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15 February 2019

No, Jesus didn’t declare all foods clean.

The things people will do for bacon… including twist the scriptures.

Mark 7.19.

Mark 7.17-19 NIV
17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

Jesus has an actual point to make with this passage, but a number of Christians skip it altogether because of how they choose to interpret it. Namely they take the clause καθαρίζων πάντα τὰ βρώματα/katharídzon pánta ta vrómata, “cleansing [out] all the food,” chop it off the sentence Jesus was speaking, and turn it into the declaration, “All the food [is] cleansed.”

This spin isn’t just found in the NIV either:

ASV.This he said, making all meats clean.”
AMPLIFIED. “(By this, He declared all foods ceremonially clean.)”
CSB.(thus he declared all foods clean).”
ESV/NRSV. “(Thus he declared all foods clean.)”
GNT. “(In saying this, Jesus declared that all foods are fit to be eaten.)”
MESSAGE. “(That took care of dietary quibbling; Jesus was saying that all foods are fit to eat.)”
NASB. “(Thus He declared all foods clean.)”
NET. “(This means all foods are clean.)”
NLT. “(By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes.)”

It’s not found in every bible. A number of ’em take Wycliffe and the KJV’s lead, and use some form of their “purging all meats.” I did too:

Mark 7.19 KWL
“Because it doesn’t enter their heart, but into the bowels, and comes out into the toilet.
All the food gets cleaned out.”

I did it because that’s the literary context. Katharídzon pánta ta vrómata isn’t a sentence fragment Mark inserted to interpret Jesus’s teaching; it’s a clause that’s part of the teaching. Jesus is explaining how food goes in the face, goes out the butt, goes down the toilet, and doesn’t corrupt the heart like our depraved sinful nature can. So when Pharisees fixated on external ritual cleanliness, they were missing the point.

Kinda like we miss the point when we insist this passage is all about how there are no longer any kosher rules… so now we can eat fistfuls of pork.

Do Christians have to eat kosher?

Short answer: No.

The LORD forbade his people to eat blood, certain animals, certain plants under certain conditions, and approved animals which they find dead. The stuff the Hebrews can and can’t eat are usually described with the Yiddish words kosher and treyf, which mean “clean” and “torn” (i.e. like animals you find dead).

There’s the list in the bible, of course. The Pharisees and medieval rabbis added their rulings on how those commands are to be interpreted, which now affect the way today’s Jews keep kosher. Fr’instance the bible forbids cooking a goat in its mothers milk. Ex 23.19, 34.26 Based on that, the rabbis extrapolated it’s wrong for all meat and all dairy to even touch. That’s why when you go to many Jewish homes, you’ll notice they have two refrigerators and two sets of dishes and silverware: One’s for meat and the other for dairy. And if you ever accidentally put meat on a plate meant for dairy, you gotta break the plate and bury it in the yard. I’m not kidding.

Clearly things have gone overboard when a Jewish deli refuses to make a turkey and Swiss sandwich ’cause it’s treyf. (Turkeys don’t even produce milk!) But if we’re only sticking to the Law—and Jesus and the apostles’ interpretations of the Law—the issue of kosher versus treyf only really comes up when it came to eating with gentiles. Y’see, gentiles didn’t know the Law, so they ate whatever they pleased. (In fact Romans were notorious for trying anything, no matter how bizarre or weird, just so they could say they had the experience. And if they didn’t care for it, they’d just douse it in garum, the fish sauce they basically put all over everything, just like Americans do with ketchup.) If you ate with gentiles, you were almost guaranteed to eat treyf. Which is why it was such a big deal when the Christians did it anyway. Ac 11.2-3

But is eating treyf sin? Actually no.

As I said in my article on ritual cleanliness, uncleanliness isn’t sin. It only meant you weren’t ready for worship. You couldn’t go to tabernacle or temple if you were ritually unclean; you had to wash, wait till sundown, and then you could worship. Pharisees extended those rules to include their synagogues.

But if you’re a real live human being, you can’t help but be ritually unclean sometimes. Because all bodily fluids (except saliva) are ritually unclean! Bleeding is unclean. Having your period is unclean. Semen is unclean—every time you have sex, even to obey God’s command to be fruitful and multiply, Ge 1.28 you’re unclean. Women, after giving birth, were ritually unclean for a week: Jesus’s mom was unclean after giving birth to him. Jesus was ritually unclean during that time.

Yep, even Jesus. Who never sinned. He 4.15 Yet he touched lepers, sick people, bleeding people, ritually unclean people, all the time. There are those Christians who claim Jesus is an exception to God’s commands; that he’s so clean, touching people didn’t make him unclean, but made the unclean clean. Which is a nice idea, but invents a double standard for God’s commands. And since Jesus forbade double standards, it’s really unlikely he lived by one. Nope; touching unclean stuff made Jesus ritually unclean. But it’s okay: Ritual uncleanliness is not sin.

So if you eat bacon, calamari, catfish, clams, crab, pork chops—or even snakes, alligator, ostriches, horses, or dogs—are you sinning? Nope. All you are, is ritually unclean. Same as if you got a paper cut.

The rabbis don’t necessarily agree uncleanliness isn’t sin. They claim the kosher rules have the same weight, count the same, as every other command. But if they truly have the same weight, they’d have the same consequences—and they don’t. Not even close. When the ancient Hebrews violated one of the Ten Commandments, they got the death penalty. But when they got themselves ritually unclean, deliberately or unintentionally, all they had to do was bathe. That’s it.

Theoretically you could have bacon for breakfast, a ham sandwich for lunch, hot links for dinner… then ritually bathe yourself right after dinner, and go to temple that very evening. True, such a lifestyle violates the spirit of the Law like crazy. But like I said: Uncleanliness isn’t sin.

Now here’s the other wrinkle involved in the Christian lifestyle: We Christians are the temple of the Holy Spirit. 1Co 3.16, 6.19 The Spirit constantly indwells us. We’re in temple right now. We always are. Even if we’re sinning—which is all the more reason we need to avoid sin. 1Co 6.12-20 And even when we’re ritually unclean—which I remind you, isn’t sin.

Since Jesus’s sacrifice has basically made every Old Testament ritual redundant He 10.18 —namely the ritual sacrifices and ritual cleanliness—do we need to worry about them? No. Ritual cleanliness was about preparing yourself to enter God’s presence. But we Christians have God’s presence: The Holy Spirit lives in us. Arguably he’s made us permanently clean, because we have unlimited access to God no matter what.

So does that mean it’s now okay for Christians to eat bacon? It’s always been okay. But if you’re honestly trying to follow God, I think you oughta ask yourself: If God says, “Don’t,” Dt 14.8 and expects you to consider them disgusting and inedible, might it be a good idea to stay away? Even so, it’s an issue that’s between you and God. Don’t blow it off; work it out.

Pandering to the almighty stomach.

Problem is, many Christians do blow it off. We want a free pass to eat whatever we please, as much as we please. Hence the obesity problem in the United States—and in our churches especially. Have you seen how many fat Christians there are? And have y’noticed how we never preach against gluttony? I’m pretty sure the reason so many Evangelicals don’t consider the seven deadly sins worth teaching about—and arguably only a Catholic thing—is because gluttony’s among them. Along with all our other favorite vices.

In order to justify our bad behavior, we want proof texts, and we want ’em to be nice and obvious. That’s why we easily glom onto the interpretation of katharídzon pánta ta vrómata as “Jesus declared all foods clean.” We want unlimited access to anything our hearts desire.

But there’s no verb in this clause which means, or even suggests, “declared.” There’s no subject-noun in this clause; it’s not its own sentence. It’s not a legitimate interpretation. It’s wholly fabricated by Christians who don’t wanna practice self-control in their food choices.

When I first studied Greek, and learned “Jesus declared all foods clean” isn’t what katharídzon pánta ta vrómata means, I wondered whether the NIV’s translators were pulling it from some textual variant. Before the 2011 edition, the NIV’s translators were allowed to use any Greek bible they wanted: They could use the Textus Receptus, the United Bible Societies’ Greek NT, the Codex Sinaiticus, or even something they cobbled together from various quotes of the ancient Christians. So maybe Mark’s translators had borrowed the line from someplace else. But nope.

The Textus Receptus (the Greek NT used as the basis of the KJV, NKJV, and MEV) has a slight difference: Instead of καθαρίζων/katharídzon, “cleansing,” it has καθαρίζον/katharídzon, “it cleanses.” Yes, the transliteration is exactly the same, ’cause it’s pronounced exactly the same. But when the O sound comes from an omikron instead of an omega, it turns into a verb. Does it therefore change the translation? Slightly:

Mark 7.19 KWL (from TR)
“Because it doesn’t enter their heart, but into the bowels, and comes out into the toilet.
All the food cleans out.”

Still doesn’t turn it into “Jesus declared all foods clean.”

So why do so many translators adopt that interpretation? Simple: Gentile Christians don’t eat kosher. Don’t wanna. We like pork, lobster, shrimp, clams; Korean and Chinese Christians also like dog. And at some point in the past, some Christian claimed Jesus’s teaching right here meant we didn’t have to eat kosher, because what the text really means is Jesus declared all foods clean. This spin made it into the Revised Version in 1881:

Mark 7.19 RV
because it goeth not into his heart, but into his belly, and goeth out into the draught? This he said, making all meats clean.

The ASV (published 1900) is simply the American edition of it; the RSV and WEB are updated versions of the ASV, and the NRSV and ESV are updated versions of the RSV. So you’ll find the phrasing all over English-language translations.

If it’s not what we eat that makes us ritually clean or unclean, but what comes out of our hearts, does that make food irrelevant? Does it mean all food is kosher? No. Jesus didn’t eliminate the Law! He’s the same LORD who gave those commands to Moses in the first place. Violating the Law means he violated himself.

He said “Don’t eat this” for a reason. We can speculate what it is, as many people do. Many Christians guess, “God banned pork because of trichinosis or tapeworms”—real problems in ancient times, and curable problems in ours. But God never said those were his reasons; he never gave us his reasons. He only said, “Don’t.” All we know is “Don’t.” And when we ignore God’s “Don’t,” expect consequences.

I don’t say this to be legalistic at all. I say it because it’s profoundly stupid of Christians to assume that, thanks to clever reasoning and modern technology, we’ve voided God’s commands. There’s no basis in the scriptures to claim Jesus set aside the kosher rules. (Nope, not even with Simon Peter’s vision of the sheet full of critters. Ac 10.9-16) Far more scriptures state Jesus hasn’t set aside a thing.

And Mark didn’t write any such thing. It’s not there. You have to rape the text to cram this idea into it. Just because other translators did it, doesn’t mean I get to—and I don’t see how other translators, in good conscience, translate it that way either. In any case I don’t follow the crowd. I follow Jesus.

I remind you uncleanliness isn’t sin. Ritual cleanliness is kinda moot when the Holy Spirit indwells you. You’re not going to hell if you eat bacon! But what’s more important: Trying to follow God with all our hearts, or creating exceptions to accommodate our palates?

I like clam chowder as much as the next gentile. But God said “Don’t.” I have no good reason to tell him, “Your instruction doesn’t count anymore, because I live under grace.” That’s not how grace works. And it’s a serious abuse of scripture to take Jesus’s rejection of Pharisee legalism, and warp it into a rejection of the Law. Let’s not be that kind of Christian.