The Pharisees and scribes, who regarded unwashed hands as being defiled or ceremonially unclean, took issue with Jesus when they saw some of his disciples violating the tradition of the elders by eating bread without having washed their hands in the customary manner (Mark 7:1-5). The Lord responds by confronting the hypocrisy of these critics, who were paying lip service to God without dedicated hearts and were elevating their traditions above God’s word (vv. 6-13). Jesus then assures a crowd of listeners that "there is nothing from outside a man entering into him [i.e. food allegedly contaminated by ritualistically unwashed hands] which can defile him; but the things coming out of a man [i.e. sinful words and actions] are the things defiling him" (v. 15).1 When the disciples asked for further clarification, Jesus explains: "everything from the outside entering into a man cannot defile him, because it does not enter into his heart but into the stomach and goes out into the latrine" (vv. 18-19a).The difficulty is determining the significance of the next phrase, katharizōn panta ta brōmata, lit. "purifying all foods" (v. 19b). The first problem concerns a variant in the text. The favored reading of most text critics is katharizōn, the masculine participial form of katharizō (to "cleanse" or "purify"), thus connoting "[he] purifying all foods." However, the majority of Greek manuscripts have the neuter form katharizon, conveying the sense of "[it] purifying all foods." This raises the question: is the participial clause to be understood as a continuation of Jesus’ statement (N/KJV) or as Mark’s parenthetical commentary on the implication of what Jesus has said (ASV, ESV, etc.)? In other words, is it Jesus or is it the process of waste elimination that ceremonially purifies?
If the neuter katharizon is the correct form, in what sense could defecation purify all foods? Perhaps this was the Lord’s commonsense way of showing that irrespective of how one views food as it enters the body (whether eaten with washed or unwashed hands), it is all the same on the other end. In fact, according to rabbinic opinion, excrement was not considered ceremonially impure (m. Maksh. 6.7; t. Miqw. 7.8; y. Pesah. 7.11; Sifra Mes. Zab. § 1.12-13). Jesus was merely illustrating that the pharisaical emphasis on traditional hand-washing rituals is not the determining factor for whether or not food is kosher.
But what if the masculine katharizōn is the correct reading? Did Jesus disavow and set aside the Mosaic dietary regulations? We must be careful not to stretch these words beyond their original intent. In the context of this discussion, the topic is not clean versus unclean foods (as per Leviticus 11, etc.), but rather the ceremonial washing of hands, cups, copper vessels, etc. derived from human traditions (Mark 7:1-5). When Jesus speaks of "nothing from outside a man entering into him which can defile him" (v. 15), and "everything from the outside entering into a man cannot defile him" (v. 18), and "all foods" (v. 19), he is speaking of all the foods that the Jews in general and his disciples in particular were accustomed to eating. The context limits the "nothing," "everything," and "all foods" to what the Pharisees were claiming to be defiled because of contact with unwashed hands or containers.2
Jesus was not setting aside the law of Moses (cf. Matthew 5:19; 8:4; 19:17-19) but rather the traditions of the Pharisees. Apparently this was understood by Peter, having personally heard the Lord speak these words, since he later declares: "I have never eaten anything common and unclean" (Acts 10:14). It was not until Christ’s new covenant was instituted that the Jewish dietary laws were abrogated.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 All scripture quotations in English are the author's own translation.
2 For example, later in the chapter when it is said of Jesus, "he has done all things well" (v. 37), would this literally include all things universally, e.g. theft, lying, murder, etc.? The context limits the "all things" to only the activities in which the Lord had personally been engaged.
Related Posts: Is the Law of Moses Still Binding?, Asceticism Vs. Everything Holy (1 Tim. 4:4-5)