Episode 23: Most Christians believe that when Mark 7 tells us “thus he declared all foods clean,” that the biblical dietary restrictions were abolished once and for all. In Episode twenty-three viewers will learn that in order to understand these words, it is imperative to look into the Jewish context of the Mark 7 story, and in particular that the argument surrounded not food but ritual hand washing. It will be discovered that the dietary laws are indeed still in force for the Jewish people and will be the menu for the Messianic kingdom.
The Lesson: The Mystery of All Foods Clean
This episode takes on the traditional Christian doctrine that teaches Jesus abolished the Kosher food laws during his earthly ministry based on the following scripture:
And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)
–Mark 7:18-19 (ESV)
I understand something of the background of these scriptures and why they don’t actually prove that Jesus abolished the Kosher laws, but First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) teachers Toby Janicki and Aaron Eby did an excellent job at digging deeper and making points I had never considered before. After watching this episode, I challenge any Christian to continue believing that Jesus declared all foods “Kosher” based on the above quoted verses.
But first things first.
We find the basis for the Jewish Kosher laws in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 which outlines the foods Jews can and cannot eat according to the commandments of God. Toby didn’t mention this, but the basis for how food animals are to be slaughtered is only briefly mentioned in the Torah and thus, a significant amount of Rabbinic interpretation is involved in expanding on this important issue, adding more dimension to what makes an animal Kosher in relation to the method of execution and preparation.
However, as you’re about to discover, the discussion in Mark 7 had nothing to do with Kosher foods at all. In fact, it would have been a contradiction for Jesus to have “declared all foods clean” (Kosher) since in Matthew 5:17 Jesus said he had not come to abolish any of the Torah laws, and in Isaiah 66:17 the prophet said that in the future Messianic Kingdom, it will be an abomination to eat pork or mice (non-Kosher animals).
So if Jesus and the Pharisees weren’t even talking about “keeping Kosher,” what were they talking about?
Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, 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.) 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?”
–Mark 7:1-5 (ESV)
Toby has said in at least one prior episode that “context is King,” and we see that illustrated here. The beginning verses of this chapter show us that the Pharisees weren’t accusing Jesus and his disciples of eating pork chops with a side of shrimp scampi. It had to do with eating (bread) with defiled hands, that is, unwashed hands. It had to do with a particular practice that the Pharisees had of ritually washing not only their hands, but many other objects in order to achieve a level of ritual purity. This was completely irrelevant to the issue of Kosher or non-Kosher foods and was a tradition the Pharisees took upon themselves to honor God; a tradition of the elders.
The following is Jesus’ response to the allegations that his disciples didn’t keep the same ritual washing tradition as the Pharisees:
You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!
–Mark 7:8-9 (ESV)
Jesus turns the conversation completely around and accuses the Pharisees of being so concerned about non-Biblical traditions involving excessive ritual purity, that they neglected the higher moral laws of the Torah.
That brings us to Toby’s first clue:
Clue 1: The context of Mark 7 is ritual handwashing before eating, not the dietary laws of the Bible.
That’s pretty much where I thought Toby was going to go, but what happens next, I didn’t expect and in fact, Aaron’s Hebrew language lesson opened up new information for me, and went a long way to “sealing the deal” that Jesus and the Pharisees weren’t discussing the Kosher laws on any level in Mark 7.
There’s a world of difference in talking about the Kosher food laws and the concept of ritual purity. In Hebrew, the word for ritually clean is “Tahor” and the word for ritually impure is “Tamai.” This has nothing to do with sinning, but it does require a little background to understand the concepts and their relevancy to this discussion.
Aaron told a sort of story in order to illustrate his point. You have to imagine yourself as a Jewish person in the days of Jesus when the Temple was still standing. You are having the Passover meal with a family in Jerusalem. The lamb you will be eating was sacrificed at the Temple and, in order for a Jewish person to eat a Temple Sacrifice, that person has to be Tahor or ritually pure. This isn’t a requirement for having any Kosher meal, only for eating a Temple Sacrifice.
Aaron said that if one of the guests at the meal were to suddenly pass away, just the presence of a corpse at the Passover meal would render everything, including the people in attendance, as Tamai. They would no longer be able to eat the Passover lamb because they would be in a state of ritual impurity.
Again, this has nothing to do with sin. No one did anything wrong. There are many conditions listed in the Torah that could make a person Tamai. A woman who gives birth or who has her monthly period is considered Tamai. A man who has had typical marital relations with his wife is considered Tamai. That doesn’t mean they’ve done anything wrong, and it doesn’t mean they can’t eat anything, but one thing it does mean is that until they perform the rituals listed in the Bible to again become Tahor, they can not eat any Temple Sacrifice.
Aaron describes the procedure for returning to ritual purity, which you can get from the episode, but comprehending the meaning of Tahor and Tamai is critical to understanding the discussion in Mark 7.
It’s important to note that cycles of being Tahor and Tamai were a typical part of a Jewish human experience and even Jesus would have been Tamai and Tahor depending on a variety of circumstances. It has nothing to do with sin and a great deal to do with involvement in Temple ceremonies in ancient Israel for a Jewish person. Normal Kosher food can either be Tahor or Tamai, but as long as it’s not part of a Temple Sacrifice, it’s OK for a Jewish person to eat Tamai bread. There’s no sin.
This next part is the key (and I’d love to see Toby and Aaron’s source material on this matter – – bibliography, please). The Pharisees who confronted Jesus and his disciples in Mark 7 kept a particular practice where they treated every meal as if it were a Temple Sacrifice. This required them to exist in a constant state of ritual purity or be continually Tahor. They had to enter the mikvah and otherwise practice many ritual purity washings in all aspects of their day-to-day existence. This was absolutely not required by the Torah and had nothing to do with the Kosher laws, but was their way of honoring God, though God didn’t obligate them or any Jew to do so.
To maintain a constant state of ritual purity, the Pharisees (I don’t know if all Pharisees kept this practice or only some) had to avoid all contact with other Jews who did not keep the same excessive level of purity (and contact with Gentiles on any level was completely out of the question). These Pharisees led very complicated lives where even having a meal involved a great deal of preparation and would have been very difficult to maintain.
Back in the studio, Toby uses Aaron’s teaching to produce the second clue:
Clue 2: Mark 7 involves a sectarian preference of the Pharisees and not a Biblical requirement.
At this point, it should be abundantly clear that Mark 7 can’t be used as a proof text for the extinction of the Kosher laws at the hands of Jesus, but we have a problem.
…since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)
–Mark 7:19 (ESV)
We have a statement in parenthesis saying that Jesus declared all foods clean. Toby read from a variety of different Bible translations but only the King James Version translates this verse literally and omits any mention of Jesus declaring all foods or meats kosher or pure.
The words in parenthesis were added by the translators and are not in any of the original Greek texts. Toby was generous and said the translators were just trying to clarify the verse, but what they actually did was to impose their theology onto the Bible by adding words to it (which I think both the Torah and New Testament take a dim view of).
I’ll omit posting all of the different translation examples used by Toby except for the following:
He said to them, “Are even you lacking discernment? Do you not comprehend that whatever comes within a person from the outside of him does not contaminate him? For it does not come into his heart, but rather into his stomach, and it goes out to the toilet, which cleanses all that is eaten.”
–Mark 7:18-19 (DHE Gospels)
Here, Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being completely out of balance, giving ultimate importance to a man-made standard of excessive ritual purity while neglecting the moral implications of the Bible. The Pharisees were nearly obsessed with avoiding eating anything Tamai which, for non-Temple Sacrificed food, would not affect their relationship with God and would literally pass into the toilet, as opposed to ignoring the Torah commandments and thus becoming morally impure, those things that enter the heart and result in “evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness” (Mark 7:21-22 ESV).
Clue 3: The words “Jesus declared all foods clean” are not in the original Greek text.
This should go a long way in establishing to everyone familiar with these verses that they cannot possibly be interpreted the way the Church as typically understood them. The phrase about Jesus declaring all foods clean is a tragic example of the Christian church in all it’s denominations across much of history favoring man-made traditions (traditions of the elders) and ignoring the actual words of the Bible in their proper context.
This is an excellent example of why I’m a Christian who studies Messianic Judaism. The vast majority of Christian teachers would have not understood this point at all.
Toby quickly mentions that even though the Kosher laws were not done away with, that doesn’t mean Gentile Christians have to suddenly start separating their milk and meat products. The Kosher laws are applied to the Jewish people, while the only food restrictions for Gentile Christians are found in Acts 15 (and how the “Jerusalem letter” is understood would be a worthy study for a future episode of this show).
Toby also said that in the Messianic Era, the whole world (Jews and Gentiles alike) will be eating Kosher, which probably doesn’t sound like good news to most of the Christians who read my blog. How that works would also have to be covered in another FFOZ TV show since it represents another mystery.
What Did I Learn?
Aaron’s lesson and how Toby applied it was completely new to me. I had some understanding of the concepts of Tahor and Tamai, but I had no idea of the excessive levels of ritual purity practiced by the Pharisees of Mark 7 vs. Tahor and Tamai in relation to ordinary Kosher meals. I know most Christians will try to find a way around this, but for me, it was another example of how this show presents very tight arguments that help us correctly understand the Gospels from their original, apostolic perspective.
I found myself wishing Toby had tossed in a clue or two about Acts 10, since that’s the other major part of scripture used by Christians to “prove” that God did away with the Kosher laws. But then I remembered this:
You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean (emph. mine).
–Acts 10:28 (NRSV)
If you recall, earlier I said that the excessive level of ritual purity kept by the Pharisees in Mark 7 would make it impossible to have any sort of association with Gentiles, even to the point of entering their homes. Merely being in a non-Jewish home would pose a great risk of a Jew becoming Tamai for a number of reasons. Now this represents no sin, but for the Pharisees, who could not even eat a single meal in a state of Tamai, it would be exceptionally difficult to have relations with Gentiles.
But what about Peter? We already know that Jesus didn’t require his disciples to keep a level of ritual purity matching the Pharisees.
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them (emph. mine).
–Mark 7:1-2 (NRSV)
The text says that only some of Jesus’ disciples ate with unwashed hands, not all of them. Was Peter one of the Jewish disciples of Jesus who did keep a higher level of ritual purity, treating all meals as if he had to be Tahor to eat them? Was this excessive standard of purity considered the de facto standard among Jews until Jesus taught his disciples otherwise?
I don’t know, but since I do know the Torah does not say that it is unlawful for a Jew to “associate with or to visit a Gentile,” the fact that Peter was saying those words and his Jewish companions seemed to be aligned with this belief tells me it’s quite possible Peter kept some of these excessive purity laws (and I should mention that the tradition of washing hands, called Netilat Yadayim, is practiced by some observant Jews today).
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
–Acts 11:1-3 (NRSV)
Here we see Peter being confronted by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, the Jerusalem Council, which could very well have included James, the brother of the Master, and they were very surprised that Peter was associating with Gentiles. This confrontation seems to support that the apostles and brothers in Jerusalem also had adopted a higher set of standards of ritual purity than Jesus and the Torah required. This is very important in understanding the following:
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
–Galatians 2:11-14 (NRSV)
Apparently, Peter had become accustomed to eating and associating with Gentiles, that is, until some “certain people” showed up, probably important representatives from James and the apostolic council in Jerusalem. We can’t be certain of the sequence of events, but Galatians was probably written before Acts 15. However, did Peter already have his encounter with Cornelius in Acts 10? It seems likely if he initially was OK with associating with Gentiles, but he obviously struggled with the level of ritual purity and tradition he felt he needed to keep, and how it would look to James and the brothers in Jerusalem. He was influenced by peer pressure, unlike Paul, who was a lot more comfortable with being a Jewish man in close proximity to Gentiles, and knowing that did not make him unacceptable to God as a Jew.
Again and again, in all the so-called Christian “proof texts” which seem to abolish the Kosher laws, we see that the topic isn’t about Kosher foods at all, but rather how some Jews, including possibly Peter, kept a higher than necessarily level of ritual purity, and how that specific preference could be used to discriminate against the Gentile believers by “requiring” Gentiles in the body of Messiah not to be permitted to associate with believing Jews (at least those who kept this higher standard).
Sure, some of this is supposition on my part, but given all of the solid scriptural evidence of the maintaining of the Kosher laws for the Jewish people of the apostolic era (and by inference, among modern Jews today, including modern believing Jews), I think I make a good case in explaining the “food” issues of Acts 10 and Galatians 2. Some of my conclusions are also derived from the opinions and research of New Testament scholar and author Mark Nanos, which I’ve previously recorded on this blog.
I know some Christians who express great joy at not “being under the Law” and who would be pretty dismayed at my conclusions, but as Toby said, there’s nothing in the Bible that tells us non-Jewish Christians must keep the Kosher laws. The Didache, an early document dated to the second or even first centuries and purportedly used to train new Gentile disciples of the Jewish Messiah entering the Jewish religious stream of “the Way,” offers no requirement or even mention of the Kosher laws as applied to non-Jewish believers, and only stresses that the Gentiles should avoid meats sacrificed to idols (which mirrors the Acts 15 directives to Gentile disciples). While I think any non-Jewish believer can take on board additional Torah mitzvoth, including Kosher, voluntarily (and the Didache also supports this), it’s voluntary and a matter of conviction between the person and God.
Just remember that the Pharisees also kept a standard of observance that was higher than what God required of them as well, and it resulted in them becoming so focused on those excessive standards that they ended up ignoring what actually was required of them. If you, as a Christian, feel you want to modify your eating habits to reflect some level of Kosher or Kosher-like observance, just remember that such observance by a Gentile believer will never be as important to God as what is required of us, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).
Final note: this is probably a good time to mention that there are only three more episodes in the series available for me to review. Given the value I’ve found in what I’ve seen so far, I hope the folks at FFOZ consider producing more shows in this excellent television series soon.