As I state over in my article on Romans 14, I was once very cavalier about ignoring the kosher laws, even to the point of jokingly suggesting that the ultimate test of faith was the ultimate unkosher meal. After all, weren’t the kosher commandments just a relic of a bygone age when the lack of refrigeration made pork a bit more likely to be parasite-ridden?
I’ve since learned a few things.
Like most Christians today, I pointed to Mark 7:19 and Acts 10:10-16 as evidence that the kosher commandments had been done away with. But is that what these passages really state? Or are we Christians simply reading back our anti-Torah biases back into them?
The Gentile Exemption
Before I begin, let me state for the record that I believe that God very specifically exempted Gentile believers from being required to keep kosher—however, I don’t go to the New Covenant Scriptures for such a view. I base it on two passages from the Torah: The first is Genesis 9:3, in which the Holy One tells Noah, “Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you.” Note that He does not say, “Every clean animal,” which He very well could have, since Noah knew the difference between clean and unclean (Gen. 7:2ff)! Since Noah was the father of all mankind, Jew and Gentile alike, after the Flood, this suggests that God did not make kosher mandatory for all people.
This is confirmed by Deuteronomy 14:21, which states, “You shall not eat anything which dies of itself. You may give it to the alien who is in your town, so that he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner, for you are a holy people to the LORD your God.” If the meat could be given to the ger (a non-native permanent resident) or sold to a nokri, the pagan, this again suggests that the prohibition against eating meat not killed in a kosher manner was specific to to the native-born of Israel.
I personally believe that God did not make kosher a universal commandment out of mercy. There are many places in the world where, for example, pork and dog are the primary meats available (such as Indonesia—a cousin of mine served as a missionary there for several years). God did not burden these people with the kosher laws.
Now think about that for a moment: If the kosher laws were simply about health, wouldn’t that imply that God didn’t love the gentiles who He did not give them to—or even Noah!—as much as He loves the Jews? On the contrary, we see Him not give them to all people specifically for their health!
What then is the purpose of kosher? To figure that out, we have to appeal to the “law of first mention” and see when the difference between clean and unclean animals is first stated: Not in Leviticus, as many would assume, but in Genesis. That’s right, Noah knew the difference between clean and unclean meats. But Noah was a vegetarian before the Flood! It wasn’t until after the Flood that God allowed humans to consume meat (Gen. 2:16 vs. 9:3). So what possible difference would kosher and non-kosher make to Noah?
The answer is that while Noah didn’t eat meat before the Flood, he did understand the concept of offering sacrifices (Gen. 8:20), which was given from the very beginning (3:21 and 4:4ff). Therefore, to Noah the difference between “clean” and “unclean” did not mean “eatable” vs. “uneatable,” but rather what could be sacrificed vs. what could not.
So then, when God told Israel to eat only of the clean animals, He was in essence saying to His nation of priests (Exo. 19:6), “Don’t take into the temple of your bodies that which would not be proper to bring before My temple/tabernacle altar.”
Having uncovered the spiritual principle, should we then disregard the physical command? That depends: Do we assume that knowing the spiritual reality underlying the physical act of water immersion (baptism; Col. 2:11f) means that we should no longer be physically immersed in the Name of our Lord Yeshua? I daresay that few of my Sunday brethren would make such a leap.
Rather, I believe that it is good to keep physical kosher if we have the luxury to, only for the reason of being like our Savior even in what we choose to eat. There is a blessing that comes from obeying God even in the things that we don’t understand; I kept kosher for over a year before the reason for it, explained above, was given to me.
With that explanation in mind, let us look at the two passages in question. Do they really state that believers in the Messiah, even Jewish ones, should no longer keep kosher?
Let us deal with the simpler passage first. Acts 10:10-16 reads, in the NASB,
But [Peter] became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; and he saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. A voice came to him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” Again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into the sky.
As one reads the Christian commentators, one is deluged with page after page of exegesis based on this supposed end to the kosher commandments, usually tying it into the general assumed end of the Torah. For example, John Calvin writes in his Commentary on this passage,
He speaketh of meats; but this sentence must be extended unto all parts of the life. It is word for word, That which God hath made clean, do not thou make profane; but the sense is, It is not for us to allow or condemn any thing; but as we stand and fall by the judgment of God alone, so is he judge of all things, (Rom. 14:4.) As touching meats, after the abrogating of the law, God pronounceth that they are all pure and clean.
Calvin is actually self-contradictory on the subject of this supposed abrogation of the Torah, as his Commentary on Mat. 5:17 demonstrates:
“With respect to doctrine, we must not imagine that the coming of Christ has freed us from the authority of the law: for it is the eternal rule of a devout and holy life, and must, therefore, be as unchangeable, as the justice of God, which it embraced, is constant and uniform. With respect to ceremonies, there is some appearance of a change having taken place; but it was only the use of them that was abolished, for their meaning was more fully confirmed.” One has to wonder why, if the Torah still has authority, we are supposed to be only “hearers,” not “doers” in regards to its ceremonial commandments (contra. Rom. 2:13 and Jas. 1:22).
Moreover, we see him reading into the text a whole anomian (“Torah-less”) assumption into this text. Where Calvin supposes that the vision “speaketh of meats,” Peter himself gives the interpretation in v. 28: “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.”
Prophetic visions frequently substitute one object for another for the purpose of making a point. For example, few would argue that the Antichrist must literally be a scarlet, seven-headed beast as portrayed in Revelation 13 and 17; rather, we understand this beast to represent a mortal man in symbolic fashion. This was why Peter was initially confused about the meaning of the vision (v. 17): As a student of the Master, and well-acquainted with Hebrew prophecy, he is well aware that such visions do not often speak literally. A few verses later, after Peter has met with Cornelius, we learn from the Apostle himself what his vision meant: It had nothing to do with food, but with people.
“That still represents a change or abrogation of the Law,” some might argue. “After all, Peter himself says that previously it was unlawful to associate with Gentiles.”
Really? Perhaps the one so objecting would like to point us to the passage of the Torah which specifically forbids associating with Gentile worshippers of the One True God? One will look long and hard for such a commandment in vain, for it does not exist. John Gill tries to find justification in Deuteronomy 7:2, but the context is clear that this passage refers specifically to the Canaanites being driven out of the land, not all Gentiles in general. Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown admit, “There was no express prohibition to this effect, and to a Certain extent intercourse was certainly kept up.”
On the contrary, there are numerous passages in the Torah which command Israel to love and care for the Gentiles, such as Exodus 22:21, 23:9 and Levititcus 19:10 & 33-34. Pay special attention to the last passage, which states, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God”!
Stern (Commentary 258) notes that
the word “athemitos,” used only twice in the New Testament, does not mean “unlawful, forbidden, against Jewish law,” as found in other English versions, but rather “taboo, out of the question, not considered right, against standard practice, contrary to cultural norms.”
Mark S. Kinzer, in Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism (70), cites Bill Witherington as making the same translation and stating, “There was no formal law that strictly forbade Jews from associating with Gentiles, it was just that they had to be prepared to pay a price for doing so, the price of becoming ritually unclean.” Stern (p. 259) goes on to say that the Jewish cultural barriers against associating with Gentiles was a reaction to “the threat from assimilation to Jewish identity” rather than a teaching from the Torah. Our own commentary on the traditions that forbade Jews from interacting with Gentiles can be found in our series on the Eighteen Measures.
So then, let us sum up our exegesis of this passage:
- Peter plainly states that the meaning of the vision was that the Gentiles were not unclean to approach with the Gospel; it had nothing to do with kosher.
- There was no command in Torah against associating with Gentiles; this was a purely human tradition, and therefore does not represent a doing away of a Torah command.
Many of my Sunday brethren will recognize Peter’s own interpretation, but continue to assert as a kind of midrash that since God used the illustration of meats, then this passage also teaches the end of kosher. (Ironically, many of these would be the first to decry the use of midrashic hermeneutics by the Messianic movement.) However, they ignore a basic fact of Biblical interpretation: No secondary interpretation can override the p’shat, the plain meaning of the text. Since Peter himself makes no mention of kosher, and since there is no other passage overriding that which God Himself gave to Israel in that regard, such an interpretation cannot stand on its own.
That leads many of my brothers to turn to Mark 7 or Romans 14 for their support. We have dealt with Romans 14 in a previous post, so let us examine Mark’s Gospel account to see what it really says now.
Mark 7:18-19 reads in the NASB,
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, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.)
This passage is one of those that I believe the NASB has gotten completely wrong. First, notice the italicized words above—this is the NASB’s (and some other translations, such as the KJV) way of telling you that theses words are completely interpolated by the translators; that is, they do not appear in the original Greek. Moreover, the word “declared” does not appear in the original Greek either; rather, the literal translation is, “because it doth not enter into his heart, but into the belly, and into the drain it doth go out, purifying all the meats” (YLT).
On what basis can we say that a command of Torah has been done away with when we have to interpolate a whole clause into the sentence in order to do so? That would be like someone translating Romans 6:1-2, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be that we fail to! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” No honest Biblical scholar would let such a translation stand unchallenged, let alone admit the validity of an exegesis made upon it!
Interestingly, the Complete Jewish Bible agrees with the NASB reading here, translating the end of the verse as a parenthetical, “(Thus he declared all foods ritually clean.) “ Stern is clear in his translation, however that the subject is not kosher, but rather “ritual purity as taught by the Oral Torah in relation to n’tiat-yadayim”—that is, ritual hand-washing, per vv. 2-4—“not kashrut at all!” (ibid. 95) Since the subject of whether kosher had been annulled never even comes up, we perform eisegesis (reading our own opinions back into the text) not exegesis when we use this verse as justification for rejecting kosher.
Stern summarizes Yeshua’s intent as follows:
Yeshua is continuing his discussion of spiritual prioritizing (v. 11&N). He teaches that tohar (purity) is not primarily ritual or physical, but spiritual (vv. 14-23). On this ground he does not entirely overrule the Pharisaic/rabbinic elaborations of the laws of purity, but he does demote them to subsidiary importance. . . Yeshua here is making Messianic halakha.
This interpretation follows Matthew’s rendering of the conclusion, which is to say that “to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man” (Mat. 15:20).
Why then does Stern follow the practice of interpolating “Thus he declared” into the text? He writes that he believes the “one meaning this passage can have” is that “it is Mark’s halakhic summary of Yeshua’s remarks.” He admits, however, that many hold to the interpretation that we favor here. I would argue that our interpretation holds more firmly to the text.
Some may object that I have thus far cited only one Messianic commentator. Such people would be surprised to learn that many Christian commentators have come to similar conclusions:
The word “purging,” here, means to purify, to cleanse. What is thrown out of the body is the innutritious part of the food taken into the stomach, and leaving only that which is proper for the support of life; and it cannot, therefore, defile the soul. (Barnes Notes on Mark 7:19)
and goeth into the draught; בית הכסא, “the private house”, as the Jews call it, without going into the heart at all:
purging all meats; that which it leaves behind, is pure and nourishing; and whatever is gross and impure, is carried with it into the draught, so that nothing remains in the man that is defiling. (Gill, Commentary on Mark 7:19)
Now, the meats are all purged out of your body; they don’t defile you in a spiritual sense. And of course, we’re talking about ceremonial washing. The meat that you eat doesn’t defile you. Now, it can make you sick or it can do things, but spiritually it doesn’t defile you. There’s no spiritual defilement in it, because it passes through your body. (Chuck Smith, Mark 6-7 (C2000 Series), available at http://www.blueletterbible.org)
Note that none of the above commentators remark at all on kosher, but understand that the passage is dealing with “ceremonial washing.” Indeed, some Christian commentators utterly refute the idea that this passage abrogates kosher:
Of course, Jesus did not mean at this time to abrogate the Mosaic law of legal uncleanness. These uncleannesses worked no spiritual defilement, but were merely typical of such; for the food in no way touched or affected the mind or soul, the fountains of spiritual life, but only the corporeal organs, which have no moral susceptibility. The Pharisees had erred in confusing legal and spiritual defilement, and had added error to error by multiplying the causes of defilement in their tradition. By thus showing that legal defilement was merely symbolic, Jesus classed it with all the other symbolism which was to be done away with when the gospel reality was fully ushered in (Col. 2:16-17). In saying, therefore, that Jesus made all meats clean, Mark does not mean that Jesus then and there repealed the law. (McGarvey and Pendleton, Commentaries on Mark 7)
To be sure, there are also many commentaries that do see in this passage the end to the kosher laws. However, given the universal (among Christians) belief that kosher is no longer valid, it is surprising to find so many sources failing to find their justification here. Indeed, seeking to find justification for an end to kosher puts Yeshua in the role of having a double-standard, as John Fisher explains:
Many have interpreted the next section, Mark 7:17-19, to mean that Yeshua set aside the food laws. But by doing so he would have contradicted himself. His detractors had just accused him of not observing their traditions, and he had responded that they did far worse; they did not observe the commandments of the Torah (vv. 9-13). To choose this time to set aside other commandments of the Torah would have undercut his whole response. It would have left him open to the charge they made, and which he implicitly denied. It would also have shown him to be inconsistent. (“Jesus through Jewish Eyes,” quoted by Brown, Objections Vol. 4, 276)
It also would have left Him subject to a charge of being a false prophet, based on Deuteronomy 12:32-13:5. Indeed, if He had been teaching His disciples not to keep any part of the Torah, His enemies could hardly have missed the opportunity to bring that up at His trial! It would have negated the whole need for false witnesses!
So then, we return to the following key facts about this passage:
- There is little to no justification for interpolating in the words, “Thus He declared” into v. 19.
- Regardless of the translation one prefers, the subject of whether non-kosher meats, like pork, were now allowed never even came up.
- Even many Christian commentators admit that there is no justification for overturning kosher in this passage.
- The anti-Torah interpretation makes Messiah out to be double-minded, castigating the Pharisees for annulling a direct commandment of Torah by their tradition in one breath, and annulling a direct commandment of Torah Himself in the very next!
The command to discern between the clean and the unclean meats is a direct commandment of Scripture (Lev. 11:47). Against this very clear commandment, Christian commentators have three passages which are propertied negate it; Romans 14, Acts 10, and Mark 7. Romans 14, we have proven elsewhere, does not refer to kosher, and neither does Mark 7. The vision of Acts 10 uses non-kosher meats as a symbol of the Gentiles, to prepare Peter to accept Cornelius and his house as full brothers in the L-rd, as Peter himself interpreted it. Where then do we find any Scripture which negates the Torah on this matter?
Nowhere. The simple fact is that while one can make a case that Gentile believers are not required to keep kosher from the Torah itself (as explained at the beginning of this article), there is nowhere in Scripture that either releases Jewish believers from the command or which discourages Gentiles from joining them in keeping it, provided they do so with the right heart.
It is not the purpose of this article to “force” my Sunday brethren to forego ham and shrimp. However, I do hope to encourage them to reconsider handing a ham sandwich to a Jewish brother or sister as a test of faith. Indeed, I would that in Christian churches across the world, the choice would be made to willingly forego serving treif at church functions, so that their Jewish brethren might associate and eat freely with them without having to violate their own consciences.