Jesus Kept Kosher: The Jewish Christ of the Gospel of Mark
In conventional readings of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’s relationship to the Jewish dietary laws is taken as a watershed moment in religious history, when one set of fundamental beliefs is cast out in favor of a new worldview. For centuries, Christian preachers, scholars, and lay readers of Mark have read the Gospel as teaching us not only that Jesus did not keep kosher but also that he permitted all foods that the Torah had forbidden Jews to eat. This would be a shift of no small moment, as indeed the dietary laws were then and remain today one of the very hallmarks of Jewish religious practice. If Mark has been misread, however, and his Jesus did not abandon or abrogate such basic Jewish practices as keeping kosher, then our entire sense of where the Jesus movement stands in relation to the Judaism of its time is quite changed. In short, if the earliest of Christians believed that Jesus kept kosher, then we have good reason to view that Christianity as another contending branch of Judaism.
The question of the “Jewishness” of Mark lies at the very heart of our understanding of the historical meaning of the Jesus movement in its earliest period. Jesus was, according to the view I defend here, not fighting against the Jews or Judaism but with some Jews for what he considered to be the right kind of Judaism. This kind of Judaism included the idea of a second divine person who would be found on earth in human form as the Messiah (and in the person of that Jesus). The only controversy surrounding Jesus was whether this son of the carpenter of Nazareth truly was the one for whom the Jews were waiting. Taking himself to be that very Jewish Messiah, Son of Man, however, Jesus surely would not have spoken contemptuously of the Torah but would have upheld it.
As read by most commentators, Mark 7 establishes the beginning of the so-called parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity. This is because, according to the traditional interpretation and virtually all modern scholarly ones, in this chapter Jesus declares a major aspect of the Torah’s laws, the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher), no longer valid, thus representing a major rupture with the beliefs and practices of virtually all other Jews, Pharisaic or not. The representatives of what are arguably the three most central and important scholarly biblical commentary series in the United States, ranging from the Word series for evangelical scholars to the Anchor Bible for the non-confessional and more general (but advanced) audience and then to the very scholarly and secular Hermeneia—which, taken together, represent the closest thing we have to an authoritative modern reading of the passage—all agree on this in their commentaries on Mark 7, even while disagreeing on much else. Thus Adela Yarbro Collins, in her Hermeneia commentary, writes of verse 19 (“and thus he purified all foods”), “The comment of v. 19c [third clause of v. 19] takes a giant step further and implies, at the very least, that the observance of the food laws for followers of Jesus is not obligatory.”
In the evangelical scholarly Word commentary, Robert A. Guelich too writes, “Jesus’ saying in 7:15 explained with reference to what one eats by 7:18b–19 means that no foods, even those forbidden by the Levitical law (Lev. 11–15), could defile a person before God. In essence, Jesus ‘makes all foods clean.’” In his commentary in the time-honored Anchor Bible, Joel Marcus writes that “anyone who did what the Markan Jesus does in our passage, denying this dietary distinction and declaring all food to be permissible (7:19), would immediately be identified as a seducer who led the people’s heart astray from God (cf. 7:6) and from the holy commandment he had given to Moses (cf. 7:8, 9, 13).” This view is the commonly held interpretation of the passage in both the pious and scholarly traditions.
But did the Markan Jesus do this sacrilegious thing, and is this passage truly a parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity? Reading the text backward from later Christian practices and beliefs about the written Torah and its abrogations, interpreters and scholars have found a point of origin, even a legend of origin, for their version of Christianity in this chapter. In contrast, reading the text through lenses colored by years of immersion in the Jewish religious literature of the times around Jesus and the evangelists produces a very different perspective on the chapter from the one that has come to be so dominant. Anchoring Mark in its proper historical and cultural context, we find a very different text indeed, one that reveals an inner Jewish controversy, rather than an abrogation of the Torah and denial of Judaism. ...
Boyarin, Daniel. "Jesus Kept Kosher: The Jewish Christ of the Gospel of Mark." Tikkun 27(2): 43.