Did Yahshua Cancel Torah Food Laws?
The short answer is no, but since there are some Christians who believe that living by the food rules established in the Torah equals trying to earn one’s salvation (a definition of “legalism”), then the subject needs explanation. Let’s establish one principle at once. Keeping a kosher house will not save anyone. The only ground of salvation is the faithfulness of ELOHIM expressed in the atoning sacrifice of YAHSHUA. However, this biblical understanding does not negate the importance of the Torah as divine guidance for an abundant life in Messiah YAHSHUA
In the beginning Adam and Eve and their immediate descendants apparently subsisted on a vegetarian diet, because after the global flood, ELOHIM gave significant instruction to Noah concerning diet in the new world.
“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear of you and the terror of you will be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are given. Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” (Gen 9:1-4 ).
Two thousand years later at Mt. Sinai ELOHIM issued new diet instructions to his people Israel. The food rules are actually just a small part of ELOHIM categorizing things, animals and people as holy, common, clean or unclean. ELOHIM’s mandate at Sinai was that the Israelites, especially the priests, would be able to distinguish between the holy and the common and between the unclean and the clean in order to become a holy people (Lev 10:10; 11:44-45).
The definitions of these categories are: (1) “Holy,” Heb. kodesh, apartness or sacredness (BDB 871); (2) “Common,” Heb. chol, profaneness or commonness, in a concrete sense opposite of holy (not necessarily evil, 1 Sam 21:5) (BDB 323); (3) “Clean,” Heb. tahor, pure, free of pollution (BDB 373); and (4) “unclean,” Heb. tumah, n.; tameh, adj., defiled, opposite of clean; (BDB 379f). In the Torah, things, animals and people fell into one of these categories.
“Everything that is not holy is common. Common things divide into two groups, the clean and the unclean. Clean things become holy when they are sanctified. But unclean objects cannot be sanctified. Clean things can be made unclean, if they are polluted. Finally, holy items may be defiled and become common, even polluted, and therefore unclean. . It is perhaps because “common” is a category between the two extremes of holiness and uncleanness that it is mentioned only once, in Lev. 10:10.” (19)
Unfit for Food
The book of Leviticus identifies several categories of uncleanness, including childbirth, skin disease, mildew, genital discharges, touching a corpse and unfit food sources. Instructions on acceptable and prohibited animal sources of food are given in chapter eleven in five groups. It’s important to note that ELOHIM’s taxonomy is based on physical characteristics and does not necessarily coincide with man’s classification of animals.
First, of land mammals only animals that have a divided hoof AND chew the cud are acceptable for eating (Lev 11:3). This description identifies herbivores whose diet consists of grazing on grasses and other plants. All other land animals (carnivores and omnivores) are prohibited. Possessing one characteristic without the other is not good enough. The regulation goes on to mention four specific animals (camel, shaphan, rabbit and pig), but there are literally hundreds of land animals excluded from eating. The instruction further clarifies that “whatever walks on its paws, among all the creatures that walk on all fours, are unclean to you” (Lev 11:27). Examples of clean herbivores would be all cattle, sheep, goats, deer, bison, moose, antelope, gazelles, caribou and giraffes.
Second, of marine animals Israelites were only to eat animals with fins and scales (Lev 11:9). As with land animals there are hundreds of sea animals excluded from eating by this strict definition, such as crustaceans (lobster, crab and shrimp), sea mammals (whale, porpoise, walrus) and animals with toxic characteristics (shark, stingray, catfish, eel). Most unclean marine animals are scavengers and literally eat anything.
Third, of fowl, while the description of physical characteristics is not given, the instruction lists 20 specific birds prohibited for eating and they are all carrion-eaters (Lev 11:13-18). So, the acceptable birds would be those comparable to the herbivore land animals.
Fourth, of insects, all the winged insects that walk on all fours are not to be eaten, but winged insects that have jointed legs with which to jump are acceptable. The instruction lists the locust, the cricket and the grasshopper as examples of the clean insects (Lev 11:20-23). Fifth, of “swarming things” (i.e., reptiles) eight specific animals, ranging in size from the mouse to a crocodile, are listed (Lev 11:29-30), which could be representative of a class of animals.
There is no indication in the Torah that contact with a living unclean animal resulted in uncleanness for the person, thus no ceremony was prescribed for cleansing. These animals were simply not to be eaten. However, contact with the carcass of an unclean animal did result in uncleanness and required a sin offering (Lev 5:2-3).
Why the rules?
Why did ELOHIM create the categories of uncleanness, especially in regard to animals? When one considers the changes in diet from Adam to Noah and Noah to Moses the Torah laws given at Sinai obviously do not classify certain animals as unclean because they inherently possessed an impure soul (cf. Rom 14:14, 20). From the time of Noah to the covenant at Sinai these same animals could be eaten (Gen 9:3). The only restriction imposed was that the animal must be capable of movement and had not died. Since the animals hadn’t changed, then ELOHIM’s reasons for imposing the restrictions on the Israelites had nothing to do with the animals themselves.
For some the simple answer as to why Jews observe these laws is because the Torah says so. The Torah does not specify any reason for these laws, and for a Torah-observant, traditional Jew, there is no need for ELOHIM to explain himself. Some have suggested that the food restrictions (called kashrut, lit. “fit”) fall into the category of “chukkim,” laws for which there is no reason. Obedience to ELOHIM is demonstrated by following these laws even though no reason is given. Others, however, have tried to ascertain ELOHIM’s reason for imposing these laws. Wenham identifies four basic reasons scholars have suggested to explain ELOHIM’s rationale for the food laws (166).
The unclean animals are either those used in pagan religious ceremonies or those associated with particular non-Israelite deities, such as those worshipped in Egypt. ELOHIM intended that his people leave Egypt completely behind.
“You shall not do what is done in the land of Egypt where you lived, nor are you to do what is done in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you; you shall not walk in their statutes.” Lev 18:3
As a mark of the fidelity to the covenant, Israel must shun these animals entirely. However, this explanation fails to consider that while the pagan Canaanites sacrificed pigs (Isa 65:4), bulls are “clean” even though the bull was a sacred animal in both Egyptian and Canaanite religions.
Unclean creatures are unfit to eat because they are carriers of disease. The clean animals are those that are relatively safe to eat. (Even acceptable meat must be properly cooked!) This explanation is adopted by many modern writers. Pork can be a source of trichinosis and tapeworm. The coney and hare are carriers of tularemia. Fish without fins and scales tend to burrow into the mud and become sources of dangerous bacteria, as do birds of prey which feed on carrion.
First, hygiene can only account for some of the prohibitions. Some of the clean animals are more questionable on hygienic grounds than some of the unclean animals. If ancient Israel had discovered the dangers of eating pork, they might also have discovered that thorough cooking averts it. In any event, trichinosis is rare in free-range pigs. Among Arabs, camel flesh is regarded as a luxury, though Leviticus brands it as unclean.
Second, the Tanakh gives no hint that it regarded these foods as a danger to health. Motive clauses justifying a particular rule are a very characteristic feature of Torah, yet there is never a hint that these animal foods must be avoided because they will damage health. Yet this would surely have constituted an excellent reason for avoiding unclean food.
Third, why, if hygiene is the motive, are not poisonous plants classed as unclean? In recent years, several secular sources that have seriously looked into this matter have acknowledged that health does not explain these prohibitions.
Some have suggested that the prohibitions are instead derived from environmental considerations. For example, a camel (which is not kosher) is more useful as a beast of burden than as a source of food. In the Middle Eastern climate, the pig consumes a quantity of food that is disproportional to its value as a food source. But again, these are not reasons that come from Jewish tradition.
“You shall therefore make a difference between clean animals and unclean, and between unclean fowls and clean: and you shall not make your souls abominable by animal, or by fowl, or by any manner of living thing that moves on the ground, which I have separated from you as unclean. And you shall be holy unto me. for I, YAHWEH, am holy, and have separated you from other people, that you should be mine.” (Leviticus 20:25-26)
The only statement ELOHIM makes that approaches being a reason for a strict diet is the desire for Israel to be a holy nation. The notion underlying holiness and cleanness was wholeness and normality. For example, diagnosis of “clean” after suffering a skin disease (Lev 13:13) simply meant that the skin was normal once again. Clean animals are those that travel in a manner appropriate to their class, in a normal way. That is, clean aquatic animals have fins and scales, but those animals without these aids to propulsion are unclean (Lev 11:9-11). The same principle holds true for land animals that lack a split hoof or do not chew the cud (Lev 11:26). All the unclean birds are birds of prey (Lev 11:13-19).
The division of foods corresponded to the division between holy Israel and the Gentiles. Among the clean animals there were a few types that could be offered as a sacrifice. Similarly, there was a group of men within Israel who could offer the sacrifices, namely the priests. “Through this system of symbolic laws the Israelites were reminded at every meal of their redemption as ELOHIM’s people” (Wenham 170).
The Israelite diet was limited to imitate the selectivity of ELOHIM in choosing Israel out of all the nations on the earth for a special covenantal relationship. The laws were intended to teach Israel how to act with discrimination according to the standard of holiness and righteousness.
All Foods Clean?
“And He said to them, Are you likewise without understanding? Don’t you perceive that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, then into the latrine, cleansing all the food in this way?” Mark 7:18-19
A major concern of observant Jews in the first century had to do with keeping clean in obedience to the Torah standards. Mark points out for his readers that the Pharisees rigorously washed their hands and food implements, such as cups, pitchers and pots (Mark 7:3-4). This scruple is illustrated in the example of Peter who refused to eat of unclean animals in a vision, which he later learned symbolized the Gentiles to whom he was to take the gospel (Acts 10:14-15, 18, 28; 11:8).
Christian opposition to Torah food rules usually appeals to the Gospel narrative given above. The context of the controversy between YAHSHUA and his adversaries is Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23. (A related story occurs in Luke 11:37-41.)
First, the controversy was not about unclean animals.
The Pharisees had assumed that eating with unwashed hands made one unclean (Matt 15:2, 11; Mark 7:5, 15). They observed YAHSHUA’s disciples eating with unwashed hands and decided to correct the flagrant neglect. (Note that the Pharisees did not accuse YAHSHUA of this offense.) The whole narrative is about ritual purity maintained by hand washing and not food categories at all. Maybe the Pharisees were the source of the adage about cleanliness being next to godliness. Physical cleanliness was only a small part of the much larger issue reviewed in the Background section above.
Unfortunately, the KJV uses the word “meats,” which may suggest that the discussion focused on animals. However, the English word “meats” does not refer just to the flesh of animals, but to the edible portion of anything. The Greek word brōma means simply material food (Danker). In 1 Corinthians 10:3 brōma is used in reference to manna. YAHSHUA used none of the words for “animal,” such as Grk. zōon, a living creature; ktisma, creature; tetrapous, a four-footed animal or kreas, flesh from an animal. He clearly spoke of prepared food. The content of the meal was immaterial to the focus of the discussion. Since unclean animals were off limits to Jews, the food in this narrative cannot be anything other than what the Torah allows Jews to eat.
Second, the Torah does not require hand washing before eating.
David Stern points out that the explanation of ritual hand washing given in the Gospel narratives corresponds to the details set forth in the Mishnah tractate Yadayim (92). In the marketplace one could touch ceremonially impure things and then the impurity would be removed by rinsing up to the wrist. The rationale for washing has nothing to do with hygiene but was based on the idea that “a man’s home is his Temple,” with the dining table his altar, the food his sacrifice and himself the priest. Since the Torah requires priests to be “clean” before offering sacrifices on the sanctuary altar, rabbinic authority determined the same requirement applied before eating a meal in one’s home.
However, the written Torah does not require hand washing before eating. YAHSHUA knew that the written Torah only required hand washing after coming into contact with uncleanness (cf. Lev 15:11). Thus, YAHSHUA declared that since all foods that Jews eat are presumptively “clean,” then the “cleanness” of the food cannot be changed into uncleanness by unwashed hands.
Third, YAHSHUA declared that eating with unwashed hands has no spiritual impact.
“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.” (Matt 15:19-20)
Jews expected that when Messiah came he would explain the true meaning of the Torah (cf. John 4:25; 7:17) and YAHSHUA gave a simple, but powerful revelation. The real problem is in the heart, and YAHSHUA interprets “heart” as symbolic of the spiritual nature of man. So, since food does not go into the heart, but is simply digested and expelled, it cannot affect a man’s spiritual condition.
Fourth, YAHSHUA did not annul the Torah.
YAHSHUA had already declared in the Sermon on the Mount that he did not come to annul the Torah (Matt 5:17). He followed that categorical statement with a categorical warning, “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:19). So, if YAHSHUA had canceled Torah food rules and declared ham kosher, he would have made himself a liar and invited an immediate charge of heresy followed by stoning.
Fifth, YAHSHUA’s statement in Mark 7:19 is misrepresented in modern Bible versions.
The last clause of verse 19 of Mark’s narrative is at the eye of the controversy. (Matthew’s version does not contain this statement.) The Greek text of the verse ends with a dangling participial clause, “purging all the foods.” The DRV, KJ21, KJV, LITV, NKJV, TLV, TMW and YLT translate the clause literally and one might suppose that YAHSHUA is saying that digestion cleanses unclean food and thus trumps the concern for ritual purity. Conclusively against such an interpretation is that it suddenly puts the focus on hygiene instead of ritual purity, which was the main concern of the Pharisees. Also, this approach does not answer the halakhic question the Pharisees posed, because food can have in it not a single germ and yet be ritually unclean. Of course, what ancient people actually understood about physical digestion is unknown, but probably little.
Most modern Bible versions (ASV, CEV, CJB, ESV, HCSB, LEB, MSG, NASB, NCV, NET, NIV, NLT, NRSV, RSV, TEV) translate the last clause to say, “Thus He declared all foods clean” or words to that effect, some putting the statement in parentheses. David Stern no doubt speaks for all these versions when he justifies the use of the phrase in the Complete Jewish Bible by saying: “I have added these words for the sake of clarifying the one meaning I believe this passage can have, namely, that it is Mark’s halakhic summary of YAHSHUA’s remarks.” Stern, like the other Bible translators, is forced to this conclusion because the hygiene interpretation seems the only viable alternative.
Nevertheless, the inescapable fact, as Stern acknowledges, is that there is no “thus he declared” in the Greek text. There is also no support from the context that YAHSHUA in fact declared all animal meat eaten at a meal, regardless of its source, as “clean.” Moreover, the nominative masculine form of the Greek participle “katharizōn” (“cleansing”) agrees grammatically with “legei” (“he replied,” literally, “he says”) in verse 18. Stern believes that the grammatical agreement between the two verbs indicates that the participial clause should be treated as Mark’s comment and not YAHSHUA’s own words. However, there is no manuscript evidence of any interruption in thought and if Mark had intended to add an editorial comment he could have easily said, “thus he declared…” There is really no need to insert words that Mark did not say or intend.
There is a third approach to interpreting the verse. The Greek of verse 19 may be lit. translated, “because it enters not of him into the heart but into the belly and into the drain goes out purging all the foods?” (Marshall) The literal translation implies that YAHSHUA was stating the obvious in terms of the function of the body to remove waste. So, what’s being purged is not the food, but the body. In other words YAHSHUA is saying, “if you think external unwashed hands makes clean food unclean what do think the body’s internal waste disposal system does to it.” He illustrates absurdity by being absurd. “Why, considering what the body does to food, we can’t eat at all!”
Biblical Diet Principles
It’s clear by sound analysis that YAHSHUA was NOT making a ruling about the continuity of Torah food laws in his debate with the Pharisees. Gentiles (as reflected in Christian Bible versions) apparently want YAHSHUA to say that he canceled the food laws. It’s a mystery why this should be an issue when so many Christians don’t consider any requirement of Scripture as having a bearing on salvation. Why make an issue out of food? Jews, even Messianic Jews, don’t expect Gentiles to keep Torah or rabbinic food rules, so what’s the big deal?? The big deal is that Christianity is still infected with replacement theology and anything that smacks of Judaism cannot be allowed to define “Christian.” Such a position is inherently hypocritical.
The “eat anything” advocates would cite other passages that seem to change the Torah’s regulations on food, such as Paul’s statement, “I know and am convinced in the YAHSHUA that nothing is unclean in itself” (Rom 14:14). Paul does have important things to say about diet (Rom 14:1-23; 1 Cor 8:1-13; 10:14-33; 2 Cor 6:14-18; Gal 4:10; Col 2:16-18; 1 Tim 4:1-5; 5:23), but none of these verses and indeed no passage in the apostolic writings actually say that YAHSHUA canceled the food laws for Jews. Consider these facts:
1. The passages, like Mark 7:19, do not say “all animals are clean.” Moses could have eaten pork before Sinai because there was no law against it until Sinai. The animal restrictions were part of ELOHIM’s covenant with Israel. In other words, ELOHIM required that Israelites refrain from eating animals that were “clean” for Gentiles. The Torah regulation emphasizes this separation from the Gentiles by referring to the banned animals eleven times as “unclean to you,” (e.g., Lev 11:4).
2. The Jerusalem Council issued a decree binding on all disciples, but primarily oriented to Gentile disciples, that forbid “things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled” (Acts 15:29). The rule was not temporary or culturally-influenced, since YAHSHUA condemns congregations in Revelation for disobeying this rule (Rev 2:14, 20). These apostolic rules did not impose a kosher diet on the Gentile disciples.
3. Paul strongly condemns both judging people for what they eat or don’t eat (Rom 14:3-4, 10; Col 2:16) and imposing a vegetarian diet as if it were more spiritual (1 Tim 4:1-4). Even following a kosher diet does not make one more spiritual, because as YAHSHUA stressed, true spirituality is in the heart, not the stomach.
4. The context of these verses emphasize consideration for the scruples of those (especially the Jews) who regulate their diet in accordance with the Torah. Christians have no right to expect that Messianic Jews stop eating in conformity with Torah. Paul specifically enjoins Gentile disciples to avoid giving offense to Jews (1 Cor 10:32). During occasions of table fellowship Gentile disciples should avoid refusing to share in a kosher meal or serving non-kosher food to Jewish disciples.
5. Disciples are exhorted to determine convictions for themselves in all areas of life (Rom 14:22). Yet, convictions should not be used to divide the body or hurt individual believers. Disciples are called to love one another and build up the body (Rom 14:14-23; 1 Cor 10:23-33).
6. Gentile disciples should act to eat kosher to be a part of the Messianic kingdom . While Rabbinic food rules may seem extreme, Gentiles could consider the benefits of honoring the Torah diet plan. Scientific evidence indicates that in general the Torah diet is a more healthy way to eat.
As in all things let us remember Paul’s ethical appeal, “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of ELOHIM.” (1 Cor 10:31). Decisions about food should preserve a disciple’s witness for ELOHIM in the world, not detract from it .