Mark 7:19 tells us that Jesus declared the old dietary laws to be obsolete. No more would we have to resist the tempting aroma of bacon or pass on the steamed oysters. At least that’s what we’ve been told.

I would like to suggest, however, that when it comes to disregarding explicit commands of God, we should be doubly certain to follow the example of the Bereans, diligently searching the Scriptures to see if the things we have been taught are indeed true.

Here is just one of the numerous passages in the Bible forbidding the consumption of certain kinds of animals:

And every creeping thing that creeps on the earth shall be an abomination. It shall not be eaten. Whatever crawls on its belly, whatever goes on all fours, or whatever has many feet among all creeping things that creep on the earth—these you shall not eat, for they are an abomination. You shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing that creeps; nor shall you make yourselves unclean with them, lest you be defiled by them. For I am the Lord your God. You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy. Neither shall you defile yourselves with any creeping thing that creeps on the earth. For I am the Lord who brings you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy. (Leviticus 11:41-45 NKJV)

 

The Law is very clear that eating snakes and bugs defiles a person, and God doesn’t want us to be defiled.

Now let’s look at the passage in Mark:

When He had called all the multitude to Himself, He said to them, "Hear Me, everyone, and understand: 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. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!"

When He had entered a house away from the crowd, His disciples asked Him concerning the parable. So He said to them, "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?" And He said, "What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man." (Mark 7:14-24 NKJV)

 

At first reading, these two statements appear irreconcilable. What could this mean except that Jesus changed the rules about what we can and cannot eat?

The Old Testament passage is very difficult to misunderstand. The same command is repeated several times in different passages with slightly different wordings, but all saying essentially the same thing: some things are not to be eaten, and eating them will defile you. The same thing cannot be said about the New Testament passage. It is a vignette cut from a larger tale, and it can’t be readily understood outside of that context. There are two aspects of the Mark passage that we need to examine in greater detail before we can claim to have done our due diligence: translation and context.

Since translation is the simpler of the two, we’ll tackle that one first. There are two terms that could be confusing.

  1. In verse 19, some translations say "meat" while others say "food." The Greek word is broma, and in modern English, food is the better translation. Both translations are technically correct, because, in English, "meat" was once a synonym for "food." The fault isn’t in the translation, but in the ever changing English language.

  2. Also in verse 19, some translations say that what a man eats is eliminated, "thus purging all food," while others say that what a man eats is eliminated, "thus he declared all foods clean." In the second case, the phrase "thus he declared" is not in the Greek. It is an extrapolation of the translator, who is attempting to make the verse convey the same meaning in English as what he believes it conveys in Greek. It’s not an unreasonable addition to the text. In fact, David Stern, a Messianic Jewish writer and the translator of The Complete Jewish Bible, translates this passage as "Thus he declared all foods ritually clean." Regardless, we should understand that this is not a literal translation of the text, but rather a paraphrase of what the translator believed was intended by the original.

So far, it appears that the traditional Christian understanding of this passage is correct, that Jesus really was saying it’s okay to eat pork and shellfish and even spiders if you really want. But let’s not get too excited! We haven’t looked at context yet.

This passage is part of a longer episode that begins in verse 1. A group of religious experts saw that some of Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands as prescribed by Jewish tradition before eating, and they questioned him about this. Jesus rebuked them, calling them hypocrites for rejecting the commandments of God, while preaching dogmatic adherence to the traditions of men. There is no commandment in Scripture against eating with dirty hands. It might be a good idea to wash before supper, but it’s still only a teaching of man, not of God. After putting the Pharisees and scribes in their place, Jesus called the people close around him and told them that it is not what goes into a man that defiles him. The immediate context was not the meat of animals that God had forbidden, but food eaten with unwashed hands, making it traditionally unclean.

However, Jesus took this lesson and applied it with very broad brush strokes to all of life, saying, "Nothing that enters a man from outside can defile him." Doesn’t this mean that he intended it to apply to anything that might be eaten and not just to this one case of unwashed hands? Possibly, but I doubt that’s what the many Jewish people who were listening to him that day would have understood. It’s very possible that they would not have considered bacon to be food at all. If Jesus said, "All food is clean," they would not have understood him to mean, "Anything a person can fit in his mouth is clean." Instead, they would have understood this as, "Anything that God said you can eat is clean regardless of what traditions the Pharisees have invented."

Still, this is conjecture. We can’t say this is so for certain without interviewing the people who were there that day. I hope when I see some of them in Heaven that I will remember to ask. In the meantime, we can find something much more concrete about Jesus’ intentions by asking why food cannot make a man unclean and by looking at the list of things he said do defile a person and why.

First, why can’t food make a man unclean? "Because it does not enter a man’s heart, but his stomach," Jesus said. But what can a man do that enters his heart?

Evil thoughts, adultery, fornication, murder, theft, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye (jealousy or resentment, perhaps?), blasphemy, pride, foolishness: all of these things defile a man because they enter his heart from the inside (v15, 19, 23). Note that none of these things physically enter a man’s heart, while we know that what you eat actually does enter your heart through the roundabout process of digestion. Ask any dietitian what kinds of things might help or harm your heart, or drink a few extra cups of coffee and feel what happens to your heart rate. The only way to really make sense of Jesus’ words is if he meant them only metaphorically. Jesus was trying to steer the conversation away from physical actions toward inner motives and the state of the metaphorical heart, not the physical heart. He took a legalistic disagreement over physical defilement and turned it into a lesson about spiritual defilement.

The disciples had no evil intent when they didn’t wash their hands before eating. They were just eating, performing a routine bodily function against which there is no command. The eating of pigs and crawfish isn’t relevant in this context, because Jesus wasn’t talking about the physical act of eating at all. He was talking about the spiritual act of thinking and planning and acting out evil deeds.

Jesus wasn’t saying that physical things aren’t important or that it doesn’t matter what you eat. He was saying that the things that happen to you or the things that you put into your stomach are nothing compared to the things that are already in your heart.

The story related in Mark 7:14-23 cannot be used to say that the dietary laws have been abrogated because the dietary laws are not even the subject of the story. The real subject is not afflictions of the digestive tract, but afflictions of the heart.