Peter, Paul, James and the Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburger® (PART TWO)

October 6, 2015

We have been imagining the Apostles Peter, Paul and James gathered together in Jerusalem where Paul has just finished participating in a Temple ritual with four men from the Jerusalem congregation. Afterwards, Peter and James meet with him, congratulating and thanking him for his participation. On their way back to the Upper Room, they pass a Ya'akov BaTevah (Jack in the Box).  What with the New Covenant having been in effect for about 20 years already, wouldn't all that kosher stuff be kind of passé by now? Couldn't they just stop off for a Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburger®?

We saw last time that the Torah teaches that the status of clean/unclean, permitted or disallowed foods is determined by what God says to a particular group of people. For example, that Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburger® is prohibited because God says so, that is, it is prohibited to Jews. There is nothing intrinsic about pig flesh that makes it unclean: not its sanitary/unsanitary status, not its caloric content, nothing! Bacon is prohibited to Jews because God says so, but if the Pope wants to eat a ham sandwich, God can, without contradiction, say “B’teiavon!” (hearty appetite!)

Those who believe the kosher laws are abrogated now that Jesus has come will often point to a parenthetical statement in Mark 7 as proof. However, Mark 7, rightly understood, supports what the Torah says about the indifferent ontological (that is, intrinsic) status of pig flesh and other foods which are non-kosher to Jews. There is nothing about the foods themselves that makes them to be disallowed.

Here is the account in Mark.

14 After He called the crowd to Him again, He began saying to them, “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man. 16 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”]  17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, His disciples questioned Him about the parable. 18 And He said to them, “Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, 19 because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.) 20 And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. 21 For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22 deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. 23 All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”

There has been much debate about some details of this text due to available textual variants and some grammatical details. However, this discussion is far too technical for our considerations here. Let’s just point out that the words “Thus he declared” are not in the Greek text, but are supplied by translators. For now, let’s assume that the text means to say that Yeshua declared all foods clean. What might that mean?

We need to recognize that this is a scribal comment. It is parenthetical statement, an interpretation, not an alleged quote from Yeshua. But it is still there in the Bible and we must deal with it. Why is it there?

To answer this question, one must consider what audience this gospel is written to. The universal answer to this question is, “to a Gentile Roman audience.” One of the ways we know that is how often Mark’s Gospel explains Jewish, in this case, Aramaic, terms to its readers. (See Mark 3:17; 5:41; 7:11, 34; 14:36; 15:22, 34), and also the parenthetical comment explaining Jewish purity customs in our context here, Mark 7:3-4: For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they[a]carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they [b]cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the [c]washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) These explanations are only necessary because the readers are not Jews!

While at its roots, the Yeshua-believing community was Jewish, in quick order it became predominantly Gentile, and this was doubly so in some locations. These non-Jews would naturally be both interested in and confused about how Jewish cultural norms were meant to condition their own conduct as Yeshua-believers. This confusion was all the more likely because the movement was in flux in its earliest days with all kinds of opinions floating around, and false teachers popping up with their pet emphases.

As we know also from reading the Letter to the Romans, there was confusion about what foods were permitted. Aside from the issue of food offered to idols, there was also the issue of Jewish norms and the extent to which they were binding on non-Jews, or not. It is just such an issue that the scribe or perhaps Mark himself is addressing in this parenthetical statement. The statement is declaring what the Torah had already established: that there was nothing intrinsically unclean about any food. The Torah related issue is this: has God forbidden this food to you?  We will see from other texts we to be explored later that this is indeed the right way to interpret the Markan data.

There is a further point being made in the Markan context, and it is this: God is more concerned about what comes out of you than what goes into you. This must not be taken to mean that all kosher laws are cancelled. The text’s ruling that it is what comes out of a man that (truly) defiles him rather than what goes into him is like the prophet’s statement, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Did this mean that sacrifices were cancelled? No, it meant that on a hierarchy of values, sacrifices were no substitute for the greater priority, mercy. Similarly, Yeshua speaks in Matthew 23 of “the weightier matters of the law” which ought not to be neglected by people who are instead obsessed with minutiae. But on the other hand, he says the minutiae also ought not to be neglected. He is not abolishing the minutiae but reminding us to not major in the minors and forget that the majors are of pivotal importance.

No, Yeshua is not cancelling the food laws. The text is putting things in order: (1) Gentiles need not fear that they are eating ritually contaminated foods unless God has specifically forbidden such foods to them; (2) Don’t let your concerns about matters of ritual purity cause you to forget that God’s greater concern should be yours as well: to cleanse yourself of “fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”

For a wonderful article that more fully explores the First Century and New Testament context for this interpretation, see David J. Rudolph, "Jesus and the Food Laws: A Reassessment of Mark 7:19b." Evangelical Quarterly 74:4 (2002), 291-311.  You may also find the paper by searching on Dr Rudolph's site, here: 

The conclusion of his splendid article bears quoting: 

The classic reading of Mark 7:19b [that Jesus terminated the food laws] suffers from a number of historical-literary context problems. The alternative reading (Mark found in Jesus' teaching a basis for Gentile exemption from the Leviticus 11 dietary laws) does not share these problems and is consistent with the available evidence, including Matthew's parallel account. mark's parenthetical comment was specifically intended for Gentile Christians, not Jewish Christians . . ., and may have served to establish theological justification for the Apostolic Decree that exempted Gentile Christians from the food laws. Pauline halakhic influence behind Mark's editorial insertion is plausible. The study further suggests that Jesus was a Torah faithful Jew who observed the biblical dietary laws and that his disciples (all Jews!) did the same as well. The continuing validity of Israel's dietary laws for Jewish Christians raises a number of compelling questions for modern Christian theology, which continues to associate clean/unclean food distinctions with legalism for Jewish Christians. This reassessment of Mark 7:19b helps to correct such a false association and offers a more balanced perspective on how Jesus' teaching and Mark's editorial comment were perceived in the early decades of the Church.

Mark 7:19b is written to a Gentile audience, and there is nothing here which releases Peter, Paul, James, or us Yeshua-believing Jews to eat that Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburger®. Nor does the text justify others calling us legalists for abstaining!


11 comments on “Peter, Paul, James and the Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburger® (PART TWO)”

  1. What if a Messianic Jew fellowships with a Cajun family. The women have worked all day to prepare a special crawfish jambalaya and some shrimp gumbo. Does the Messianic offend the nice family that showed such good southern hospitality and refuse the meal or does he/she eat the jambalaya and gumbo and enjoy the fellowship?

    1. Glenn,
      Let's take the same "what if" story and substitute the ethnicity. Some Texans live next door to a devout Indian family. The women work all day to prepare special Ribeye Steak and beef chili. Does the Hindu family offend the nice family that showed such good southern hospitality and refuse the meal or does he/she eat the beef and enjoy the fellowship?

      Perhaps the question should rather be, how on earth could that Texan family be so insensitive or ignorant about Hindu/Indian culture to serve them something so offensive? You see, Cornelius did not invite a devout Jewish leader to his home and serve him pork, in the same way that an educated and respectful human being would not invite a Hindu priest for dinner and offer him pork.

    2. It is always regrettable when one even appears to be rude. However, if a person believes that their diet is a matter of divine command, then one seeks if at all possible to honor that restriction as one would honor God. Perhaps a better analogy would be being a brittle diabetic visiting in a home where the people pride themselves on great grandmother's lemon cake. She is 98 years old, and is present at the table: but you are a brittle diabetic. What do you do? Generally, you would deeply express your regrets and tell the people that you simply cannot have any of the cake. Or do you instead, out of refusal to disappoint people socially, put yourself on the verge of a diabetic coma or beyond it?

      For a religious Jew, matters of eating can be that serious. And to not respect this, to treat it as if it is simply a matter of stubborn social rigidity is simply to forget the most essential aspect of the thing: that one believes that this restriction is a matter of obedience to the explicit command of Almighty God.

      And if the family gets bent out of shape because you won't have great grandma's lemon cake, or in the Jewish situation, won't eat the ham salad, who has the problem?

  2. Your story put me in mind of one of the first jokes I ever heard in Hebrew, from a comedian in Israel some 33 years ago entertaining an audience on a kibbutz. I mention the locale to note that the audience was not staunchly Torah observant. Nonetheless, they all were sufficiently familiar with the principles of kashrut, that are firmly embedded even in secular Israeli Jewish culture, that they could laugh at the punchline of the joke which turned upon such cultural recognition. I won't reproduce the entire joke, which wouldn't work quite as well in a written medium anyway, but I will summarize it as a complaint from a man to his local rabbi about an acquaintance who had been observed eating a ham sandwich. The rabbi attempted to console the man, saying that while such behavior could hardly be condoned, there might exist some mitigating factor by which it might be justified on an exceptional basis. For example, the acquaintance might have been too poor to obtain any more suitable food, and he might have been starving after too long a period during which he could not obtain suitable food. The complainant was not to be deterred, adding that such justifications did not seem adequate to explain that the acquaintance was eating the ham with cheese. The rabbi was a bit harder pressed to find some further excuse, but he tried to do so in order to maintain peace within his community, saying that the Talmud contained many ways to forgive sin. However, in ultimate exasperation, the complainant added: "But rabbi, it was on Yom Kippur!".

    At that point, the audience was sufficiently aware of the incongruities between secular Israeli culture and religious expectations and the difficulties of integrating them while building a modern Jewish society from all sorts of Jews ranging from those who were very knowledgeable and religiously committed to those who were entirely ignorant of historical religious imperatives and praxis. They found the story hilarious.

    I find it most regrettable (and not so hilarious) that there are significant numbers of modern Jewish Rav-Yeshua messianists (well, maybe that description is not the most appropriate one for the folks of whom I'm thinking) who would happily consume your symbolic bacon cheeseburger on Yom haKippurim and try to justify it from the apostolic writings -- failing, of course, to discern rightly the contexts and the audiences of the passages they would cite. But, hey, that was your point, wasn't it?

  3. Believe it or not I do believe many people today in ignorance would indeed serve a Jew non-kosher food. I have heard many stories from Jewish believers where this was indeed the case! So it sounds like Adam and Stuart both agree the Messianic should obey the divine command and offend the family?

    1. In the eyes of the faithful, not offending God would take precedence. You're right there are plenty of ignorant people out there. So if they act in ignorance, there should be grace and a "take 2". How could anyone be offended by a Hindu or Jew refusing a meal that offends them? Even if someone has the right intentions, it does not excuse their act of ignorance.

    2. @Glenn -- It seems to me that the family need not be offended if the explanation for Jewish obedience is presented diplomatically and if the family is open-minded enough to recognize the Torah's demands upon Jews. Therefore let's not allow our strawman arguments to invalidate realistic prescriptions for human inter-relationship.

  4. Good thoughts PL. No straw man, I saw this happen many times in South Georgia. In fact my own Mother once made a President of the UMJC a nice tossed salad with ham for lunch. I also heard a true story years ago about a world class evangelical organization (I wont mention the name, ask Rabbi Dauermann) that served ham to Messianic Jews during a meeting on Jewish evangelism. If they could get this wrong, anyone could.

    1. @Glenn -- Hmmm... "a world class evangelical organization" serving ham to MJs, you say? Since, as may be inferred, they ought to have known better, one must suspect or at least wonder if there might have been some deliberate subtle doctrinal message being served with the meal. If so, it would not have been a singular nor isolated incident had it been truly a deliberate intention to imply that the Jewish laws of kashrut should be disregarded. Similarly, one might wonder if it was HaShem's doing to test the resolve of the MJs involved. Such occurrences do, however, offer object-lesson opportunities to initiate teaching, if one can get past the diplomatic challenges.

  5. Dear Rabbi Stuart Dauermann,
    I´d certainly not serve you a ham! I respect the kosher laws for Jews. I´ve been reading messianic jewish blogs for a while now and you have convinced me already that the law is not abrogated. But what is important to know besides these animals in Lev. 11? Is it enough to put salt on the meat, because where I live there is no kosher butcher?
    I love and respect you

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