“We have quite removed from men’s minds what that pestilent fellow Paul used to teach about food and other unessentials—namely, that the human without scruples should always give in to the human with scruples.”—The Senior Demon Screwtape in C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.
For many Torahists, the issue of unclean food carries quite a bit of emotion. Torahism subscribes to the dietary restrictions set out in the law of Moses and believes it’s vital that believers today maintain these restrictions. Some will argue that the reason God gave us laws about eating food was to keep us safe from parasites, bacteria, and other unhealthy things. As my friend, Ben* so eloquently put it:
“When Paul told Timothy that the ‘food’ was ‘sanctified’ by the Word and Prayer he was not telling believers they can go ahead and eat dog now; it’s sanctified as long as you bless it first! No! That is disgusting! And that goes for pork and all its parasites and worms, and shellfish and it’s flesh-eating, bacteria-carrying nastiness! It’s really time believers return to understanding the foundational truth of the faith they think they are practicing! The Father designed and created the world and designed each animal to do its job! He gave His WORD and established it forever. Then sent his Son to live it out! He came and obeyed and we should follow HIS example. Yet the Roman Religion would have us believe our Father wants us to stuff our faces with the feces-eating, garbage disposal system of the earth? Crows, possums, turkey vultures, eating roadkill off the highways is on the menu just pray for it! Not only is it disgusting, preposterous AND ridiculous but it’s a tragic disregard for our Father’s love that informs us in Leviticus that He designed them not haphazardly but quite intelligently.”
Another Torahist who publishes teaching videos on YouTube claims that “all commands given in the Torah are for our protection from hurt, harm, and danger. For instance, don’t eat anything unclean like pork, and if you obey that command it’s your protection from getting the trichinosis worm that can harm you.”
This is an interesting theory but it is definitely not biblical. If avoiding trichinosis were God’s intention, you’d think he would have also prohibited the eating of walrus, horse, bear, and other wild game where trichinosis is found. And if we’re talking about protection from bacteria in general, wouldn’t He have to prohibit all the foods that have been known to carry bacteria, such as peanuts, spinach, and melons? The language used in the Leviticus would not protect us from parasites or bacteria. Many times it tells us if we touch the bodies of these dead animals we will become unclean until evening (Lev 11:31, 17:15). Are we to believe that God thought parasites and bacteria went away when the sun went down? Of course not! Israel was given these dietary rules for ceremonial reasons, not for reasons of food safety.
Another popular Torahist argument on the issue of unclean food has to do with Christians “cherry-picking” Old Testament verses. Torahists will often share memes on social media that mock how Christians follow some laws of the Torah but do follow others. My friend Justin* put it this way:
“The Bible doesn’t change, so here is my question. Why do you say it’s okay to eat pork when Leviticus 11 says not to eat pork, yet you condemn homosexuality when it talks against men laying with another man only a few chapters later? That’s kinda hypocritical, don’t you think? Since when did we get the option to pick and choose which commands we consider sin, and which ones we don’t? Those are both commands that came from God himself and according to 1 John 3:4, sin is defined as breaking God’s commands. We either preach that eating pork is a sin and so is homosexuality or neither one of them are. I wish the church would stop condemning the homosexual as they stuff pork chops in their mouth. Just sayin’.”
If Christians were still under the law of Moses, Justin might have a pretty good point. But we’re not. So as far as Justin’s specific examples, the issue of homosexual behavior is a moral law that is repeated in the New Testament. And as for eating pork, the New Testament clearly and repeatedly teaches that Christians have the freedom to eat whatever they want (see below).
That Which Defiles
It turns out this topic of unclean food actually opens up a wealth of scriptural evidence that demonstrates that Christians are not required to keep the Torah. A common text for this discussion is the passage found in Mark 7:1-23 where Yeshua clashes with the Pharisees on that which defiles. Specifically, the following verses are often cited:
“Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)” (Mark 7:18-19)
My Torahist friend Ruth* claimed that the statement “Thus he declared all foods clean” in verse 19 was not written by the original author, Mark, but rather was added later by translators. She provided a link to Codex Sinaiticus (a fourth-century manuscript that contains the earliest complete copy of the Christian New Testament) to prove her point. I checked and Ruth is correct: there is no parenthetical statement in verse 19 in the Codex Sinaiticus Manuscript (CSM). Instead, it includes the same statement without the parentheses:
“And he said to them: So even you are without understanding? Do you not perceive that nothing from without by entering into a man can defile him? because it goes not into his heart, but into his belly, and is cast out into the sink, making all meats clean.” (Mark 7:18-19 CSM, emphasis mine)
In other words, the statement in question is still present in the Codex Sinaiticus Manuscript, it’s just the parentheses that are missing. When I pointed this out, Ruth then claimed that, when taken in light of the larger passage, Yeshua is not actually teaching about eating unclean foods, but rather about ceremonial washing before a meal. So I reviewed the larger passage in Mark 7 which runs from verse 1 through verse 23. In verses 1-5 we see the Pharisees and scribes asked why Jesus’ disciples’ were not following the traditions of the elders and washing their hands before taking food.
“And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him: Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with common hands?” (Mark 7:5, CSM)
So Ruth has a point that the initial question that was asked was about ceremonial cleansing, rather than about unclean meat. But then a few verses later we see Yeshua addressing the larger crowd, saying:
“And again calling the multitude to him he said to them: “Hear me, all of you, and understand. There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him; but the things that proceed from a man are they that defile a man” (Mark 7:14-15, CSM).
Interesting that the Pharisees and scribes originally asked about ceremonial cleansing but Yeshua responded by talking about a bigger issue: that which defiles a man. So what does Yeshua’s’ response mean exactly? If we continue reading to the end of the passage (verses 17-23) we see that the disciples were wondering this very thing and asked Him about it:
“And when he had entered the house apart from the multitude, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them: ‘So even you are without understanding? Do you not perceive that nothing from without by entering into a man can defile him? Because it goes not into his heart, but into his belly, and is cast out into the sink, making all meats clean’. But he said: ‘That which proceeds from a man, that defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, lewdness, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetousness, wicked counsels, deceit, wantonness, an evil eye, blasphemy, haughtiness, folly: all these wicked things proceed from within, and defile a man.’” (Mark 7:17-23, CSM)
So we’ve seen Yeshua twice repeat what would have been a shocking statement to a first-century Jew: “…do you not perceive that nothing from without by entering into a man can defile him?” (Mark 7:15, 18) The Pharisee’s original question was asking why Jesus’ disciples’ were not following the traditions of the elders and washing themselves and their cups and pitchers and vessels before taking food (Mark 7:1-5). But Yeshua ultimately responded by teaching a bigger lesson; that it’s not what goes into a man’s mouth that makes him unclean, it’s what comes out of it (Mark 7:18-19).
He is teaching that by following the “commandments of men” the Pharisees are missing the point and erroneously looking for purity and righteousness in outward physical signs and behaviors. The commandments of God, on the other hand, are concerned with the inward purity and righteousness of our hearts. Whether it’s from unwashed hands or unclean meat, Yeshua taught that eating food is not what defiles a man. Because all food “goes not into his heart, but into his belly, and is cast out into the sink, making all meats clean” (v. 19, CSM)
Food Is Not Meat
Regarding this passage in Mark, another Torahist, James* claimed that all food was already clean, adding, “But not everything is food.” He went on to explain:
“Mark chapter 7 is about eating bread with unwashed hands. It’s not about meat at all. You better read it again because mark chapter 7 is the key to understanding the New Testament. Ceremonial handwashing was a tradition of the elders (which became Judaism) and you must say/do it before you eat bread. That instruction is found nowhere in scripture. And Jesus consistently rebuked the Pharisees for breaking Torah in order to follow their own traditions instead. That is the context of Mark 7. And the consistent theme of Jesus’s ministry.”[Personal correspondence, Jan 2019]
James is right that ritual hand washing before meals, known as netilat yadayim, does not come from the Torah, but rather from the extra-biblical teachings in the Talmud. And he’s also correct that Yeshua often (including in this passage) rebuked Jews for following their own traditions at the expense of the commandments of God. But is Yeshua’s teaching here in Mark chapter 7 really about bread?
In James’ defense, there is a scriptural basis for his claim. In Mark 7:2, when we look at the original Greek, we see that the Pharisees saw some of Yeshua’s disciples eating ἄρτους (artous, which specifically means bread, a loaf) with hands that were defiled. And in verse five they ask Yeshua why His disciples don’t live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their ἄρτον (arton: bread) with defiled hands. However, a different word is used in verse 19. There the Greek word is βρώματα (brōmata), which means food of any kind.
So we have the same pattern here; the Pharisees asked about one specific thing (bread), but Yeshua gave them a larger answer which extended to include all food. Mark records the words of Yeshua in Greek as “pan eisporeuomenon anthrōpon exōthen”, which literally means “whatever (all, everything) enters into a man (mankind) from without” cannot defile him. Yeshua is teaching that all foods are clean and it’s not food, but rather what’s in our hearts that defile us.
This is far from the only place where the New Testament teaches us that all food is clean. In Romans 14:20, the apostle Paul says that panta brōmatos (all food) is clean. And in 1 Corinthians chapter 10 Paul uses the word μακέλλῳ (makellō) which literally means a “meat market” when he says:
“Eat everything that is sold in the meat market, without raising questions for the sake of conscience, since the earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it. If any of the unbelievers invites you over and you want to go, eat everything that is set before you, without raising questions for the sake of conscience.” (1 Cor 10:25-27).
We’re also taught in the New Testament not to let anyone judge us in regard to food and drink (Col 2:16) and that the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom 14:17). Paul, who is persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself (Rom 14:14), teaches that food will not bring us close to God and “We are not worse off if we don’t eat, and we are not better if we do eat” (1 Cor 8:8). Food is not unclean, but willful disobedience, an unthankful disposition, and uncontrolled desires are (1 Tim 4:1-5).
“For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, since it is sanctified by the word of God and by prayer.” (1 Tim 4:4-5)
And, as I examined here, the final ruling of the Jerusalem Council, as led by the apostles and elders and confirmed by the Holy Spirit, did not enforce the dietary laws of the Torah on new believers. This leaves our Torahist friends with a bit of a problem. If the New Testament so clearly teaches that all food is clean, how can they claim that the Torah, which so clearly commands dietary restrictions, is still in effect?
*Names have been changed to respect the anonymity of our private correspondence.