Vol. 30 New Series June, 1968 No. 3
MARK 7:19

Few people treat Scripture with the courtesy which they would extend to any other book by assuming that it means what it says. A curious example has recently been brought to my notice: Mark 7:19. One might well think at first sight that Mark 7:1-23 would be plain enough; but somehow several translators have managed to introduce dangerous confusion into it.

Part of the difficulty is that this passage has the unusual feature for Mark of giving much fuller detail than its parallel elsewhere—in this case Matt. 15:1-20. The sections Mark 7:3-4; 8-13, are peculiar to Mark, and part of Mark 7:14-19 is fuller in some ways than its parallel Matt. 15:10, 11 and 16-20; and the last four words of the Greek of Mark 7:19 have become a bone of contention.

To begin with, let us take note of what all this is about. "The Pharisees and some of the scribes coming from Jerusalem" perceived that some of the Lord's disciples were "eating breads with contaminated (that is, with unwashed) hands." This theme is expanded throughout the first five verses of Mark 7. Briefly, then, the complaint made was that the traditional ritual cleansing of the Pharisees was not being observed. The Lord Jesus begins His reply by exposing the insincerity and folly of the traditions of the Pharisees (Mark 7:6-13), then He goes on to considering what really contaminates a man (vv. 14-23).

The Greek verb rendered contaminate here is koinoO, make common, and thus by implication make ceremonially unclean. In Acts 10:14 the Apostle Peter declares that he "never ate anything common and unclean." The former of these words is koinon, common, that is ceremonially unclean; the latter is akathartos, unclean, that is, actually unclean, rendered by foul twice in the A.V. (Mark 9:25; Rev. 18:2). It is used in 1. Cor. 7:14 as the opposite of holy. In 2. Cor. 6:17 idolatry is reckoned as unclean, and so also in Eph. 5:5; but the clearest notion of the Scripture meaning is found in Acts 10:9-16. Here the Apostle Peter has a vision of a vessel like a sheet crowded with all sorts of quadrupeds, reptiles and birds; and a voice tells him: "Rise, Peter! Sacrifice and eat!" Now this as it stands must appear to be an order to Peter to disregard the precepts of the Law regarding the eating of unclean beasts; but Peter certainly did not take it in that way. He was bewildered as to its meaning v. 17). He became enlightened only when he had word from the Spirit (of God) that he had been commissioned to minister to "Cornelius, a centurion, a man righteous; and God-fearing" (v. 22). Presently Peter understands the point of the vision: "God shows me not to say that any man is common and unclean." So in the vision it is not the Law as regards eating unclean beasts that is set aside, but the idea that Gentiles are common and unclean. The vision put the point in the form of a vivid picture, and was not intended to do more than that.

Returning now to Mark 7:19, we see that the subject is not unclean beasts but the supposed contamination due to neglect of ceremonial cleansing. It says that the real contamination is in a man's heart. . What comes from outside him passes through his bowels into the sewer. So far as he is concerned, what is unclean in the foods is got rid of and thus is cleansed as far as matters to him.

Literally translated, the passage reads: "Not as yet are you apprehending that everything from the outside, going into a man, is unable to contaminate him, seeing that it is not going into the heart of him but into the bowels; and into the sewer is going out, cleansing all the foods." That is to say, so far as ritual cleansing is concerned, there can be nothing common and unholy in such foods, for they pass through the body and make no difference to the man's heart.

This has nothing to do with eating animals which are scheduled under the Law as unclean, but with eating "breads" that have not been subjected to ceremonial cleansing. This is evident from Mark 7:5-13.

That is the interpretation of the closing words of Mark 7:19, in the A.V., Darby, Young, Rotherham, the C.V. and C.L.N.T., Phillips and no doubt others. Alford states that the best texts read katharikOn, cleansing, as applying to aphedrOma, latrine; which is regarded as "that which, by the removal of the part carried off, purifies the meat." So too Morison in his commentary on Mark.

However, somewhere about a century ago a new idea appeared. The English R.V. reads, "This he said, making all meats clean." Later, Weymouth has, printed as a separate paragraph: "By these words Jesus pronounced all kinds of food clean." The Twentieth Century New Testament has: "—in saying this Jesus pronounced all food 'clean.'" The modern translation called "The New World Translation" follows suit with" Thus he declared all foods clean" and has the remarkable footnote: " But Aleph, B, A, etc., read as in our text above." Unfortunately for this pronouncement, these texts have nothing corresponding to "thus he declared." In "The Companion Bible" Dr. Bullinger had an equally remarkable marginal Note: "Supply the Ellipsis thus (being the Divine comment on the Lord's words): 'this He said, making all meats clean,' as in Acts 10:15."

This last injunction: "Supply the Ellipsis" comes oddly, considering his life-long testimony to the importance of absolute accuracy in dealing with the Scriptures. First, the need to "supply" it ought to be established; then from the context there ought to be an indubitable indication of the nature of the Ellipsis which is to be supplied, but there is none; and, last but not least, careful research should have been undertaken to establish that what he proposes to "supply" is not out of harmony with the rest of Scripture.

No attempt appears to have been made to establish the first. As for the second, the context, particularly Mark 7:1-8, is not about eating unclean animals at all. For the third, reference is made to Acts 10:15. But what the voice there said: "What God cleanses, do not you count common!", though it has a surface relevance, is presently focussed down to a specific instance, "any man" (Acts 10:28, 29). No reasonable person can have any doubt about the purpose of the vision. The whole account makes that absolutely plain.

Bearing in mind the very reasonable tradition that Mark's Gospel represented the teaching of Peter about the Lord's ministry on earth, and the now established fact that the Gospels were already acknowledged Scripture by the time Paul began his ministry, it is altogether incredible that Peter should have needed the strong persuasion recorded in Acts 10 before accepting what was indubitably already declared in Mark 7:19—that is to say, if the Ellipsis supplied by Dr. Bullinger and others is genuinely what the Lord Jesus said. Obviously it was not! Furthermore, if the Lord Jesus really had said this thing, He would have been contradicting His earlier pronouncement in Matt. 5:17: "You should not be inferring that I came to demolish the Law and the Prophets. I came not to demolish but to fulfill."

There is no case for introducing a drastic and far-reaching new doctrine at the end of Mark 7:19, particularly such a thing as is declared in the officious additions of the English R.V. and others.

R.B.W. Last updated 27.4.2006