Mark 7 deals with what makes a person common, a distinction that finds its origins in man-made tradition, and is not found in the Law of God. by Rob Roy
A mistake people often make when looking at the topic of food in the New Testament, is that they jump straight to Mark 7:19 without first attempting to understand the context preceding this verse. Mark 7:19 is actually part of a larger teaching that begins in Mark 7:1 and continues all the way to Mark 7:23. Mark 7 begins:
1 Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2 they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were common [κοινός / koinos], that is, unwashed.3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4 and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with common [κοιναῖς / koinais] hands?” [Mark 7:1-5]
In these first five verses we see that the Pharisees took issue with Yeshua’s disciples because they ate bread (a clean food) with “common” hands – a manmade tradition of the elders that went far beyond what the Law of God required. The Pharisees believed that hands, bowls, plates, utensils, and even dining couches, could become “common” through ordinary use, and thus had to be washed (presumably because it could make a person “common” if he/she ate with them, cf. Acts 10:28). Thus, we can think of “commonness” as a tertiary or higher level of defilement that went beyond what God had instructed in the Law. So in effect, the pharisees were blurring the line between that which God commands, and that which is commanded by men – thus elevating their traditions to the status of God-given commandments, and using those traditions as a basis upon which to judge Yeshua’s disciples.
Some Bible translations will translate the Greek word koinais as “unclean” or “defiled,” but these are misleading translations of the Greek. The noun form of this word, κοινή (koinē), is the same word used in the phrase “Koine Greek” (Common Greek) – thus the most literal English translation of koinais would be “common.”
Importantly, the Greek word koinais (common) does not connote the same thing as the Greek word for “unclean,” and misunderstanding these two terms has caused a great deal of confusion amongst interpreters of this verse. There is a completely different Greek word used in both the New Testament as well as the Septuagint (the first-century Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) to refer to “uncleannes” and “defilement,” but Yeshua does not use this word anywhere in Mark 7, nor in its synoptic parallel Matthew 15. In the Septuagint, the word for “unclean” is always ἀκαθαρσία (akatharsia / unclean), not κοιναῖς (koinais / common).
Continuing in Mark 7, Yeshua leaves little doubt that the “commonness” he is referring to is a manmade concept in his subsequent rebuke:
6 “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ 8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” 9 And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” [Mark 7:6-9]
The Pharisees, by putting manmade traditions on par with the word of God, were sinning according to the scriptures (see Deut. 4:2, 12:32). Just imagine for a second how hypocritical it would be for Yeshua to then turn around and nullify God’s commandments regarding clean/unclean animals, in the very same chapter where he condemns the hypocrisy of the Pharisees for nullifying God’s commandments.
It’s important to point out here that after His rebuke, the narrative does not shift to a new topic or teaching. Rather, Yeshua continues his teaching on what makes a person “common” in the following verses saying:
14 And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: 15 There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can make him common [κοινῶσαι / koinōsai], but the things that come out of a person are what make him common. [κοινοῦντα / koinounta]” [Mark 7:14-15]
Note that the same Greek word that was used in Mark 7:2 and 7:5 (koinos / common) is also used in Mark 7:14-15 (koinōsai / koinounta / to make common). This makes sense because Yeshua is simply continuing the teaching that he had already begun in verses 1-13. This is critical to understand because in verses 1-13 he is dealing with this concept of “commonness,” which was a tradition of the Pharisees, and in verses 14-23 he is dealing with this exact same concept – essentially explaining to the people what really makes a person common.
Most Bible translations do not read this way. Many translations will either insert “defiled” or “unclean” for the bolded terms above. Nevertheless, as mentioned regarding Mark 7:2 and 7:5, these words are poor translations of the Greek word koinos/koinoo, which is closest to our English word “common.”
So in verses 14-15 Yeshua directly contradicts this particular tradition of the Pharisees, saying that there is nothing outside of a person that can go into him and make him common – after all, “commonness” is not the same thing as unclean, because it is based in human tradition. And Yeshua does not stop here: he actually uses this category of “commonness” in order to make his own ruling on this matter, stating that it is not what goes into a person that makes him common, but what comes out of a person that makes him common:
21 “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they are what make a person common.“
Here is the main point of Yeshua’s teaching: an evil heart brings forth evil: evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting, wickedness, deceit, etc. These are the things that ultimately make a person common – not eating bread (a clean food) with unwashed hands.
Romans 14 by John O. Reid
Romans 14, may be the most difficult one because of the way it is translated in the King James Version and in most other translations. As in the other difficult scriptures, the subject is not clean and unclean foods but eating meat versus vegetarianism (verse 2). Paul admonishes Christians not to pass judgment on others for eating meat or for eating only vegetables (verse 3).
The question that confronted Paul was not that God’s people were suggesting that somehow unclean animals had now been made clean, but the belief of some that no meat—even meat that had been created to be eaten with thanksgiving—should be eaten at all. The apostle points out that it would be wrong for the vegetarians to eat meat if they had doubts about it, as it would defile their consciences (verse 23). He concludes, “For whatever is not of faith is sin.”
Verse 14 is a proof text used by the world to conclude that all meat is now fine to eat: “I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” This is another verse that has been poorly translated to conform to preconceived notions.
The problem is with the word “unclean,” which does not appear in the Greek text. To mean “unclean,” Paul would have used akarthatos, but instead, the text reads koinos, which means “common,” “ordinary,” “defiled,” or “profane (as opposed to holy or consecrated).” Peter uses both “common” and “unclean” to describe meats in Acts 10:14, so there is obviously a difference between the terms.
We know that the Bible defines “unclean” meat in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, but when is meat considered “common”? The only circumstance in which clean meats are common or defiled is when a clean animal dies naturally or is torn by beasts (Leviticus 22:8) or when the blood has not been properly drained from the meat (Leviticus 17:13-14; 3:17). Such animal flesh was called common because it could be given to strangers or aliens in Old Testament times if they wished to eat it (Deuteronomy 14:21). Similarly, in Acts 15:20, 29, the apostles forbade the Gentiles to eat the meat of a strangled animal or meat that had not been drained of blood.
In the case of Romans 14:14, it is likely that “defiled” would be the best term, as the meat under discussion was probably that offered to idols then sold in the marketplace for public consumption. To paraphrase, then, the verse should read: “. . . there is nothing defiled of itself; but to him who considers anything to be defiled, to him it is defiled.” The meat was not defiled in fact, just in the minds of various church members, whom Paul had earlier called “weak” (verse 2). These “weak in the faith” Christians believed that, because the meat had been offered to a pagan idol, it had become spiritually defiled.
Paul explains in I Corinthians 8:4-7 that the demon behind the idol is nothing, for “there is no other God but one” (verse 4).
Thus, there is no “spiritual” taint to the meat.
However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse. (verses 7-8)
So we see that in these verses that Paul is not in any manner doing away with God’s laws concerning clean and unclean meat. The topic does not even come up! He is discussing meat defiled or profaned due to its association with a pagan idol.
In fact, all the scriptures we have reviewed confirm that the law concerning clean and unclean meats is still in effect today.
Two foundational verses are good to remember when questions over the doing away with God’s law arise.
» Malachi 3:6: “For I am the Lord, I do not change; therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.”
» Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
God has good reasons for the laws He gives, and James reminds us, “. . . with [God] is no variation or shadow of turning” (James 1:17). Rather than assume that an Old Testament law is done away, we should trust that our Maker knows what is good for His creatures and put it into practice in our lives, unless it has been specifically set aside in the New Testament. At least its principle is still valid, which will help us to live abundantly.