Mark 7:14-23 and the Dietary Laws of the Old Testament

There is no doubt that Mark 7:14-23 is one of the most important passages in the debates about the dietary laws of the Old Testament and whether they still apply in the same way today.

Here is the passage in Greek: 14 Καὶ προσκαλεσάμενος πάλιν τὸν ὄχλον ἔλεγεν αὐτοῖς, Ἀκούσατέ μου πάντες καὶ σύνετε. 15 οὐδέν ἐστιν ἔξωθεν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου εἰσπορευόμενον εἰς αὐτὸν ὃ δύναται κοινῶσαι αὐτόν: ἀλλὰ τὰ ἐκ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκπορευόμενά ἐστιν τὰ κοινοῦντα τὸν ἄνθρωπον. 16 Καὶ 17 ὅτε εἰσῆλθεν εἰς οἶκον ἀπὸ τοῦ ὄχλου, ἐπηρώτων αὐτὸν οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ τὴν παραβολήν. 18 καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Οὕτως καὶ ὑμεῖς ἀσύνετοί ἐστε; οὐ νοεῖτε ὅτι πᾶν τὸ ἔξωθεν εἰσπορευόμενον εἰς τὸν ἄνθρωπον οὐ δύναται αὐτὸν κοινῶσαι, 19 ὅτι οὐκ εἰσπορεύεται αὐτοῦ εἰς τὴν καρδίαν ἀλλ’ εἰς τὴν κοιλίαν, καὶ εἰς τὸν ἀφεδρῶνα ἐκπορεύεται; καθαρίζων πάντα τὰ βρώματα. 20 ἔλεγεν δὲ ὅτι Τὸ ἐκ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκπορευόμενον ἐκεῖνο κοινοῖ τὸν ἄνθρωπον: 21 ἔσωθεν γὰρ ἐκ τῆς καρδίας τῶν ἀνθρώπων οἱ διαλογισμοὶ οἱ κακοὶ ἐκπορεύονται, πορνεῖαι, κλοπαί, φόνοι, 22 μοιχεῖαι, πλεονεξίαι, πονηρίαι, δόλος, ἀσέλγεια, ὀφθαλμὸς πονηρός, βλασφημία, ὑπερηφανία, ἀφροσύνη: 23 πάντα ταῦτα τὰ πονηρὰ ἔσωθεν ἐκπορεύεται καὶ κοινοῖ τὸν ἄνθρωπον.

Here is the HCSB of the same passage: 14 Summoning the crowd again, He told them, “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: 15 Nothing that goes into a person from outside can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him. 16 [If anyone has ears to hear, he should listen!]” 17 When He went into the house away from the crowd, the disciples asked Him about the parable. 18 And He said to them, “Are you also as lacking in understanding? Don’t you realize that nothing going into a man from the outside can defile him? 19 For it doesn’t go into his heart but into the stomach and is eliminated.” (As a result, He made all foods clean.) 20 Then He said, “What comes out of a person– that defiles him. 21 For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, 22 adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, promiscuity, stinginess, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within and defile a person.”

The context is important. The chapter starts with the issue of unwashed hands. The Pharisees accuse the disciples (and through them, Jesus!) of disobeying the law by eating with unwashed hands. This is part of the tradition of the elders, along with the baptism of couches and other such things. The tradition of the elders is something Jesus emphatically rejects in verses 6-13. The Pharisees, in their traditions, had taught as commandments of God the traditions of men.

Then, in verses 14 and following, Jesus broadens the discussion to talk about what really makes a person clean or unclean. Nothing that goes into a person makes him unclean. It is what comes out of the heart that is evil that makes a person unclean. It is important to notice here the broadening of the discussion. The issue has gone beyond the issue of mere tradition versus the written word. Now it is a question of the heart. Twice Jesus says that nothing that goes into a person can defile him. This is a general statement that has no qualifications attached to it. The form of this argument goes something like this: “You Pharisees think that eating with unwashed hands defiles a person. Your assumption there is that something that goes into a person has the possibility of defiling that person. Unwashed hands can do that, as could other things like the foods forbidden in the dietary laws. On the contrary, I am saying that absolutely nothing can defile a person by going into them. Not even food can defile a person, much less eating with unwashed hands.”

One of the key features is the participle καθαρίζων (cleansing) in verse 19. There is a textual variant here that is important. A very few late manuscripts have the neuter participle of the same verb. The neuter participle could conceivably depend on the previous verb ἐκπορεύεται (going out). The upshot of this construction would be that the process of digestion makes the food clean (this understanding of the verse is reflected in the Geneva, KJV, and NKJV translations). This is quite unlikely as the correct reading, however. The vast majority and strength of the manuscripts favor the masculine participle. On what, then, does the participle depend? The only possibility is Jesus Himself, the implied nominative subject of the verb λέγει (He says) in verse 18. The result of this construction is that the phrase is Mark’s parenthetical comment about the result of what Jesus said, that Jesus’ statement cleansed all foods (this is the understanding of most other translations, as well as that of the native Greek-speaking early church fathers, such as Chrysostom).

The reality is that the difference in translation doesn’t actually affect the overall argument that much. Whether the digestion process makes the food clean, or whether Jesus is declaring all foods clean, the fact is that the foods are clean. What is now clean? πάντα τὰ βρώματα! All foods are clean. Again, nothing (I repeat, nothing!) that goes into a person can defile him.

If this is what Jesus is saying, then how come the other passages that deal with the dietary laws (such as Acts 10, Romans 14-15) don’t quote this statement of Jesus? There are a couple of possible reasons that might help us understand. First of all, the implications of what Jesus said and did were not always well understood by the disciples. Take the nature of the kingdom, for instance. Even after the resurrection, the disciples were still clueless as to how global Jesus’ kingdom was going to be (see Acts 1). Secondly, it is not easy to alter one’s understanding of how the law applies after Christ’s work is accomplished. Jews who became Christians would not want to abandon the dietary laws they had grown up with. There had to be a process of instruction and compromise while that was happening. Thirdly, if Mark felt that he had to spell out the implications of Jesus’ statement for people, then it follows that Mark thought Jesus’ statements to be a tad cryptic. And, of course, since Mark’s own clarifying comment has been understood in several different ways, it follows that Mark 7:19 is not always clearly understood by people. It is certainly with great hesitation that any kind of appeal should be made to a text that is not crystal clear in its implications. This text only becomes clear after the grammatical study, not before it. At any rate, it should not be simply referenced without any kind of explanation and exegesis. This has been done all too often by both critics and proponents of the HRM.