menu

By the usual reading, the early church ignored Jesus’ supposed abandonment of Mosaic law

By the usual reading, the early church ignored Jesus’ supposed abandonment of Mosaic law July 13, 2016

Yesterday we saw that the traditional reading of Mark 7.19b (“Thus he declared all foods clean”) that claims Jesus dispensed with kosher rules and therefore broke with the Judaism of his day, conflicts with his declaration in Matt 5.17ff that he would not break even the least of the commands of Mosaic law.

That was a hermeneutical consideration, that is, a look at other parts of revelation that might affect how we interpret Mark 7.19.  Today we will look at several other passages in the NT that should also shape our interpretation of the Mark passage.

The first is the Acts 15 story about the Jerusalem Council, where James and the other leaders in Jerusalem concluded that Gentiles do not have to keep kosher or circumcise their sons.  They were to abstain (see Acts 15.29) from food sacrificed to idols and from blood, and from what is strangled and sexual sin (porneia), which probably meant the well-known list of sexual sins in Lev. 18 & 20.  But contrary to what a certain “sect of the Pharisees” had claimed, it was not necessary [for Gentiles] “to be circumcised and to keep the law of Moses” (15.5).  These Pharisees who had recognized Yeshua (the Hebrew name for Jesus) as messiah said the Gentiles must become Jews and submit to Mosaic law if they were to be first-class Jesus-followers.

The Jerusalem Council unanimously decided that these Jesus-accepting Pharisees were wrong: Gentiles who received the Spirit did not have to become Jews or keep kosher to be a full-fledged member of Yeshua’s kingdom.  All scholars agree that kosher rules were among the most important pieces of Mosaic law that were in question here.

Consider this: If these Jewish leaders (yes, these were all Jewish followers of Jesus at this point in Jerusalem) were debating whether Gentile converts had to keep kosher and circumcision, they must have been keeping these things too.  Otherwise, if they had already concluded that kosher and circumcision had been dispensed with by Jesus, why would they keep observing these practices?  And if they as Jews were no longer bound by kosher, because of this supposed saying of Jesus, then why in the world would they waste their time debating whether Gentiles should keep these rules?  That would be a no-brainer–that Gentiles don’t have to observe Jewish rules that Jesus had already declared irrelevant, even for Jews!

Now scholars estimate that this Jerusalem Council took place around AD 50, more than 15 years after Jesus’ so-called declaration that all foods were clean.

Do you see the problem?  If Jesus meant in that declaration that kosher law was no longer binding on his Jewish followers, his Jewish followers would have known it.  The word would have spread like wildfire because kosher was one of the “boundary markers” distinguishing Jews from Gentiles in the first century.  All scholars agree on that.  His declaration, if it meant what the traditional interpretation says it meant, would have been revolutionary and well-known–precisely because it was so shocking.

But if it was well-known–and surely the Jewish leaders of the early church would have taken it to heart–why were they now asking over 15 years later if these Jewish rules, now defunct for Jewish followers of Jesus, had to be imposed on Gentile followers of Jesus?

It makes no sense.

Now for the second fact from the early church that affects the way we read Mark 7.19b.  Remember Peter’s vision of the unclean animals being lowered on a sheet and being told to “get up, kill,  and eat” (Acts 10.9-16)?  Please recall that Peter’s response, repeated twice in Acts 10 & 11,  was, “By no means, Lord!  I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”  Peter was referring to the laws of kashrut, the very laws that are at issue in Mark 7.19b.

Here he was protesting–some years after Jesus had supposedly dispensed with kosher law, even for Jews–that he would never set aside kosher law.

Do you see the problem?  If Jesus had invalidated kosher rules, why was Peter still saying some years later that he would never break any kosher rules?

Before we close today, let me bring in some experts, three well-respected New Testament scholars.  Fellow scholars reading this will recognize these names: JDG Dunn, Richard Bauckham, and Marcus Bockmuehl.  All three question the traditional reading that Jesus and the early church threw out Jewish law for Jews: Dunn in his Jesus, Paul, and the Law (p 51), Bauckham in his The Book of Acts in Its Palestinian Setting (464, 475), and  Bockmuehl in Jewish Law in Gentile Churches (3-15).

The last word for today comes from David Flusser, the great Jewish scholar of Jesus at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem: “What Jesus said [in Mk 7.19], thus, has nothing to do with a supposed abrogation of Judaic law, but is part of a criticism directed at the Pharisees . . . Jesus had no desire to oppose the law of Moses.  He only wanted to expose the rigidity of the bigots” (Jesus, 60, 62).

Tomorrow we will discuss the final part of our look at hermeneutics, zeroing in on Mark’s audience.


Browse Our Archives