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Mark 7:19 and the Little Participle that Could

grammarRecently, we’ve discussed the controversial aside which Mark seems to have added in Mark 7:19 to the effect that Jesus’ debate with the Pharisees over the “Traditions of the Elders” leads naturally to Jesus’ denouncement of Torah food laws[1]—A happy day for squirrel hunters and scallop eaters the world over.

Today, I’d like to raise some doubts about the grammar of our Markian “aside.” In a future post, I’ll take on even more important points of interpretation.

Did you know that original manuscripts of the New Testament had:

1. ALL CAPITALS: While we have capitalization with specific rules for what is and isn’t capitalized. The notion of upper case letters and lower case letters wasn’t part of original texts of the New Testament. These distinctions emerged in Greek some 900 years after Jesus and Paul. Thus, no pronouns had special GOD markers on them… capital H for the God or Jesus He.

2. NO SPACES: Parchment was expensive. Ancients didn’t waste space with spaces. This makes for a few really great puzzles for word division in New Testament texts. The classic GODISNOWHERE is a fun example. Does this read God is nowhere, or does it read God is now here?

3. NO PUNCTUATION: This is the real kicker. When we read Mark 7:18-19 and see “And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.),” we have to realize that there were no question marks, comas, periods, quotation marks or parenthesis.

4. NO RED VS. BLACK TEXT: There was nothing in the original manuscripts that marked out the words of Jesus in red so that we could make sure to distinguish between what parts did and didn’t belong in the mouth of the Master.

Now, this becomes important when translating Mark 7:19, because there is something else missing in the original text of Mark 7:19… the entire phrase “Thus he declared.” What we find there instead at the end of an undifferentiated καὶ εἰς τὸν ἀφεδρῶνα ἐκπορεύεται  literally, “and into the latrine it goes” is  καθαρίζων πάντα τὰ βρώματαliterally, “cleansing all the foods.”

Was this statement “cleansing all the foods” actually coming out of Jesus’ mouth as part of his diatribe? “You eat it and it goes out into the toilet, cleansing all foods.” This would leave the entire discussion out of Mark’s parenthetically interpretive hands, devoid of an explicit markian application to his supposed gentile audience.

Was this statement “cleansing all the foods” a parenthetical summary by the author—Mark—for his intended audience? This, of course, does not demand any particular meaning for it as distinct from the likely meaning of Jesus in a Jewish context in which food laws were taken a bit more seriously than we might imagine they would be. A serious Jew would rather die than eat forbidden meats.[2] Even if this is a parenthetical remark by Mark, it does not automatically suggest that Jesus’ abolished food laws as opposed to abolishing the many emerging halakic food codes that fly in the face of Torah.

How do we decide? Answer: Carefully.

Robert Gundry writes, “In vv 6-13 Jesus equated the Mosaic Law with God’s word and scolded the Pharisees for nullifying God’s word with their tradition. Now Jesus himself is nullifying God’s Word with regard to food. But it is the prerogative of Jesus as God’s son to change the Law.”[3]

Larry Hurtado writes, “Jesus’ teaching not only takes issue with a major feature of traditional Jewish religious practice but also rescinds a major body of OT material dealing with such ritual laws.”[4]

John Bowman writes, “Jesus is here not only annulling the Rabbinical development of Kashruth, but is setting aside the written Law.”[5]

May I suggest, however, that the entire discussion be interpreted in context? …that, perhaps, it is out of order to imagine Jesus as a person who viciously defends Torah in one breath and then dispenses with it in the next.

We may feel a certain swelling of the heart to defend this assertion by declaring it Jesus’ right to do so as Son of God, but this flies in the face of His own declarations… declarations that are not clouded within an ambiguous participial phrase.

Jesus says quite clearly in Matthew 5:17-18 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”

And what do we do? We interpret “fulfill” as abolish… a quick “Well, that takes care of that,” from Jesus, and we walk away happy that we get to eat shrimp and pork tenderloin. We care little that we just butchered the text as quickly as we butcher our source of bacon.

Let’s pick up this context again another time as we investigate the larger meaning of the passage discovered through the relationship between the phrase, “Traditions of the Elders,” and the whole narrative sermon from Mark 7:1-8:10.


[1] “Jesus May Have Declared All Foods Clean But I Still Won’t Eat Chilled Monkey Brains,” and “Jesus vs. the Law: Torah, Halakah, and Jesus’ Declaration of Dietary Deliverance in Mark 7:19.”

[2] How serious were food laws to the Jews? I Maccabees 1:62-63 reads, “Howbeit many in Israel were fully resolved and confirmed in themselves not to eat any unclean thing. Wherefore the rather to die, that they might not be defiled with meats, and that they might not profane the holy covenant: so then they died.”

[3] Mark, pg 356.

[4] Mark, pp. 111-112.

[5] The Gospel of Mark: The New Christian Jewish Passover Haggadah, pg. 168.

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