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Author: David Wilber
Did Jesus reject the Torah’s dietary laws? Many say that he did, citing Mark 7:1-23 as proof. In this article, I will explain the problems with the traditional interpretation of this passage and offer an alternative view that presents a more consistent and accurate portrayal of Jesus’s teaching.
Mark 7:1-23 describes a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. This confrontation begins when the Pharisees observe that Jesus’s disciples did not ritually wash their hands before eating (7:2). They ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands” (7:5)? After accusing the Pharisees of rejecting God’s commandments, Jesus responds to their question about handwashing by saying, “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” (7:15). He reiterates this teaching to his disciples in private (7:17-23), which brings us to the part of the passage that many have interpreted to mean that Jesus rejected the Torah’s dietary laws:
And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)
A common interpretation of these verses is that Jesus abolished the Torah’s distinctions between clean and unclean food at that moment. The end of verse 19 (“Thus he declared all foods clean”) is often understood as Mark’s parenthetical statement explaining Jesus’s teaching. Thus, the Torah’s commandments against eating meat from unclean animals (e.g., Leviticus 11) are no longer relevant to Christians. These comments from R. L. Solberg, an outspoken critic of Pronomian (pro-law/Torah) theology, are representative of the traditional perspective:
Jesus taught that all foods are clean and, as God incarnate, all foods became clean at His word. Thus, any of His listeners who decided to begin eating previously unkosher foods at that time would not have been in violation of the Law.
Solberg is certainly not alone in saying that Mark 7:18-19 is an example of Jesus doing away with the Torah’s dietary laws. But although this interpretation may be popular, numerous New Testament scholars soundly reject it. According to Dr. Matthew Thiessen, “Nothing suggests that the Gospel writers intended to portray Jesus rejecting the Jewish dietary laws.”
Why do Bible scholars disagree with the traditional interpretation represented by Solberg? Consider the following four points.
1) The traditional interpretation of this passage makes Jesus a hypocrite.
One of Jesus’s criticisms of the Pharisees in Mark 7 was that they were hypocrites who “leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (7:8). He said they “reject” and “nullify” God’s commandments/word (7:9, 13). Does it make any sense for Jesus to criticize the Pharisees for rejecting God’s commandments while at the same time doing away with the Torah’s dietary laws? Wouldn’t Jesus himself be a hypocrite if he invalidated God’s commandments immediately after condemning the Pharisees for invalidating God’s commandments?
2) The controversy was over ritual handwashing, not the Torah’s dietary laws.
The Pharisees confronted Jesus not because his disciples disregarded the Torah but because they disregarded “the tradition of the elders” (7:5). One of the traditions of the elders was that a person must ritually wash his hands before eating regular meals. Where did this tradition come from? As Jacob Neusner explains, the Pharisees reinterpreted many of the priestly laws to apply outside of the context of the Temple:
The Pharisees were Jews who believed one must keep the purity laws outside of the Temple. Other Jews, following the plain sense of Leviticus, supposed that purity laws were to be kept only in the Temple, where the priests had to enter a state of ritual purity in order to carry out such requirements as animal sacrifices. They likewise had to eat their Temple food in a state of ritual purity, while lay people did not. To be sure, everyone who went to the Temple had to be ritually pure. But outside of the Temple the laws of ritual purity were not observed, for it was not required that noncultic activities be conducted in a state of Levitical cleanness. But the Pharisees held that even outside of the Temple, in one’s own home, the laws of ritual purity were to be followed in the only circumstance in which they might apply, namely, at the table. Therefore, one must eat secular food (ordinary, everyday meals) in a state of ritual purity as if one were a Temple priest.
Although the Torah does command priests to wash their hands when serving in the tabernacle (Exodus 30:17-21), there is no commandment for non-priests outside of the tabernacle to wash their hands. Indeed, Mark explicitly identifies the Pharisees’ ritual as “tradition,” in contrast to God’s commandments. In any case, the context of this conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees in Mark 7 gives no indication that the Torah’s dietary laws are in view. The controversy concerned ritual handwashing. Thus, there is no textual basis for importing the Torah’s dietary laws into this passage.
3) Mark’s earliest readers did not understand Jesus’s teaching in Mark 7:1-23 to be a rejection of the dietary laws.
Most scholars recognize that both Matthew and Luke used Mark’s gospel as a source for their writing. When copying from Mark, Matthew is known to make adjustments and additions to Mark’s account to be more precise. Notably, when Matthew records his version of this conflict in Mark 7, he makes explicit the fact that the controversy concerned handwashing:
But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”
As we can see, Matthew’s version of this conflict plainly tells us that he understood Mark’s account to concern only ritual handwashing, not the Torah’s dietary laws. Perhaps it could be argued that Matthew made these adjustments because he differed from Mark theologically. However, a more plausible explanation is that Matthew emphasized the topic of this dispute to clear up any ambiguity so that his readers did not misunderstand Jesus to be saying something that he wasn’t.
Additionally, scholars recognize that Luke makes use of Mark 7 in his account of Jesus dining with the Pharisee in Luke 11:37-41. Like Mark 7 and Matthew 15, Jesus violated the Pharisaic handwashing ritual but not the Torah. If Luke understood Mark to be addressing the Torah’s dietary laws in Mark 7, we might expect him to include that detail in his use of Mark’s material, but he doesn’t. Luke portrays Jesus as rejecting only extrabiblical traditions, not God’s commandments.
4) Jesus’s earliest followers did not understand Jesus’s teaching in Mark 7:1-23 to be a rejection of the Torah’s dietary laws.
Acts 10 is another passage that sheds light on Jesus’s teaching in Mark 7. Here, Luke records that Peter received a vision in which he was told to “kill and eat” unclean animals. Peter was shocked by this instruction and refused to violate the Torah’s dietary laws: “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean” (Acts 10:14). This is significant because Peter witnessed the conflict recorded in Mark 7 between Jesus and the Pharisees and heard Jesus’s private explanation of his teaching (Matthew 15:15). If Jesus abolished the dietary laws several years earlier in Mark 7, Peter’s response in this passage doesn’t add up.
Some might argue that Peter’s vision in Acts 10 teaches that the dietary laws were nullified, suggesting that Luke understood Jesus to have abolished the Torah’s dietary laws when he read Mark’s account. However, the text of Acts 10 does not say this. Luke confirms that this vision had nothing to do with eating unclean animals when he records Peter’s interpretation of the vision: “God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean” (Acts 10:28). The unclean animals in the vision were symbols meant to represent Gentiles. The point of the vision was that Peter must not consider Gentile believers unclean because God has made them clean through Christ.  Luke further illustrates this fact in Acts 11:5-18, where Peter recounts this event and says nothing about God abolishing the Torah’s dietary laws, which we would expect Peter to have mentioned had the vision been intended to convey that idea.
In addition to the biblical data, historical evidence indicates that Jesus’s earliest followers (including his Gentile followers) continued to abide by the Torah’s dietary laws. For instance, the Didache, an early second-century Christian document, states, “Concerning food, bear what you are able” (Didache 6:3). According to Didache scholar Kurt Niederwimmer, this verse “refers obviously to the commandments and prohibitions regarding food in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition.” Thus, according to some scholars, the author of the Didache appears to be instructing his Gentile readers to obey the Torah’s dietary laws as best as they can. We also have evidence of Jewish and some Gentile Christians observing the Torah’s dietary laws as late as the fourth century AD. In light of this historical evidence, David Rudolph remarks:
“[E]ven after the Mark 7:19b text was well attested in the early church, enough ambiguity surrounded its meaning that many believers, Gentile and Jewish, continued to abide by aspects of the biblical dietary laws.
The fact that Jewish and some Gentile Christians continued to observe the biblical dietary laws might indicate that the earliest Christians did not share the modern traditional interpretation of Mark 7:1-23. According to Moshe Blidstein, “the dietary laws were not clearly condemned in the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, or in the first-century Pauline tradition.” In the second century, however, the general attitude of Christian writers toward the Torah’s dietary laws began to change. The dietary laws became seen “as distinctively Jewish and thus their rejection was part of Christian identity formation, especially since Jewish-Christian groups continued to practice these laws.”
Indeed, the rejection of the dietary laws among many Gentile Christians in the second century seems to have been motivated not by Jesus’s teaching but by a desire to disassociate from the Jews. The earliest explicit evidence of Gentile Christians abandoning the Torah’s dietary laws is found in the Epistle of Barnabas, dated to around 130 AD. In this epistle, the author teaches that the dietary laws are symbolic and not meant to be literally observed. The author of this epistle lived when Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD) outlawed Jewish religious observances in response to the Bar Kokhba war. According to Lawrence Geraty, this conflict between Jews and the empire “made it necessary for Christians to develop a new identity in order to avoid the repressive and punitive measures (fiscal, military, political, and literary) aimed at the Jews.” Since the observance of the dietary laws was widely regarded as a “Jewish practice,” it seems that many Gentile Christians stopped abiding by them so that they would not be suspected of practicing Judaism. Nevertheless, the abandonment of the Torah’s dietary laws among Gentile Christians was not universal.
A Better Interpretation
The above four points highlight the problems with the traditional perspective on this passage. But is there a better interpretation? There is!
As we’ve seen, Jesus’s confrontation with the Pharisees in Mark 7:1-23 concerned the issue of ritual handwashing, a tradition of the elders. After he accuses the Pharisees of rejecting God’s commandments in observance of their traditions (7:6-13), Jesus responds to their question about handwashing in Mark 7:15 by articulating “a legal principle about the dynamics of impurity that undermines the practice of handwashing before meals.”
How did Jesus’s teaching undermine the Pharisees’ tradition? Jesus states that (biblically clean) food that has been touched with ritually impure hands cannot ritually defile anyone because it is not what goes into the body that defiles a person but rather what comes out of their body. The Pharisees’ conception of ritual impurity had it backward. In the Bible, ritual impurities such as genital discharges and leprosy “emit impurity when they come out of the body. And those who contract these impurities wash the outside of their bodies, not the interior.” That is, the Bible describes impurity as starting from within and coming out of the body, and it does not move into the body. Jesus’s list of moral “impurities” (evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, etc.) corresponds to this biblical principle. People are defiled by what comes out of a sinful heart, not what goes into their stomach and ends up in the latrine.
But what about the statement at the end of Mark 7:19, often translated into English as “Thus he declared all foods clean”? Here is the phrase in Greek: καθαρίζον πάντα τὰ βρώματα. This phrase literally translates as “cleansing all the food” and is often understood as Mark’s parenthetical explanation of Jesus’s teaching. This is because most translators take the opening participle in the phrase, καθαρίζων (“cleansing”), as being grammatically attached to the verb λέγει (“he said,” referring to Jesus) in Mark 7:18. Thus, translators understand “Jesus” to be the subject of the participle καθαρίζων. That is, Jesus is the one “cleansing all the food.” Translators supply the word “declared” to make the construction intelligible.
However, it seems unlikely that λέγει is the antecedent of καθαρίζων. As Dr. Logan Williams explains, if the final clause of Mark 7:19 were Mark’s parenthetical statement, this would require the participle καθαρίζων to reach back thirty-five words to modify λέγει. According to Williams, “This would be the only instance in Mark’s gospel in which a participle follows direct discourse while also modifying the main verb of the clause which came prior to that discourse.”
Grammatically, it makes more sense to read this final phrase in Mark 7:19 not as Mark’s parenthetical comment about what Jesus does but instead as a continuation of Jesus’s own explanation about what the digestive system does. Thus, Mark 7:19 should be translated as “since it enters not his heart but his stomach and is expelled (literally ‘goes out into the latrine’), cleansing all the food.”
But this raises a question: how does the process of digestion “cleanse” the food a person eats? Surprisingly, Jewish tradition did not consider excrement to be ritually impure (e.g., m.Makshirin 6:7). The Torah calls excrement “indecent” (Deut. 23:14), but not a source of ritual impurity. According to David Garland, “This surprising judgment may be the key to Jesus’ argument. With a droll twist Jesus argues that if food defiles a person, why is it not regarded as impure when it winds up in the latrine?” Since excrement is not considered ritually impure, the stomach must function to “cleanse” any food that a person eats. Thus, it does not matter if someone eats food with ritually unwashed hands—the food cannot defile them because the stomach cleanses the food when it turns it into excrement.
Before we conclude, there is one more technical point worth addressing. Some argue that Greek grammar requires Jesus to be the one doing the cleansing of the food. Since the participle καθαρίζων (“cleansing”) is singular, nominative, and masculine, then its antecedent must also be singular, nominative, and masculine. The closest antecedent that grammatically matches καθαρίζων is the implied subject of λέγει (“he said”) in Mark 7:18, which is Jesus. However, Greek has a well-known exception to this rule. As Tim Hegg explains:
It is well known in Greek grammar that the nominative singular participle may sometimes refer to something within the previous context or to something implied in the context not explicitly mentioned, even though it may not be in the same grammatical case.
We can see an example of this in Luke 24:47, which reads, “and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” The participle in the phrase “beginning from Jerusalem” is ἀρξάμενον (“beginning”), which is nominative masculine plural. But as Hegg points out, “there is no nominative masculine plural noun in the preceding context to act as its antecedent.” Like Mark 7:19, Luke 24:47 is an example where we see the participle attaching to the entire previous clause, even though there is no case agreement. Remarkably, several Greek Grammars reference the final clause of Mark 7:19 “as an example of a nominative masculine participle that does not agree in case with its apparent antecedent.”
What does all this mean? It means that it is perfectly grammatically acceptable to take the final clause of Mark 7:19 (“cleansing all foods”) as a continuation of Jesus’s description of the digestive system. The parallel in Luke 24:47 confirms that this grammatical construction is not unheard of. This option is preferable, both contextually and grammatically, to taking the final clause in Mark 7:19 as Mark’s parenthetical statement.
Nevertheless, even if we take the clause as Mark’s parenthetical statement, it is still within the context of a dispute over handwashing—the Torah’s dietary laws are not part of the discussion. As Dr. Thiessen writes:
The entire context of the clause of Mark 7:19 (“purifying all foods”) situates this statement within a debate about whether one must ritually wash one’s hands prior to eating. That is to say, the story simply does not intend to deal with the question of whether one should eat pork or shellfish; rather, it intends to address the question of whether one can defile kosher food with one’s ritually impure hands and then introduce that ritual impurity into one’s body by the consumption of that defiled food.
Indeed, nobody involved in this confrontation ate meat from unclean animals. Thus, if we take the final clause in Mark 7:19 to be Mark’s parenthetical comment, given the literary context in which Mark makes this comment, he is merely stating that Jesus declared all Torah-permitted foods clean. That is to say, Jesus rejected the Pharisees’ extrabiblical purity tradition, which stated that biblically clean food could become defiled by ritually unwashed hands.
Mark 7:1-23 tells of a controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees concerning ritual handwashing, a tradition of the elders. Jesus’s response to the Pharisees’ complaint about his disciples not observing their tradition has been interpreted as Jesus doing away with the Torah’s dietary laws. However, a detailed examination of the passage has shown that this interpretation is doubtful. The point of Mark’s narrative is to portray Jesus and his disciples as faithful to God’s commandments, despite the accusations of the Pharisees. In fact, the Pharisees are the ones who reject God’s commandments. Mark undermines his entire point if he portrays Jesus rejecting the Torah’s dietary laws.
The context is clear that Jesus rejected only extrabiblical traditions, not God’s commandments. This fact is confirmed by Mark’s earliest readers, who did not interpret Mark’s passage as Jesus abolishing the dietary laws. It is also confirmed by the fact that Jesus’s earliest followers continued to abide by the Torah’s dietary laws—namely Peter, who was present during the confrontation in Mark 7:1-23.
In response to the Pharisees’ question about handwashing, Jesus explained that the Pharisees misunderstood the dynamics of impurity and how it moves from inside out, not outside in. The final clause of Mark 7:19, “cleansing all foods,” is not Mark’s parenthetical statement but a continuation of Jesus’s explanation of the digestive system. In accordance with Jewish views of purity, Jesus said that one’s digestive system cleanses all the foods that he eats by turning it into excrement. Jesus was not declaring biblically unclean foods to be clean.
 R. L. Solberg, “Thus He Declared All Food Clean,” www.rlsolberg.com.
 See, e.g., Logan Williams, “The Stomach Purifies All Foods: Jesus’ Anatomical Argument in Mark 7.18–19,” Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, Denver, CO (November 2022); Paula Fredricksen, “Did Jesus Oppose Purity Laws?”, Bible Review XI.3 (1995): 20-47; Matthew Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Purity Within First-Century Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerAcademic, 2020), 187-195; Cecilia Wassen, “The Jewishness of Jesus and ritual purity,” Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis, 27 (2016): 11-36; John van Maaren, “Does Mark’s Jesus Abrogate Torah?: Jesus’ Purity Logion and its Illustration in Mark 7:15-23,” JJMJS No.4 (2017): 21-41; James Crossley, The Date of Mark’s Gospel: Insight from the Law in Earliest Christianity (New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 191-197; Yair Furstenberg, “Defilement Penetrating the Body: A New Understanding of Contamination in Mark 7.15,” NTS 54 (2008): 176-200; Thomas Kazen, Jesus and Purity Halakhah: Was Jesus Indifferent to Impurity? (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2010), 65-67, 181: “Discussing Mk 7, we found no reason to believe that Jesus rejected the food laws of Lev 11”; Friedrich Avemarie, “Jesus and Purity,” The New Testament and Rabbinic Literature (JSJ 136; Boston: Brill, 2010), 255-280; Clinton Wahlen, Jesus and the Impurity of Spirits in the Synoptic Gospels (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 77-79; Peter J. Tomson, Paul and the Jewish Law: Halakha in the Letters of the Apostle to the Gentiles (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1990), 241-242; Jesper Svartvik, “The Markan Interpretation of the Pentateuchal Food Laws,” Biblical Interpretation in Early Christian Gospels, Vol. 1: The Gospel of Mark (New York: T&T Clark, 2006), 169-181.
 Thiessen, 195.
 Jacob Neusner, From Politics to Piety: The Emergence of Pharisaic Judaism (Prentice-Hall, 1973), 83. See also Oskar Skarsaune, In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002), 121: “[T]he Pharisees sought to make every Israelite a priest and every meal a temple meal. Their aim was to extend the sanctity of the temple.”
 Many of the rabbis viewed ritual handwashing as absolutely necessary (t.Berakhot 5.26; m.Eduyyot), but these sentiments were not universal (Numbers Rabbah 20.21). The Talmud states that the ritual was not a biblical commandment: “There is no requirement of washing of the hands for non-sacred items by Torah law” (b.Berakhot 52b).
 Gary M. Burge, Lynn H. Cohick, Gene L. Green, The New Testament in Antiquity: A survey of the New Testament Within Its Cultural Contexts (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 115: “The cumulative evidence has made the majority of scholars affirm what we call ‘Markan Priority’ in the formation of the gospel tradition.”
 Ibid: “Matthew seems to make adjustments to Mark. For instance, in Mark 6:14 we are told that Herod Antipas was a ‘king.’ Matthew 14:1 amends this to say that Antipas was a ‘tetrarch.’ In Mark 6:5 we learn that Jesus ‘could not do any miracles [in Nazareth].’ Matthew appears to supplement this potentially embarrassing admission by saying Jesus did not might work there ‘because of their lack of faith.’”
 See, e.g., John Nolland, Word Biblical Commentary, 35B: Luke 9:21-18:34 (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1998), 663-665.
 See Moshe Blidstein, “Between Ritual and Moral Purity: Early Christian Views on Dietary Laws,” Authoritative Texts and Reception History: Aspects and Approaches (Boston: Brill, 2017), 245: “Peter’s vision commanding him to eat ‘unclean animals’ (Acts 10:9-16) is interpreted in the text itself as relating to interactions with gentiles and not to eating animals at all.”
 For more on Peter’s vision in Acts 10, see Jason A. Staples, “Rise, Kill, and Eat: Animals as Nations in Early Jewish Literature and Acts 10,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Vol. 42 (2019): 3-17.
 Kurt Niederwimmer, The Didache: Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 123. “The Didachist requires that they be kept to the extent that it is possible for each individual…Thus while the compulsory nature of these prescriptions has been relaxed, there is no fundamental abrogation of the food laws here.”
 Ray A. Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity: From the End of the New Testament Period Until Its Disappearance in the Fourth Century (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1988), 109; Marcel Simon, Verus Israel: A Study of the Relations between Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire AD 135-425 (London: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1996), 326.
 David J. Rudolph, “Yeshua and the Dietary Laws: A Reassessment of Mark 7:19B,” Kesher: A Journal of Messianic Judaism, 16 (2003), 109.
 Moshe Blidstein, Purity, Community, and Ritual in Early Christian Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 83.
 Ibid., 90.
 See Peter J. Tomson, “Jewish Purity Laws as Viewed by the Church Fathers and by the Early Followers of Jesus,” Purity and Holiness: The Heritage of Leviticus (Boston: Brill, 2000), 91: “It is hardly a coincidence that the classical anti-Jewish, gentile Church begins to emerge following this event.”
 Lawrence T. Geraty, “From Sabbath to Sunday: Why, How and When?” Partings: How Judaism and Christianity Became Two, Hershel Shanks, ed. (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2013), 266-267.
 Thiessen, 191.
 Ibid., 193.
 Logan Williams, “Did Jesus Really Declare All Foods Clean? Purity, Poop, and the Stomach in Mark 7.18–19.” Houston Baptist Theology Seminar. Online. February 2022.
 David E. Garland, Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 271.
 Tim Hegg, “Mark 7:19b – A Short Technical Note,” TorahResource (2005), www.torahresource.com.
 Ibid. See F. Blass and A. Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Univ. of Chicago, 1961), 76, §137(3); James Hope Moulton and Nigel Turner, A Grammar of New Testament Greek, 3 vols. (T&T Clark, 1963), 3.316; Maximilian Zerwick S. J., Biblical Greek (Pontificii Instituti Biblici, 1963), 5–6.
 Other examples of this construction include Acts 10:37, 2 Thessalonians 1:8, and James 3:8.
 Thiessen, 191-192.
 See van Maaren, 38-39: “The narrator does not mean to clarify that now all food is permitted, but that permitted food does not convey impurity.”
About David Wilber
David is first and foremost a passionate follower of Yeshua the Messiah. He is also a writer, speaker, and teacher.
David’s heart is to minister to God’s people by helping them rediscover the validity and blessing of God’s Torah and help prepare them to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope within them (1 Peter 3:15)…