Reading Mark 7:19, I see in the brackets that “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.” Is that an editorial comment or a comment from Mark?
As always, let us review the entire paragraph – chapter 7 of Mark, from verse 1 to 23. (Please take your Bible and read it fresh.)
We are witnessing here a debate between Pharisees and scribes, on one hand, and Jesus, accused and charged to explain a practice of His disciples. The hot topic is related to eating with unwashed hands.
It should be mentioned that this is not an issue of hygiene, as we might view it in the 21st century. Instead, for the Jews, to eat with unwashed hands was nothing short of a scandal (see their obsession with all things in the passage just read in Mark, see also the note in Matthew 15:12). Such an approach then, to eat food with “unclean” hands, meant both a sure ritual defilement and a definite breach of tradition. As Jesus had claimed to impersonate the will of God, naturally His opponents identified here an apple of discord.
Jesus does not seem to be that much concerned about ritual washing of hands. Instead, He shows the layers of defilement, even better, the spheres of consecration. Thus, He points out that the Pharisees and scribes are concerned with traditions of men and thus leave and reject the commandments of God, to the point of making void His Word. Showing them an example from the prophet Isaiah, of outward piousness only, and then judging their Corban tradition, Jesus goes to pinpoint the real “defilement” they should be concerned about – the defilement of the soul. Calling all people to listen, He said:
“There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”
Wow, we knew it differently – don’t touch that, don’t taste that, don’t come near that… be it unclean food, area of contagious illness, decaying, death etc. Again, it is not a question of hygiene here. We can find a similar setting in Luke 11:37-41, where Jesus is facing the same situation. The Pharisee who invited Him to dine was “astonished” to see how Jesus did not first wash hands before dinner. Following the same line, Jesus explains again that some are more concerned with the outside than with the inside.
Coming back to Mark, after speaking like this, Jesus enters the house and there is asked by the disciples, looking for an explanation of the “parable”. They understood His reply, in quoting Isaiah and the Corban example, and the parable of “a blind leading another blind” (see in Matthew 15) to be some sort of figures of speech. Jesus explains in clear terms that the “defilement” is the one of the hearts! If we get this view, then all is clear (or clean 🙂 )
Pointing out to the basic dynamics of digestion, He insists that food comes in and goes out to the toilet, in other words, there is nothing (even unclean) that stays within. On the other hand, the full list of evil things –
“evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness”
– come from within. In there have they been stored, inside peoples’ hearts and minds have they multiplied, and from there have they progressed in defiling the whole person.
When the Bible says, “thus He declared all foods clean”, let us view it in the context. For a Jew, an unclean food would be either coming from an unclean animal (pig, rat, bat etc.) or from an association of clean and unclean animals/situations (unclean things, corpses, bodies that died in uncertain conditions, mixed with others etc.). The discussion here was not about the quality of the foods, but about the instruments or the way (manner) to eat them. For a Jew, an unclean hand (as an outward limb) would transfer uncleanness to the food that goes inside the body which, in turn, would transfer defilement to the entire person. From a hygiene perspective, we can understand that: if one has poison on hands and eats with unwashed hands, that poison might affect his entire body. Yet, here it was all about ritual defilement. In the parallel passage from Matthew 12:20 we see that Jesus clearly highlights:
“But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”
Please, don’t read the text as Jesus is saying that all foods are clean! God does not contradict Himself. No one will eat a decomposing body, a rat, a bat (a pig?) claiming that such a text makes it clean (please see Leviticus 11).
The apostles didn’t understand or read it as a freedom to eat anything and everything. We know it perfectly from Peter, in Acts 10. God charged him to come closer to other nations, whom the apostle perceived as “unclean”. Showing him a crowd of clean and unclean animals (for a Jew this being the perfect illustration of himself in the midst of Gentiles), the apostle refused to eat – to partake, to share, to be involved, to mingle with…
His argument was crystal clear: “I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean” (Acts 10:14). Hopefully you see it – definitely Peter had not understood from Jesus that he could eat everything and anything.
Accordingly, I suppose these words “thus He declared all foods clean”, are an editorial comment. Who made it? An apostle, a scribe, a copyist, the author himself Mark (as evangelist)? By editorial comment we do not mean that such a passage has no Biblical authority. Most probably it is an editorial comment of Mark. Remember, he was so concerned to explain to his readers all the scruples Jews had in washing everything for fear of uncleanness… His point is to show that such a concern is typical Jewish, while his Gentiles readers would have to follow Jesus and His discples, being more concerned about the things of the inside. We should be also! And then, reading from Luke 11:41, where there is a similar context, we see that Jesus said
“give as alms those things that are within,
and behold, everything is clean for you.”