4. CLASH WITH THE PHARISEES OF JERUSALEM ON TRADITION (15:1-20)
A. For Boyarin it was the Pharisees who went beyond Moses, not Jesus.
My conviction about the continuity between the Old and New Testament goes back several years and has always been based on the ‘text itself’ of the Bible. I must admit, however, that reading a book by the Jew Daniel Boyarin has strengthened and enriched a conclusion I had already reached (‘The Jewish Gospels’, Castelvecchi, 2012). In the ‘Foreword’ by Jack Miles, Boyarin is defined as “one of the two or three greatest rabbinic scholars in the world” (p. 9). The book dedicates many pages to a careful examination of the dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees over the purity of food, taking as its basis the larger and more precise text of Mark 7:1-23.
We have previously seen the clash between Jesus and the Pharisees of Galilee, reported in Matthew 12 and focused on the interpretation of the law of Moses. Now we are instead faced with the clash with the Pharisees of Jerusalem, who wanted to defend their tradition and, with that, also their authority. The Old Testament and the Gospels provide us with the minimum necessary to make us understand the Jewish context, but a wider knowledge such as that of Boyarin can undoubtedly be useful. For example, in going through the Gospel of Matthew we pointed out a difference between the Pharisees of Galilee and those of Jerusalem: I would not have grasped it if Boyarin had not pointed out the contrast between the two Jewish environments.
Many are the Christians who, relying on this food dispute, are sure that Jesus has abolished the constraints present in the law of Moses. Before going into the text of the Gospel, in the next paragraph we will clarify something about the law of Moses, citing now some summary phrases of Boyarin, in which the term ‘Torah’ stands for ‘law of Moses’.
“The explanation offered by Jesus coincides with an interpretation of the profound meaning of the rules of the Torah, not with their shelving” (p. 112).
“Jesus speaks as a traditionalist Jew of Galilee, a Jew whose community and traditional practices are suffering interference and a fire of criticism from outside, that is from Jerusalem, from the Jews” (p.114).
“There is nothing in Mark’s version of this passage, much less in that of Matthew, that makes us think of a Jesus determined to abandon the Torah” (p. 114).
“The Gospel of Mark must be interpreted as a Jewish text, even in its most radical Christological moments. Nothing of what was proposed, asserted or described by Mark would not apply perfectly to an orthodox Jewish Messiah, Son of Man, and what would then go under the name of Christianity is nothing but a messianic, Jewish and apocalyptic movement” (p. 115).
B. Distinguishing between forbidden foods, impure foods and traditional rules.
The misunderstanding into which many Christians fall depends on confusing three distinct concepts, which it is therefore necessary to clarify.
PROHIBITED MEAT AND LAWFUL MEAT. Leviticus 11 specifies of which animal it is allowed to eat the meat. It is therefore misleading to say that the law of Moses distinguishes between ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ animals, since it is more correct to say that it distinguishes between ‘edible’ and ‘inedible’ animals. Among the inedible animals, for example, there was also the camel and touching it while it was alive certainly did not make anybody become unclean. For it was the dead body of an inedible animal that was unclean and touching it made people become unclean (Lev 11:25,31). Even the dead body of a pure animal could be unclean, if it died by itself, that is, without being released from blood by means of slashing (Lev 11:39).
PURITY AND IMPURITY. Other causes of impurity were leprosy (Lev 13) or fluid loss from the genitals, both male (e.g. from venereal disease) and female (menstruation or other) (Lev 15). Contact with an unclean person transmitted impurity not only to another person, but also to a lawful food, which thus became unclean and could not be touched.
RULES ADDED FROM TRADITION. The rules on nutrition contained in the law of Moses are quite simple. Judaism had from long ago accompanied them with norms to indicate their practical application, considered coherent with the law of Moses and therefore to be observed at the same level as the law. The clash between the Pharisees of Jerusalem and Jesus is evidently about these rules added by tradition, since the observance of the law of Moses was beyond question, both for Jesus and for any other Jew. In Mark 7:3-4 we see the breadth of the tradition better: “The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the market-place they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles”.
C. The question of the Pharisees and the answer of Jesus (15:1-9).
“Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem” (15:1).
For Matthew, the decisive contrast is that between Jesus and the Pharisees, even when other categories are represented together with the Pharisees. In this case, being a dispute over the interpretation and application of the Word of God, the Pharisees call on the support of the scribes, who knew it by heart and who had their own religious orientation.
“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” (15:2).
As already mentioned, while the Pharisees of Galilee had challenged Jesus because they believed he did not respect the Sabbath, that is, the law of Moses (12:1-13), here Jesus is accused of not respecting “the tradition of the elders”, which is the real matter at stake, while washing one’s hands is just one aspect of it.
Two inaccuracies are often concealed when “the tradition of the elders” is exalted. One is to indicate it singularly, while the historical reality is always made by a plurality of choices and traditions. To indicate the tradition in the singular is the way to delegitimize all the other orientations. The other inaccuracy is to attribute it to “the elders”, using a vague expression with which it is suggested that “it has always been done this way”. In reality, no movement can remain unchanging ignoring the evolution of History, so that tradition that is passed off as a very ancient block, can actually be divided into many parts, dating back to even recent periods.
“Jesus replied, ‘And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?’” (15:3).
Interpreting for you the ‘Jewish game of questions’, the Pharisees accused Jesus of not respecting a tradition held to be transmitted in some way by God to the ancestors. Jesus replied that that tradition was not only not sacred, but was in contrast with God’s commandments.
“For God said, ‘Honour your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death’. But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God’, they are not to ‘honour their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (15:4-6).
The Pharisees had formulated a general accusation (transgression of tradition), backing it up with an example (not washing hands). At the same time, Jesus responds with a general counter-accusation (tradition contrasted with God’s commandments), and he also proved it with a practical example (assistance to parents).
The modification of God’s law by the Pharisees was not due to poor understanding, but to two very precise criteria. On the one hand, the ruling classes tend to ensure for themselves a good economic position and, when it is they who manage the “gifts to God”, at least partially they take advantage of them. The lack of a living relationship with God, then, shows that it was not his approval but the economic dimension of the problems which was essential.
We have already noticed that, at the time of Jesus, there was an approach of Judaism which could be traced back to Nehemiah (chap. 21, par. B) and the terms of this dispute are a confirmation of this.
“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules’” (15:7-9).
“Hypocrites”. The basic sin that Jesus continues to challenge is hypocrisy, of one who says one thing and in the heart has another, of one who says that he wants to serve God yet follows human rules.
“Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you”. We have repeatedly seen that this expression, that is, this invoking of Scripture in the Jewish context, had a broad meaning. With this Jesus wanted to affirm that the Word of God remained fully valid and current. While they exalted the novelties introduced by tradition, Jesus showed that they were in reality equal to their fathers in the time of Isaiah.
“They worship me in vain”. They thought they were the people of God, committed to God, who followed the Word of God. Jesus repeats that all that was “in vain”, that is, it had no value (cf. e.g. 5:20; 12:34). A healthy people of God exalt God and his Word. When it is corrupted, it exalts more and more itself and its own ruling class, with its “human rules”; turning into an idolatry of the ruling class without realizing it.
As usual, Jesus did not just defend himself, but he switched to the counter-offensive by landing his own blow on his opponents. In challenging the tradition and appealing to the Word of God, he did not act as Son of God, but as a member of the people. So he appears as one who, to say it in modern language, makes use of the ‘free examination’ of the Bible. Today, some would call him ‘a loose cannon’, that is, one on whom no human organization has conferred a particular authority; it is not by chance that this was one of the accusations made against him (21:23). Jesus set himself up as a simple believer to set an example, so it is significant that later Peter and Paul are also made the objects of similar accusations (Acts 4:7; 22:22; Gal 1:11-12).
D. Jesus’ further insights with the crowd and the disciples (15:10-20).
“Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen and understand’” (15:10).
Since Jesus had rejected the value of tradition, the problem of washing one’s hands that was founded on it also fell, so Jesus closes the conversation with the Pharisees without entering into specifics. However, the practice of washing hands before eating, especially in a city context, had some good arguments in its favour. With those who were willing to learn, Jesus then enters into the merits of the matter, beginning with giving the crowd the underlying brief explanation:
“What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them” (15:11).
We have seen (par. 4/B) that eating something unclean did not involve becoming unclean, because one was already touching that food. On the contrary, it was the internal productions of the body that made one impure (fluids from the genitals, leprosy). In these concrete rules of the law of Moses, applying a method already in use in the Judaism of that time (Boyarin), Jesus also saw in this the symbolic meaning, that is, that “what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them”. The version of Matthew is more understandable, but that of Mark shows better the parallelism with the law of Moses: “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them” (Mar 7:15). After the brief explanation to the crowd, Jesus added more to the disciples, who had asked for clarification.
“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts – murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them” (15:17-20).
The matter had been raised about the obligation to wash hands (v.2) and now ends on the same subject: “Eating with unwashed hands does not contaminate man”. Therefore, when Mark writes that “in saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean” (7:19), it is not to be understood that he authorized the eating of pork, but that he considered all foods “not contaminating”, that is, pure in that sense. A further confirmation is that, until Acts 10:14, Peter continued to strictly observe Jewish dietary rules.
Does that maybe mean Jesus was against hygiene? Certainly not. What he wanted to oppose is taking the liberty of adding to the Word of God our commandments that, as we have seen, end up destroying it.
It is also dangerous to consider something useful as an absolute. For example, washing hands before eating is appropriate, but if it is considered as if it were a commandment of God, it ends up that those who are in the countryside and cannot wash their hands should also fast!
Between the explanation to the crowd (vv. 10-11) and that to the disciples (vv. 15-20), there is an interlude regarding the Pharisees (vv. 12-14); we skipped it to continue on the same theme and now we resume it.
“Then the disciples came to him and asked, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?’ He replied, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit’” (15:12-14).
Jesus viewed the work of God in the world, addressed to every individual. Only those who had opened themselves to the voice of God were then ready to welcome his work, as we also find in John 6:45: “Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me”.
“Leave them”. Another way to consider the dialogue with them as irretrievably closed. “They are blind guides”. A totally negative judgment is reiterated, with the aggravating fact that they not only harm themselves, but also those who let themselves be guided because they too are blind. And yet, he is talking about a part of God’s people that did not take religion lightly, so we all run this risk.