The Food Laws in Mark 7

Roast-Pork
Picture: laniersmeats

Many modern scholars believe that in Mark 7, Jesus removed the restrictions on eating certain types of food (like pork,…) so that those laws do no longer apply to Christians. We will investigate whether that conclusion is warranted or not. Below I will give an excerpt of Marc 7:1-23 (bold print) which consists of the verses here considered. I will add my exegetical understanding underneath each verse or group of verses (normal print).

1 Then came together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem.

And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen, hands, they found fault.

Notice here that the reason why the pharisees and the scribes accused the disciples was not because they were eating a type of food that is unclean (defiled) out of itself (like pork or shrimp) but because they did not wash their hands. The subject of the passages which we are currently considering is not “defiled food” but it is rather “defiled hands”.

For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders.

Again, Mark says the subject is to wash or not to wash your hands before eating. Notice that he wrote “holding the tradition of the elders”. Mark is writing about Rabbinical traditions. He is not talking about the Law of Moses. Not washing your hands before eating is not against the Law of Moses.

And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables.

Mark says, for the third time, that the subject is to wash or not to wash your hands before eating. He also states that the pharisees and scribes had many other man-made rules, such as: washing cups etc.

Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?

Here the pharisees admit that the above (oral) rules were part of the (oral) tradition of the elders (= pharisees), which they held to, as they thought they held the Law of Moses. They accused Jesus of not holding the tradition of the elders (pharisees). Notice that, in this event, Jesus is not being accused of not holding the Mosaic Law.

He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.

Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.

But Jesus, in turn, accused them of not holding the Mosaic Law. Jesus quotes Isaiah 29:13 from the Greek Septuagint (LXX) version of the Old Testament. There are some interesting differences here. The King James Version (MT) has: “Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men”, while the Septuagint has: “And the Lord has said, This people draw nigh to me with their mouth, and they honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me: but in vain do they worship me, teaching the commandments and doctrines of men” (translation by Sir Lancelot Brenton). The Jewish Scribes and Pharisees definitely understood what Jesus was trying to tell them: I believe He was trying to tell them that the reason why they were worshiping God in vain is because their hearts (characters) were corrupted by themselves: “They never call to me from their hearts. (…) in their hearts, they have turned away from me.” (hosea 7:14a,b, ERV) and that’s why they replaced teaching out of God’s doctrines (as found in the Mosaic Law and other places in the Old Testament) with teaching out of man-made traditions (like the washing of cups & pots,…).

For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do.

Here He repeats the same accusation.

And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.

And again, he repeats the same accusation. They knew full well what Jesus intended to teach.

10 For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death:

11 But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free.

12 And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother;

13 Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.

Next to the first example of man-made tradition, He gives another example, by which He tries to show that they are replacing the word of God (the commandments of God, the Mosaic Law or Old Testament) by mere human tradition. Jesus says that they are doing many of such things.

[Alternatively, could we even say that, following the Textus Receptus (TR), Jesus is claiming that they are replacing the Logos, Jesus Christ Himself by their man-made institution of their laws, so that He cannot save them? In our minds we can immediately think of the Apostle Paul’s words in Galatians 2:16a: “we know that no one is made right with God by following the law. It is trusting in Jesus Christ that makes a person right with God” (ERV). It would make it even more clear that He is probably calling them to repentance.]

14 And when he had called all the people unto him, he said unto them, Hearken unto me every one of you, and understand:

Jesus wants to give a teaching to all people who were present there. My personal opinion is that He wants to go on within the same theme, so that the pharisees would repent, so that the word of God would no longer be “without effect” in their lives.

15 There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.

I think Jesus is saying: “Oh! You hypocritical Pharisees and Scribes! You are worried about being defiled from not washing your hands instead of looking at how you defile your very own selves by your unjust judgments!”

16 If any man have ears to hear, let him hear.

This I take to be the Hebrew form of saying: “Take heed of what I just said!”

17 And when he was entered into the house from the people, his disciples asked him concerning the parable.

The disciples admitted of not having understood this parable. “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, which giveth to all men liberally, and reproacheth no man, and it shall be given him” (James 1:5, GB).

18 And he saith unto them, Are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him;

19 Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?

He is probably saying:”If you eat food without washing your hands, your body’s digestion (the liver) will take care of purifying what is necessary.”

20 And he said, That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man.

21 For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders,

22 Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness:

23 All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.

He continues by possibly saying: “But if your heart (character) is impure, then you defile yourselves by committing sinful deeds! First comes the intent to commit a sinful act, then comes the sinful act itself. Out of a defiled heart come defiled hands.”

The pharisees needed to repent; they were in need of a change  of heart because “they never call to me from their hearts. (…) in their hearts, they have turned away from me” (hosea 7:14a,b, ERV). That’s why they were commanded to “Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 18:31) | “Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin” (John 8:34). Their wicked hearts (characters) and the sinful lifestyles that flow from such hearts, made them children of the devil, which they proved by doing his will (John 8:44). Their only hope of possible salvation out of this mess for which they were entirely responsible was being set free by the Son of God, Jesus Christ Himself! “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36, ESV). As He promised in my life verse: “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).

CONCLUSION: So we’ve seen that in Mark 7:1-23 Jesus is not discussing whether it is lawful to eat those foods declared unclean in the Mosaic Law. He is not critiquing those dietary laws. What He is critiquing is the corrupted, hypocritical hearts and deeds which flow from it, especially their corrupting / replacing the Law of Moses with their own man-made laws. This makes me think: ‘Do we replace the Law of Moses with our own man-made doctrines which state such things as: “When Jesus died on the cross, the dietary laws were abolished.”?’


All Scripture passages taken from the King James Version (KJV). International copyright: public domain. Copyright in the United Kingdom (UK): The British Crown.

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