Did Yeshua Cancel Torah Food Laws?
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 24 May 2011; Revised 7 August 2021
Sources: Bibliographic data for sources cited may be found at the end of the article. Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the NASB Updated Edition (1995). Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature and message of the apostolic writings (New Testament) I use the terms Yeshua (Jesus), Messiah (Christ), and Tanakh (Old Testament), and incorporate other appropriate Hebrew and Jewish terms. (See the Glossary.)
"And He said to them, 'Are you then also lacking understanding? Don’t you grasp that whatever goes into the man cannot make him unholy? 19 For it does not enter into the heart but into the stomach, and then goes out into the sewer, cleansing all foods.'" (Mark 7:18-19 TLV)
The short answer to the question above is no, but since there are some Christians who believe that living by Torah food rules equals trying to earn one's salvation (a definition of "legalism"), then the subject needs explanation. Let's establish one principle at once. Keeping a kosher house will not save anyone. The only ground of salvation is the faithfulness of God expressed in the atoning sacrifice of Yeshua. However, this biblical understanding does not negate the importance of the Torah as divine guidance for an abundant life in Messiah Yeshua.
In the beginning Adam and Eve and their immediate descendants apparently subsisted on a vegetarian diet, because after the global flood, God gave significant instruction to Noah concerning diet in the new world.
"Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear of you and the terror of you will be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are given. Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood." (Gen 9:1-4).
Two thousand years later at Mt. Sinai God issued new diet instructions to his people Israel. The food rules are actually just a small part of God categorizing things, animals and people as holy, common, clean or unclean. God's mandate at Sinai was that the Israelites, especially the priests, would be able to distinguish between the holy and the common and between the unclean and the clean in order to become a holy people (Lev 10:10; 11:44-45).
The definitions of these categories are: (1) "Holy," Heb. kodesh, apartness or sacredness (BDB 871); (2) "Common," Heb. chol, profaneness or commonness, in a concrete sense opposite of holy (not necessarily evil, 1Sam 21:5) (BDB 323); (3) "Clean," Heb. tahor, pure, free of pollution (BDB 373); and (4) "unclean," Heb. tumah, n.; tameh, adj., defiled, opposite of clean; (BDB 379f). In the Torah, things, animals and people fell into one of these categories. Wenham explains,
"Everything that is not holy is common. Common things divide into two groups, the clean and the unclean. Clean things become holy when they are sanctified. But unclean objects cannot be sanctified. Clean things can be made unclean, if they are polluted. Finally, holy items may be defiled and become common, even polluted, and therefore unclean. … It is perhaps because "common" is a category between the two extremes of holiness and uncleanness that it is mentioned only once, in Lev. 10:10." (19)
Unfit for Food
The book of Leviticus identifies several categories of uncleanness, including childbirth, skin disease, mildew, genital discharges, touching a corpse and unfit food sources. Instructions on acceptable and prohibited animal sources of food are given in chapter eleven in five groups. It's important to note that God's taxonomy is based on physical characteristics and does not necessarily coincide with man's classification of animals.
First, of land mammals only animals that have a divided hoof AND chew the cud are acceptable for eating (Lev 11:3). This description identifies herbivores whose diet consists of grazing on grasses and other plants. All other land animals (carnivores and omnivores) are prohibited. Possessing one characteristic without the other is not good enough. The regulation goes on to mention four specific animals (camel, shaphan, rabbit and pig), but there are literally hundreds of land animals excluded from eating. The instruction further clarifies that "whatever walks on its paws, among all the creatures that walk on all fours, are unclean to you" (Lev 11:27). Examples of clean herbivores would be all cattle, sheep, goats, deer, bison, moose, antelope, gazelles, caribou and giraffes.
Second, of marine animals Israelites were only to eat animals with fins and scales (Lev 11:9). As with land animals there are hundreds of sea animals excluded from eating by this strict definition, such as crustaceans (lobster, crab and shrimp), sea mammals (whale, porpoise, walrus) and animals with toxic characteristics (shark, stingray, catfish, eel). Most unclean marine animals are scavengers and literally eat anything.
Third, of fowl, while the description of physical characteristics is not given, the instruction lists 20 specific birds prohibited for eating and they are all carrion-eaters (Lev 11:13-18). So, the acceptable birds would be those comparable to the herbivore land animals.
Fourth, of insects, all the winged insects that walk on all fours are not to be eaten, but winged insects that have jointed legs with which to jump are acceptable. The instruction lists the locust, the cricket and the grasshopper as examples of the clean insects (Lev 11:20-23). Fifth, of "swarming things" (i.e., reptiles) eight specific animals, ranging in size from the mouse to a crocodile, are listed (Lev 11:29-30), which could be representative of a class of animals. Included in this prohibited category are animals that crawl on the belly or have many feet (Lev 11:42).
There is no indication in the Torah that contact with a living unclean animal resulted in uncleanness for the person, thus no ceremony was prescribed for cleansing. These animals were simply not be eaten. However, contact with the carcass of an unclean animal did result in uncleanness and required a sin offering (Lev 5:2-3).
Why the rules?
Why did God create the categories of uncleanness, especially in regard to animals? When one considers the changes in diet from Adam to Noah and Noah to Moses the Torah laws given at Sinai obviously do not classify certain animals as unclean because they inherently possessed an impure soul (cf. Rom 14:14, 20). From the time of Noah to the covenant at Sinai these same animals could be eaten (Gen 9:3). The only restriction imposed was that the animal must be capable of movement and had not died. Since the animals hadn't changed, then God's reasons for imposing the restrictions on the Israelites had nothing to do with the animals themselves.
For some the simple answer as to why Jews observe these laws is because the Torah says so. The Torah does not specify any reason for these laws, and for a Torah-observant, traditional Jew, there is no need for God to explain himself. Some have suggested that the food restrictions (called kashrut, lit. "fit") fall into the category of "chukkim," laws for which there is no reason. Obedience to God is demonstrated by following these laws even though no reason is given. Others, however, have tried to ascertain God's reason for imposing these laws. Wenham identifies four basic reasons scholars have suggested to explain God's rationale for the food laws (166).
The unclean animals are either those used in pagan religious ceremonies or those associated with particular non-Israelite deities, such as those worshipped in Egypt. God intended that his people leave Egypt completely behind.
"You shall not do what is done in the land of Egypt where you lived, nor are you to do what is done in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you; you shall not walk in their statutes." (Lev 18:3)
As a mark of the fidelity to the covenant, Israel must shun these animals entirely. However, this explanation fails to consider that while the pagan Canaanites sacrificed pigs (Isa 65:4), bulls are "clean" even though the bull was a sacred animal in both Egyptian and Canaanite religions.
Unclean creatures are unfit to eat because they are carriers of disease. The clean animals are those that are relatively safe to eat. (Even acceptable meat must be properly cooked!) This explanation is adopted by many modern writers. Pork can be a source of trichinosis and tapeworm. The coney and hare are carriers of tularemia. Fish without fins and scales tend to burrow into the mud and become sources of dangerous bacteria, as do birds of prey which feed on carrion.
First, hygiene can only account for some of the prohibitions. Some of the clean animals are more questionable on hygienic grounds than some of the unclean animals. If ancient Israel had discovered the dangers of eating pork, they might also have discovered that thorough cooking averts it. In any event, trichinosis is rare in free-range pigs. Among Arabs, camel flesh is regarded as a luxury, though Leviticus brands it as unclean.
Second, the Tanakh gives no hint that it regarded these foods as a danger to health. Motive clauses justifying a particular rule are a very characteristic feature of Torah, yet there is never a hint that these animal foods must be avoided because they will damage health. Yet this would surely have constituted an excellent reason for avoiding unclean food.
Third, why, if hygiene is the motive, are not poisonous plants classed as unclean? In recent years, several secular sources that have seriously looked into this matter have acknowledged that health does not explain these prohibitions.
Some have suggested that the prohibitions are instead derived from environmental considerations. For example, a camel (which is not kosher) is more useful as a beast of burden than as a source of food. In the Middle Eastern climate, the pig consumes a quantity of food that is disproportional to its value as a food source. But again, these are not reasons that come from Jewish tradition.
"You are therefore to make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; and you shall not make yourselves detestable by animal or by bird or by anything that creeps on the ground, which I have separated for you as unclean. 26 Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine." (Lev 20:25-26)
The only statement God makes that approaches being a reason for a strict diet is the desire for Israel to be a holy nation. To be holy in the positive sense is to belong wholly to God and in the negative sense to be separated from sinful behavior. God's rationale is first ethical. The laws were intended to teach Israel how to act with discrimination according to the standard of holiness and righteousness. God's people must be able to distinguish between what is acceptable to Him and what is unacceptable to Him. To have that kind of knowledge requires feeding on God's Word.
God's reasoning is secondly covenantal. The division of animals corresponded to the division between holy Israel and the other nations. The limited diet imitated the selectivity of God in choosing Israel out of all the nations In other words. God required Israelites to refrain from eating animals that were permitted for Gentiles. The Torah regulation emphasizes this separation by referring to the banned animals eleven times in chapter 11 as "TAMEH to you," that is "unacceptable to you, Israel" (e.g., Lev 11:4). Thus, the Israelites would be reminded at every meal of their status as a chosen, covenant people.
All Foods Clean?
A major concern of observant Jews in the first century had to do with keeping clean in obedience to the Torah standards. Mark points out for his readers that the Pharisees rigorously washed their hands and food implements, such as cups, pitchers and pots (Mark 7:3-4). This scruple is illustrated in the example of Peter who refused to eat of unclean animals in a vision, which he later learned symbolized the Gentiles to whom he was to take the good news (Acts 10:14-15, 18, 28; 11:8).
Christian opposition to Torah food rules usually appeals to the narrative given above. The context of the controversy between Yeshua and his adversaries is Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23. (A related story occurs in Luke 11:37-41.)
First, the controversy was not about unclean animals.
The Pharisees had assumed that eating with unwashed hands made one unclean (Matt 15:2, 11; Mark 7:5, 15). They observed Yeshua's disciples eating with unwashed hands and decided to correct the flagrant neglect. (Note that the Pharisees did not accuse Yeshua of this offense.) The whole narrative is about ritual purity maintained by hand washing and not food categories at all. Maybe the Pharisees were the source of the adage about cleanliness being next to godliness. Physical cleanliness was only a small part of the much larger issue reviewed in the Background section above.
The KJV uses the word "meats," which may suggest that the discussion focused on animals. However, the English word "meats" does not refer just to the flesh of animals, but to the edible portion of anything. The Greek word brōma means material food (Danker). In 1 Corinthians 10:3 brōma is used in reference to manna. Yeshua used none of the words for "animal," such as Grk. zōon, a living creature; ktisma, creature; tetrapous, a four-footed animal or kreas, flesh from an animal. He clearly spoke of prepared food. The content of the meal was immaterial to the focus of the discussion. Since unclean animals were off limits to Jews, the food in this narrative cannot be anything other than what the Torah allows Jews to eat.
Second, the Torah does not require hand washing before eating.
David Stern points out that the apostle's explanation of ritual hand washing corresponds to the details set forth in the Mishnah tractate Yadayim (92). In the marketplace one could touch things considered unclean and then the impurity would be removed by rinsing up to the wrist. The rationale for washing has nothing to do with hygiene but was based on the idea that "a man’s home is his Temple," with the dining table his altar, the food his sacrifice and himself the priest. Since the Torah requires priests to be "clean" before offering sacrifices on the sanctuary altar, rabbinic authority determined the same requirement applied before eating a meal in one's home.
However, the written Torah does not require hand washing before eating. Yeshua knew that the written Torah only required hand washing after coming into contact with uncleanness (cf. Lev 15:11). Thus, Yeshua declared that since all foods that Jews eat are presumptively "clean," then the "cleanness" of the food cannot be changed into uncleanness by unwashed hands.
Third, Yeshua declared that eating with unwashed hands has no spiritual impact.
"For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. 20 These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man." (Matt 15:19-20)
Jews expected that when Messiah came he would explain the true meaning of the Torah (cf. John 4:25; 7:17) and Yeshua gave a simple, but powerful revelation. The real problem is in the heart, and Yeshua interprets "heart" as symbolic of the spiritual nature of man. So, since food does not go into the heart, but is simply digested and expelled, it cannot affect a man’s spiritual condition.
Fourth, Yeshua did not annul the Torah.
Yeshua had already declared in the Sermon on the Mount that he did not come to annul the Torah (Matt 5:17). He followed that categorical statement with a categorical warning, "Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt 5:19). So, the Christian interpretation that Yeshua canceled Torah food rules has made him out to be a liar. Moreover, if Yeshua had dared to say "all the animals declared unclean in the Torah I am now declaring clean," the Pharisees would have immediately stoned him and no one would have objected.
Fifth, Yeshua's statement in Mark 7:19 is misrepresented in modern Bible versions.
The last clause of verse 19 of Mark's narrative is at the eye of the controversy. (Matthew's version does not contain this statement.) The Greek text of the verse ends with a dangling participial clause, katharizōn panta ta brōmata, "cleansing all the foods." Some versions translate the clause literally (BRG, Darby, DRA, HNV, ISV, JUB, KJV, LITV, MEV, MW, NJB, NKJV, OJB, TLV and WEB), and one might suppose that Yeshua is saying that digestion cleanses unclean food and thus trumps the concern for ritual purity. Conclusively against such an interpretation is that it suddenly puts the focus on hygiene instead of ritual purity, which was the main concern of the Pharisees. Also, this approach does not answer the halakhic question the Pharisees posed, because food can have in it not a single germ and yet be ritually unclean. Of course, what ancient people actually understood about physical digestion is unknown, but probably little.
Most modern Bible versions (ASV, CEB, CEV, CJB, ERV, ESV, GNB, GNC, HCSB, LEB, MRINT, MSG, NAB, NASB, NCV, NEB, NET, NIRV, NIV, NLT, NLV, NRSV, RSV, TLB) translate the last clause to say, "Thus He declared all foods clean" or words to that effect, some putting the statement in parentheses. The TLB offers the gross distortion of saying "he showed that every kind of food is kosher." David Stern no doubt speaks for all these versions when he justifies the use of the phrase in the Complete Jewish Bible by saying: "I have added these words for the sake of clarifying the one meaning I believe this passage can have, namely, that it is Mark’s halakhic summary of Yeshua’s remarks." Stern, like the other Bible translators, is forced to this conclusion because the hygiene interpretation seems the only viable alternative.
Nevertheless, the inescapable fact, as Stern admits, is that there is no "thus he declared" in the Greek text and therefore pure invention. The inclusion of the clause in the CJB is inexplicable. There is also no support from the context that Yeshua in fact declared all animal meat eaten at a meal, regardless of its source, as "clean." Moreover, the nominative masculine form of the Greek participle "katharizōn" ("cleansing") agrees grammatically with "legei" ("he replied," literally, "he says") in verse 18. Stern believes that the grammatical agreement between the two verbs indicates that the participial clause should be treated as Mark's comment and not Yeshua's own words. However, there is no manuscript evidence of any interruption in thought and if Mark had intended to add an editorial comment he could have easily said, "thus he declared..." There is really no need to insert words that Mark did not say or intend.
There is a third approach to interpreting the verse. The Greek of verse 19 may be lit. translated, "because it enters not of him into the heart but into the belly and into the drain goes out purging all the foods?" (Marshall) The literal translation implies that Yeshua was stating the obvious in terms of the function of the body to remove waste. So, what's being purged is not the food, but the body. In other words Yeshua is saying, "if you think external unwashed hands makes clean food unclean what do think the body's internal waste disposal system does to it." He illustrates absurdity by being absurd. "Why, considering what the body does to food, we can't eat at all!"
Biblical Diet Principles
It's clear by sound analysis that Yeshua was NOT making a ruling about the continuity of Torah food laws in his debate with the Pharisees. Christians (as reflected in Christian Bible versions) apparently want Yeshua to say that he canceled the food laws when he didn't. The "eat anything" advocates cite other passages that seem to change the Torah's regulations on food, such as Paul's statement, "I know - that is, I have been persuaded by the Lord Yeshua the Messiah - that nothing is unclean in itself. But if a person considers something unclean, then for him it is unclean" (Rom 14:14 CJB).
Paul does have important things to say about diet (Rom 14:1-23; 1Cor 8:1-13; 10:14-33; 2Cor 6:14-18; Col 2:16-18; 1Tim 4:1-5; 5:23), but none of these verses and indeed no passage in the apostolic writings actually say that Yeshua canceled the food laws for Jews. Moreover, there is no evidence that Yeshua or the apostles ever ate non-kosher food or advised disciples to do so. Consider these facts:
1. No passage in the Besekh says "all animals are clean." The Noahic Covenant added meat to the diet of mankind from any source: "Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you" (Gen 9:3). Moses could have eaten pork before Sinai because there was no law against it until Sinai. The animal restrictions imposed at Sinai were part of God's covenant with Israel. In other words, God required that Israelites refrain from eating animals that were "clean" for Gentiles. The Torah regulation emphasizes this separation from the Gentiles by referring to the banned animals eleven times as "unclean to you," (e.g., Lev 11:4).
2. The Jerusalem Council issued a decree binding on all disciples, but primarily oriented to Gentile disciples, that forbid "things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled" (Acts 15:29). The rule was not temporary or culturally-influenced, since Yeshua condemns congregations in Revelation for disobeying this rule (Rev 2:14, 20). These apostolic rules did not impose a kosher diet on the Gentile disciples, but they did reinforce the expectation for all mankind established in the covenant with Noah (Gen 9:4).
3. Paul strongly condemns both judging people for what they eat or don't eat (Rom 14:3-4, 10; Col 2:16) and imposing a vegetarian diet as if it were more spiritual (1Tim 4:1-4). Even following a kosher diet does not make one more spiritual, because as Yeshua stressed, true spirituality is in the heart, not the stomach.
4. The context of these verses emphasize consideration for the scruples of those (especially the Jews) who regulate their diet in accordance with the Torah. Christians have no right to expect that Messianic Jews change eating in conformity with Torah. Paul specifically enjoins Gentile disciples to avoid giving offense to Jews (1Cor 10:32). During occasions of table fellowship Gentile disciples should avoid refusing to share in a kosher meal or serving non-kosher food to Jewish disciples.
5. Disciples are exhorted to determine convictions for themselves in all areas of life (Rom 14:22). See my article Principles for Convictions. Yet, convictions should not be used to divide the body or hurt individual believers. Disciples are called to love one another and build up the body (Rom 14:14-23; 1Cor 10:23-33).
6. Gentile disciples are not "required" to eat kosher any more than they are required to be circumcised to be a part of the Messianic kingdom (Gal 5:2). While Rabbinic food rules may seem extreme, Gentiles could consider the benefits of honoring the Torah diet plan. Scientific evidence indicates that in general the Torah diet is a more healthy way to eat.
As in all things let us remember Paul's ethical appeal, "Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." (1Cor 10:31). Decisions about food should preserve a disciple's witness for God in the world, not detract from it.
BDB: The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Oxford University Press, 1907. Reprinted by Associated Publishers and Authors, Inc., 1981.
Danker: Frederick William Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Marshall: Alfred Marshall, NASB-NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English. Zondervan Pub. House, 1986.
Metzger: Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. German Bible Society, 1994.
Stern: David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, Jewish New Testament Publications, 1996.
Wenham: G.J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus. William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1979.
Copyright © 2011-2021 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.