Thursday, 17 November 2016

New Testament and the Food Laws 2: A response to J.Piper.

Did Jesus declare all 'foods' clean?

Without knowing the whole story, we are bound to misinterpret things. There is a TV trope known as ‘Out of Context Eavesdropping’ where one person hears only one side of a conversation and jumps to the wrong conclusion. For example, on an episode of the Simpsons Lisa overhears her crush talking to someone names Clara and thinks she is his girlfriend. But it is his sister. Or in an episode of Diff’rent Strokes, Willis and Arnold overhear their adopted father say that black boys should be with black families, and end up thinking that he doesn’t want them. But it turns out that he was just repeating what a white social worker had said before she was thrown out. Without understanding other cultures, misunderstandings are bound to arise too. Consider how in Japan, the common American act of tipping is actually taken as an insult. Or how in the Middle East a thumbs-up is the equivalent of giving someone the bird. Similar things happen in Christianity too. Many onlookers since the beginning have questioned why we ‘eat the body of our god’ because they misunderstand Communion. So, as we can see, it is important that we understand cultural context and get all the information, lest we come up with a misguided interpretation of what others are about. And this is also true when we approach the scripture. It is easy to unintentionally misread a passage of scripture because we import modern ideas or we are missing a key piece of historical/cultural information. We saw in our last post that this was true of Matthew 5:17, and as we will see in the following posts, it is also true of Mark 7.

In my last post, I agreed with John Piper that we as followers of Jesus need to listen to what Christ said about the Old Testament Law. Having considered textual, idiomatic, and linguistic context of ‘fulfil’ from the first example that he provided of Matthew 5, we saw that Jesus was actually teaching the opposite of what Piper suggested it meant, namely, that in fulfilling the Law, He was faithfully teaching and upholding it. We also saw that there was nothing in the law or the prophets that demonstrate that God had intended for the faux category of ‘ceremonial law’ to be only temporary.
There is, however, another teaching from Jesus that Piper quoted which looks very much like He did do away with the food laws, and that is from Mark 7:15-19:
 There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 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.)
And reading that does make it look like a ‘done deal’. 'See, Jesus declared all foods clean.' And for Piper, “[this] is the key text…” But is this verse saying what we think it says? Did Jesus in fact annul and abolish the food laws in this dispute with the Pharisees? Let’s look at the textual and cultural-historical context before examining its linguistic context.

In verses 1-5, we are provided with the situational context and we discover that the dispute was about the washing of hands according to ‘the traditions of the elders’. As the Pharisees asked Jesus “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (v5). As Mark explains, the Pharisees had taught all the Jews that they must wash (baptise) their hands and cups and crockery before eating, especially after being in the marketplace. This is not because they are germaphobes, but because of their understanding of clean and unclean. They believed that everyday things considered ‘clean’ can be contaminated by something unclean. In this case, they believed that by being in the marketplace among the Gentiles that their hands would become contaminated. And if they did not ceremonially wash their hands, their food would become inedible through its defilement. When something clean became defiled, the Pharisees called it ‘common’, or in the Greek koinen. For example, the disciples were eating with ‘koinais hands' (Mark 7:2,5). The category of ‘common’ is often equated with the category of ‘unclean’ from the Law. However, in the Septuagint, unclean (e.g Lev 11:18) is never translated as koinen, but rather akatharta, further demonstrating that they are different categories.
So, based on repeated use of koinen and the phrase ‘tradition of the elders’, we find that, “Mark is careful to point out that the disciples have not violated the Torah but [rather] the… ‘tradition of the elders’” (Rudolf, p 294). Note too how Moses or pigs never come into this conversation at all. Therefore, any apparent challenge made to clean/unclean distinction of food in this dispute needs to be understood through the lens of this context, i.e. the traditional Pharisaical category of ‘common.’

The first apparent challenge the food laws is found in verse 15:
“Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”
This statement is often taken to mean that eating bacon doesn’t make you unclean anymore. However, there is a difference between the nature of ‘unclean’ food and nearly every other unclean thing in Leviticus. When someone became unclean through excessive menstruation, childbirth, touching a dead body etc… a ritual was provided to make them clean again. But when it came to eating pig or prawns, there is no cleansing ceremony. There were no restrictions on access to the Tabernacle for those who had eaten unclean food. The only way they did make one unclean, is by touching their carcass (Lev 11:24-28), but this was true of clean foods too (Lev 11:39-40), meaning there is a difference between a carcass and prepared food. It is also important to note that here Jesus is talking about things that make you ‘common’ (koinen), whereas in Leviticus 11 only eating “the swarming things that swarm on the ground” will make you ‘unclean’ (akathartoi [LXX]). Thus, we can say that eating unclean foods (with one exception) never made you unclean or common. Moreover, in Matthew’s account of this discussion, Jesus concludes by saying:
But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile [make koinen] anyone (Matt 15:18-20).
This further reinforces that this debate is about the traditions of the elders and not the Levitical food laws. Therefore, we can better understand Jesus as saying in verse 15 that the eating of clean food with common hands will not render that food common.

This is also true of verses 18 and 19 where we find Jesus explaining to the confused disciples:
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.)
To clarify his teaching, Jesus gives his disciples a lesson in biology lesson to let them know that whatever impurities the food ‘may’ have, God designed the human body to use that which is good and to remove that which is impure. Moreover, all food enters the stomach and the digestive tract, and not the heart - the source of sin - and its impurities are expelled. And again, Jesus is talking about the category of ‘common’, not unclean. So, as we covered with verse 15, He is not (and cannot be) talking about pig making us unclean.
Then comes, as it appears in most English translations (except for the KJV), a parenthetical commentary statement from Mark:
“In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean” (NIV).
What is most interesting, is that this phrase isn’t in the Greek. Rather it merely says ‘purging all food.’ So how did modern translators get ‘Jesus declaring all foods clean’ out of ‘purging all foods’? Well, in most languages, verbs and nouns need to match grammatically. The word for purging is a singular participle in the nominative case (the subject, or ‘main actor’ in the sentence). And because the closest matching nominative is ‘Jesus’ all the way back in verse 18 (and He said), the translators concluded that Jesus must be the one doing the cleansing. There is, however, an exception to this rule:
“In Greek grammar… the nominative singular participle may sometimes refer to something within the previous context or to something implied in the context not explicitly mentioned, even though it may not be in the same grammatical case” (Hegg, 2)
We see an example of this in Luke 24:47:
“that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
The verb ‘beginning’ is a nominative singular participial with no matching noun to act as its antecedent. However, we know that it is referring to the preaching of repentance. Therefore, we are not bound grammatically to attach ‘purging all foods’ to a noun 38 words prior. Instead, we can understand the phrase as the conclusion to Jesus’ biology lesson, and not Markian commentary. This was the interpretation given by Novation, a Pope in the third century.

But grammar is not everything. We need to consider context too. Earlier in in verses 6-8, Jesus’ response to the Pharisee’s question comes in the form of a reprimand and quotation of Isaiah, accusing the Pharisee’s of “rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish [their] tradition.” This is a rebuke against the Pharisee’s prioritisation of ritual impurity (as defined by their tradition) over ‘moral’ defilement (as defined by the commandments of God). By responding to the Pharisee’s challenge in this way, Jesus is reminding them that the commandments of God overrules their traditions, especially the ones that negate God’s Law. We see something similar in Matthew’s Gospel:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. (Matt 23:25-26).   
Therefore, based on his rebuke, we see that Jesus’ argument “centres on a single point – the overarching priority of the Torah” (Rudolf, p 295). Thus, when it comes to verse 15 and 19 it becomes extremely unlikely that after Jesus declared the sacredness of the Law, rebuked the Pharisees for hypocritically neglecting ‘the commandments of God’, He then goes and abolishes a significant part of the Law, the implications of which I discussed in my previous post. Some might argue that Jesus had the authority to modify the Law, but if He did, why was He later asking the Father if He could bypass the cross? That is one stipulation of the Law that I am sure Jesus would have wanted to change.

But let's say that Jesus was actually declaring all foods clean, I have a question:
Why is there such a lack of reaction? Why was this never mentioned at Jesus’ trial? Changing a law like this would mean instant conviction. Instead, they needed people to lie to try and convict Him. Moreover, consider how in the mind of Jesus’ audience forbidden food was not simply unclean, but detestable. In fact, Many Jews in the Hasmonean period (140-116 BCE) “chose to die rather than be defiled by food…" (1Macc 1:62-63, 2 Macc 7). Although this is a kind of argument from silence, the silence is nonetheless worth noting. 

As we have examined Mark 7:1-19, we see that this conversation had nothing to do with Levitical food laws, but rather the traditions of the elders. This is the case for many of Jesus’ confrontations with the Pharisees. Therefore, based on the grammar and the context of this statement, we can conclude that Jesus was not doing away with the divine commandment to abstain from unclean food as proposed by John Piper and many others.
It appears that because the context and grammar of this encounter with the Pharisees were ignored and overlooked, the interpretation and translation of Jesus’ teaching is corrupted by ‘Out of Context Eavesdropping’, leading to the misunderstood conclusion that that the food laws were done away with. But rather, He was challenging the Pharisee’s preoccupation with ritual purity and man-made traditions over and against the commandments of God and the weightier matters of the Law.

Having considered the teachings of Christ as put forward by John Piper, we find that they are not actually saying what he claimed they were saying. I agree with Pastor John that we need to follow Christ’s teaching on how to relate to the Old Testament Law. But as we have seen, we have no record of Him teaching that the food laws are done away with. Although, that is not all the New Testament has to say on food laws. Maybe He did teach it and it wasn’t written down. Considering its significance that is surprising, but not impossible. I’m sure if John Piper had time in his podcast, he would have discussed Acts 10 and Romans 14 as well. These will be the focus of my next posts.


Blass, Debrunner, and Funk. A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. University of Chicago Press, 1961.
Hegg, Tim. Mark 7:19b – A Short Technical Note. Retrieved:
House, Colin. Defilement by Association: Some Insights from the Usage of KOINOS/KOINOU in Acts 10 and 11. Andrews University Seminary Studies. 2, 1983, p 143-153
Novation, On the Jewish Meats. Retrieved:
Reiscio, Mara & Walt, Luigi. “There is Nothing Unclean” Jesus and Paul against the Politics of Purity. ASE. 29, 2012, p 53-82.
Rudolph, David. Jesus and the Food Laws: A Reassessment of Mark 7:19b. Evangelical Quarterly. 74, 2002, p 291-311
Zell, Paul. Exegetical Brief on Mark 7:19: “Who or what makes all foods clean?” Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly. 109, 2012, p 209-212.

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