Home » Biblical Studies » 101 Most Misunderstood Verses » Jesus vs. the Law: Torah, Halakah, and Jesus’ Declaration of Dietary Deliverance in Mark 7:19

Jesus vs. the Law: Torah, Halakah, and Jesus’ Declaration of Dietary Deliverance in Mark 7:19

food lawsAnyone who knows me knows that I enjoy the gastric freedom of gentile existence. Whether my arteries enjoy it is another discussion altogether. I love lobster, shrimp, and bacon, and though I have never actually eaten dolphin or alligator, I’d happily try them if you slathered them with a creamy garlic butter sauce.

So don’t imagine that I am attempting to preach a legalistic return for gentiles to the dietary confines of Torah. Neither do I accuse those, who, for their own reasons, choose to restrict themselves, thus. I believe that one needs to eat as their conscience dictates, and that Christians have freedom in this regard. Why I think Christians have freedom in this regard will become clear in a yet future post; in this post, however, you will discover that I DO NOT construct my conviction of culinary liberty based on Mark 7:5-23.

When Mark summarized Jesus’ confrontation of the Jewish leaders over his disciple’s eating of their lunch with unwashed hands… (This had nothing to do with their failure to heed their Mamma’s instructions and everything to do with their failure to adhere to the ritual codes of the Judaism of the day) …by saying, “Thus, he declared all foods clean,” he was NOT saying that Jesus had set aside the food laws of Torah.

Neither Jesus nor the Pharisees were discussing Torah. They were debating Halakah, and Jesus’ retort to them was about Halakah. It was about a specific kind of Halakah that I will detail in a future post, but for today it is enough to understand that it was about Halakah and not Torah.

  • Halakah is the oral law.
  • Torah was the written law.
  • Torah included the written codes of Scripture and all the surrounding material of instruction that gave those codes context.
  • Halakah was the body of accepted traditions about how Torah was to be kept in the constantly changing communities in which the Jews found themselves. It comes from the word halak = to walk. It was the way of walking out the law practically.
  • Torah says, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. (Exodus 28:8)
  • Halakah decrees what is and isn’t proper remembrance.
  • Torah says, “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.” (Exodus 20:9-10)
  • Halakah decrees what the community rejects on the Sabbath as work.

Is it wrong to eat the egg a chicken laid on the Sabbath? Is that participating in the work of the Chicken? Halakah answers that.

Is it work to tie one’s shoes? (Generally, and not just for paunchy folks who have to overcome their gut to do so?) To slap together a sandwich? To draw water from a well? To push buttons on an elevator? Halakah answers all that.

Jesus and the disciples pull out their lunches and begin eating them without washing their hands. These Pharisees are upset claiming that they have violated the traditions of the elders about eating meals in an unclean condition.

Now, clean and unclean are issues of holiness.

A person who is clean is permitted to enter holy space (like the Temple precinct), to participate in holy activities (like eating the Passover), and to touch holy people (like a priest getting ready to do either of the following), or holy things (like Scripture).

An unclean person was deemed ritually unfit to do any of these things.

Washing one’s self in whole or part was a common way of going from being ritually unclean to ritually clean.

The growing sense of what “clean” and “unclean” meant for the Jewish man on the street is a fascinating but long study. For now let it suffice to say that under increasingly stringent senses of “holy” and “right” and “wrong” in connection with “clean” and “unclean” the rules of what the community did and didn’t permit grew oppressive.

At odds between Jesus and the Pharisees is a particular body of rather new Halakic codes about what Jews were and were not allowed to do in respect to clean and unclean, called “The Traditions of the Elders.” I’ll explain these later. These leaders are going around the Jewish community to viciously enforce these new oral laws, getting in everyone’s faces about their disregard for this important Halakah.

Jesus is disgusted with this set of regulations, and with a good portion of their other regulations in general. His complaint in Mark 7:7-13 is three fold.

  1. These men confuse their Halakah with Torah.
  2. These men prefer their Halakah to Torah.
  3. These men violate Torah to keep their Halakah.

Do you really imagine that Jesus went from complaining that these men’s abuse of Torah with their Halakah, in Mark 7:7-13, to abandoning Torah Himself in Mark 7:14-23? I highly doubt it.

These men complain that Jesus’ disciples eat food with unclean hands based on their new Halakic codes. Jesus complains that these codes, and many like them, abuse Torah. He says that their entire ritual sense of clean and unclean in the eating of food is messed up.[1] They would all do better to pay more attention to the true defilement of the heart created by wickedness than the ritual uncleanness of failing to wash one’s hands before lunch. (Just don’t let your mother hear Jesus say so.)[2]

Jesus DID NOT abolish Torah food laws in Mark 7.


[1] Remember from my post, “Jesus May Have Declared All Foods Clean But I Still Won’t Eat Raw Monkey Brains,” that to everyone in this discussion pigs aren’t food anymore than chilled monkey brains would be to you… unless you like that kind of thing… which most American’s don’t.

[2] I will address the implications of Jesus’ words for gentiles in a future post. Any discussion of this, however, must be based in an understanding of Jesus in context.

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