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Did Jesus keep kosher?

Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret | Public Domain

Daniel Esparza - published on 07/09/21

While food taboos don’t play a central role in Christianity, Jesus was a resolute defender of the Torah—dietary rules included, some scholars say

In his book The Jewish Gospels, the noted scholar Daniel Boyarin explains how most of the ideas and practices of the very early centuries of Christianity can be safely understood as derived from those we understand to be typical of the Judaism of this period—dietary restrictions included. Much of the most compelling evidence for the Jewishness of these early communities comes from the Gospels themselves. But also (and perhaps more tellingly) a number of these practices are still clearly preserved in some Christian traditions.

That kosher-related food taboos and prescriptions play a significant role in Ethiopian Christianity—one of the oldest Christian traditions in the world—is deeply revealing. Scholars agree that even before Christianity took hold in Ethiopia, some Judaized forms of religion were already practiced. It is no surprise then that Ethiopian Christians (whether Catholic or Orthodox) follow strict fasting rules that often nod at Jewish ritual practices found in the kashrut —the body of Jewish religious laws regarding the suitability of food and use of ritual objects in general. Take the typical Ethiopian bread, the injera: it is an unleavened flatbread, pretty much like a spongy matzah. In strict adherence to the dietary restrictions found in Leviticus, Orthodox Ethiopian Christians might even abstain from eating pork or meat from any animal that does not have “a divided hoof and that chews the cud” (Cf. Leviticus 11). Moreover, Orthodox Ethiopian Christians have their own kashrut-inspired rituals for slaughtering meat. In most Christian slaughterhouses an Orthodox priest would bless the animal before its throat is cut —pretty kosher indeed.

But the Gospels are almost always understood as marking a radical break from Judaism. This is still a matter of seemingly infinite scholarly discussion —the famous “parting of the ways:” was Jewish Christianity (the ideas and practices of the early Palestinian followers of the Jesus movement) a form of Judaism or something entirely different? To what extent is Christianity really a new development that grew out of Judaism? The famous passage found in Mark 7, 18 (“Nothing that enters a man from the outside can defile him, because it does not enter his heart, but it goes into the stomach and then is eliminated”) has—more often than not—been read as a definitive rejection of Jewish dietary practice and, consequently, as an affirmation of Christianity as something else entirely.

But the fact that we refer to a “Judeo-Christian tradition” with relative ease speaks of a kind of continuity between Judaism and Christianity—at least, from a Christian perspective. This continuity is all the more persuasive when one realizes that the Gospels describe Jesus himself as a pious Jew, and a staunch defender of the Torah. On the matter, Boyarin’s book makes an acute, deeply thought-provoking claim.

Counter to most views of the matter, the Gospel of Mark suggests Jesus kept kosher. Again, it is clear from the texts themselves that he saw himself not as abrogating the Torah, but as defending it —“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets” (Cf. Mt 5, 17). There was some controversy with Jewish leaders as to how best to observe the Law, sure. But there was none about whether to observe it or not. According to Mark (and Matthew even more so), far from abandoning the laws and practices of the Torah, Jesus defended it against what he perceived to be threats from the Pharisees.

In short, the Pharisees were a reform movement that intended to convert other Jews to their way of thinking about God and the Torah, which included ostensible changes in the written Torah’s practices, allegedly instructed by what they called “the tradition of the Elders” —an oral tradition supposedly passed down from Sinai on. These changes would have been experienced by many traditional Jews as a profound, sweeping alteration of the customary ways that they and their ancestors had kept the Torah for generations immemorial. It is quite plausible, therefore, that other Jews, the Galilean Jesus included, would reject angrily such ideas as an affront to the Torah; that is, as sacrilege.

So, how are we to understand Jesus’ relationship to Jewish dietary laws?

In most readings of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ understanding of the kashrut is seen as “a watershed moment in religious history, when one set of fun­damental beliefs is cast out in favor of a new worldview,” Boyarin writes. In fact, this passage has been commonly read as teaching not only that Jesus did not keep kosher but also that he allowed all foods that the Torah forbid Jews to eat. This is obviously not a minor detail, especially considering these laws remain today one of the very hallmarks of Jewish practice.

But Boyarin suggests another reading of Mark that provides us with a different view of how the early Christian communities might have stood in relation to the Judaism of their time. In short, if these communities believed that Jesus kept kosher, then they might have considered themselves just as another contending branch of Judaism: one opposing the seemingly sacrilege practices of the Pharisees.  

Most interpretations of Mark 7 understand Jesus as declaring that a major as­pect of the Torah’s laws is no longer valid. But did really Jesus do this “sacrilegious” thing?Is this passage truly summarizing the beginning of the parting of the ways between Ju­daism and Christianity? The text reads as follows:  

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. […] So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

True, the text indeed says, “he declared all foods clean.” This passage (and that phrase alone) has been interpreted so many times throughout history that its many different commentaries alone would probably fill a bookshelf. As is often the case in biblical studies, some scholars consider X verses to be original and Y later additions. Others argue just the opposite and defend Y as original and claim X were added later. Boyarin avoids these discussions and rather reads the text as it is, proposing that Jesus is not permitting the eating of all foods, “even if we accept every word of the passage as it is before us in the text.” The key is to pay special attention to some other parts of Jesus’s speech —especially those in which he mentions the Pharisees’ abandonment of “the commandment of God” and their adherence to “human tradition.”

The text of the Gospel explains the Pharisees have come from Jerusalem, apparently with proselytizing intentions. Their preaching included some extensions of the purity regulations found in the kashrut, e.g., the washing of the hands. This is, after all, what the Pharisees are explicitly complaining about — “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” Jesus simply replies by asserting that foods that go into the body don’t make the body impure; only things that come out of the body have that power to contaminate. So the Gospel would be just portraying Jesus as someone who rejects the pharisaic extension of these purity laws beyond their original specific biblical foundations —in short, the Pharisees’ trading of “the commandment of God” for “human tradition.”

Here, Boyarin cites another scholar, Yair Furstenberg. Furstenberg’s work provides a convincing explanation of the basic controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees. He explains that Jesus’ statement needs to be read literally. The body is made impure not through the ingestion of impure foods, but only through various substances that come out from the body —basically, genital discharges, which represent the loss of generative material from the font of life, as listed and explained in detail in Leviticus 15. The fact that the Torah considers the only food that can make a body literally impure is carrion follows the same logic: one only becomes impure upon contact with death or with the loss of potential life. I was certainly not carrion what Jesus’ disciples were eating. Consequently, they didn’t need to wash their hands as the Pharisees demanded.

In conclusion, Boyarin and Furstenberg argue that it was the Pharisees who innovated the washing of the hands before meals. Therefore, Jesus railed against pharisaic innovations, not against the keeping of kosher, per se. This would have been a debate regarding the correct way to keep the Torah, and not an attack on its dietary restrictions. In sum, in its original sense, Jesus’ attack on the Pharisees here is literal. They have changed the rules of the Torah: “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!”

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