In the Bible it is written, “And he saith unto them, Are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him; because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?” (Mk 7:18 -19 KJV) In this text Christ is explaining to His disciples how the body’s processing of food illustrates the spiritual dynamics of cleanness and uncleanness. There is nothing in the text which suggests the Mosaic dietary laws, or any part of Torah, the Mosaic Law, has been abolished.
However, the last part of verse 19 is translated much differently in many of our modern Bibles. Take for example the English Standard Version (ESV): “… since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled? (Thus he declared all foods clean.)” The ESV is significantly different from the KJV (comparing red text, emphasis mine) and has a vast spiritual implication, directly claiming that Christ — at this instant in time — is abolishing the dietary laws, and by implication the entire Torah itself as a wholistic, integrated standard of righteousness. (Ja 2:10) Yet the KJV simply flows with the earlier context and explains how the body removes waste. So, which translation is correct?
The Greek Text
The answer in this case lies in the Greek text itself, particularly the word katharizo, translated purge or clean: this is yet another example where the Greek New Testament (GNT) manuscripts underlying our English translations actually differ in key content, significantly changing the message in a practical way.
The KJV correctly translates the verse as found in the Majority Text, a family of GNT manuscripts representative of the vast majority of all existing GNT manuscripts. Here, katharizo is a neuter participle, referencing the human body as the implied subject, not Christ.
In contrast, three older manuscripts in the Alexandrian Text, the small number of remaining GNT manuscripts which differ from the Majority Text, and also from each other in many significant ways, change one letter at the end of katharizo to turn it into a masculine participle, suggesting to many that the cleansing agent is Christ (though this is by no means required). So, modern translations do seem to provide a reasonable translation of the Alexandrian text, and they have the support of anti-Torah Christian leaders all the way back to Origen. But which family of manuscripts should we actually trust?
It is commonly acknowledged, even among those who insist on the Alexandrian variants, that the Majority Text is from a source even older than the Alexandrian … older than any known GNT manuscript. This exposes any preference for the Alexandrian as arbitrarily subjective at best; these manuscripts are not better simply because they are older, for the Majority readings are older still. For a detailed explanation and formal proof of the superiority of the Majority Text, please see The Syrian Recension.
Tim Hegg, whose teaching ministry provides Torah Resource, has a helpful note on this particular translation issue in Mark 7 which provides sufficient detail from a grammatical perspective for anyone interested. However, the article is weakened by Hegg’s a priori acceptance of the Alexandrian Text, though in this case he obviously prefers the Majority Text and goes to great lengths to justify it.
Hegg shows us that even if we accept the Alexandrian reading here as authentic, the KJV is not an unreasonable translation, and finishes his argument by looking at context for further justification. (For example, the ESV’s “Thus He declared” are presumed, there is no basis for it in the Greek) Yet once we recognize the superiority of the Majority Text the translation difficulty vanishes: the KJV rendering is the only way to correctly translate the text. Having this understanding as we read Hegg makes his contextual explanation even more persuasive.
In addition to understanding the nature of the Greek manuscripts involved in our translations as it pertains to this particular problem, we may also look to the rest of the context in Mark 7 and to the whole of scripture to complete our analysis.
First, we may note the obvious discontinuity imposed on the context by most all modern bible translations. The context has nothing to do with eating unclean foods, or even with the distinction between the clean and unclean food; the context is about eating bread (vs 2, 5), not unclean animals. As Hegg explains in more detail in a similar article, the Pharisees were complaining to Christ that His followers were not complying with their burdensome traditions involving the ceremonial cleanness of their hands as they ate any kind of food, which is an entirely different matter. (Mk 7:1-5)
No one in this setting is thinking about whether the food they have been eating is biblically clean or not; everyone present believes the Mosaic dietary laws are still valid and they are all keeping these laws diligently, so there is no motivation in the context for Christ to even bring up the clean/unclean food topic, much less for Him to do something as drastic and problematic as annulling Torah by suddenly declaring all unclean foods to be clean – something He already said He would not do. (Mt 5:17)
Further, nothing in Christ’s response is focused specifically on eating; the focus is whether eating without first ceremonially washing one’s hands according to the Pharisees’ elaborate tradition causes one to be defiled.
We typically wash our hands to remove small particles of dust and dirt which have accumulated on our skin throughout the day. Removing these unseen pollutants decreases the chances of ingesting something undesirable into our bodies as we eat with our hands. But the Pharisees had extended this common sense behavior into frequent, rigorous ceremonial washing, and insisted that their rituals be followed in order to be right with God. (Mk 7:7)
Christ addresses their complaint by denouncing the general hypocrisy of their burdensome regulations, giving us an example of this hypocrisy, and then explaining how Torah defines ceremonial defilement so as to further expose their superficial, mechanical understanding of holiness: “There is nothing from without the man, that going into him can defile him: but the things which proceed out of the man are those that defile the man.” (Mk 7:15)
Christ is driving His point home and making it crystal clear. He asserts a simple fact, one which is easily verified in Torah and with which the Pharisees would have had to reluctantly agree: nothing inadvertently entering our body can defile us. There are no laws in Torah suggesting that accidently ingesting a small, inconspicuous particle with our food, or breathing in such particles suspended in the atmosphere, can make us ceremonially unclean, either physically or spiritually. Any other posture here is absurd.
If we note the wording of the text very carefully, Christ does not consider the act of eating, which is willful behavior – the deliberate, intentional choices we make when placing food into our mouths. He refers to something entering a person, not the person putting this in as a conscious choice. Both His wording and the context suggest this is not about willful behavior.
If we deliberately and consciously eat unclean food when we know better, this is explicitly presumptuous behavior, an outflow of our rebellious hearts, revealing we despise Torah (Nu 15:30-31); this sinful activity defiles us both physically and spiritually. (Le 11:43-44) But if we are humbly trying to obey Torah as God as given it to us, no unseen, undetected pollutants can defile us, as the Pharisees were claiming. This has always been the nature of Torah; it would be senselessly impractical otherwise.
So, there is zero motivation in this context for Christ to declare all foods clean; no one in the context is thinking about unclean food in particular, or even eating in general, and Torah itself already establishes that nothing we ingest unseen, unawares can defile us, either spiritually or physically. However, the translators of our modern versions, evidently ignorant of Torah, presume from Christ’s statement, “whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him,” that He is abolishing Torah itself.
Beyond the immediate context of Mark 7, it is clear from a thorough analysis of Scripture that Torah has not been abolished and that the dietary laws are still valid. As an obvious example, The Twelve, the very disciples to whom Christ was speaking the above truths in Mark, were zealous of Torah their entire lives; they never understood that Torah was abolished and they continued to respect the dietary laws long after the Resurrection. If Christ actually had abolished Torah in Mark 7 by making all foods clean, as modern translators would have us believe, not one of His twelve disciples ever noticed it. In fact, years afterward, Peter was still passionate about his obedience here, refusing to eat anything unclean even when he was ravenously hungry. (Ac 10:14) Even after this incident, even after considering Paul’s teaching (Ac 21:24), neither Peter nor any of rest of The Twelve ever changed their minds about this, as far as we know both from scriptural and historical accounts.
Further, Christ’s own teaching on the enduring nature of Torah is clear and emphatic: He declares in most unmistakable language that no part of Torah will ever become obsolete so long as Heaven and Earth still stand. (Mt 5:18) Anyone who deliberately breaks any part of Torah as a manner of life, thereby teaching others to do so by their sinful example, are going to be discounted in Heaven. (19) All who personally heard Christ’s teachings and walked with Him during His earthly ministry understood this, including The Twelve.
Mark would not have written a Gospel which openly contradicts the firm beliefs of The Twelve, those spirit-filled men who first related the clear teachings of Christ to His Church, the very sources of the substance of his gospel, on such an important topic while they were still alive and active in the leadership of the Church.
This translation of Mark 7:19 in modern bible versions, used by many to claim Christ has abolished Mosaic dietary law, is based on a corrupt Greek Text, disrupts and corrupts the flow of the immediate context, and explicitly contradicts the vast weight of the relevant biblical and historical context. This unfortunate translation is most certainly facilitated by the fact that most modern bible translators approach the text already deceived about Torah, convinced Christ has abolished it, or at least certain parts of it.
The continuing validity of Torah as God’s only standard of holiness can be shown rigorously from Scripture, proving that modern versions of the Bible have mistranslated this important text and introduced significant contradiction within their works. The following articles may be helpful in further exploring this general topic:
- Keep My Commandments Torah in the Sermon on the Mount
- Nothing Unclean of Itself Living in peace with weaker brothers
- No Greater Burden The Jerusalem Council verdict
- What God Hath Cleansed Peter’s rooftop vision
- Not Under the Law Law and Grace
- Christ Is the End of the Law The goal of Torah: Christlikeness