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Mark 7:19 and Acts 10:10-16: Jesus Ended the Kosher Laws
by Michael Bugg
As I states over in my article on Romans 14, I was once very cavalier about ignoring the kosher laws, even to the point of jokingly suggesting that the ultimate test of faith was the ultimate unkosher meal. After all, weren’t the kosher commandments just a relic of a bygone age when the lack of refrigeration made pork a bit more likely to be parasite-ridden?
I’ve since learned a few things.
Like most Christians today, I pointed to Mark 7:19 and Acts 10:10-16 as evidence that the kosher commandments had been done away with. But is that what these passages really state? Or are we Christians simply reading back our anti-Torah biases back into them?
The Gentile Exemption
Before I begin, let me state for the record that God very specifically exempted Gentile believers from being required to keep kosher—however, I don’t go to the New Covenant Scriptures for such a view. I base it on two passages from the Torah: The first is Gen. 9:3, in which the Holy One tells Noah, “Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you.” Note that He does not say, “Every clean animal,” which He very well could have, since Noah knew the difference between clean and unclean (Gen. 7:2ff)! Since Noah was the father of all mankind, Jew and Gentile alike, after the Flood, this suggests that God did not make kosher mandatory for all people.
This would seem to be confirmed by Deu. 14:21, which states, “You shall not eat anything which dies of itself. You may give it to the alien who is in your town, so that he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner, for you are a holy people to the LORD your God.” If the meat could be sold to a foreigner (non-Israelite), this again suggests that the prohibition against eating meat not killed in a kosher manner was specific to Israel.
I personally believe that God did not make kosher a universal commandment out of mercy. There are many places in the world where, for example, pork and dog are the primary meats available (such as Indonesia—a cousin of mine served as a missionary there for several years). God did not burden these people with the kosher laws.
Now think about that for a moment: If the kosher laws were simply about health, wouldn’t that imply that God didn’t love the gentiles who He did not give them to—or even Noah!—as much as He loves the Jews? On the contrary, we see Him not give them to all people specifically for their health!
What then is the purpose of kosher? To figure that out, we have to appeal to the “law of first mention” and see when the difference between clean and unclean animals is first stated: Not in Leviticus, as many would assume, but in Genesis. That’s right, Noah knew the difference between clean and unclean, between kosher and treif. But Noah was a vegetarian before the Flood! It wasn’t until after the Flood that God allowed humans to consume meat. So what possible difference would kosher and non-kosher make to Noah?
The answer is that while Noah didn’t eat meat before the Flood, he did understand the concept of offering sacrifices (Gen. 8:20), which was given from the very beginning (3:21 and 4:4ff). Therefore, to Noah the difference between “clean” and “unclean” did not mean “eatable” vs. “uneatable,” but rather what could be sacrificed vs. what could not.
So then, when God told Israel to eat only of the clean animals, He was in essence saying to His nation of priests (Exo. 19:6), “Don’t take into the temple of your bodies that which would not be proper to bring before My temple/tabernacle altar.” That’s a spiritual principle that we can all learn from today.
Having uncovered the spiritual principle, should we then disregard the physical command? That depends: Do we assume that knowing the spiritual reality underlying the physical act of water immersion (baptism; Col. 2:11f) means that we should no longer be physically immersed in the Name of our Lord Yeshua? I daresay that few of my Sunday brethren would make such a leap.
Rather, I believe that it is good to keep physical kosher if we have the luxury to, only for the reason of being like our Savior even in what we choose to eat. There is a blessing that comes from obeying God even in the things that we don’t understand; I kept kosher for over a year before the reason for it, explained above, was given to me.
With that explanation in mind, let us look at the two passages in question. Do they really state that believers in the Messiah, even Jewish ones, should no longer keep kosher?
Let us deal with the simpler passage first. Acts 10:10-16 reads, in the NASB,
As one reads the Christian commentators, one is deluged with page after page of exegesis based on this supposed end to the kosher commandments, usually tying it into the general assumed end of the Torah. For example, John Calvin writes in his Commentary on this passage,
Calvin is actually self-contradictory on the subject of this supposed abrogation of the Torah, as his Commentary on Mat. 5:17 demonstrates:
Moreover, we see him reading into the text a whole anomian (“Torah-less”) assumption into this text. Where Calvin supposes that the vision “speaketh of meats,” Peter himself gives the interpretation in v. 28: “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.”
Prophetic visions frequently substitute one object for another for the purpose of making a point. For example, few would argue that the Antichrist must literally be a scarlet, seven-headed beast as portrayed in Revelation 13 and 17; rather, we understand this beast to represent a mortal man in symbolic fashion. This was why Peter was initially confused about the meaning of the vision (v. 17): As a student of the Master, and well-acquainted with Hebrew prophecy, he is well aware that such visions do not often speak literally. A few verses later, after Peter has met with Cornelius, we learn from the Apostle himself what his vision meant: It had nothing to do with food, but with people.
“That still represents a change or abrogation of the Law,” some might argue. “After all, Peter himself says that previously it was unlawful to associate with Gentiles.”
Really? Perhaps the one so objecting would like to point us to the passage of the Torah which specifically forbids associating with Gentile worshippers of the One True God? One will look long and hard for such a commandment in vain, for it does not exist. Gill (Exposition) tries to find justification in Deu. 7:2, but the context is clear that this passage refers specifically to the Canaanites being driven out of the land, not all Gentiles in general. Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown admit, "There was no express prohibition to this effect, and to a Certain extent intercourse was certainly kept up."
On the contrary, there are numerous passages in the Torah which command Israel to love and care for the Gentiles, such as Exo. 22:21, 23:9; Lev. 19:10 & 33-34. Pay special attention to the last passage, which states, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God”!
Stern (Commentary 258) notes that
Mark S. Kinzer, in Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism (70), cites Bill Witherington as making the same translation and stating, “There was no formal law that strictly forbade Jews from associating with Gentiles, it was just that they had to be prepared to pay a price for doing so, the price of becoming ritually unclean."
Stern (p. 259) goes on to say that the Jewish cultural barriers against associating with Gentiles was a reaction to “the threat from assimilation to Jewish identity” rather than a teaching from the Torah.
So then, let us sum up our exegesis of this passage:
Many of my Sunday brethren will recognize Peter’s own interpretation, but continue to assert as a kind of midrash that since God used the illustration of meats, then this passage also teaches the end of kosher. (Ironically, many of these would be the first to decry the use of midrashic hermeneutics by the Messianic movement.) However, they ignore a basic fact of Biblical interpretation: No secondary interpretation can override the p’shat, the plain meaning of the text. Since Peter himself makes no mention of kosher, and since there is no other passage overriding that which God Himself gave to Israel in that regard, such an interpretation cannot stand on its own.
That leads many of my brothers to turn to Mark 7 or Romans 14 for their support. We have dealt with Romans 14 in a previous article, so let us examine Mark’s Gospel account to see what it really says now.
Mark 7:18-19 reads in the NASB,
This passage is one of those that I believe the NASB has gotten completely wrong. First, notice the italicized words above—this is the NASB’s (and many other translations’) way of telling you that theses words are completely interpolated by the translators; that is, they do not appear in the original Greek. Moreover, the word “declared” does not appear in the original Greek either; rather, the literal translation is, “because it doth not enter into his heart, but into the belly, and into the drain it doth go out, purifying all the meats” (YLT).
On what basis can we say that a command of Torah has been done away with when we have to interpolate a whole clause into the sentence in order to do so? That would be like someone translating Romans 6:1-2, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be that we fail to! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” No honest Biblical scholar would let such a translation stand unchallenged, let alone admit the validity of an exegesis made upon it!
Interestingly, the Complete Jewish Bible agrees with the NASB reading here, translating the end of the verse as a parenthetical, “(Thus he declared all foods ritually clean.) “ Stern is clear in his translation, however that the subject is not kosher, but rather “ritual purity as taught by the Oral Torah in relation to n’tiat-yadayim”—that is, ritual hand-washing, per vv. 2-4—“not kashrut at all!” (ibid. 95) Since the subject of whether kosher had been annulled never even comes up, we perform eisegesis (reading our own opinions back into the text) not exegesis when we use this verse as justification for rejecting kosher.
Stern summarizes Yeshua’s intent as follows:
This interpretation follows Matthew’s rendering of the conclusion, which is to say that “to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man” (Mat. 15:20).
Why then does Stern follow the practice of interpolating “Thus he declared” into the text? He writes that he believes the “one meaning this passage can have” is that “it is Mark’s halakhic summary of Yeshua’s remarks.” He admits, however, that many hold to the interpretation that we favor here. I would argue that our interpretation holds more firmly to the text.
Some may object that I have thus far cited only one Messianic commentator. Such people would be surprised to learn that many Christian commentators have come to similar conclusions:
Note that none of the above commentators remark at all on kosher, but understand that the passage is dealing with “ceremonial washing.” Indeed, some Christian commentators utterly refute the idea that this passage abrogates kosher:
(Obviously, I disagree with this commentator’s assessment of Col. 2:16-17, which I answer here.)
To be sure, there are also many commentaries that do see in this passage the end to the kosher laws. However, given the universal (among Christians) belief that kosher is no longer valid, it is surprising to find so many sources failing to find their justification here. Indeed, seeking to find justification for an end to kosher puts Yeshua in the role of having a double-standard, as John Fisher explains:
It also would have left Him subject to a charge of being a false prophet, based on Deu. 12:32-13:5 (see here). Indeed, if He had been teaching His disciples not to keep any part of the Torah, His enemies could hardly have missed the opportunity to bring that up at His trial! It would have negated the whole need for false witnesses!
So then, we return to the following key facts about this passage:
The command to discern between the clean and the unclean meats is a direct commandment of Scripture (Lev. 11:47). Against this very clear commandment, Christian commentators have three passages which are propertied negate it; Romans 14, Acts 10, and Mark 7. Romans 14, we have proven elsewhere, does not refer to kosher, and neither does Mark 7. The vision of Acts 10 uses non-kosher meats as a symbol of the Gentiles, to prepare Peter to accept Cornelius and his house as full brothers in the L-rd, as Peter himself interpreted it. Where then do we find any Scripture which negates the Torah on this matter?
Nowhere. The simple fact is that while one can make a case that Gentile believers are not required to keep kosher from the Torah itself (as explained at the beginning of this article), there is nowhere in Scripture that either releases Jewish believers from the command or which discourages Gentiles from joining them in keeping it, provided they do so with the right heart.
It is not the purpose of this article to “force” my Sunday brethren to forego ham and shrimp. However, I do hope to encourage them to reconsider handing a ham sandwich to a Jewish brother or sister as a test of faith. Indeed, I would that in Christian churches across the world, the choice would be made to willingly forego serving treif at church functions, so that their Jewish brethren might associate and eat freely with them without having to violate their own consciences.
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