Did Jesus not declare all foods clean?

Q.  I’m in a group that’s discussing the gospel of Mark, and when we got to the place where Mark says that Jesus “declared all foods clean,” the question arose as to whether Jesus actually did away with all the Levitical dietary restrictions.  The suggestion was made that Jesus was declaring only that all of the foods that Jews considered to be foods were clean — thus, “all foods” declared to be clean would exclude things such as pork, shellfish, etc.  I’m familiar with the arguments of Daniel Boyarin about this, but I’m unpersuaded, especially by his insistence that if Jesus had undone the kosher food laws, he would have been a false prophet, per Deuteronomy 13.  What do you think?

I haven’t yet studied Boyarin’s arguments myself, so I can’t comment on them, but let me share some general thoughts in response to your question.

All Jesus actually said was, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”  This was the principle that Jesus taught.  Different early communities of his followers then sought to apply that principle to themselves, in the context of the particular milieu of life into which God had called them to live out their faith.

For Matthew, writing as an observant Jew to other observant Jews, the takeaway is simply, “Eating with unwashed hands does not defile” a person.  This was the direct issue at stake:  The Pharisees had asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?  They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

But for Mark, writing for an essentially Gentile audience, probably in a Roman context (Mark has to explain the whole issue of washing, which Matthew’s audience already understands), draws a broader application for life in the context of their calling:  “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.”

And so one could well argue, on the authority of the gospels, that Jesus did not actually declare all foods clean for observant Jews (and being one of those is still a valid way of being a follower of Jesus today).  He only set aside a human tradition requiring ceremonial washing (something not in the law of Moses) in favor of the pursuit of true inner virtue.  But he did declare all foods clean for those who are called to live out their faith in many other contexts (but not all contexts, for example, not for Jesus-followers who continue to be cultural Muslims).

Paul, in his letters, declares not a radical freedom to eat all foods, but a radical freedom from trying to be righteous by works that allows one to eat, or not to eat, in whatever way best serves another person in love: “If what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat”—now that’s radical freedom!

(The Jews of Jesus’ time weren’t keeping kosher in order to earn a righteous status by works.  For them, this was a sign or boundary marker of the covenant to which they already belonged.  Rather, Paul was writing to Gentiles who were being encouraged to keep kosher as a way of being righteous before God—as a kind of “sanctification by works”:  saved by grace, but then maintained in righteousness by things like observing special days and keeping kosher.  Thus Paul had to write to the Colossians, for example, “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

In short, as has well been said, there is no such thing as a disembodied “gospel.”  We can only engage the gospel of Jesus when we experience it contextualized for us in our own milieu of life.  When it comes to this particular saying of Jesus, the Bible actually models for us a couple of different ways in which his earliest followers contextualized it for themselves.  Trying to pick one or the other of these (“anything goes” vs. Levitical dietary restrictions for everybody today) does not do justice to the rightfully demanding process of understanding how Jesus’ words apply to us today, a process all of his followers are called to pursue faithfully and diligently–as you are doing by asking questions like this one.

The illustration from Daniel Boyarin’s Tikkun article “Jesus Kept Kosher: The Jewish Christ of the Gospel of Mark”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

4 thoughts on “Did Jesus not declare all foods clean?”

  1. Hi Chris,

    When Jesus “actually said” that “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them,” a very key takeaway of that statement — recorded in both Mark and Matthew’s gospels — is that those who suggest otherwise are in error.

    I’m not sure how “one could well argue, on the authority of the gospels, that Jesus did not actually declare all foods clean for observant Jews,” but that he instead “declare[d] all foods clean for those who are called to live out their faith in many other [non-Torah-observant] contexts.” This seems to suggest that the Jewish recipients of Jesus’s repeated statements on the matter were a sort of milieu-indifferent “place-holder” mechanism to facilitate his views getting “on the books” (e.g., Mark) not for the Torah-observant Jews to, with, and for whom Jesus was speaking, but that those statements were instead intended for a Gentile people, miles away and decades later, who were themselves something wholly Other than those “[Torah-]observant Jews.” I am not persuaded that the fact of Mark’s relaying this event to an audience comprised perhaps even primarily by Gentiles suggests that its implications fell outside of the Torah-observant milieu in which that conversation was originally had.

    From there, let us consider Mark’s own explanation — i.e., “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean” (which, to my reading, states quite explicitly that Jesus did not “only set aside a human tradition requiring ceremonial washing…in favor of the pursuit of true inner virtue”). As you have stated here and elsewhere, Mark was writing to Gentiles who, while being aware of Jewish dietary restrictions, were not themselves conflicted or limited in such ways. Thus, while the phrase “all foods” could be suggested, however untenably, to have been understood, if intended for a Jewish readership, to have not included their unclean “non-foods,” the Gentile readers to whom Mark was very consciously writing could not be suggested to have had any such limitations in their Roman reading of “all foods”.

    This explanation of Mark’s was not, then, included to give his “essentially Gentile audience…a broader application for life in the context of their [Roman, non-Torah-observant] calling” — after all: They weren’t the ones hung up on it in the first place! Rather, it was included to relay to Mark’s Gentile audience what Jesus had dared to do in terms of reframing what being “observant” meant, what the function of Torah was and was not, and what being “faithful” to it and its Author looked like.

    Jesus’s “Nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them” ought not be suggested by anyone to have been implicitly followed by “…except for all the things which would, in fact, depending on your milieu, defile them.” And, when he reiterates his point yet once more — “Are you so dull? Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them?” — I do not see a gap anywhere near large enough into which we can responsibly assert that this applied “in many other contexts, but not all contexts.”

    Many within the Torah-observant leadership, crowds, and disciples routinely concluded that various things Jesus was saying were covenantally unfaithful and hermeneutically violent to their Scripture (e.g., John 6:60, 66). In fact, they had already decided that his breaches (in Mark 2) on dispensing forgiveness, eating with sinners, fasting, and Sabbath had already marked him as a false prophet deserving of death (per, presumably, Deuteronomy 13 and other similar passages) just six verses into chapter three! And from there, we see Jesus fanning the flames yet further with challenges regarding things such as healing, authority, and family identity/loyalty — for which Jesus had absolutely no apology, and instead routinely doubled down by saying that it was he who was truly being faithful to the aims and function of Torah, *not* them. “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites” and following (see: Mark 6:6–7) is hardly a strong lead-in for anyone seeking validation.

    As to Paul, sure: He, as you say, “declares not a radical freedom to eat all foods” — but the scandal here is not a radical freedom from a needless “sanctification by works”; rather, it was a radical deference to the “weak conscience” of our brothers and sisters — but not to the point of being a tacit (if not explicit) affirmation of their misplaced convictions, however well intended, as outright “valid.”

    “But look,” Paul says, in essence, in 1 Corinthians 8: “Going all the way back to Job, we all know that there simply aren’t any other gods — that these graven images to which foods are sacrificed are just chunks of wood and metal. But, hey: ‘[N]ot everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled’ in their eyes. So, don’t be jerks about this, even if they’re superstitious rubes. Don’t rub the freedoms every last person does, yes, have in the face of those who, in their ignorance, remain supremely upset by this question and wonder whether the eating of certain things therefore affirms the underlying moral strata of the temples in which they’re being sacrificed and thus ’causes my brother or sister to fall into sin’. So, hey: It’s far better to punt on the freedoms we all have in order to keep the peace and bring this ‘common clay of the new West’ into the fold than it would be to break apart our fragile communities over something our brethren can’t yet make room for in their worldview.”

    It’s one thing for either Jesus or Paul (or you) to advise and demonstrate caution, deference, and tactical, relational prudence in exercising the rights clearly declared by both of them in the New Testament text — but let us not obfuscate said clarity under the auspices of Ecumenism.

    1. Thank you for this thoughtful and detailed comment. I can agree that even for observant Jews, keeping kosher meant something different after Jesus than it did before. Kosher, sacred days, etc. were formerly “insignia” of belonging to the community that was in covenant with Yahweh. But as a result of Jesus’ life and ministry, the people of God on earth became a multinational community based on faith, not descent from Abraham. Their “insignia” became the Christ-like character qualities of those who were being transformed into His image–the “fruit of the Spirit” as Paul put it in Galatians, or “what comes out of a person,” as Jesus puts it in the episode under consideration here. For observant Jews, keeping kosher then became an individual and community conviction about a particular way to honor God, the kind that Paul says in his letters we should respect, as others should respect our own convictions. “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.” So yes, in this sense, Jesus did declare all foods clean for Jews as well–keeping kosher would no longer meant what it once did. But I still see this as more of a process of discovering over time, in varying ways from one milieu to another, the unfolding meaning of Jesus’ words, rather than something Jesus necessarily had entirely in mind right from the start when discussing washing before eating. The most immediate conversation was about human tradition versus God’s deepest intentions for human devotion. In any event, thanks once again for your detailed and thoughtful engagement with this question.

  2. Here is my understanding. The gospels are discussing the Pharisees’ hand washing ceremony, this is the context of the whole teaching unit in each gospel. This means that the word “food” should be understood by what 1st century Jews considered food and what is often called kosher food, this includes the use of clean animals and preparation according to Torah. In particular, this involves what the Torah says about (1) clean and unclean animals and (2) holy and common/profane things.

    What the Pharisees claimed was that one needed to do their specified hand washing ceremony (as specified in their so-called Oral Torah and as found now in the Mishnah) or the (kosher) food would be unclean. This violated (written) Torah, as something that was clean was declared to be unclean. Jesus said eating with unwashed hands did not violate Torah, which is correct.

    However, a challenge arises when people that do not know Torah read the gospels, as these teaching units are easy to take out of context and misunderstand.

    So how do I as a gentile apply this teaching? I think rats are not food and after reading all of these teachings I still think rats are not food, so I do not eat rats. I was raised in the West so I think of cows as potential food so I eat beef, but I also recognize that other places may think differently. In any case, I am not required to wash my hands before eating anything I consider food.

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