In Mark 7 Jesus taught the importance of cleansing our minds, compared to the Pharisees’ hand-washing ritual. Did He say anything about unclean meats?
A controversy took place between Jesus and the Pharisees concerning defilement and purity. This is recorded in Mark 7:1-23 and Matthew 15:1-20. In writing about this controversy, Mark recorded a statement some claim gives permission for New Testament Christians to eat foods labeled “unclean” in the Old Testament. Is this true?
The context: ritual hand washing
Let’s note the context. Mark 7:1-4 tells us about the customs of the Pharisees concerning hand washing. Verses 3 and 4 state that “the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash.”
Later in the same chapter, Jesus indicts them for adopting traditions that violate the intent of commandments of God (verses 9-13). Note that the subject is the traditions of the religious leaders, not the validity of the commandments of God or of laws given in the Old Testament. By the time of Christ, the religious leaders had accumulated a huge body of traditions that went beyond the requirements of the Bible. In addition to only eating foods considered “clean” in God’s law (Leviticus 11; Deuteronomy 14), these leaders were insisting that a special method of washing one’s hands prior to eating was also required.
In verse 15, Jesus declared, “There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man.” A list of these things is in verses 21-22, including adultery, murder, covetousness, deceit, blasphemy, pride and foolishness. These things defile us, Jesus said, but eating with unwashed hands does not defile us spiritually (Matthew 15:20). The point here is that what goes through the mind defiles, not what goes through the stomach. Mind dirt is worse than stomach dirt.
In that context, what is being said in Mark 7:18-19? Jesus asked, “Are you thus without understanding also? Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?”
The New King James Version has a footnote noting that a different type of Greek text “ends quotation with eliminated, setting off the final clause as Mark’s comment that Jesus has declared all foods clean.”
The New International Version follows this alternate reading for verse 19: “‘For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.’ (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods ‘clean.’)” Most of the modern translations read similarly.
So which is it? Does this scripture declare that the action of the digestive system cleanses physical impurities? Or does it tell us that Jesus here cleansed hitherto unclean foods, and that we may eat pork, shellfish and other meats labeled unclean in the Old Testament?
The key is in the Greek text of this passage, where there is a variant reading. The word translated “purifying” is a participle. A participle in Greek has gender and number. In one Greek text the gender of this participle is neuter, indicating that it is the action of the stomach that cleanses all foods. In another Greek text the participle is masculine, suggesting that Jesus cleansed all foods. The difference is small in the Greek, involving just one vowel, but the doctrinal impact is great.
The context clarifies
Again, let’s go back to the context. Jesus is discussing Pharisaic traditions, not Old Testament laws (Mark 7:4, 8-9, 13). Further, the overall teaching here is to beware of what comes out of the mind, since that really can cause troubles and defile us (verses 20-23), while what enters the stomach is insignificant by comparison. Should a small speck of dirt enter the body because of unwashed hands, it is eliminated through the digestive tract.
Further evidence that this is about mental impurity contrasted with digestive impurity is found in the parallel passage in Matthew 15:16-20, which reads: “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.”
So we see that Mark 7:19 is not about Jesus cleansing all foods, but about the action of the digestive system cleansing physical impurities. The mind is defiled by impurity, while the digestive tract can easily eliminate a small speck of dirt. The main point of this discussion is that we must cleanse our hearts and minds of impure thoughts.
For more about clean and unclean animals, see the article “Clean and Unclean Animals: Does God Care What Meats We Eat?” and the chart “Clean and Unclean Meats.”