Jesus declared all foods clean. That seems obvious enough from Mark chapter seven and its parallels. After all, Mark 7:19 states the matter very succinctly: “Thus He declared all foods clean.” Therefore, anyone prompting Christians to reconsider the Hebrew Scriptures’ laws of clean and unclean meats would seem to be sadly misinformed. If Jesus declared all foods clean, who are we to say that pork or even camel meat is unclean?
But there are some quandaries with our traditional reading of Mark seven. First, how can Jesus legitimately declare all foods clean when His heavenly Father has said that we are to distinguish between clean and unclean meats? Can Jesus topple the laws of the Father? Wouldn’t that be a contradiction?
There are more problems. If He did declare that all foods are clean, He would disqualify Himself as Messiah because His teaching would be contrary to the written Word of God. The Bible says that a legitimate King of Israel is not to depart from the Law of God either to the right or to the left. Toppling the laws of Leviticus 11 would certainly be a big left turn. His opponents among the Pharisees would have all the evidence that they needed to impugn Him without any further inquiry. “This man is not from God; He teaches against the laws of God.”
Finally, the Greek manuscripts of the book of Mark do not actually contain the words, “Thus He declared all foods clean.” Check your trusty old King James Version of Mark 7:19. It reads quite differently.
Let’s take a fresh look at the passage in its full context.
The Delegation from Jerusalem
The Sanhedrin had heard enough reports about the prophet from Galilee that they decided to investigate. Their job was to determine if Jesus was a legitimate man of God or if He was a heretic. Deuteronomy 13:4-5 warns about any prophet who might preach “rebellion against the LORD your God” or try to “seduce you from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk.” According to that passage, any man claiming to speak on God’s behalf and teaching against the commandments of God was to be put to death.
The Sanhedrin wanted to ascertain if Jesus (who appeared to be a prophet) spoke and acted in accordance with God’s Word or not. If they determined that He was teaching against the Torah or in contradiction to the commandments, then they were obligated to expose Him as a false prophet and prosecute Him. As the guardians of the faith, that was their job.
Upon arriving in the Galilee, the delegation found Jesus and His disciples breaking bread and eating. The Pharisees immediately observed that the disciples did not perform a ritual hand washing before eating. They must have wondered about this. If this were really a prophet or the Messiah, wouldn’t He have taught His disciples regarding the uncleanness of the hands?
The custom of ritual hand washing before handling and eating food was a Pharisaic tradition, but it was not a commandment of the Scriptures. It belonged to the legislation of the Oral Torah, allegedly received from Moses at Mount Sinai. An entire section of the Mishnah (part of the Oral Torah) is dedicated to the subject of ritual hand washing. Although proven valuable in basic hygiene, the requirement to wash one’s hands before eating is not a biblical commandment.
The reasoning behind ritual hand washing can be derived from the Bible. In the Bible, human beings can become unclean or even ritually contaminating. For example, someone who has touched a corpse becomes not only unclean, but anything he touches will also be rendered contaminated. In addition, we have seen that the Bible specifies that the meat of certain animals is unclean and therefore forbidden for consumption, whereas other meats are clean and are therefore permissible.
The Oral Torah took these basic Bible concepts and combined them for what might be a logical conclusion: that touching bread with unclean hands rendered the bread unclean. According to this idea, an unclean person handling otherwise clean food renders that food unclean and therefore forbidden for consumption. Thus if you were unclean (for whatever reason) and went to eat a peanut-butter sandwich with ritually unclean hands, that sandwich would be rendered ritually unclean by your touch. Suddenly the peanut-butter sandwich would be almost as unclean as a ham sandwich. Remember though, this is all inferred. It is not stated anywhere in the Bible. It is a matter of Pharisaic tradition.
The Pharisees took it very seriously and added more than a little superstition to it as well. For example, the Talmud in tractate Yoma speaks of an evil spirit that clings to people’s hands until they are ritually washed. Consider the following excerpts from the Talmud:
Anyone who does not wash his hands before he eats bread is as unclean as if he had had sex with a prostitute, as it is written, “for the prostitute reduces you to a loaf of bread.” (b.Sotah 4b citing Proverbs 6:26)
Rabbi Zerika said in the name of Rabbi Eleazar, “Whoever disregards the washing of hands before a meal will be uprooted from the world…” Rabbi Abbahu says, “Whoever eats bread without first washing his hands is as though he eats unclean food; as it is written, ‘In this way the people of Israel will eat defiled food.” (b.Sotah 4b citing Ezekiel 4:13)
If these quotes at all represent the conviction of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, we understand their shock and disappointment that Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands according to the traditions of the elders. They would regard such an abrogation of the religious norm as a strike against Jesus’ legitimacy.
Contradicting God’s Commandments
But does the Bible really say that bread can be made unclean and contaminating by being handled with unwashed hands? No, it does not.
So they asked Jesus, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?”
The Master replies with a quote from Isaiah that essentially discounts these ritual hand washings as “rules taught by men.” That is to say they are not commandments of God; they are merely human innovations. Obsession with ritual minutia can be a substitute for genuine faith and obedience. He tells them that in their pursuit of ritual purity they have neglected the legitimate commandments of God: “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” He also told them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.”
But washing one’s hands before eating seems like a harmless enough tradition. How could it contradict the command of God?
In Leviticus God commands: “You are to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean, and between the edible creature and the creature which is not to be eaten” (Leviticus 11:47). By declaring otherwise clean food to be unclean (simply because it had been touched by unwashed hands), the Pharisees were transgressing the commandment to correctly “make a distinction between the unclean and the clean.” They were declaring what was fit for consumption to be unfit. They were declaring what was permissible to be forbidden, all on the basis of a tradition. In essence, the commandments of God that delineate between clean and unclean were being disregarded in favor of a tradition.
An Unclean Heart
Jesus goes on to declare to the crowd that nothing going into a man can make a person unclean; rather, what comes out of a man is what makes him unclean. When Jesus and the disciples were alone in the house, the disciples question Him about the teaching. They were perplexed by Jesus’ words because they understood full well from biblical law that there are a variety of things a person can eat that render him unclean.
After soundly rebuking the Pharisees for employing traditions that nullify the commandments of God, would Jesus Himself turn around and nullify Leviticus 11? No. The disciples misunderstood because they thought He was speaking literally. He was not. It was a parable. The text says so in Mark 7:17. Frustrated that they had taken Him literally and missed the larger point He was making, He asked them, “Are you so lacking in understanding also?” (Mark 7:18).
It is easy to see how the disciples lacked in understanding! Like them, we typically take the Master’s words and apply them to Leviticus 11, as if that were the subject He was talking about. We mistakenly assume Jesus was speaking literally, and therefore He somehow overturned the laws of permissible and forbidden meats.
Jesus explains to His disciples that it is not ritual purity (clean and unclean) that He is concerned about; it is the uncleanness of the heart. He was not talking about actual Levitical purity at all except to use the purity framework to illustrate His point about the purity of a person’s heart. Eating unclean food does not make a person’s heart unclean. Whatever you eat passes through the system. It does not lodge in the heart (except maybe cholesterol). However, things that rise from within a person such as evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly make the heart unclean.
Thus nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him “unclean” where “unclean” means having an unclean heart. Eating unclean bread does not make a man’s heart unclean. Instead, the Master points out that unclean bread “entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats” (Mark 7:19 KJV). That is to say, it passes through the digestive system and goes out the end opposite from whence it came in. This is the plain meaning of the passage.
Yet some translators take the clause “purging all meats” as a narrator’s parenthetical statement and translate “purging” as “Thus He declared all foods clean.” The words “Thus He declared,” however, are not in the Greek text. They are supplied by the translator to make the new construction of the sentence fit. The Greek text literally says, “purging all foods.” Jesus was not setting aside the Law; He was talking about (ahem) “going potty.”
The NASB translation, for example, takes the clause as a parenthetical summary statement. As we have already noted, the old King James follows a more literal reading. But what if the parenthetical statement created by the translators is actually correct? Is it possible that Jesus, contrary to Torah, declared all foods clean?
The assumed parenthetical statement is often cited as the major proof for the belief that Jesus abrogated the dietary laws. The common belief is that as a result of Mark 7:19, we can now eat ham roasted in snail sauce.
But even if the phrase should be translated as a parenthetical statement, we must ask ourselves, “What is the context of Jesus’ comments?” Were the disciples actually eating unclean food? They were not. When criticized by the Pharisees, they were eating bread. What does eating bread have to do with God’s laws of clean and unclean mat? How can bread be unclean?
Jesus did not declare all foods clean; He did not contradict the Scriptures; and He is the legitimate King of Israel who did not depart from God’s Law, neither to the right nor to the left.
An excerpt from “HOLY COW!” by Hope Egan.