Declaring All Foods Clean

There is one last issue I need to address before I wrap up my series on eating animals in the gospels. It is the passage in the triple tradition in which Jesus declares all foods clean.

I will focus on Mark’s version and bring in Matthean or Lukan elements if they diverge in any significant way.

It is a fairly long, complex, and difficult passage in Mark 7:1-23. The catalyst is that the Pharisees and some scribes complain that Jesus’ disciples do not wash their hands before they eat. While today this would be considered a basic hygienic thing to do – especially if you are eating with your hands! – here it is framed in terms of purity and impurity rules. Mark claims that it is a “tradition of the elders” and that all Jews – not just Pharisees – observe this custom. The passage also notes that they actually clean their pots, pans, and kettles too! Jesus, in turn, calls them hypocrites, has some weird retort that they have abandoned God’s commandment and followed mere human tradition. Mark 7:9-13 is notoriously difficult to parse out its meaning, but luckily we don’t have to. Then Jesus gathers a crowd and says that “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” It really sounds like Jesus just made poop joke. The disciples ask for further explanation and Jesus ays, “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?” (7:16-19a). Now I am pretty certain Jesus made a poop joke. But what concerns us here is the following verse. In what in my translation (NRSV) is in parentheses, the narrators says, “Thus he declared all foods clean” (7:19b). After this, there is a more spiritual interpretation that deflates Jesus’ potentially funny joke, turning the what comes out goes into the sewer into general sinfulness.

The point here is 7:19b. Interestingly, Jesus himself never actually says in the gospels: I hereby declare all foods clean. It is a parenthetical remark by the narrator: it is how the person who wrote Mark understood Jesus’ words. It does seem, indeed, like an editorial intrusion. Nonetheless, it is now there. My point is that by declaring all foods clean, the editor of Mark was likely not talking about vegetables; since Jewish food laws focus on clean and unclean animals to eat (as well as how they are slaughtered and who slaughters them), it is likely focused on eating animals. In short, Jesus – according to the Markan editor – has declared all animals fair game to eat.

Interestingly, Matthew 15:1-20 omits this parenthetical remark, as does Luke’s shortened version (Luke 11:37-41). It only shows up in Mark’s version.


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