Tikkun Magazine

Jesus Kept Kosher: The Jewish Christ of the Gospel of Mark

Jesus in Delicatessen

Most scholars say Jesus rejected the Torah's kosher laws in the Gospel of Mark, but did he? A closer look at Mark 7 reveals a Jewish Christ—not a "parting of the ways" between Judaism and Christianity. Credit: Laura Beckman (laurabeckman.com).

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ones, in this chapter Jesus declares a major aspect of the Torah’s laws, the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher), no longer valid, thus representing a major rupture with the beliefs and practices of virtually all other Jews, Pharisaic or not.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.{{{subscriber|2.00}}}

What Did Mark Really Say?

It will be well to have the entire narrative in mind for this discussion, so let me begin by citing the text (presented here without verse numbers, for ease of reading) from the NRSV translation:

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever curses of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)—then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.” Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

There is such a long history of interpreting this passage that it alone would fill a book. The demons that beset the “tradition history” of this passage are legion; some scholars consider some verses original and others later additions, while others argue just the opposite as to which verses were original and which added later. I am going to cast the demons out by ignoring them and trying to read the text as it is. My goal is to get closer to a sense of what the canonical Gospel of Mark might have meant in its original cultural, religious context, a context that has to be thoroughly known and clearly articulated to do its interpretative work.

The first thing that must be acknowledged is that while the readers of Mark are clearly expected to be far away from traditional Jewish practice as well as from the Aramaic and Hebrew languages, the writer of Mark is anything but distant from and ignorant of these matters. He demonstrates, in fact, a fine and clear understanding of Jewish practice and the Jewish languages, as does his Jesus. This distinction has been missed in much of the earlier work on Mark and especially on this chapter.

Food Can Be Kosher But Not Pure

In contrast to virtually all Christian commentators, I propose that whatever Jesus is portrayed as doing in the above text from Mark—including “and thus he purified all foods”—it is not permitting the eating of all foods, even if we accept every word of the passage as it is before us in the text.

In order to make this proposition stick, it’s very important that we make some distinctions between different domains of the Torah’s law and especially the dietary laws, for there has been much confusion on this score. To call food kosher refers to its permissibility or impermissibility for eating by Jews as defined in the Bible and the later rabbinic literature. Among the foods forbidden are nonruminants such as pigs and rabbits, birds of prey, and sea creatures that have no fins or scales. Meat, to be kosher, has also to be slaughtered in a special way deemed painless to the animal, and milk and meat foods must be kept separate from each other. These laws are observed to the letter by pious Jews even today. Although, somewhat confusingly, animals that are not kosher are referred to as “impure” animals, these kashrut laws have nothing to do with purity and impurity of the body or other items. There is a separate set of rules that define when any food—kosher or not—is pure or impure, depending on how that food was handled and what other things it may have come into contact with. Indeed, there are kosher foods that in some circumstances and for some Jews were forbidden to be eaten, despite the fact that they are in themselves made of entirely kosher ingredients, cooked in kosher pots, and not incorporating milk with meat. Such foods have become impure through some mishap, such as being touched by a person with a flux from his or her body. While all Jews are forbidden always to eat pork, lobster, milk and meat together, and meat that has not been properly slaughtered, only some Jews, some of the time, are forbidden to eat kosher food that has become contaminated with ritual impurity. While in English they are sometimes confused, the system of purity and impurity laws and the system of dietary laws are two different systems within the Torah’s rules for eating, and Mark and Jesus knew the difference. One of the biggest obstacles to this understanding has been in the use of the English words “clean” and “unclean” to refer both to the laws of permitted and forbidden foods and to the laws of pollution or impurity and purity. These translate two entirely different sets of Hebrew words, muttar and tahor. It would be better to translate the first set by “permitted” and “forbidden” and use “clean” and “unclean,” or “pure” and “impure,” only for the latter set.

On one hand, the Torah lists various species of birds, fish and other sea creatures, and land animals that may never be eaten. It also forbids the eating of the sciatic nerve, the consumption of certain kinds of fat on otherwise kosher animals, the consumption of blood, and cooking a kid in its mother’s milk (taken early on by most Jews, apparently, to mean not to cook meat and milk together). Together these rules make up what is called the Jewish dietary laws or kosher rules. As I have mentioned, they apply to all Jews everywhere and always.

Bacon creme cupcakes

The misinterpretation of the Gospel of Mark stems from the conflation of two entirely different systems of rules: kosher dietary laws, which forbid Jews from eating foods such as these creamy bacon cupcakes, and purity laws. Creative Commons/CleverCupcakes.

Purity and impurity, or pollution (tuma’h vetaharah), is an entirely separate system of rules and regulations that apply to a different sphere of life, namely, the laws having to do with the touching of various objects, such as dead humans or humans who have touched dead humans and not washed properly, as well as with other causes of impurity such as skin diseases or fluxes from the body, including menstrual blood and semen (but not excreta), which render a person “impure” according to the Torah but carry no moral opprobrium. People may become impure without any deed on their parts at all. In fact, most Israelites were impure most of the time (and today we all are all the time), since it requires a trip to the Temple to be purified from some kinds of ubiquitous impurities. The touch of such “impure” persons renders certain perfectly kosher foods forbidden to be eaten by Priests or by Israelites who are entering the Temple. During Second Temple times, there is much evidence that many Jews sought to avoid such impurity and to purify themselves as quickly as they could according to the rules from the Torah even if they were not planning to go to the Temple. The Pharisees extended these practices, even legislating that eating kosher food that has been in contact with impurities renders one impure.

According to the biblical system (to which, apparently, the Galilean practice might very well have corresponded), the two sets of rules are kept quite strictly apart. A Jew did not eat nonkosher food, but rules around defiled kosher food depended on various circumstances of the eater’s life and certainly did not render the body of the eater impure.

Carrion in a bag

Carrion (like the putrefying chicken below) is the only food that can render a body impure, according to the Torah. Creative Commons/JessicaReeder.

The pharisaic tradition seems to have extended that prohibition against eating defiled kosher food and also rendered the eater him- or herself impure through this eating. The Pharisees sought to convince other Jews to adhere to their new standards of strictness (this is apparently the meaning of them going over land and sea to convert—they were attempting to “convert” other Jews, not Gentiles). They therefore instituted a practice of ritual hand purification by pouring water over the hands before eating bread, so that the hands would not make the bread impure.

Thus, in order to understand what Jesus is talking about in the Gospel, we must have a clearer sense of what his terminology might have meant in his cultural world, not ours. In the Gospel, we are told that Pharisees have come from Jerusalem, apparently to proselytize for their understanding of the Torah and its rules, including these extensions of the purity regulations, such as the washing of the hands. Jesus protests, asserting that foods that go into the body don’t make the body impure; only things that come out of the body have that power to contaminate. So really what the Gospel describes is a Jesus who rejects the pharisaic extension of these purity laws beyond their original specific biblical foundations. He is not rejecting the Torah’s rules and practices but upholding them.

Mark Reveals His Own Jewishness

In contrast to many earlier views, it’s clear that Mark knew very well what he was talking about when he discussed the pharisaic ritual practices and purity rules. The clearest demonstration of this involves a word in the Greek that is usually obscured in English translations of Mark 7:3: “οἱ γὰρ Φαρισαῖοι καὶ πάντες οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι ἐὰν μὴ πυγμῇ νίψωνται τὰς χεῖρας οὐκ ἐσθίουσιν, κρατοῦντες τὴν παράδοσιν τῶν πρεσβυτέρων [For the Pharisees and all of the Judaeans do not eat unless they wash the hands with a fist, according to the tradition of the Elders].” Scholarship has only recently adopted the translation “with a fist” after centuries of emendation of the text against the dominant textual tradition. The usage “with a fist,” albeit for fighting or hitting, is attested in the ancient Greek translation of the Bible, the Septuagint, more than once (Exodus 21:8; Isaiah 58:4).

As anyone who has seen Jews actually performing the ritual of hand washing would guess immediately, Mark is referring to the process of forming a loose fist with one hand and pouring water over that fist with the other. I would suggest, moreover, that Mark’s emphasis on “with a fist” might well be a description of the practice itself but also an allusive, almost punning reference to the pugnaciousness of these Pharisees. But regardless of that last point, when the Gospel is understood in this manner it provides incredibly precious evidence, available nowhere else, of the great antiquity of a Jewish practice otherwise attested only later. If Mark was such a close observer and manifests such intimate knowledge of Pharisaic practice, then my assumption as I read the passage is that he knew of what he spoke all the way down. This suggests strongly that his perspective (as well as that of his Jesus) is firmly from within the Jewish world—nearly the opposite of what has been usually said of Mark.

Loyal to the Written Torah, Jesus Attacks the Pharisees’ Innovations

Yair Furstenberg, a young Talmud scholar at the Hebrew University, has recently provided a convincing explanation of the basic controversy between Jesus and those Pharisees. Furstenberg writes that Jesus’s statement needs to be read literally to mean that the body is made impure not through ingesting impure foods but only through various substances that come out from the body. As noted, according to the Torah it is not what goes into the body that makes one impure but only things that come out of the body: fluxes of blood, semen, and gonorrhea. The only food, according to the Torah, that renders a body impure is carrion—certainly not the eating of permitted food that has become impure, or of forbidden foods generally. According to the Talmud itself, it was the Rabbis (or the legendary Pharisees) who innovated the washing of the hands before meals—which implies that the ingesting of defiled or polluted foods renders one impure. It was thus against those Pharisaic innovations, which they are trying to foist on his disciples, that Jesus railed, and not against the keeping of kosher at all. This is a debate between Jews about the correct way to keep the Torah, not an attack on the Torah. Furstenberg has brilliantly argued that in its original sense, Jesus’s attack on the Pharisees here is literal: they have changed the rules of the Torah. This is made clear in Zabim 5:12, a key rabbinic text, which, while much later than the Gospel, ascribes a change in the Halakha to the time of Mark:

These categories render the priestly offering unfit [to be eaten by the Priests]: He who eats directly impure food; … and he who drinks impure fluids; … and the hands.

If someone eats or drinks impure food, then his touch renders the priestly portion impure and unfit for the priests. This innovative ruling is, moreover, explicitly connected in the list with the hands as well, just as the Markan Jesus associates them. Now, these rulings are explicitly marked within the talmudic tradition as being of rabbinic origin and not as rulings of the Torah. That is to say, the classical rabbis themselves maintained a distinction between what was written in the Torah and what had been added by them or by their Pharisaic forebears. They explicitly remark that here we have a Pharisaic extension of the Torah, thus confirming what Jesus said. According to the Torah, only that which comes out of the body (fluxes of various types) can contaminate, not foods that go in. Thus, if the Pharisees argue that food itself contaminates, that is a change in the law.

The attack on hand washing in the story is, moreover, consistent with Jesus’s subsequent attack on the vow that releases one from supporting one’s parents:

But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God) then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.

Jesus here accuses the Pharisees of having abandoned the plain sense of the Torah, which requires that Jews support their elderly parents. They have allegedly done this by asserting that one who takes a vow not to allow his parents to use any of his possessions—as if those possessions were a sacrifice dedicated to God—has effectively prohibited himself from providing such support.

This represents another instance in which the Pharisees apparently supplant the Torah with their “tradition of the Elders.” Once again, Jesus and Mark have got it exactly right in terms of the Torah and the oral traditions exemplified by the Pharisees and other innovators. For Jesus (Mark) the “tradition of the elders” is a human creation, as opposed to the written Torah, which is divine. Hence the force of the citation from Isaiah, in which Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

From Jesus’s point of view, the “tradition of the elders”—later called the oral Torah—is exactly “human precepts” being taught as doctrines, as in the prophetic formulation. For the Pharisees, and later for the Rabbis, the “tradition of the elders” is divine word and not human precepts (though they were transmitted orally rather than scripturally). In this case, moreover, we have an admittedly Pharisaic innovation, contested even by some other Pharisees. No wonder that Jesus would balk and protest. What I hope to have shown in this section is that when Mark wrote the words “καθαρίζων πάντα τὰ βρώματα [purifying all foods],” there is little reason to believe that it meant “thus he permitted all foods,” but rather, “thus he purified all foods,” meaning that he rejected the extra-stringent laws of defiled foods to which the Pharisees were so devoted—not the kosher rules. Jesus was certainly not sanctioning here the eating of bacon and eggs; rather, exactly as the text says, he was permitting the eating of bread without ritual washing of the hands, quite a different matter. The controversy ends where it began, in a contest over the question of bodily impurity caused by the ingestion of impure foods. It is highly unlikely that in its original context Mark was read as meaning that Jesus had abrogated the rules of forbidden and permitted animals.

What makes this not merely “a halakhic [legalistic] squabble between first-century Jews” (to echo a colorful bon mot of John Paul Meier’s) is Jesus’s use of the controversy to make a strong theological claim in the form of the parable. Whether or not the Pharisees were hypocrites (I would imagine that some were and some were not), it is certainly the case that to concern oneself with extraordinary performances of external piety while ignoring (or worse) the ethical and spiritual requirements of the Torah is poor religion, on the order perhaps of preaching that Jesus is love but hates homosexuals. We should remember, however, that “in general, in ancient Jewish and Christian contexts a ‘hypocrite’ is a person whose interpretation of the Law differs from one’s own,” as Joel Marcus has so sharply put it. There is a story of the nineteenth-century Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk (the famous Kotzker Rebbe) who said that many Jews concern themselves more with a blood spot on an egg than a blood spot on a ruble, but surely he himself remained just as careful about blood spots on eggs and expected no less from his followers “and all the Jews.” (Recently Marcus has re-cited the Kotzker’s apophthegm in precisely this Markan context.) Jesus’s homily is indeed in this radically critical Jewish tradition that began with the great prophets and continued for millennia.

(To return to the Spring 2012 Table of Contents, click here.)


Daniel Boyarin, Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture and rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships. His books include A Radical Jew, Border Lines, and Socrates and the Fat Rabbis. Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Boyarin. This text originally appeared in The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

Source Citation

Boyarin, Daniel. "Jesus Kept Kosher: The Jewish Christ of the Gospel of Mark." Tikkun 27(2): 43.

tags: Christianity, Judaism