Friday, July 22, 2005

Mark 7.15 and Jesus Revisited

Given Mark’s editorial remark and application of 7.15 in 7.19c ‘and declaring all foods clean’ [lit. cleansing all foods] could that imply abrogation of the OT purity laws by Jesus given Mark's inference?

A better way to understand Mk. 7.15 is in a comparative sense whereby the point is ‘not only . . . but also’ (cf. Booth 1986: 69-70, 84-85, 218; Sanders 1990: 28; Loader 1997: 215-16; McKnight 1999b: 93; Svartvik 2000: 203, 406; Holmén 2001: 241; Rudolph 2002: 298; BDF § 448, n. 1).

Understood this way, what matters is not so much cultic purity, but also moral purity. The point becomes that cultic impurity does not harm someone as much as moral impurity can. A similar theme is found in Aristeas where it is reported that Jews ‘honour God not only with gifts and sacrifices, but also with a purity of heart’ (Ep. Arist. 234). Purity is not negated by shifting it from cultic to moral realms,(Chilton 2003: 363) but is redefined or prioritised in terms of relations of persons rather than exclusively by ritual contamination through objects and space. Such a redefinition is memorialized powerfully in the parable of the Good Samaritan (McKnight 1999b: 94).

Mk. 7.15, then, is probably an attempt to articulate the relationship between morality and purity. Was impurity sinful? In one sense impurity was simply part of daily life whether it was from menstruation for women or burying a deceased relative and for that reason it was not intrinsically sinful. The law allowed for the reintegration of persons who were temporarily impure for a time. However, it should be borne in mind that ancient cultures, Judaism in particular, did not know of a rigid distinction between ethics and purity or belief and ritual. Moral and ceremonial impurity was not always distinguished. Ritual language for cleansing is frequently used of sin (Lev. 16.30; Num. 8.7; Zech. 13.1; Prov. 20.9; Pss. Sol. 9.12; 1QS 3.7-8; cited in Holmén 2001: 224).

On the Day of Atonement the high priest made amends for the impurity and transgressions of the people (Lev. 16.16, 30). Furthermore, ritual impurity could be seen as sinful to that extent that ritual expressed one’s piety and adherence to purity laws was commanded (Lev. 19.8; 22.9; Num. Rab. 19.8; Ant. 3.262; Philo, Spec. Leg. 3.209). Religious observance whilst in a state of impurity was considered sinful. The equation of ritual with moral impurity was heightened in some contexts such as Qumran. Philo saw a philosophical connection between moral and ritual purity. Early Christianity retained the similar ideas pertaining to purification and the removal of sin (Acts 15.9; 2 Cor. 7.1; Heb. 10.1-4; Jas. 4.8; 1 Jn 1.9). The use of the language of impurity to describe immorality is more than metaphorical because transgression of the law produces a genuine defilement with consequences of the cultus, people, priesthood, land and the perpetrator (Bryan 2002: 144). It is arguably this nexus between morality and purity that Jesus addresses.

There was in existence a tradition of criticizing merely outward forms of religious display, in both the Hebrew sacred scriptures and in the intertestamental literature (Hos.6.6; Jer. 7.22-24; Zech 7:4-14; Num. Rab. 19.8; Prov. 21.3; Sir. 34.25-26; 1QS 3.2-12; Josephus, Apion 2.173; Jub. 23.21; T.Mos. 7.7-9; Philo, Spec. Leg. 3.208-9). Thus, a purely outward or ceremonial expression of Jewish religion performed in isolation from moral expression is censured in prophetic, rabbinic, sapiential and apocalyptic writings. As such, Mk. 7.15 (and the citation of Isa. 29.13 in Mk. 7.6-8) fits neatly into second-temple Judaism and can be understood as warning against elevating purity over morality. Such a statement corresponds with other complexes in the Jesus tradition such as the beatitudes, ‘blessed are the pure in heart’ (Mt. 5.8) and the woe against the Pharisees who ‘clean the outside of the cup and plate, but inside they are bull of greed and self indulgence’ (Lk. 11.39-40/Mt. 23.25-26; Gos. Thom. 89). Jesus is no more trying to abrogate the cult than Hosea or Sirach.

Thus Mark interprets this saying in light of his Gentile audience with a view to their freedom from Jewish food laws (cf. 7.3-4), whilst Matthew perceives in the logion an affirmation of the moral component of the Jewish law and a powerful critique of the Pharisees. Holmén points out that Jesus’ actions do not stem from a desire to abolish the distinction between clean and unclean, but they do reveal a disinterest and arguably even a depreciation of them in view of moral commands (Holmén 2001: 236-37; cf. too Klausner 1929: 255, 367). It needs to be noted that relativisation and absolving can still yield the same practical outcome: non-observance. That was a corollary not followed by all Jewish Christians, but the Pauline missiological principle of non-law adherence for Gentiles stands to some degree in continuity with the implications of Mk. 7.15 and was interpreted that way by Mark in 7.19.

Resources I found helpful:

Bruce Chilton, 1997a. ‘Purity and Impurity.’ In DLNTD. Edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids. Downers Grove, IL: IVP. 988-96.
___________, ‘Jesus, Levitical Purity, and the Development of Primitive Christianity.’ In The Book of Leviticus: Composition and Reception. Edited by Rolf Rendtorff and Robert A. Kugler. Leiden: Brill. 358-82.
Tom Holmén, 2001. Jesus and Jewish Covenant Thinking. BIS 55; Leiden: Brill.
Scot McKnight, 1999b. ‘A Parting within the Way: Jesus and James on Israel and Purity.’ In James the Just and Christian Origins. Edited by Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans. NovTestSup XCVIII; Leiden: Brill. 83-129.
David J. Rudolph, 2002. ‘Jesus and the Food Laws: A Reassessment of Mark 7:19b.’ EQ 74: 291-311.
Ben Witherington, ‘Mark 7.15 and the Radical Jesus,’ in The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001. 228-30.


James Crossley said...

I think I'd go along with the broad view of that. But I'm not convinced by the a supposed lack of interest in purity laws if that includes biblical purity laws. The context set up by Mark is clearly a development of biblical purity laws esp. handwashing. If Mk has given the right context (I argue that he does) then this passage provides no evidence of Jesus as disinterested in biblical purity laws.

Michael F. Bird said...

James, I concede that Holmen's jump from 'relativisation' to 'disinterest' is largely inferential - my concern is how does on get from Jesus to Mark to Paul? What are the continuities and discontinuities between them on purity laws and moral commands. Of course, wiser minds than mine have wrestled with that problem.