Jesus and Food Purity Laws

SYNOPSIS:  According to the gospel of Mark, Jesus overturned the logic behind religious-based dietary restrictions – Mark 7:20-23.

variety of vegetables

At one point, Jesus came into conflict with the Jews from Jerusalem about eating food with unwashed hands. They believed doing so rendered a person “common” or “unclean,” that is, ritually impure.  The conclusion Jesus pronounced at the end of this story undermines the religious logic behind such food laws (Matthew 15:1-20Mark 7:1-23 [See also, ‘Paul on Food and Calendrical Regulations’]).

The Pharisees and Scribes objected to his disciples for “eating with unwashed hands” and confronted Jesus about the matter. In their minds, the disciples had rendered themselves ceremonially unclean.

The Jews from Jerusalem raised two issues:  first, the disciples were not “walking” according to the “traditions of the elders.”  Second, they were eating with unwashed hands:

(Mark 7:1-5) – “And the Pharisees and certain of the Scribes who have come from Jerusalem gather themselves together unto him; and, observing certain of his disciples that with defiled hands, that is unwashed, they are eating bread—For the Pharisees and all the Jews, unless with care they wash their hands, eat not, holding fast the tradition of the elders; and coming from market, unless they sprinkle themselves they eat not—and many other things there are which they have accepted to hold fast—immersions of cups and measures and copper vessels——and so the Pharisees and the Scribes question him—For what cause do thy disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but with defiled hands eat bread?” – (The Emphasized Bible).

Rather than cite a passage from the Mosaic Law, the Pharisees and Scribes complained that the disciples were violating the “tradition of the elders.” Some groups within Second Temple Judaism had developed a comprehensive system of oral traditions, many of which concerned ritual purity. The Torah or Mosaic law did not require what the opponents of Jesus were demanding.

The Law commanded that priests wash before entering the Tabernacle. For a common Israelite, the washing of hands was necessary only if he or she touched a bodily discharge (Exodus 30:19, 40:13, Leviticus 22:1-6, Leviticus 15:11).

Previously, Jesus had pushed the boundaries of Pharisaic scruples over ritual purity when he had contact with lepers, tax collectors, Gentiles, a menstruating woman, and corpses. He now pushes their rules to the breaking point by claiming that it is not food that renders a person profane or “unclean.”

Jesus rejected the “tradition” or halakah of the elders by responding, “Wherefore do you also transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition”. In contrast, he cited a passage from the Book of Isaiah and accused his opponents of hypocrisy. He then gave a real-life example of how their traditions nullified God’s commandments and evaded the Law’s real intent.

(Isaiah 29:13-14) – “Wherefore My Lord hath said—Because this people hath drawn near with their mouth, And with their lips have honoured me, But their heart have they moved far from me, And so their reverence of me hath become A commandment of men in which they have been schooled, Therefore, behold me! again dealing wonderfully with this people, doing wonderfully a wonderful thing—So shall perish the wisdom of their wise men, And the intelligence of their intelligent men shall vanish!” – (The Emphasized Bible).

Jesus brought up the custom of ‘Corban,’ a practice that enabled a man to earmark property as a gift to God for redemption later.  In the interim, the man was free to do as he wished with the property and could deny access to it to his parents and, thus, deprive them of financial support.  This violated the Law’s intention for Israelites to honor their fathers and mothers (Exodus 20:12).

At first, Jesus appeared to reaffirm the eternal validity and immutability of the Torah.  But he went beyond it by getting to the heart of the matter. He declared, “not that which enters into the mouth defiles the man, but that which proceeds out of the mouth, the same defiles the man.” In private, he explained to his disciples:

(Mark 7:20-23) – “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within out of the heart of man come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and they defile a man.”

It is not food that renders a man unfit for service to God but sinful acts and self-serving intentions.  As for food, it enters the mouth but “does not enter into the heart but into the stomach whence it proceeds into the latrine,” thus “cleansing all foods.”

These words of Jesus undermine the food restrictions found in the Torah, regulations that governed “clean” and “unclean” meats.  Effectively, he removed the religious logic for dietary restrictions.

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