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Jesus May Have Declared All Foods Clean But I Still Won’t Eat Chilled Monkey Brains

lobsterI learned Hebrew from a Rabbi.[1] Then I had to re-learn it from other sources. The Rabbi, you see, had a rather relaxed philosophy of language learning. He immersed our class in the world of the Hebrews, into the world of the Jews. He said things like, “Greek teachers are all inches from an emotional breakdown, twitching over the strain of figuring out which of more than thirty types of genitive THIS one is?”[2] “Hebrews simply sit beneath the fig tree,” he would muse, “thankful to YHWH for the shade of the fig tree.” I learned a lot from him, just not a lot of the technical side of the Hebrew language. We “needed” a language Tyrant and got a wise Teddy Bear… who didn’t eat lobster.

The Rabbi was a believer. He was dedicated to Jesus as Christ, but that did not make him any less a Rabbi. His convictions regarding his commitment to the covenant of his people, the mosaic covenant, was, for him, a faith foundation for his faith commitment to Jesus, the fulfiller of all the promises of God to his people, the ruling head of Israel’s commission. He came to Jesus as a Jew and had no more interest in forsaking Judaism than he had in forcing Gentiles to become Jewish in order to be Christian.

His skills as an interpreter of Scripture were impressive; his capacity to think historically, grammatically, literarily and theologically were instrumental in broadening my own scholarly and theological horizons. I am indebted to him, even if he spent more time teaching us to think outside our Christian boxes when interpreting Scripture than actually teaching us Hebrew. I could have learned Hebrew from anyone, but sitting at his feet, which is what each class felt like, was a unique opportunity for me.

I am reminded of one particularly important discussion we had, when we were supposed to be memorizing verb paradigms. We debated issues of food laws and the Christian response to them. We were quick to throw out references to “Thus he declared all foods clean,” from Mark 7:19 and “What God has made clean do not call unclean.” He was quick to show us how little we understood these passages in context.

He said, “Yes, Jesus declared all foods clean… but to those he was addressing, pigs aren’t food.” and “God told Peter not to call unclean what God has made clean… but he wasn’t talking about the stuff in the blanket, he was talking about the man at the door. Peter refused to call clean what God had called unclean, and, just so, Peter should not called unclean what God has declared clean.” He laughed and said, “I can tell you that Jesus declared all foods clean, but would you eat chilled monkey brains?” (That Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom scene was still fresh in our minds even 8 years later.) “One must carefully define “food” here and know that, within this context, these people would no more have considered pigs food than you would think of your cats and dogs as food.” I’m paraphrasing a good deal, but you get the idea.

The Rabbi took the first Jerusalem council of the church seriously when it chose not to require gentile believers to embrace the ceremonial aspects of Judaism and the Mosaic covenant, and would leave us to determine what was and wasn’t food to us, but he refused to interpret these passages that we had quoted out of context simply because it made us feel better about loving bacon and shrimp.

This discussion launched my own investigation into these passages. I’d like to take a few posts to unpack what I discovered. Stay tuned and I hope they are enlightening to you.


[1] Dr. Joseph Rosenfarb

[2] The genitive in Greek is the “OF” case in nouns. Think: A cup of silver (i.e. a cup made of silver), a cup of wine (i.e. a cup filled with wine), a cup of Jerusalem (i.e. a cup from Jerusalem), a cup of David (i.e. David’s cup), and whole bunch of other uses for this noun form.

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