Jesus undermined the religious rationale for dietary restrictions. With the Messiah’s arrival, old rituals lost their relevanceMark 7:1-23.

Jerusalem was the center of the religious and political opposition to Jesus, and especially the Temple and priestly authorities. From this point forward in Mark, he experienced increasing conflict with the religious authorities, the Pharisees, scribes, and the representatives of the high priest. Not long after this next incident, certain opponents began to plot his demise.

Controversy erupted over what constitutes ceremonial uncleanness. The Greek term rendered “unclean” more correctly means “common” (koinos). It refers not to something that is immoral or filthy, but to that which is “common” as opposed to something that is “sacred” or set apart for service to God.

Something was not “unclean” because it was inherently evil, but because it was for common use rather than being consecrated to God.

  • (Mark 7:1-5) – “And the Pharisees and some of the Scribes, having come from Jerusalem, were gathering together towards him. And having observed some of his disciples, that with common hands, that is, unwashed, they ate bread, for the Pharisees and all the Jews except they properly wash the hands eat not, holding fast the tradition of the elders. And coming from the marketplace, except they immerse themselves, eat not and many other things there are which they accepted to hold fast, immersions of cups and pitchers and copper vessels and beds. And the Pharisees and the Scribes were questioning him: For what reason do your disciples walk not according to the tradition of the elders but eat bread with common hands?”

Many of the rituals for maintaining and restoring ritual purity were developed later by the religious authorities (“the elders”), and many of the practices of the “scribes and Pharisees” described in the gospel accounts are not found in the Hebrew Bible.

According to the Mosaic Law, only priests were required to wash before entering the Tabernacle. For non-priests, the washing of hands was required only if a person had touched a bodily discharge. The things that rendered Israelites “unclean” if touched included human excretions (semen, menstrual blood, spit, excrement), women after childbirth, corpses, lepers, and some classes of people – (Exodus 30:19, 40:13, Leviticus 15:11, 22:1-6).

Earlier in Mark, Jesus had contact with tax collectors, lepers, Gentiles, menstruating women, and corpses. Washing hands or the body to deal with such pollutions had nothing to do with hygiene and everything to do with restoring or maintaining ritual purity – (Mark 1:40, 2:13, 5:1, 5:25, 5:35). 

A bed was particularly susceptible to ritual pollution due to the night secretions of the body (semen and menstrual blood). The “marketplace” was also where the risk of contamination was high. That is why the passage also refers to “immersions” after a man returns from the market.

In the account, the bone of contention was the washing of hands before eating, but the Torah did not require Israelites to do so prior to eating a meal. This practice was based on later oral traditions. The Pharisees were imposing requirements from the Law that applied to priests ministering in the Temple to the everyday life of all Jews. What Jesus attacked was the “tradition of the elders,” the interpretations of the religious authorities, and NOT the Torah itself.

The question raised by his opponents concerned the condition of the one who ate (“Why do your disciples eat with unclean hands?”). The term “marketplace” points to their real concern; anything from that public place could easily render them “unclean” due to the improper handling of food and other items by less devout Jews or contact with Gentiles.

  • (Mark 7:6-13) – “Now he said to them: Well prophesied Isaiah concerning you, the hypocrites, as it is written, THIS, THE PEOPLE, WITH THE LIPS DO HONOR ME, YET THEIR HEART IS HOLDING OFF FAR FROM ME. MOREOVER, VAINLY ARE THEY REVERING ME, TEACHING AS TEACHINGS ORDINANCES OF MEN. Having negated the ordinance of God, you are grasping the tradition of men. And he was saying to them: Well are you nullifying the ordinance of God, in order to keep your own tradition. For Moses said: HONOR YOUR FATHER AND YOUR MOTHER, and HE WHO REVILES FATHER OR MOTHER SHALL END IN DEATH. Moreover, you say if a man says to father or mother, Korban, whatever from me you might benefit, no longer are you allowing him to do anything for father or mother, invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you delivered. And many similar things such as this are you doing.”

Some English translations fail to convey a wordplay from the Greek text, “teaching teachings, the ordinances of men” (didaskontes didaskalias). This alludes to Isaiah 29:13 – “Yahweh said, ‘because this people draw near with their words, and honor me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from me, and their reverence for me consists of tradition learned by rote.”

In his pronouncement, Jesus used two strong verbs (“having negated the ordinance of God, grasping the tradition of men”). The scribes and Pharisees had negated the ordinance of God and they were clinging to human traditions rather than to the original commandments of God.

Korban” is from the Hebrew word that referred to offerings dedicated exclusively to the use of God and not for any ordinary use. Some Jews would set aside property to deny its use to their parents or other family members, and in this way, they avoided the obligation to support their parents. Any property declared korban passed to the Temple on the man’s death – (Exodus 20:12, 21:17).

The issue was whether this added practice could be used to set aside a commandment of God. Those engaging in the practice used the later tradition to circumvent the original intent of the Law, in this case, for children to honor their parents, and thus, they annulled the commandment of the Torah by using a later oral tradition.

  • (Mark 7:14-23) – “And again, having summoned the multitude, he was declaring to them: Heed me, all of you, and understand. There is nothing from outside the man that enters him that can defile him, but the things proceeding out from the man are the things defiling the man. And when he entered a house from the multitude, his disciples were questioning him about the parable. And he says to them: Thus, also, are you without understanding? Do you not perceive that nothing from outside entering into the man can defile him, because it is entering not into his heart but into the stomach and it proceeds into the latrine, cleansing all foods? And he was saying: That proceeding out from the man defiles the man. For from within out of the heart of men the wicked things are coming forth – fornication, theft, murder, adulteries, lusts, malice, treacheries, indecencies, an evil eye, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these wicked things are coming forth from within and defiling the man.”

In the Greek clause, the words “thus,” “he,” and “declared” are not present, and all marks of punctuation were later scribal additions to the text. The consists of four words: katharizōn panta ta brōmata, and it more correctly reads, “cleansing all the foods.” The point was that consuming some foods did not make a man “unclean.” All food goes into the stomach and ends up in the latrine. The body separates the pure from the impure.

His statement did not abrogate the Levitical food regulations, and the question of their continuing validity was not the immediate issue. However, his pronouncement does remove the religious rationale for dietary restrictions – (Romans 14:1-17, Colossians 2:16-23).

What differentiates the holy from the unholy are the actions and intentions produced by the heart. It is a moral action, willful decisions on the part of individuals, that make a man or woman “clean” or “unclean,” not external religious rituals or which foods someone consumes.

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