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As reformation is fomenting in Europe, there is a Jewish fellow who proclaimed himself Messiah and developed a huge following in the Ottoman Empire and parts of Europe. According to him, the redemption of the world was at hand. His name was Sabbetai Zevi. The year is 1665.
His followers set aside their traditional Jewish beliefs and practices for new standards set by Zevi. But there was a naysayer in the bunch, a dissident rabbi who warned his countrymen that Zevi was not the Messiah after all. So they should abandon their enthusiasm for this man and return to their traditional practices. His name was Jacob Sasportas. A new book, written by Yaacob Dweck, provides a biography of this Separdic rabbi who stood up to Zevi. It is published by Princeton University Press.
As it turned out, this “messiah” converted to Islam at the behest of the Ottoman sultan. It’s was a wild and crazy century for Europe and the Ottoman Empire. This book tells a fascinating story. For more click here.
Many interpreters regard the Gospels as primary evidence that Jesus had a major break with the Jewish religion. This makes sense in some ways because later the followers of Jesus broke with Judaism completely so that today they are two separate religions. Ironically, it is the Gospels that present Jesus as thoroughly Jewish.
The episode I’d like to consider is found in Mark 7:
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5 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?” 6 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;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
9 Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11 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)— 12 then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”
14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 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, 19 since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Mark shows Jesus in controversy with Judeans (better than “the Jews”) from the party of the Pharisees over the traditions of the elders, that is, the extent and authority of the oral tradition. The Pharisees had a particular way of washing their hands prior to eating a meal. They accused Jesus of eating with defiled hands and urging his followers to do the same.
For many the critical point is Mark’s parenthetical remark: “(Thus he declared all foods clean.)”
This statement has been taken by many interpreters as the moment when the followers of Jesus thought he had done away with the distinction between kosher and non-kosher food. In other words, it was OK for Jesus and his Jewish followers to eat pig among other non-kosher foods (Leviticus 11). This reading, however, misses the point entirely. Jesus himself kept kosher. He did not abrogate Jewish law (cf. Matthew 5:17-20). The controversy was over how to observe God’s law, not whether to observe it.
The Pharisees who challenged Jesus represented a Jewish reform focused on purity. These particular Pharisees had traveled to Galilee from Jerusalem. Pharisees sought to convert other Jews to their way of thinking, even those who lived way up north.
Jesus’ unique form of Judaism was a conservative reaction against radical innovations in the law brought about by Pharisees and scribes in Judaism. The GMark reflects these stresses and strains. Jesus was not fighting against Judaism but within it.
Interpreters say Jesus didn’t keep kosher and permitted all foods to be eaten in clear violation of Torah. Therefore, Mark 7 represents the beginning of the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity.
Yet when the text says he declared all foods “clean”, this does not mean he permitted the eating of all foods.
There are a separate rules that define when a food is pure or impure, depending on how the food is handled and what it has come in contact with. Food becomes impure as a result of being touched by a person who is in a state of impurity.
This system of purity and impurity is different from kosher laws. No Jew is to eat pork. That is not the issue. Mark and Jesus know the difference even if interpreters do not. A part of the problem is the translation into English of “clean” and “unclean.”
Kosher is what can and cannot be eaten. Purity and impurity involve a separate category having to do with touching dead things, having skin diseases, some sort of bodily emission or menstrual impurity. Contact with an impure person can render food impure. Even kosher food that becomes impure must not be consumed by priests or any Jew who intends to enter the temple. No one wanted to enter the temple in a ritually impure state. Could food make a person impure?
Pharisees instituted a practice of ritual hand purification by pouring water over the hands before eating bread so the hands would not make bread impure.
Jesus challenges the Pharisaic practice and launches into a general attack against his opponents for missing the essential meaning of the law: foods that go into the body don’t make the body impure; only things coming out of us have the power to contaminate. So he rejects the Pharisees’ rules about purity not the Torah’s teachings on what foods were kosher and which were not.
The body is made impure not by taking in impure foods but through various substances that come out of the body. So Jesus challenges the Pharisees for the way they changed the rules of Torah (he relates this to how they changed the rules about caring for aging parents). Torah says only what comes out of the body contaminates, not the foods that you take in.
The traditions of the elders and other aspects of oral Torah followed by the Pharisees are man-made rules, human precepts taught as doctrine. The written Law on the other hand comes from God.
When Jesus is said by GMark to declare all foods clean, it does not mean he permitted all foods to be eaten by his followers. Essentially, he rejects the laws of defiled foods created by the Pharisees.
In the end Jesus did not sanction his Jewish followers to have bacon and eggs or a pepperoni pizza with extra cheese. He permitted the eating of bread without washing of hands (remember this has nothing to do with hygiene but purity). These are different matters entirely.
Nothing Jesus says should be taken as abrogating kosher law. Galileans as a rule had antipathy toward outsiders from Judea coming up and insisting they follower their innovations.
In my understanding of Mark 7 I have greatly benefited from reading Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York: The New Press, 2012). For more detail on this passage than I’ve been able to go into, see Boyarin.
There is a place in the western part of America where a person can straddle four states . It is often referred to as the “four corners” region because four US states come together at one spot: Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. You can see it on any map. Theoretically, it would be possible for a person to stand with his right foot planted firmly in New Mexico, his left foot in Arizona, and reaching to the north his right hand would be in Colorado and his left would be in Utah.
When we think about it, all of us straddle different worlds. Some in my business straddle academic and church life in America. Then, to make things more complicated, they go home to family that speaks Spanish and has little formal education. We all have to make our way through a complicated maze of worlds.
This was Paul’s story too. Paul straddled four different worlds. The first happened to be the world and culture of his birth. His right foot was firmly planted in the world of second temple Judaism. It was a world shaped in large measure by what Christians call the Old Testament or what someone like Paul would have called the law, the prophets and the writings (the Tanakh). The Hebrew Scriptures boldly declared the existence of One, True God who created all things and had made covenants with Abraham and Israel at Sinai. Israel’s God stood in sharp contrast to the many gods and lords worshiped by the nations. Second temple Jews lived with a sturdy expectation that God’s Kingdom would come one day to right all the wrongs and make Jerusalem the center of the world instead of an occupied city on the outskirts of the Roman empire.
This brings me to the second world Paul occupied: the world ruled by Rome. According to Acts, Paul was a Roman citizen and used it to his advantage when it suited him. Though Paul makes no direct mention of this in his letters, it is not unlikely that someone like Paul enjoyed its favored status. Paul’s Jewish heritage would have placed him at odds with many aspects of Roman empire, particularly their ultimate religious claims about their gods and a growing cult devoted to Caesar. The empire’s political claim to provide peace and security were laughable for Jews who lived everywhere—but especially in Judea–under the heel of Rome. In some ways Rome provides the perfect foil for Paul to rail against. Pagan sacrifices were not neutral; they were offerings to demons (1 Cor 10:20). As many NT scholars have noted: if Jesus is the true Lord and king and king of the world, then Caesar is not.
A third world Paul straddled was Greek. Though Paul was certainly multilingual, the letters we have from him are all written in Greek. Greek had become the lingua franca of most places Paul traveled, even though he would have encountered dozens of different local languages and dialects. Language is only one thing but it is a big thing because with language goes literature, poetry, education and ideas which slowly but inevitably permeate society. When Paul quoted the OT in his letters, more often than not he quoted from some Greek translation of the OT. It’s possible he made up his own translations on the fly, of course. But since his quotations appear so similar to translations we know today, its more likely he drew from some standard version available to him. Furthermore, Paul’s letters and accounts about him in Acts reflect a knowledge not only of Greek language but Greek oratory, literature, and rhetoric. In Martin Hengel’s massive volumes translated into English as Judaism and Hellenism (1974), he argued that Jesus’ homeland, the land of Palestine, had been Hellenized by the middle of the 3rd century BC. Judaism had not escaped the hellenizing edge of Alexander’s sword.
The fourth and final world Paul occupied was relatively new. In fact, by the time he entered it and became one of its greatest advocates it had only been around a few years. Saul the Pharisee became a Christ-follower probably only 3-5 years after Jesus’ execution. But already there were traditions, practices, and beliefs which were beginning to mark out this first century Jesus movement. We don’t have access historically to any material and literary evidence that come prior to Paul’s conversion. His letters contain a few hints here and there of the kinds of things early Christians may have been saying. For example, the Philippian hymn (Phil 2:6-11) may have been sung, chanted, or recited in Christian gatherings before Paul came to faith. What seems more likely is that Jesus’ death and resurrection are already seen as the fulfillment of God’s plan. To put it another way, they are the climax of God’s covenant promises to Abraham, Moses and Israel. In 1 Corinthians 15:3ff Paul writes:
3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
Paul says he “hands on” what he “had received.” The apostle to the Gentiles employs the language of tradition to let us in on some of the content of the church’s message before Paul. Already the death of Jesus the Messiah was being understood as an atoning sacrifice. Already the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus were seen as complementary to the Scriptures. Not only do these crucial events not contradict what God had said previously through the prophets; they fulfill them. Already, Cephas (namely, Peter) and the twelve had gained prominence as some of the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection.
Paul not only straddled these four worlds, but as destiny would have it, he would go on to shape them as well. It is hard to imagine what Christianity today would be like without Paul. He is credited with having written nearly 1/2 the books of the New Testament. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century found in Paul its inspiration. And what of Judaism? As my friend Alan Segal often said, Christianity and rabbinic Judaism were like Rebekah’s children; both religions were very different twins formed in the womb of second temple Judaism. And what of Greece and Rome? Well, Rome soaked up much of the best of Greek culture. Then after centuries of persecution, Christianity would go on to become the dominant religion of the empire. In the end the many gods and lords of Rome would yield to the One God in three Persons. Or as the apostle would put it (1 Cor 8:6):
5 Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
Professor N. T. Wright has agreed to give two lectures at Houston Baptist University March 19-20, 2014 as part of a conference entitled “Paul and Judaism.” Professors Beverly Gaventa (Baylor University) and Ross Wagner (Duke University) will be presenting major addresses as well. The university will issue a call for papers soon to allow scholars an opportunity to join us for this two day event. For more information contact Dr. Ben Blackwell at 281.649.3000.
Professor Wright will also be on hand Friday, March 21, 2014, to lecture for the Lanier Theological Library in Houston.
Professor Wright has recently completed a new book entitled Paul and the Faithfulness of God. All of his lectures during this series will deal with Paul.
Recently Professor Michael Bird sat down with Wright to discuss his new book (approximately 25 minutes). This interview offers a good summary of Wright’s approach.