Clean and unclean meat

Viewpoint: A review of biblical material

David Merling, Ph.D., is curator, Horn Archaeological Museum, and associate professor of history of antiquity, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

"There is nothing outside the man which going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man.... (Thus he declared all foods clean)" (Mark 7:15,19).*

What did Jesus mean by "defile" and "clean"? Was He referring to clean and unclean foods?

At issue in Mark 7 are the "traditions of the elders" (verses 3,5, 8, 9,13). These "traditions," according to Jesus, were used to disregard the commandments of God (verse 9). For example, the "traditions of the elders" allowed a person to ignore the fifth commandment by giving a donation to the temple. Jesus pointed out that the Pharisees had many such escapes from God's law (verses 10-13). Condemning such practices, He quoted the "commandment of God," passages from Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy (Mark 7:10,11; cf. Exod. 20:12; 21:17; Deut. 5:16; Lev. 20:9).

The issue that precipitated this discussion in Mark 7 had to do with the accusation of the Pharisees and scribes that the disciples ate with "impure hands." "Impure hands" was a specific, technical distinction not found in the Old Testament. The idea of hands becoming "unclean" or "impure" was developed during the inter-testamental period. Because English words like "defiled" and "unclean" are used in Mark 7 in conjunction with food, some have assumed that the issue being disputed earlier in the chapter was "clean" and "unclean" meat. 1

But is this the case?

Clean and unclean meat

The Bible differentiates between two kinds of animals: those that were clean and fit for food and those that were unclean and unfit to eat. An early distinction between clean and unclean animals is found in the Flood story (Gen. 8), but we have no way to determine from this passage which animals were clean and which unclean, though obviously Noah knew.

The clearest identification of which animals were clean for food and which were not is found in Leviticus 11. Land animals must "chew the cud" and have a split hoof (Lev. 11:2). Water creatures must have fins and scales (Lev. 11:9). All other animals are considered "unclean."

Mark 7, like the rest of the New Testament, was written in Greek. Because the New Testament writers used a Greek version of the Old Testament (LXX), it is helpful to compare the LXX with New Testament passages to check for hidden issues that may have been obscured in the translation process. In the Old Testament, when "unclean" is associated with animals, the Hebrew word used is m. In the LXX, it is regularly translated by the Greek word akatharton ("unclean"). Akatharton is used many times in the New Testament, including Mark 7:25. However, in the discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees, neither Jesus nor the Pharisees speak of akatharton (unclean). The key word in their discussion is one rarely found in the Old Testament, koinoo, translated in the NASB as "impure" and "defiled."

Meaning of "impure"

When koinoo is used in the New Testament, the meaning is that something good or holy has become profaned or desecrated. This use is a unique Palestinian Jewish concept and is not found in secular Greek writings. During the intertestamental period, a significant cultural shift occurred among traditional, religious Jews. They became determined to remain separate from all uncleanliness, including anything to do with the Gentiles. Jews were instructed by their religious leaders to refrain from purchasing oil, bread, milk, or meat from a Gentile.2

Thus, the issue in Mark 7 has to do with the "cultically unclean hands" of the disciples (Mark 7:2).3 There was nothing intrinsically evil about the disciples' hands, but the "tradition of the elders" stated that one's hands had become cultically defiled by the commonness (koinos) of their activities. According to the tradition, if the disciples touched polluted food, the resulting defilement would cause them to become unclean and they would become spiritually unacceptable to God.

Jesus denied that such a thing is possible. He explained that spiritual defilement comes from within, not without (Mark 7:20). In saying so, Jesus underscored a significant truth: Even external actions like "fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries" were defiling, not due to their outward action, but because they represent the fruit of the evil within (Mark 7:23). It is the internal rebellion that "defiles" a person's relationship with God. Real evil (i.e., defilement) comes from within, thus producing the outward signs of that rebellion.

Jesus against external rituals

Thus the issue of Mark 7 is not food. Jesus was primarily arguing against external strictures that ostensibly raised the level of spirituality while undermining the authority of the Holy Scripture. Lambrecht writes that Jesus said the Pharisees' "hypocritical fidelity to the tradition of man induces them to neglect the commandment of God."4 Jesus' refocusing of the issue clearly under mined the "traditions of the elders" and all externally practiced rituals and, at the same time, raised the status of the Scripture.5

This accusation by Jesus against the Pharisees is pertinent because some have suggested that Jesus Himself acted in the same manner in which He accused the Pharisees; that is, some have assumed that Jesus set aside the "commandments of God" by creating His own new tradition.6 In support of such a stance, they use the parenthetical phrase of Mark 7:19, "Thus He declared all foods clean." Even some Seventh-day Adventists have suggested that Jesus in Mark 7:19 had done away with the clean and unclean distinctions of Leviticus II.7 If that is what Jesus did, Jesus was guilty of doing what He accused the Pharisees and scribes of doing: setting aside the commandments of God to follow His own, newly introduced, tradition. Such an interpretation cannot stand theological scrutiny.

Leviticus 11 recognizes two types of "unclean" animals. The first is that which is not fit for food. No prescription is offered to make them "clean" because the distinction between "clean" and "unclean" was not based on cultic distinctions. Eating such foods made the eater "detestable" before God; mainly, it seems, because such creatures were in themselves obviously implausible sources of food (Lev. 11:42,43).

The second kind of uncleanness discussed in Leviticus 11 is a temporary one that resulted from inadvertent contact with unclean animals. Those who touched an unclean animal were advised to wash their clothes; they remained unclean "until evening" (Lev. 11:24-28, 31-40).

Mark 7 and Leviticus 11

The confusion between the "unclean food" of Mark 7 and the "unclean" meats of Leviticus 11 has resulted due to some unfortunate circumstances. First, since the time of the gnostic Marcion, many Christians have tried to impose a major rift between the teachings of the Old Testament God and the New Testament Jesus. It is this often unmentioned and assumed predisposition that influences interpreters to suggest that Jesus introduced a new commandment in Mark 7. These interpreters see a major break between the Old and New Testaments, and Mark 7 is to them one of those milestones. By doing so, however, they inadvertently accuse Jesus of commit ting the same error that Jesus attached to the Pharisees—teaching a new tradition that undermined God's commandments.

Second, the confusion is a result of some wanting to make Christianity as unlike Judaism as possible, thus ignoring the early and clear roots of Christianity.

Third, some see confusion in Leviticus 11 itself. Some Seventh-day Adventists argue that if we obey Leviticus 11, then we have to adhere to all of Leviticus. While this argument sounds logical, it is flawed. Leviticus is a complex book, with many teachings, some of which are universal principles and some uniquely Israelite. Among the universal principles are the commandments of Leviticus 19: "Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves molten gods" (19:4); "you shall not steal" (19:11); "you shall not oppress your neighbor, nor rob him" (19:13); "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (19:18). And Leviticus also has teachings pertaining to typical Jewish cultic practices. One needs to distinguish between the two.

Peter's vision

One cannot discuss the issues of Mark 7 without considering Peter's vision found in Acts 10. Mark 7 and Acts 10 are bound together by the use of the word koinos and the shared theme it introduces. In Acts 10 Peter has a vision in which he sees animals of two kinds: those that are "common" and those that are "unclean" (koinos kai akathartos, Acts 10:14). According to the then-current Jewish idea, things that have become "common" (koinos) have attained that status by their association with things that are "unclean." So what Peter sees in the sheet are unclean animals and clean animals that have become "common" (i.e., defiled) by touching the unclean animals.

The purpose of this vision is to remove from Peter (and the early Christian church) all racial prejudice (see Acts 10:28, 34, 35), but many suppose that this chapter is also the basis for the repudiation of the "unclean" meats of Leviticus 11. After all, does not the text state that God cleansed all meats? Actually, what the text states is, "What God has cleansed no longer consider unholy" (Acts 10:15; 11:9). It is the choice of English words and the uniqueness of early Roman Jewish thought that have so often confused the reader. If we were to read it this way, "What God has cleansed no longer consider koinos" it would be immediately clear that the message of Acts 10 is the same as in Mark 7. What had God cleansed? Things that were thought to be defiled by association.8 While Peter said he had never eaten anything that was "common" or "unclean," the voice Peter hears only says that the "common" things have been cleansed. What about the "unclean" (akathartos) thing? The voice of Acts 10 is silent.

This interpretation fits the story of Acts 10-11 perfectly. Peter is asked to go to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, and Peter knows "how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him." But "God has shown me," says Peter, "that I should not call any man unholy (koinos) or unclean (akathartos)'" (Acts 10:28). According to the "traditions of the elders," Peter would have become koinos if he had associated with Cornelius (an "unclean" person, i.e., non-Jewish person). Peter affirms after the vision that God "is not one to show partiality"; everyone who "does what is right is welcome to Him" (Acts 10:34,35). Regarding people, there are none common or unclean. Such a distinction among people was always and only the "traditions of the elders" extrapolated from the Old Testament by those "elders" but not actually taught in it.

Paul on "unclean"

That defilement by association was strongly ingrained among the early Christians is clear from the discussion of it by the apostle Paul. In Romans 14 Paul specifically states that "nothing is unclean (koinos) in itself" (Rom. 14:14). The situation in the early church was complex because, although the early church was largely Jewish and rooted in that heritage, Gentiles began to accept Christianity very quickly. These Gentile Christians had grown up in a culture where food was offered to idols for blessing. For the Gentile Christians, the issue of eating food offered to idols was a compelling one. The problem was that "some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled" (1 Cor. 8:7). Paul spoke for the Jewish Christians when he wrote, "Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world and that there is no God but one" (1 Cor. 8:4). How should Christians relate to things not yet clear to them? By being sensitive to those with a different opinion but faithful to their own beliefs (Rom. 14:13,21,23).

From these passages, no one can conclude that Paul is saying, "I don't care what the Old Testament teaches; do what you want." If that were his intention, he would have been introducing his own new traditions, but that is untenable, as we have already noted. First Corinthians 8 specifically cautions those who think idols are nothing to be careful how that knowledge might affect those who had come from an idol-worshiping society (1 Cor. 8:10). Romans 14 encourages those in the church to be compassionate with their fellow Christians. Paul acknowledged that koinos, as a command, was not binding on Christians, but some in the church had not become free from the "tradition of the elders." Paul wrote the Roman Christians not to do anything that would weaken the faith of their fellow Christians, because all must be faithful to their beliefs (Rom. 14:21,22). In neither Romans 14 nor 1 Corinthians 8 is "unclean" (akathartos) mentioned. Only koinos ("commonness") is the focus of attention.


Now, back to Mark 7. From a study of that chapter and related issues in Leviticus and the New Testament, we can see that Jesus was radically opposed to anything, including the "traditions of the elders," that undermined the Old Testament. In His discussion with the Pharisees and scribes in Mark 7, He drew attention away from external obedience to the necessity of a pure heart. Jesus was also not establishing His own traditions. On the contrary, He upheld the Scripture and defended it against the "traditions of the elders." His careful use of koinos makes it clear that He was well-aware of the unique use of this word among early Roman Jewish scholars and He was not afraid to debate them on their own terms.

Nothing in the teachings of Jesus or His apostles undermined the authority of the Old Testament or its teachings, including the distinction between clean and unclean flesh foods.

1 For example, Carlston notes that
Jesus' statement that "nothing outside a man
can make him 'unclean' by going into him"
(Mark 7:15) was "obviously intended to set
aside" the dietary laws and "the Law as a
whole." Charles E. Carlston, "The Things
that Defile (Mark VII. 14) and the Law in
Matthew and Mark," New Testament Studies,
15, 75.

2 T. C. Smith, "Acts," The Broadman
Bible Commentary
(Nashville: Broadman,
1970), 67.

3 Frederich Hauck in Gerhard Kittel, ed.
Theological Dictionary of the New Testament
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 3:797.


4 J. Lambrecht, "Jesus and the Law: An
Investigation of Mark 7:1-23," Ephemerides
Theologicae Lovanienses 53
(1977): 49.

5 Hauk, 797.

6 Carlston writes "that in the communities
where this story circulated Jesus is seen
as setting aside not only scribal tradition but
the binding force of the Mosaic law itself"
(93). Cf. Hauk, 797.

7 For e.g., John Brunt, "Unclean or
Unhealthful? An Adventist Perspective,"
Spectrum, no. 3, 11:17-23.

8 For a more complete discussion of
these issues see Colin House, "Defilement by
Association: Some Insights From the Usage
of KOINO /KOINO in Acts 10 and 11,"
Andrews University Seminary Studies, no. 2,

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David Merling, Ph.D., is curator, Horn Archaeological Museum, and associate professor of history of antiquity, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

June 1999

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