Jews should circumcise their males. Paul’s letter to the Galatians (circa 50, i.e. twenty years after the Crucifixion) makes it clear that the quarrel between Gentile Christians, converts of Paul, and the original followers of Jesus (Peter, James and the rest) about this matter occurred a whole generation after Jesus.
So when, in Mark’s Gospel, we read of Jesus (Mark 7:20) that he declared all foods clean, we know that this can not be historically true. Similarly, in stories of Jesus denouncing his own family and friends and proclaiming that those who do the will of God are his true family (Mark 4:31-5) we are reading stories made up to fortify a later Christian community in its quarrel with the Jews. Jesus’s statements that his followers will be thrown out of synagogues make sense only as afterthoughts to explain the quarrels which Paul and his followers had with the synagogues, not of Palestine, but of the Diaspora.
Here Wilson seems to be implying that Paul’s Christianity was a breaking away from first century Judaism, perhaps with a rejection of such aspects of that Judaism as the food laws, while Yeshua and His direct disciples never did any such thing. He further implies that aspects of the Gospels were “made up” to address issues that were happening decades after the life and ministry of Yeshua Himself, the central figure in those Gospel records. While I do not accept such views, he brings up some important points regarding how Yeshua Himself never broke from first-century Judaism or Torah-observance, and neither did any of the disciples who actually sat under Him during His life. But if Paul taught anything different from what Yeshua and the rest of the Apostles did, he would be guilty of preaching the very “other gospel” he warned against (2 Corinthians 11:4, Galatians 1:8).
Neither Yeshua, Paul, nor any other first century authority in The Bible opposed Torah; it was quite the opposite. Lawless Christians, whether ignorant of it or not, who oppose Torah-keeping are literally the enemies of God, warring against His Kingdom, while they blindly go about actually believing that they are serving that very same Kingdom. That’s a deception that seems so impressive that certainly it comes straight from Satan himself, the father of lies.
1 John 2:4 literally says that people who claim to be “of God” but do not keep the commandments [Torah] are liars and the truth is not in them. Just remember that whenever a Pastor, Bible Professor, or anyone else speaks against the need to keep any of the commandments. As pertains to our study here, if someone says “Jesus abolished the food laws in Mark 7”, that person is a liar and the truth is not in them. The words Yeshua used toward certain religious leaders of His day would be quite fitting for so many modern Christian Pastors and Bible teachers: “You are of your father THE DEVIL…” (John 8:44).
Think about this. The biblical definition of sin, as I often point out, is found in 1 John 3:4, “Sin is the violation of Torah.” So, with that said, anyplace we find the word sin in The Bible we can replace it with a variation of the phrase violation of Torah that would fit the flow of the particular statement. 1 John 3:8, just a few sentences later, says: “The one who practices sin is of the devil…” So, we could in turn say: “The one who violates Torah is of the devil…”
Now let’s take it a step further. Since violation of Torah is the definition of sin and we can apply that to a passage like 1 John 3:8, we can in turn take individual violations of Torah and apply them into the text in place of the word “sin”. So, we could say, for example: “The one who commits murder is of the devil…” or “The one who lies and steals is of the devil…” Most Christians would agree that those who do such things are sinners and would even agree that such people are of the devil.
But what about some of those other things in Torah? What about things like celebrating God’s Feasts, keeping The Sabbath, or following the food laws? What about the commandment in Deuteronomy 12 that we not take the ways pagans worship their gods and turn them into Yahweh worship—of which the Christmas and Easter “holidays” very likely are (just study the history on these things, from all leading academic sources). With that we could then say: “The one who breaks The Sabbath is of the devil,” “The one who doesn’t celebrate God’s Spring and Fall Feasts is of the devil,” “The one who eats pork, shellfish, and all manner of unclean things is of the devil,” and potentially even “The one who celebrates Christmas and Easter is of the devil.” Let us continue on.
Voiding The Power Of God’s Word Through Traditions
“Having left behind the commandment of God, you hold on to the tradition of men.” He was also telling them, “You set aside the commands of God, in order that you may validate your own tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say if anyone tells his father or mother, ‘Whatever you might have gained from me is korban (that is, an offering to God),’ then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, making void the word of God with your tradition that you’ve handed down. And you do many such things.”
~Mark 7:8-13 (TLV)
You may wonder why I would have brought into this discussion something like the celebration of Christmas and Easter. This seems to be a strange topic to divert to something that, while equally controversial, doesn’t seem related to the passage we are looking at here from Mark 7. And yet, Mark 7 has entirely way more to do with celebrating “holidays” that have a plethora of historical sources linking them to paganism and even the occult than it has anything to do with the food laws from Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. I suggest taking some time to look over the article I put out titled Academic Quotes Regarding Christmas And Easter where I simply list many of the most reliable Christian and secular scholarly sources on what they say about the origins of these two “holidays”.
The first thing Yeshua says here in this part of the story is that these religious leaders rendering these accusations left behind the commandments of God to hold onto the traditions of men. This further supports the fact that this entire story has absolutely nothing to do with commandments found in Torah, which would include the laws of clean and unclean animals, as the focus is on discarding the Torah in favor of the traditions.
Then He says to them that they set aside the commandments to validate their traditions. You see, it wasn’t enough that they were ignoring the Torah to focus on their own traditions. They then took it a step further and sought to validate the traditions. This is important because one of the practices Yeshua and later the Apostles contended with among some religious leaders was the exaltation of man-made religious rules as either being equal to or even greater than Torah. An example of this is seen in a statement by the famous Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, generally referred to as Maimonides, who said:
If a thousand prophets, all like Elijah and Elisha, interpret [the law] according to a certain interpretation and a thousand and one sages offer an opposing interpretation, ‘one must follow the majority. The law is in accordance with the words of the thousand and one sages, not the thousand great prophets.
Think about that! The audacity that a Prophet whose words are recorded as Scripture can be overruled by a majority opinion in modern thought. Yet this is so often a problem in both Jewish and Christian circles. I see it all the time where some modern Pastor, Preacher, or Rabbi literally ignores plain commandments in favor of some “alternate interpretation” that feeds to popular opinion. As I have stated many times in many ways and in harmony with that fourth law of hermeneutics, statements in Scripture that are unquestionably clear are always authoritative and always govern context and interpretation of anything else in Scripture. You can line up a million religious leaders who all agree against some commandment in The Bible and I will look them all in the face and, in agreement with the people who actually wrote The Bible, will call every one of them a bunch of heretics.
The most believable lie is the one that is almost true. The Pastor or Preacher who is right in 99% of their doctrine may still be a heretic, depending on what that other 1% is (there are areas of theology we can be wrong about, but commandments are not in that category). This makes such a person far more dangerous than a blatant false prophet.
I have great respect for many of the teachings of Maimonides, but in this one I will stand firm that he was wrong. Anyone who would dare to challenge the authority of Scripture simply because a majority of “modern preachers” came up with something different is clearly in error. Besides that, he denied Yeshua as Messiah, very likely up to his death as no record I am aware of exists that he accepted his Hebrew Messiah even to his last breath. So no matter how valuable his academic contributions may have been, I am still left to ultimately consider him a heretic. And we need to stop being afraid to say that of otherwise respected Bible teachers.
Yeshua was primarily addressing this mindset that places the opinions of men as superior to the Word of God. Dr. Peter J. Tomson’s comments in his book Paul and the Jewish Law: Halakha in the Letters of the Apostle to the Gentiles relates very well to this, where he says:
When studied on its own terms the synoptic dispute narrative (Mark 7:1-23; Matt. 5:1-20) appears not to be about dietary laws but about purity. Apparently the disciples did not wash their hands for a regular meal — obviously a matter of ritual purity. The Pharisees see this as an encroachment upon ‘the tradition of the elders’. This is a technical term, not for a biblical commandment, as a reference to the food laws would require, but for a tradition of the Sages. For Jesus this tradition, as the one regarding fictional vows, is secondary to a biblical commandment such as the duty to honor one’s father and mother (Mark 7:10-13; Matt. 15:3-5). Indeed the washing of hands is evidently a post-biblical innovation identified as such in Pharisaic-Rabbinic tradition.
…it is historically unimaginable that Jesus would have infringed upon the biblical food laws. His point is precisely that ‘the commandments of men’ are secondary to what is written in the Tora.
Notice several things that Dr. Tomson points out here. First, he makes it plain that the passage is not about the Leviticus 11 food laws. Then he notes that the phrase the tradition of the elders uses language that makes it clear that this has nothing to do with any biblical commandment, whether the food laws or anything else from Torah, but about man-made religious rules and traditions. Then he basically says that it is ridiculous and ludicrous (historically unimaginable) to think that Yeshua would be abrogating the food laws through his statements in this passage.
Dr. Tomson is from a Dutch Reformed branch of Christianity and was Professor of New Testament and Patristics at the University of Brussels Theological Faculty in Belgium until 2013. It doesn’t get much more “Mainstream Protestant” than that, and yet this man who has committed his life to studying and teaching The Bible has come to a conclusion about Mark 7 that conflicts with the majority view. Why? Because he, unlike the majority, has actually studied the passage out instead of just parroting opinions of what people want the text to say—so they can justify in their mind that it’s OK to eat bacon and ham and shrimp and lobster—when in reality the text says no such thing. Mark 7 has absolutely, positively NOTHING to do with the Leviticus 11 food laws.
Take notice also in this segment of Mark 7 what Yeshua says regarding the commandment of honoring mother and father. Another man-made religious rule had developed that said a person could make a vow that essentially voided their personal obligation to honor their parents. While I will not get into the details of this here, as you can find plenty of teaching on this segment of the passage and what it is about, the main point is that Yeshua is again contrasting a neglect of Torah with an emphasis on extra-biblical religious rules. The entire passage is about following God instead of man.
Again, it is entirely more plausible to use Mark 7 as an argument against celebrating Christmas and Easter than to use it as justification to eat that which was deemed detestable in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. And this point alone shows just how entirely backwards much of modern Christian theology and beliefs truly are.
Defiled From Within
Then Yeshua called the crowd again and began saying to them, “Hear Me, everyone, and understand. There is nothing outside the man that can make him unholy by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of the man that makes the man unholy.”
~Mark 7:14-15 (TLV)
The heart of the matter regarding Mark 7 is the matter of the human heart. The entire focus of the passage is climaxed with this statement, thus the reason why Yeshua made it a point to call everyone in close to Him so they all heard this most important statement. Yet so many miss the point here and, because they think the parenthetical insert in verse 19—very likely not even original to the text, but added later as a side note—somehow makes the passage an abrogation of Torah food laws, despite this being contrary to the positive attitude toward following Torah expressed by Yeshua everywhere else throughout all Gospel records.
The focus of Yeshua’s teaching in Mark 7 was never really about what goes into you, something that clearly from the overall context does not justify eating unclean things. The emphasis was on whether or not you have sin in your heart which manifests itself by coming out of you.
Sin, as I so often say and have already pointed out in this message, is defined in 1 John 3:4 as the violation, transgressing, or breaking of Torah. With that in mind, let’s take a look at another very popular verse:
“If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.”
~John 14:15 (TLV)
Sadly, it seems the only time I ever hear this verse referenced in modern-day Churches is when they are calling on the people to pay tithes—and at that, there is a very good chance that the way they are presenting the act of tithing is completely unscriptural. But that is a discussion for another time. Just remember whenever you hear some preacher talking about tithing that the only time Yeshua addressed it was in saying you should do it without leaving other commandments undone. It’s the height of hypocrisy when modern preachers promote tithing while allowing people to believe that there is not an equal obligation to keep the food laws, the Sabbath, the Feasts, or anything else instituted in God’s Torah.
Yeshua is talking here about what proceeds out of the heart as being the source of defilement. So, let’s ponder something for a moment here: If sin is the breaking of Torah, and eating unclean things is an act of breaking Torah, then the desire to eat unclean things is something that proceeds out of the heart. Now, think about that for a moment. That means that anyone who uses Mark 7:19 as justification for eating things like pork, shellfish, and anything else on the “unclean list” is actually manifesting the exact act of sin proceeding from their wicked heart that Yeshua is speaking about and against in the very passage they are using to “justify” it.
Once again, Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8 and 10 speak to us about Torah being written on the heart of the true Believer. Part of Torah is the food laws. How can you have a desire to violate Torah if it is written on your heart? The fact is that by saying it is not what goes into you that defiles you but what comes up out of you is based in whether or not Torah is written on your heart and placed in your mind.
If you are saved, meaning that Torah is written in your heart and placed in your mind, what will come out of you is Torah-obedience. Thus, the entire point of this most important statement is that Torah is put inside of you so what comes out of you will be in harmony with Torah because if you love Messiah, you will keep the commandments [Torah].
Recall again that first law of hermeneutics listed: Scripture interprets Scripture. There is nothing at all in the passage that, in context, suggests that Mark 7 is in any way about the Leviticus food laws, let alone an abrogation of them. Pair this with the fact that Scripture dictates that the passage is about obeying Torah instead of man-made religious rules and if you are saved obedience to Torah is what will come out of you, and there really isn’t anything left for those who want this passage to justify eating unclean things. The current popular interpretation of this passage simply falls apart at this point.
Cleansing Pigs Or Purging Food?
Perhaps you are still not convinced, so I shall move on with another point that, while it has been alluded to already, must receive some more attention. According to numerous scholars, it is theorized that the statement “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean”, or any variation thereof, is not actually supposed to be part of the passage but developed through a later addition. Consider, for example, what is stated in Ellicott’s Bible Commentary: Volume 3:
It is possible conjecture that the words “cleansing all meats” may have been, at first, a marginal note (like the addition in Mar. 7:16), attached to “He saith,” and have afterwards found their way into the text.
Consider also what Geza Vermes, known for his work with the Dead Sea Scrolls and an instrumental figure in early efforts to bring awareness back to Christianity about the Jewishness of Yeshua, states in his book The Authentic Gospel Of Jesus:
The interpretation of the text offered by a good many New Testament scholars, namely that Jesus formally spoke against and rejected the dietary laws of Judaism, is misconceived. The words of Mark (7:19), ‘Thus he [Jesus] declared all foods clean”, did not come from Jesus, but were inserted as a gloss by the editor of the Gospel.
Have you ever seen someone who writes notes in their Bible? It is a common practice among Christians to jot down something their Pastor or someone else said in connection with a passage of Scripture or even to write down thoughts they have while reading The Bible in their own personal devotion time. Some people prefer taking notes with a separate notepad or using some type of note-taking device like a computer, while others write down such notes in the margins of their Bible next to the passage it relates to.
It is believed that this is what the phrase in question originated as—a note someone jotted down next to the confirmed portion of Mark 7:18-19. This would mean that this particular parenthetically inserted statement may not even belong in The Bible at all. Jan M. de Beer states in his book Did Jesus Really Declare All Foods Clean?:
All these findings indicate that the clause under discussion is an addition to the text, either by the evangelist (Mark) or by a scribe, that was incorporated in the text over time. This possibility is described by Metzger (1964:204).
We cannot determine with certainty whether the clause under discussion was an addition by Mark or by a later scribe, but it is clear that this clause is grammatically out of place. This means that the translation and interpretation of this clause should be done with great care, and the phrase should definitely not be taken at face value.
Now, I will contend that whatever translations are right and what ones are potentially wrong, this statement of Yeshua declaring all foods clean is still not a problem when we consider the entire passage in context. We know what the passage was about: Breaking a tradition of the elders by eating bread without first performing the ritual hand washing. So, we can very easily say, as Matthew 15:20 verifies, that declaring all foods clean was in the context of declaring it clean to eat bread, or any other biblically acceptable food item, without first following some extra-biblical hand-washing ceremony. That in itself would solve the problem, but there is actually more to this passage. Let’s take a look at some other translations.
Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?
~Mark 7:19 (KJV)
It does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and then it goes out of the body.’ By saying this, Jesus meant that food does not make a person dirty.
~Mark 7:19 (WE)
because it doth not enter into his heart, but into the belly, and into the drain it doth go out, purifying all the meats.
~Mark 7:19 (YLT)
For it does not enter into the heart but into the stomach, and then goes out into the sewer, cleansing all foods.
~Mark 7:19 (TLV)
For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and it passes out into the latrine.” (Thus he declared all foods ritually clean.)
~Mark 7:19 (CJB)
While there are some Bible translations that go to the extreme in making the parenthetical insert in question say that the food laws are abolished, such as the Amplified Bible (Classic Edition) where is goes so far as to say “Thus He was making and declaring all foods [ceremonially] clean [that is, abolishing the ceremonial distinctions of the Levitical Law]”, a majority of translations, including the AMPC, lean toward this theme of the natural process of the digestive system. Yeshua was using this process to illustrate the point that he had been making previously, both in regard to the exaltation of man-made traditions and to the point of what comes out of the heart being what truly defiles.
Again, we must consider what is being referred to here as food. No matter how anyone tries to translate the text or whether or not they include this questionable insert—which, as you can see, is not even included in the King James Version—we are obligated to define food in terms of the Greek bromata (βρώματα), derived from bróma (βρῶμα), where we find that food is defined in terms of the Leviticus food laws. No matter what, food in Mark 7 is defined under the following three terms:
- Food is defined in terms of bróma (βρῶμα): food (literally or figuratively), especially (ceremonially) articles allowed or forbidden by the Jewish law (Strong’s 1033).
- Food is defined in terms of bread, an item permitted to be eaten under the parameters of Torah and clearly not part of the Leviticus 11 laws concerning meats, being eaten regardless of whether or not the eater follows some set of man-made religious traditions first.
- Food is defined in terms of the basic digestive process of eating (that which is biblically acceptable) and the elimination of food waste into the toilet.
Additionally to all of this, nothing in this passage refers to unclean animals or any type of animal meats. Meat has no mention in Mark 7 and does not fit anywhere into the context of the passage. Tim Hegg, president of TorahResource, proposes a better translation of Mark 7:18-19 in his short article Mark 7:19b — A Short Technical Note:
And He said to them, “Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and goes out into the latrine, cleansing all foods (from the body)?
This rendering of the text does help eliminate the confusion. And while I agree that this is a good translation of the passage that clears up the matter, perhaps for some it would take a lengthier paraphrasing of these two verses, carrying in the context found in Matthew 15:20, to really grasp what Yeshua was saying in Mark 7:18-19 (and I’ll even apply the questionable parenthetical insert):
And He said to them, “Do you still not understand what I am saying? Don’t you get it that breaking man-made religious rules like eating bread without washing your hands according to the traditions of the elders has nothing to do with whether or not you are holy? This does not affect your heart [where Torah has been written], but goes into your stomach where your body processes it and then the parts not needed for bodily nutrition are eliminated in the toilet. Through this process [biblically clean] foods (βρῶμα) are purified through the digestive process, using the parts your body needs and discarding the parts it does not.” (In saying this, Yeshua declared all biblically clean foods to be pure regardless of whether or not you ritually washed your hands before eating them)
Are you following this? The passage in question was about eating foods that were considered foods according to Scripture and then going to the bathroom once the food had run its course through your body. Once again, the passage has absolutely nothing to do with the food laws.
Applying The Laws Of Hermeneutics
Do you recall the four laws of hermeneutics I presented at the beginning of this message and referred to throughout? They are: 1. Scripture interprets Scripture, 2. Context interprets Scripture, 3. Intent interprets Scripture, 4. The clear interprets the vague/obscure (never the other way around). So, in closing, let’s take a look at these four principles within the whole of the Mark 7 passage:
- Scripture Interprets Scripture: I have shown throughout this message that the popular interpretation of Mark 7:18-19, particularly the parenthetical insert that is questioned by many scholars, does not line up with Yeshua’s other teachings on Torah nor with the whole of Scripture where Torah-obedience is emphasized. In a message titled Torah: The Foundation Of All Truth I present that from the Patriarchs to the Prophets to the Apostles and even Yeshua Himself taught in favor of following Torah. The call to repentance in The Bible, from cover to cover, is a call to follow Torah. Thus, Scripture dictates that a proper interpretation of Mark 7:18-19 cannot void the food laws. If it did, it would create huge problems with so many of the points I have made, including the teachings of Yeshua Himself who said He came not to abolish Torah but to fulfill (fill you full) of Torah [which, again, harmonizes with Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8 and 10 where Torah is put in the mind and written on the heart of the true Believer]. If Scripture is used to interpret Mark 7:18-19, it is impossible for the passage to be an abrogation of the Leviticus 11 clean/unclean food laws.
- Context Interprets Scripture: I have shown throughout this message that the food laws are found nowhere in the context of the passage. The context originates with the enforcement of a man-made religious tradition of the elders to wash ones hands in a prescribed ceremonial manner, up to the elbows, before eating anything—even something as simple as bread. The context then advances into a rebuke against the exaltation of man-made religious rules and traditions. Finally, the context in the specific passage in question, verses 18 and 19, is an illustrative analogy of the digestive process. Once again, the Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 food laws are nowhere in the context of this passage. They must be forced there through the questionable hermeneutic method known as eisegesis (reading into the text something that you want it to say) instead of exegesis (interpreting the passage based on the four laws of hermeneutics).
- Intent Interprets Scripture: What was Yeshua’s intent through His statements? Obviously His intent was not to abrogate the food laws. We see this clearly in statements from leading scholars like Dr. Tomson who makes it clear that Yeshua would never teach such a thing. History and Scripture make clear that Yeshua was a Torah-observant Jewish Rabbi. He would never teach against Torah. So we must completely ignore the intent of THE MESSIAH HIMSELF in order to render Mark 7 as a voiding of the Leviticus food laws and approval to eat whatever we want without regard for Scripture.
- The Clear Interprets The Obscure/Vague: Clearly (no pun intended) this is the biggest point in a passage like this. We have a statement that is heavily debated about whether or not it is even supposed to be in The Bible at all. Then, that statement is particularly vague in that it refers simply to “food”, and at that is derived from an original word that is defined in one of the most widely regarded Bible Concordances, Strong’s, as referring specifically to food as defined in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. I have warned many times and will never stop warning people against using vague statements in the “New Testament” to override clear commandments (especially those from the Torah). Mark 7 is a prime example of this. We have a single isolated statement that we can’t even know with certainty belongs there. Then that statement doesn’t actually have anything to do with the food laws. When you use a passage like Mark 7:19b to claim you can ignore the clear commandments of Torah you are taking a huge risk. I remind you that we have passages like Isaiah 66:17, part of what most consider a prophetic picture of the Second Coming of Messiah, where it says He will destroy those who eat unclean things when He comes and Revelation 21:8 where “the abominable/detestable” are listed among those who have a place in the lake of fire—and the term “abomination/detestable” is used repeatedly to describe the act of eating what is called unclean in the Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 listings of animals acceptable to be eaten and those which are prohibited. These are things you simply cannot get around, no matter how hard you try. Scripture actually provides a valid argument that people will go to hell for eating pork and shellfish (Revelation 21:8), and that argument is much more legitimate than the argument that Mark 7 voids the prohibitions against eating these things. I know some people find it uncomfortable to consider that people will go to hell for something like what they chose to eat, in defiance of God’s commandments. While the food laws are much bigger than whether or not people will go to hell for rejecting them, it remains a fact that we would do good to not ignore. DO NOT use vague statements to override clear commandments. It’s one of the absolute dumbest things you can do as a Believer.
When it’s all said and done, as I have stated many times, there is no possible way Mark 7 is about a voiding of the food laws. Much like is done with other passages, such as Acts 10, Colossians 2, 1 Timothy 4, Romans 14, and 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, those who want such passages to abolish the food laws must read such an interpretation into the text. There is no clear mention of the food laws being abolished in any passage in the Gospels or the Apostolic writings—including the teachings of Paul—or even the slightest indication that such abolishment is being alluded to in them.
The moment a Believer sees this is typically the moment they realize that they really are obligated, even under the new covenant, to follow the Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 food laws and stop eating unclean things like pork and shellfish. And, in my experience, once a person raised in Christianity comes to this conclusion, they quickly realize the need to obey so many other commandments. This is that epiphany moment when the Believer realizes what it means to love God through obedience. Just remember, your Messiah said: “If you love Me, keep the commandments”, and that statement applies to more than just tithing—even though that’s the only commandment most Christian ministries today seem to apply to Yeshua’s saying. Following the food laws is an act of loving God. And remember, if loving God is defined by keeping His commandments, then not keeping them would have to be an act of hating God. Think about that for a while!
~Blessings and Shalom~
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