by Jeffrey J. Harrison


Appreciating and accepting the Jewish roots of Christianity doesn't mean we must accept Jewish tradition uncritically. Jesus certainly didn't. He drew the line between the "traditions of men" of the Pharisees and Biblical teaching. But we must be very careful to distinguish what Jesus actually taught from the centuries of anti-Semitic interpretation given to his words.

Mark 7 is a case in point. Christian tradition has read this chapter as a negation of the Jewish food laws. But is that really what it's talking about?

The controversy begins in Mark 7 with a detailed description of the Pharisaic practice of ritual handwashing (netilat yadayim; Mark 7:1-3): "For the Pharisees and all the Jews [or possibly "Judeans"] do not eat unless they wash their hands to the wrist, keeping the tradition of the elders" (Mark 7:3). This was still a relatively new teaching. It had only been established as a legal requirement in the generation before Jesus, the generation of the famous rabbis Hillel and Shammai.

When the Pharisees went on to ask Jesus why his disciples didn't observe this practice, Jesus delivered his famous rebuke, "Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men" (Mark 7:8). Jesus was not alone in his negative opinion of the ritual washing of hands. Rabbi Eleazar ben Enoch was put under the ban because he rejected it (Eduy. 5:6). The famous Rabbi Akiva also disapproved, though he obeyed it (Er. 21b).

Why did Jesus object to this practice? One of the reasons given for ritual handwashing by the Pharisees was to avoid transferring ritual uncleanness to food, which would result in eating unclean food.* But as Jesus points out, "Nothing by entering into a man from the outside can defile him" (Mark 7:18). That is, unclean food does not as a result of entering into the body make a person unclean. This he proves by observing that after entering the stomach, unclean food is digested and expelled, a process by which it loses its ritual uncleanness: "It does not enter into his heart, but into the stomach, and goes out into the toilet, which makes all foods clean" (Mark 7:19).

* Though the Law of Moses nowhere forbids eating ritually unclean food. Another justification for the practice was the assumption, invented by the rabbis, that hands are always ritually unclean. This is quite different than the description of ritual uncleanness found in the Bible, which only resulted from known contact with specific types of uncleanness and made the entire body unclean, after which the entire body must be cleansed (in a ritual bath; Lev. 15).

This verse has proven difficult to Christians for several reasons. The first has to do with the word "toilet" (or latrine). For some reason, many assume that speaking about ordinary bodily functions is beneath Jesus, and so translators regularly change the meaning of the word to something else. Yet the Greek word that appears here, aphedron, clearly means a toilet.

Another problem is that most Gentile Christians have no familiarity with the Jewish and Biblical concept of ritual uncleanness. So what Jesus says here sounds completely contrary to common sense. How can something that goes out into the toilet be clean? But ritual uncleanness is not concerned with dirt, but rather with death (see our teaching Clean and Unclean).

As strange as it may seem to say, human waste is a sign of life. And though it is certainly "shameful" when exposed, it's a normal part of our bodily functions, and so presents no ritual obstacle to coming into the presence of God: it is ritually clean (Deut. 23:12-14). Rather, Jesus said, it is the evil thoughts that come out of a person's heart that defile a person (Mark 7:20-23).

But because Jesus' words were so difficult to understand, other interpretations arose over the years. One of the most popular was to see here an abrogation of the Jewish food laws. This resulted in the translation of Mark 5:19, still popular today, "thus he declared all foods clean" (NASB, also in the NIV). But it's important to realize that the words "thus he declared" do not appear in the original language of the Bible. It simply says, "cleansing all foods," a reference to the process of digestion that Jesus was talking about.

So did Jesus abolish the Jewish food laws? Absolutely not. He's not talking in this chapter about which foods are permitted for eating (an area of Jewish Law known as kashrut), but about contact uncleanness (an area of Jewish Law known as tohoroth). To claim that his words here are an abrogation of the Jewish food laws is in violation of his own teaching, in Matt. 5:17: "Do not suppose that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets." Jesus came to uphold God's Word against the traditions of men.

It's important to remember, though, that in the Law he came to uphold, these food laws (kashrut) were not given to everyone. The Law of Moses makes a clear distinction between the "sons of Israel" and the Gentile "sojourners" living among them. Sometimes the Law includes both groups in its instructions, at other times, its instructions are only for the sons of Israel. In the case of the Jewish food laws, these are specifically delivered "to the sons of Israel" (Lev. 11:2), an understanding that the apostles specifically affirmed in the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:5,10,19,20,29).

Why is this important? Because sometimes in our zeal for the Jewish roots of our faith we overlook the specific details of God's fascinating plan for mankind. We cannot affirm some parts of God's Law (both Old and New Testament) and reject others. Part of God's Law is the distinction of Israel from the other peoples of the earth, and the distinct calling of the Gentiles as a second witness to God's truth (1 Cor. 7:18-20).

The Law of Moses is a covenant made by God with the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai. While Gentiles are mentioned in this Law, most of it is directed to the sons of Israel.* If you're a Gentile Christian, your covenant with God is primarily the New Covenant in Messiah, which does not include food laws (with one exception, the prohibition of blood; Acts 15:20,29; see our teaching on The Laws of Noah). In our zeal to uphold God's Word, let's do as Jesus would, and uphold all of it, including God's distinction between Jews and Gentiles.

* The Gentiles mentioned in the Law of Moses were Gentiles actually living among the Israelites. For them, the Law of Moses prescribes a much smaller set of laws than for the native-born Israelites. Read more about this in our teaching on The Laws of Noah.

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Updated 11/24/11. Copyright © 2008, 2009, 2011 by Jeffrey J. Harrison.  All rights reserved.
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