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”