What About Mark 7?
Did Jesus do away with the dietary laws that God gave his people in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, rendering them obsolete? Many people think so, and they turn to Mark 7 for evidence of this. Indeed, in some translations we read that Jesus "declared all foods clean" (7:19). What is really going on in this passage?
In order to understand what Jesus is teaching here, we need to consider the broader context, not only of this event, but of Jesus' ministry as a whole. His clearly expressed viewpoint concerning Torah is that it is eternal (Matt. 5:18) in all of its details. NOt one jot or tittle will pass from the Torah until heaven and earth disappear. This knowledge needs to inform our reading of Jesus in other passages.
This passage in Mark 7 is the only place in the gospels where Jesus is seen to be abolishing commands from the Torah. The issue doesn't even arise in the parallel passage in Matthew 15. Matthew, if he was copying from Mark, doesn't seem to consider that an important part of the incident. And Jesus generally tended to accuse people of not keeping Torah (John 7:19; Matt. 15:6) or of weakening it (Matt. 5:20-42). If we are going to build an entire perspective of Jesus on one passage, we need to be very clear that we understand what he is teaching.
The incident is introduced in Mark 7:1. Jesus is in Galilee and a group of Pharisees had come from Judea, and they noticed that his disciples were eating without having first washed their hands in a ritually prescribed manner. Dr. David Flusser, a Jewish scholar, has pointed out that in the time of Jesus, washing hands before a meal was not part of either the written or the oral Torah. No one could possibly have accused the disciples of violating the Torah by not washing their hands. And here it is simply the "tradition of the elders" that they are accused of violating. We need to be clear that the issue here is not washing hands for sanitary purposes, but for making the washer ritually clean, which is never commanded in scripture.
Jesus jumps to the defense of his disciples by showing how some of their "traditions" are actually contrary to the commands of God in Torah. In the example he gives, these Pharisees voluntarily dedicate some of their resources to the temple, and use that as an excuse to avoid caring for their aged parents, thus breaking the Torah command to honor their parents. Jesus is clear here that Torah is the priority; man-made rules may not nullify Torah.
Then Jesus turns to the crowd and expounds on the topic of ritually clean and unclean, making a comparison between ritually and morally unclean. He states that nothing that goes into a man makes him unclean. This is perfectly compatible with the Jewish legal position, as has been recognized by many scholars. Eating forbidden food is never said to make the eater unclean; it is contact with the dead carcasses that makes a person unclean (Lev. 11:24). The digestive system is not part of either ritual or moral uncleanness. Jesus makes clear that of greater importance than ritual purity is moral purity. It is things that proceed from the heart that relate to moral purity.
After teaching the crowd, Jesus went into a house and spoke with his disciples, who obviously hadn't understood his teaching. He clarifies to them that eating food does not make a person ritually unclean. It passes through the entire digestive system and out of the body again, at no point affecting the person's ritual cleanliness.
It is at this point that Mark inserts the words that are so often the issue in understanding this passage. Into what is clearly a speech of Jesus, Mark interpolates the words, katharidzon panta ta bromata, "cleansing all foods" (7:19). Is Jesus saying that it's now O.K. to eat ham?
There are two distinct ways of understanding the use of the participle (i.e. cleansing) in this passage. One interpretation takes it to modify the verb "said" at the very beginning of verse 18, almost two whole verses previous. In this understanding it is Jesus words in verses 18 and 19 that cleanse all foods and the phrase about cleansing is taken as an editorial comment by Mark. Since Jesus hasn't been talking about the issue of clean and unclean foods in the first place, this hardly seems likely. It would entail a complete change of subject.
The other understanding is that "cleansing" modifies the verb immediately previous, ekporeuetai ("it goes out"). This would be the natural understanding of such a construction. And it would have Jesus explaining that foods continue to be clean even as they pass entirely through the digestive system and out again. This is what Jesus has been talking about, both to the crowd and the disciples. Obviously, only the things that God has defined as food would be included in Jesus' usage. This would exclude many kinds of animal flesh.
It is obvious that Jesus is not making a comment on kosher eating at all, as he goes on with his main point. It is the things that emerge from a man's heart, not foods at all, that indicate his moral cleanness, which is far more important than the man-made traditions (not even part of the Torah) regarding ritual purity. Matthew has Jesus summarize the whole discussion by saying, "but eating with unwashed hands does not make him unclean" (15:20). If we keep in mind what Jesus is really talking about, eating without ritually washing first, we won't make the mistake of thinking that Jesus is canceling Torah.