Jesus Kept Kosher (Boyarin, Pt. 3)

Did Jesus say that it doesn’t matter what people eat?

Did he say, in effect, that people can eat pig and shrimp, that Jewish food laws are no longer binding?

In what I found to be the freshest part of Daniel Boyarin’s The Jewish Gospels, he argues no. Unlike the interpretation he offered of Daniel 7, Boyarin makes his claim based on the interpretation of the biblical text as it currently stands.

Here’s the passage in question:

14 Then Jesus called the crowd again and said, “ Listen to me, all of you, and understand. 15 Nothing outside of a person can enter and contaminate a person in God’s sight; rather, the things that come out of a person contaminate the person. ” k

17 After leaving the crowd, he entered a house where his disciples asked him about that riddle. 18 He said to them, “ Don’t you understand either? Don’t you know that nothing from the outside that enters a person has the power to contaminate? 19 That’s because it doesn’t enter into the heart but into the stomach, and it goes out into the sewer. ” By saying this, Jesus declared that no food could contaminate a person in God’s sight. (Mark 7, CEB).

The traditional interpretation is this: Mark is telling us that Jesus just overturned the whole system of food laws–food can’t make you unclean before God, not even pig or shrimp.

Contextually there is one particularly problematic feature of such an argument: Jesus had just condemned the Pharisees for abolishing the commandments of God in favor of their own tradition. Could Jesus really, then, turn around and abolish the law of God in favor of a new tradition?

Boyarin follows the argument of Yair Furstenberg in saying no.

He distinguishes between laws of impurity and laws of kosher food.

Food laws tend to be about certain foods that are always off limits, or situations that differentiate between kosher and non-kosher foods.

Purity laws are about contagion that comes from different sources: often from the body itself (through sores, through menstruation, through ejaculation), sometimes through circumstances such as death.

Boyarin’s point is this: the kosher laws are not purity laws.

What Jesus and the Pharisees are arguing about is not whether certain foods are kosher, but whether certain ways of handling foods could make them impure.

In this context, the Pharisees have created an additional tradition: even kosher foods can be rendered unclean if eaten with defiled hands.

Jesus, according to Boyarin, is arguing against this “liberalizing” of the tradition, arguing for a more “conservative” reading of the law. Jesus disagrees that purity or impurity is transferred to and through food. You can still transgress the law if you choose to eat a detestable thing. However, eating kosher food with impure hands or that has overshadowed a corpse is not going to make you impure.

Thus, for Boyarin, this is an intramural Jewish debate, among kosher Jews, about an innovation in the food laws added by the Pharisees.

He extends his argument by focusing on things coming out of the body as the typical sources of impurity (fluids, for example). Jesus says that things going in don’t make you impure, but instead, things coming out.

The one point where I would have liked to see a bit more concession from Boyarin is that here Jesus’ “what comes out of a person” is not body fluids, but instead actions that spring from the heart.

It’s a point that needs to be addressed, because it seems that Jesus’ definition of what makes impure does not, in fact, uphold the law as such. If he is refusing the Pharisees’ redefinition of “impure,” he is still creating his own new definition when we does not revert to fluids but instead to the actions that spring from the heart.

I need to do more research on OT laws, and see what folks more versed in them, and Jewish traditions, than I think about this argument. But it is the one thing that I’ve read so far where I’ve stepped back and thought that Boyarin might be presenting something that truly has the potential to transform how we read a crucial text.

27 thoughts on “Jesus Kept Kosher (Boyarin, Pt. 3)”

  1. I guess a question that comes up for me, Daniel, is whether Jesus was all that concerned elsewhere with maintaining purity in a proper way. I wonder, too, whether the tradition of the elders re: hand washing was meant to not contaminate kosher foods or to insure that there was nothing non-kosher on their hands before eating. I will need to check on those things, but if anything Boyarin is interesting as usual.

  2. Boyarin’s argument — and he is not the first/only one to make it — makes sense of the Gospels and of Acts at several points. (1) Jesus was not uptight about contact purity; (2) he debated with the Pharisees about some of the traditions that they had developed (such as handwashing) that had to do with contact purity and, here, perhaps took the view that unclean hands cannot make clean food impure; and (3) at least according to Acts, the disciples had never eaten unclean food (i.e., they had not violated, nor been instructed to violate, kosher food laws). Jesus is actually never shown eating non-clean foods nor, for that matter, in the house of a Gentile. So, the surprise of Acts 10. The “traditional” translation of Mark 7:19-20 depends on reading the Greek (“cleansing all foods”) with Jesus as the subject of the participle “cleansing.” But that’s syntactically questionable at least, no?

    1. So how do you translate Mark 7? Good point about the “surprise” shift in Acts 10–though there one could argue that is was a trajectory planted by Jesus.

      1. One can follow the older English translations (Tyndale, KJV), and make the “everything which enters from outside …..” the subject all the way through, which is syntactically more likely, even the meaning is less clear to us perhaps. You end with the KJV’s “Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?” (with purging all meats = “cleansing all foods”).

        If we actually knew why the Pharisees instituted handwashing (or did any of a number of other things), that might shed some light on the question. But that of course remains a highly debated issue in Jewish and NT studies!

        It’s interesting that Luke doesn’t have the story of the hand washing (or the Syro-Phoenician woman that follows it); and he doesn’t appeal to what Jesus taught about food/purity in Acts in connection with Cornelius. For Luke, as for Paul (and I think for the other Gospels), issues about kosher come up in connection with Gentile mission; issues about purity per se are more dominant in the Gospels, as are the arguments about the finer points of keeping the law (a la DSS, Mishnah, etc. etc.). Note that the Gospoel of John has virtually nothing about contact purity or clean/unclean food or handwashing. (No charge for that unconnected observation).

  3. Agree with MMT. It’s quite amazing how translators can go from three words in the Greek, “cleansing all foods,” to fifteen, “By saying this, Jesus declared that no food could contaminate a person in God’s sight.” It seems quite an exegetical leap, and if the statement was that significant, I have a hard time believing that the next three gospel writers would not mention it at all.

  4. Thanks for these great reviews of Boyarin so far and I definitely want to get a hold of the book (I have been a fan of Boyarin’s works such as Radical Jew or Border Lines). About this argument in particular, I want to throw in a plug for James Crossley’s work as he has been arguing a similar case for some time: see The Date of Mark’s Gospel: Insight from the Law in Earliest Christianity (Chapter 7) (2004), “Mark 7.1-23: Revisiting the Question of ‘All Foods Clean’” in Torah in the New Testament (2009), “Halakah and Mark 7.3: ‘with the hand in the shape of a fist’” NTS(2012), etc. Whatever one makes of his larger argument to date Mark much earlier than conventional based on Law observance, in his particular exegesis of Mark 7 it is a coherent argument dealing with the objection that unwashed hands can render food unclean and thus “cleansing all foods” only refers to what is permitted by Torah to be eaten.

  5. Daniel, a very good book on Jesus and purity is by Jonathan Klawans, who explores “moral purity” in the Jewish world.

    1. Scot,

      Thanks for mentioning Klawans’ work. Do you buy his claims about the hard and fast distinction between “moral” and “ritual” impurity for almost all Jewish sources as well as his claim that foreigners are not represented as “ritually” defiling?

  6. Man, this Jesus guy is pretty hard to figure out. Who’d a thunk. :-) Don, the isolated reference in Mark is not as big a deal for me. I would have thought that Lazarus’s raising would have gotten a nod or two from the other writers or from Paul. Same for the virginal conception. As for the food laws coming up only later during the gentile mission, that sounds positively missional — theology written in the context of openness to what God is doing here and now.

    1. So, what was Jesus doing? Just suppose Jesus was saying God had elected a nation of the world, which were the Jews (of course, henceforth, Christian Jews), and intended his elect nation should always keep the various Sinai covenant laws (that it was later thought Gentile Christians didn’t need to). Then especially with Jews back in Israel, they should be trying to implement all the Sinai covenant laws, including the sacrifices, I suppose. Thus, God’s election of the Jews as a special people stands, and Gentiles are allowed to join God’s elect ‘people’ as Gentiles. This is the way God is implementing his salvation (I am saying all these things this way in order to address such things as Story Gospellers’ concerns, and Wright’s Christianity as a community in the world).

      I find this picture, of Jews being different than Gentiles in such a respect, uncongenial. My preferred solution is that Jews never did have a special covenant with God at any time, that salvation was always universally available. That Jewish ideas of a special covenant was a misunderstanding on account of their limited cultural understanding. That their imited understanding is written into the Bible, but for us to see that it was a misunderstanding. So, all we understand now as available to all Christians (whether Jew or Gentile), salvation, the Holy Spirit, etc, has always been available to all human beings from the beginning. That Jesus appeared at a particular point of history doesn’t at all mean that only certain benefits were available from then on.

      This doesn’t entirely cut the Gordian knot. Two issues remain. How does God intend eventually to rescue sentient creatures from what is and has always been an intolerable world for them. And, more practically, what acts can God be seen to be doing now to help sentient creatures, maybe especially Christians.

  7. The omission of Lazarus’s raising and the virgin birth in the other gospels is more understandable to me. Jesus did many, many miracles, all of which are significant, and choosing which ones to include is more or less arbitrary. Regarding the virgin birth, both Matthew and Luke have it, and the ones that don’t do not even have birth narratives at all.

    Also, neither of the above two are included in the gospel of Mark. With regard to Mark 7, assuming Markan priority, we need to account for why the other gospels (particularly the other synoptics) intentionally chose to omit such an important theological event when they included so much of Mark already. Moreover, the teaching neither roused the anger of the Pharisees that he addressed nor changed the attitude of his own disciples.

    To me, the simplest explanation is that Jesus is not the subject of the participle “cleansing all foods,” and that the important theological event would come later.

    1. Don,

      Assessing why Matt and Luke omitted the clause in question (Matt) or the entire pericope (Luke) and, related to that, the significance of the clause in Mark, is a bit more complicated.

      The important exegetical issues MMT raised aside, is it that shocking for Matthew to omit material from Mark that could easily be read as militating against one of his (Matt’s) signature concerns of presenting Jesus upholding the central importance of the law? We certainly have plenty of other evidence that Matthew had serious problems with Mark.

      As for Luke-Acts, whether or not one treats them as a somehow unified writing — just as others have pointed out, issues of food come up explicitly in connection with Luke’s concern to authorize a law-dissociated (well, in Acts certain parts of the law) Gentile “mission.” This would have been difficult to anchor narratively in Jesus’ own teachings and actions (see, for example, MMT’s comments above). It seems Luke found it most effective to take a position about the law, food, and Gentiles in the context of stories about God and the Holy Spirit making it clear (visions and spirit being given to Gentiles) that the gospel should spread to the Gentiles as, to a certain extent, Gentiles (Acts 10-11). Would have been difficult to get so directly and explicitly at all these issues in the setting of Jesus’ teaching before his death — not to mention that there seems to have been much contestation about what Jesus taught/means when it comes to the law and Gentiles. Again, Luke apparently found it more efficient and effective to deliver his views on these issues in a different kind of context.

      Much much much more could be said about these various issues, and I have certainly oversimplified matters above — but my larger point should be clear: you can’t move from the fact of Matthew and Luke’s omissions of the clause/pericope in question to such quick conclusions about what the clause is doing in Mark.

      1. Stephen, good points above. But my main point is that going from “cleansing all foods” to “By saying this, Jesus declared that no food could contaminate a person in God’s sight” is a major exegetical leap. That this is omitted in the other synoptics is supporting evidence.

        There is considerable exegetical ambiguity on this passage. The textual evidence shows that many copyists felt the need to clarify it because it is ambiguous. (This is yet another reason — if Mark were saying something so radical, why did he do it in such an ambiguous manner?)

        When there is exegetical ambiguity, as in this case, external evidence plays a larger role, and on balance I think it leans against Jesus declaring all foods clean.

        I’m intrigued by your suggestion that “We certainly have plenty of other evidence that Matthew had serious problems with Mark.” I don’t know what evidence you are referring to. Could you elaborate?

  8. I think Klawans is very good, although more on Judaism than Jesus. The most detailed discussion of purity related to Jesus is probably Thomas Kazen, Jesus and Purity Halakah: Was Jesus Indifferent to Impurity? Perusing that will make you quickly aware of how complex the discussion is, especially since so many factors enter in — the different purity systems of Qumran, and the rabbis; Pharisaic developments of OT laws (and our lack of knowledge about the Pharisees overall); the differences between Pharisees and Sadducees, etc. etc. etc. It’s very convenient to have Jesus just do away with the whole system . . .

  9. Thanks for the Kazen reference; haven’t read his work.

    I generally do not find Klawans persuasive. Tremendous breadth of knowledge in his work, but (IMO) he tries to fit far too much into a single system of ideas about purity/impurity, at least when it comes to certain issues. I agree about the complexity of the discussion.

  10. Kazen has similar doubts about Klawans’ schematization, and even the terminology of “ritual” and “moral” itself. And you are right about Klawans breadth of knowledge!

  11. Don,

    Thanks for your response.

    We seem to have a disconnect about the significance of “external evidence” (i.e., Matt and Luke) for this issue. As I tried to explain, you cannot simply appeal to Matt and Luke lacking the material in question to adjudicate this exegetical decision and to assess the passage’s theological importance. Among other things, this assumes (1) that all three gospel writers wanted to make the same point about the law, purity, and so on and (2) that they would make that same point in the same way; i.e., through a representation of Jesus’ teaching using this specific pericope. And even if I granted these assumptions, which I don’t, that still wouldn’t provide the exegetical support you need.

    At the risk of stating the obvious, we also need to make a certain distinction clear: (A) what the historical Jesus did and taught versus (B) how various early literate Christ followers represented Jesus in writings about him (e.g., Mark, Matthew, and Luke in this case). For example, it’s entirely possible that Mark 7 represents Jesus as teaching that all foods are clean (or whatever one thinks the passage has Jesus teaching) when, in fact, Jesus never taught any such thing. I bring this up because too often we let questions about what the historical Jesus could have or did teach factor into our exegetical decisions about what, for example, the text of Mark represents Jesus as doing and teaching. They’re different questions. To the extent they’re related, that relationship must be argued with precision, not assumed.

    As for Matthew finding Mark quite disagreeable on points, there’s a lot out there on this. David Sim is one a recent scholar exploring the matter. See his most recent entry for discussion and further bibliography: “Matthew’s Use of Mark: Did Matthew Intend to Supplement or to Replace His Primary Source?,” NTS 57 (2011): 176-92.

    1. Stephen, I think where we differ is in our presuppositions. You presuppose that synoptic gospels and can find each other disagreeable with regards to what Jesus taught. This logically leads to Matthew and Luke being irrelevant to the exegesis of Mark. I don’t share your presupposition, and so that’s as far as our discussion on external evidence can go.

      I was hoping that you would address the exegetical evidence in Mark itself, which I brought up in a couple earlier posts. Since you seem committed to the traditional interpretation, you must believe the evidence for it to be strong, but you still haven’t said why.

  12. Don,

    Not sure why we have to go to the “differing presuppositions” conversation stopper. I didn’t claim that Matthew and Luke are “irrelevant to the exegesis of Mark.” Implicit in my above points is that one must argue for the specific kinds of relevance for each exegetical issue. I disagreed with how you construed the nature of that relevance and, instead, offered specific reasons for why what Matthew and Luke do need not be construed as evidence against Mark 7 depicting Jesus somehow teaching something understandable as obviating various food or purity laws.

    Even if I didn’t think the synoptic authors could disagree with each other (your presuppositions point), one would still have to give more specific arguments than that Matt and Luke surely wouldn’t have neglected such a theologically important saying. There are any number of reasons why authors who otherwise agree with each other could choose not to say one thing or another, how to present those views, etc.

    1. Stephen, I’m still not sure why you haven’t offered an exegesis of Mark 7 to support your view.

      Regarding “any number of reasons why authors who otherwise agree with each other could choose not to say one thing or another,” I agree. But again, 1) this presupposes that you have a right exegesis of Mark 7, which you haven’t addressed at all, and 2) you haven’t presented reasons for Matthew to neglect Mark’s teaching other than that he disagrees.

  13. Hey Don. Thanks for your continued interaction!

    I haven’t offered any exegesis of Mk 7 “to support [my] view” because I haven’t taken a position about the exegetical issue here. You’ll note that my point here has been to criticize the way you configure the exegetical relevance of Matthew and Luke’s omission of the material. To clarify, not doing this to be a jerk, but because I think it’s an interesting discussion.

    Why should someone denying your understanding of the exegetical relevance of Matthew’s omission of the material from Mark need to offer further positive arguments beyond what I’ve spelled out above? You’re the one who presumes the strong theological and exegetical relevance of this omission. Shouldn’t you be the one offering arguments for this, especially for the requisite assumptions [as I mentioned above] (1) that all three gospel writers wanted to make the same point about the law, purity, and so on and (2) that they would make that same point in the same way; i.e., through a representation of Jesus’ teaching using this specific pericope.

    1. Hi Stephen, thank you for your interaction. It has been an interesting discussion. That said, I’m more interested in exegesis for the sake of understanding the teachings of Jesus than for the sake of an interesting discussion, and I think I’ve made my points clear enough that I don’t need to offer additional arguments. If you are interested in discussing the exegetical questions, let me know.

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