Unclean Meats, Ritual Purity, and Mark 7

I have two items for my write-up today on volume 4 of John Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus.

1.  Leviticus 11 has laws about meats that the Israelites are permitted and forbidden to eat.  In the faith tradition of my childhood, Armstrongism, I was taught that these are health laws.  In evangelical Protestantism, by contrast, I heard that these laws pertain to ceremonial purity rather than health: that the issue is that the Israelites thought that eating unclean food could ceremonially defile them.

Meier does not treat the laws of Leviticus 11 as health laws, but he also does not regard them as ceremonial, like, say, the law about eating an animal that dies of itself or is torn, which requires purification (if I’m not mistaken).  For Meier, the laws of Leviticus 11 are in a different category.  For one, eating unclean meats is treated as abominable in the Torah.  Within the history of biblical interpretation, eating unclean meats appears to be in the same category as idolatry (in terms of how bad it is considered to be), not in the same category as doing something ceremonially defiling that requires ritual purification.  Second, there is nothing in the Torah stipulating what happens to Israelites if they eat unclean meats.  The Torah does not, say, tell Israelites to wash after doing so.  Meier speculates that this is probably because the Israelites had little opportunity to eat unclean meats, since they did not raise pigs.  Perhaps.  But the Jews did come into contact with unclean food at points of their history—-in exile, when Antiochus Epiphanes tried to shove it down their throats, when the Jews interacted with Gentiles, etc.  In consideration of that, you’d think that there would be some discussion about what should happen to Jews who eat unclean meats.

Meier is talking about this in his discussion of Mark 7, in which Jesus speaks about the belief that eating with unwashed hands defiles a person, as well as declares all meats clean.  For Meier, Mark 7 is treating the laws of Leviticus 11 as pertinent to ceremonial impurity.  But Meier thinks that Mark 7 is incorrect to do so.

2.  Mark 7:2-5 states (in the King James Version): “And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen, hands, they found fault.  For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders.  And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables.  Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?”

My impression is that Meier essentially believes that Mark is erroneous on this point.  For one, Second Temple Jewish literature does not say that Jews have to wash their hands before eating a meal.  The Essenes washed their entire bodies, but that’s not just washing the hands.  Second, rabbinic literature does not universally teach that handwashing is required before a meal.  Tosefta Berachot 5:13 says that it’s required after a meal but not before it, whereas Tosefta Berachot 5:16 treats it as required before a meal.  That’s a far cry from “all the Jews” doing this, contra Mark 7.  Moreover, in E.P. Sanders’ view, the Pharisees washed their hands ritually in three contexts: before they touched food that would go to the priests, before their meals on Sabbaths and festivals, and after they touched the Scriptures.

Jacob Neusner and E.P. Sanders disagree on this issue.  Neusner believes that groups of Pharisees ate together in a state of ritual purity, democratizing the Temple (in a sense).  At this point, I’ll paste what I said in a paper for a class about the disagreement between Sanders and Neusner.  I won’t include the footnotes, but I’ll let you know where I got my information if you request that I do so:

“E.P. Sanders…disputes that the Pharisees were an exclusive sect ‘that ate ordinary food in purity, as if they were priests in the temple.’  Using Neusner’s methodology, he focuses more on the disputes between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai as pre-70 sources.  Regarding hand purity, Sanders argues that the Pharisees did not universally require Jews to touch ordinary food with ritually pure hands; rather, the concern of many of them was to protect the priestly portion from defilement.  In Mishnah Tohorot 10.4, for example, the House of Shammai requires people’s hands to be pure when they put grapes into the winepress, whereas the House of Hillel only mandates purity of hands when the priest’s heave offering is separated.  Moreover, according to Sanders, ‘Later rabbis debated whether or not hands should be washed before all meals (T. Berakhot 5.13, 27), on the whole regarding it as not compulsory,’ which ‘weighs very heavily against the idea that before 70 all Pharisees had washed their hands before every meal.’  Regarding exclusivism, while Sanders acknowledges on the basis of rabbinic sources that the Pharisees mostly did not ‘eat with people below them on the purity scale’ (see Tosefta Shabbat 1.15), he denies that they believed their behavior excluded non-Pharisees from God.  Not only is there no evidence that the Pharisees viewed a meal as sacred, Sanders argues, but priests and lay-people could share a sacrifice to God while eating in separate locations, without the priests thinking the lay-people were cut off from the divine; this was true even though priests were higher than lay-people on the purity scale (see Leviticus 21). Similarly, Sanders contends, the Pharisees did not believe that ‘the only way to experience ‘fellowship with God’ was to eat with Pharisees.’

In response to Sanders, Neusner cites Mishnah Hagigah 2.5-3.3, which says that hands should be rinsed before the eating of unconsecrated food.  Because Neusner generally excludes anonymous material in his search for pre-70 information, focusing instead on the disputes between Hillel and Shammai, his use of a passage that omits these sages is odd indeed.  The immediately preceding paragraph does mention them, however, so he may assume that 2.5-3.3 continues the Hillel and Shammai discussion.  In his monumental Rabbinic Traditions About the Pharisees Before 70, Neusner discusses Mishnah Tohorot 10.4, a key proof-text of Sanders that the Pharisees allowed food to be touched with unclean hands.  For Neusner, the issue is whether or not the person intends to eat the grapes.  He says, ‘The House of Hillel rule [is] that the moisture is not regarded as liquid capable of receiving uncleanness, since the man has no intention of using the moisture for food.’  Neusner cites a similar discussion between the Houses that occurs in Mishnah Tohorot 9.5, which concerns when (not if) olives can receive uncleanness.  For Neusner, the parts of Mishnah Tohorot 10.4 about the heave offering are glosses that pertain to a different issue.  Both sides would agree that one should touch the heave offering with pure hands, Neusner asserts, since the grapes might be eaten by the priests as food.  For Neusner, the Pharisees believed that common food should be touched with pure hands, but they debated about when certain things constituted food.”

We see how Neusner interprets Mishnah Toharot 9:5, but I’m curious about how Neusner would interpret the passages that Meier and Sanders cite that present the issue of handwashing before meals as debated.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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3 Responses to Unclean Meats, Ritual Purity, and Mark 7

  1. truthceeker says:

    There is a continuing discusion regarding Mark 7 and the declaration of all “meat” as clean. Clearly this runs opposed to Jesus’ statement that He did not come to abolish the Law (Torah), but to fufill it.

    I would encourage those interested in studying this matter more fully, “Did Jesus declare all foods clean?” The short answer is no. He was discussing the washing of hands and in context it was regarding those foods which Jews were allowed to eat. On a side note, whether Kosher Laws apply to Gentiles is a matter of personal study and choice and unrelated to the salvation discussion.

    The second part of this discussion is in regard to the practice of the washing of hands prior to eatting and when it was in common use. Meier seems to be making the argument that this was not occuring prior to 70 AD, or rather before the destruction of the Temple. The argument seems quite transparent as it is tied up in the dating of the Gospel of Mark. Meier is trying to build a stronger case for the Gospel of Mark to have been written post Temple destruction, but in the end it still amounts to a large deal of speculation.

    The argument which does not seem to be well established is that hand washing did not occur prior to 70 AD which I am guessing can only be argued from silence. What seems to be ironic about the discussion is the fact that there was disagreement amoung the Rabbi’s concerning different situations of washing hands and food. Mark’s Gospel account of Jesus addressing this issue simply establishes the fact that Jesus was touching on the matter because it was a disputed topic. Now this does not prove that the writting occured prior to 70 AD, but it does point out that it was an issue.

    Again, the discusion is really an argument that seems to be incognito. It is hiding it’s true intentions which is to push the date of Mark’s Gospel as far away from the events of Jesus life as possible.


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks for your comment, Truthceeker. I have two items in response:

    1. On declaring the meats clean, I’ll have to dig up my Greek New Testament. The different understandings of Mark 7:19 center on whether that verse has katharizone (which means Jesus is cleansing the meats) or katharizon (which accords more with the taking a dump interpretation). The KJV assumes the latter, but I don’t know if that’s based on manuscript evidence, which is why my Greek NT would be helpful.

    2. I’m trying to formulate a coherent response to your second point, but my thoughts are scattered. I’ll have to divide some things up.

    a. You may be right that the issue of handwashing before meals was disputed in Jesus’ time.

    b. I don’t think that Mark having a post-70 setting is why Meier makes his argument, for, while Meier probably believes that Mark was written post-70, he still thinks that it contains pre-70 traditions that go back to the historical Jesus. He just doesn’t think the handwashing dispute was one of them (though he does argue that Jesus historically commented on qorban).

    c. I think that Meier’s argument is more that Mark got things wrong. Mark presents “the Pharisees” as people who wash their hands before meals, as opposed to Jesus, when that was a disputed issue in rabbinic Judaism (and so it probably was disputed before that point). I don’t think that Mark 7 contains any indication that it was disputed within Judaism, for it sets Jesus against the Pharisees. But that’s my impression.


  3. jamesbradfordpate says:

    I’ll have to dismantle my room to find my Greek NT, but what I found from a google search was that a few manuscripts have katharizon for Mark 7:19, whereas most have katharizone. Of course, plenty will dispute that most manuscripts means most reliable. I need to do some more reading on text criticism sometime!


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