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Meditation 1187
The strangeness of Mark 7

by: John Tyrrell

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I find Mark 7 - at least the first half before Jesus gets on with a couple of miracle - exceedingly strange. Jesus' aim is to challenge the blind following of tradition - but the traditions he uses as his example are actually quite sound practice. Following his specific advice is dangerous.

The chapter opens with a group of Pharisees noticing that Jesus' disciples are eating their food without washing their hands - contrary to tradition.

1. The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus 2. and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)

Seriously - washing cups, pitchers, and kettles, washing of hands before eating - seem to be quite sensible traditions knowing what we know today.

And the Pharisees ask why this sensible practice is not being followed.

5. So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

But not being knowledgeable about basic hygiene, Jesus goes on to criticize the Pharisees as hypocrites as in this they are following man's rules rather than God's

6. He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

“‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
7. They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’

8. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

9. And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ 11. But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— 12. then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

Somehow washing your hands and washing drinking utensils is nullifying the word of God.

It's probably a good thing that no Christians (as far as I know) follow Jesus' teachings here. Rather the Pharisees' teachings have essentially survived in the old saying "Cleanliness is next to Godliness."

"This ancient proverb is said by some to have come from ancient Hebrew writings. However, its first appearance in English - though in slightly altered form - seems to be in the writings of Francis Bacon. In his 'Advancement of Learning' (1605) he wrote: 'Cleanness of body was ever deemed to proceed from a due reverence to God.' Near two centuries later John Wesley in one of his sermons (1791) indicated that the proverb was already well known in the form we use today. Wrote Wesley: 'Slovenliness is no part of religion. 'Cleanliness is indeed next to Godliness.'" ... ".According to the fourteenth edition of 'Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable,' it is an old Hebrew proverb used in the late 2nd century by Rabbi Phinehas ben-Yair." (http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/14/messages/568.html)

In any event, Jesus goes on to double down on his assertion that washing filthy hands prior to eating is unnecessary.

14. Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” [16 - verse 16 is omitted from most modern translations as a copiest error from Mark 4:23

17. After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19. For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.

Yeah - right. Whatever filth is on the hands when you eat only goes into the stomach, and then passes safely out of the body. Not only that, you can eat absolutely anything safely. And Jesus - lacking any understanding of digestion - has the gall to ask "Are you so dull?"

Again, it's a good thing no Christian seems to follow this teaching. It's on a par with the acknowledged forged ending to Mark which includes Mark 16:18 (they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all;) a teaching which some foolish Christians do follow.

But that's not the end of the strangeness. No - the author of Mark has to add an editorial comment at the end of verse 19:

(In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)*

Wait a minute! Wasn't Jesus criticizing the Pharisees for following manmade traditions and ignoring the laws of God? And aren't the dietary laws God's laws? It seems to me that the author of Mark deliberately subverted Jesus' very message - perhaps so he could eat lobster. Or bacon.

There's a reasonable point that Jesus was attempting to make - that we should question tradition, not automatically follow what our ancestors did. But, what Jesus failed to add was that questioning tradition does not require us to arbitrarily throw away those traditions that work, those traditions that contribute to health, that contribute to saving lives. And what we have in Mark 7 is Jesus giving bad advice. Extremely bad advice. Bad advice even by the standards of his time, let alone what we know today.

Mark 7 is very strange. Fortunately this particular advice given by Jesus is ignored - even by the most devout and the most fundamentalist of Christians.


* Verses quoted are from Mark 7 as found on Bible Gateway, New International Version. A large number of alternate versions (for those interested different translation decisions) can also be found there.

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