All Foods Clean?

One verse in the Gospel of Mark appears to annul entire tractates of Jewish dietary laws. Did Yeshua really make all foods clean?

Artwork from the Torah Club Jesus, My Rabbi study, lesson "All Foods Clean". (Image and art © First Fruits of Zion)

In most English translations of the Bible, Mark 7:19 appears to state that Yeshua declared all foods clean, abrogating the biblical dietary laws.

To put this statement in context, the Master had just told His disciples that food entering their bodies did not defile their hearts; rather, what defiles the heart is what comes out of a person—evil thoughts, words, and actions. Unclean food does not remain to become a permanent part of a person’s spiritual psyche, but sin does.

Several modern translations render the last clause of Mark 7:19, “purging all foods,” as a narrator’s parenthetical statement supplied by the gospel writer. In other words, they understand it to be a summary conclusion added by Mark to explain the entire teaching. According to that interpretation, Mark sums up the episode with the words, “Thus He declared all foods clean.” Consider the following translations, all of which are constructed around three words: “cleansing all foods.”

  • In saying this, Jesus declared all foods “clean.” (NIV)
  • Thus He declared all foods clean (NASB)
  • Thus he declared all foods clean. (ESV)
  • Thus he declared all foods clean. (RSV)
  • By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes. (NLT)
  • Thus He was making and declaring all foods [ceremonially] clean [that is, abolishing the ceremonial distinctions of the Levitical Law]. (AMP)

The above translations all demonstrate remarkable creativity on the part of the translators as they attempt to translate a grammatical problem in Mark 7:19. A single dangling participle creates the confusion. In the Greek of Mark 7:19, the participle translated as “purifying” dangles with no obvious subject. The Greek text literally translates as “cleansing all of the food” or “purging all of the food.” The translators supply the rest of the parenthetical statement. In the above list, words added by the translator are italicized. Compare the more literal rendering of the King James Version, which is based upon a small variant in Greek Textus Receptus:

Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats. (Mark 7:19, KJV)

The King James rendering makes better sense in the context, describing how food enters the belly and goes out into the privy, thereby purging all food—rendering it ritually pure. Nevertheless, many translators argue that the Greek construction is better understood as a parenthetical comment summing up the Master’s teaching on the subject.

What if the parenthetical statement created by the translators was actually intended for Gentiles? Some scholars have made that suggestion. Is it possible that Mark added the summary statement because he was concerned lest his Gentile readers in Rome mistakenly suppose that they were beholden to the dietary laws? That explanation violates the context of the teaching and makes Yeshua say something He was not saying. There were no Gentiles present when Yeshua made the statement, and Gentile dietary concerns were not under discussion.

Most readers look to the assumed parenthetical statement as evidence for the belief that the Master canceled the kosher laws, but even if the phrase should be translated as an actual parenthetical statement, one must still place the saying within the context of the story: eating bread with unwashed hands. The Torah’s dietary laws are not under discussion. The question was about bread.

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