As part of an ongoing discussion about whether or not Christians are required to keep the Law of Moses, the parenthetical statement at the end of Mark 7:19 came up:

A series of articles inspired by actual theological debates and discussions that I have with fellow Believers. When I hear theological ideas or theories that seem questionable to me, they way I form my opinion of them is by comparing them to Scripture, my ultimate authority, to see how they stack up. These articles are basically documentation of my discovery process and the research that I do as I study and learn.

“And he said to them, ‘Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.)” Mark 7:18-19 ESV

My friend claimed that the statement “Thus he declared all foods clean” was not written by the original author, Mark, but rather added later by translators. And she provided a link to Codex Sinaiticus, which is a manuscript of the Christian Bible written in the middle of the fourth century that contains the earliest complete copy of the Christian New Testament. That parenthetical statement is not included in Codex Sinaiticus.

My friend made a great point and after a bit of research I could see merit in her claim. I then began to wonder what sort of impact that extra statement had on the meaning of the teaching in question. So I decided to take a closer look at the questionable statement within the full context of the passage in which it’s found; namely, Mark 27:1-23. And to do so by studying the passage as it’s written in the Codex Sinaiticus, where, as I mentioned, that parenthetical statement is not found.

In verses 1-5 we see that some Jews (referred to as Pharisees and scribes) asked why Jesus’ disciples’ were not following the traditions of the elders and washing themselves and their cups/pitchers/vessels before taking food:

And there came together to him the Pharisees and some of the scribes that had come from Jerusalem. And seeing some of his disciples that they ate bread with common, that is, with unwashed hands, for the Pharisees and all the Jews, unless they wash their hands often, eat not. Holding the tradition of the elders; And when they come from market, unless they immerse themselves, they eat not; and there are many other things that they received to hold, the immersion of cups and pitchers and brazen vessels: And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him: Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with common hands? (Mark 7:1-5)

Then, in verses 6-9 we see Jesus casting judgment on the Pharisees and scribes who asked Him this question:

And he said to them: Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written. This people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far distant from me; but in vain do they offer reverence to me, teaching teachings the commandments of men. Leaving the commandment of God you hold the tradition of men. And he said to them: Well do you set aside the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. (Mark 7:6-9)

Apparently Jesus knows more than the text indicates about this particular group of Jews. His response clearly indicates that He is aware they are living hypocritical lives in which they honor God with their lips but their hearts are far from Him. And here we see Jesus drawing a distinction between the “commandments of men” and “your tradition” on the one hand, and “the commandment of God” on the other hand. Jesus offers a specific example in verses 10-13:

For Moses said: Honor thy father and thy mother, and: He that curses father or mother let him surely die. But you say: If a man shall say to his father or mother: That, by whatever thou mightest receive aid from me, is corban, which is a gift. You no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, making the word of God of no effect by your tradition which you have delivered. And many things like these you do. (Mark 7:10-13)

This example gives us insight into the nature of the distinction Jesus is making. He first quotes two commandments that Moses gave, “Honor thy father and thy mother” (Ex 20:12, Deut 5:16) and “He that curses father or mother let him surely die.” (Ex 21:17, Lev 20:9). These could be seen as examples of what He referred to as “the commandment of God”. And then He goes on to show how these Pharisees and scribes have left these commandments of God to order to hold to the “commandments of men” and their “tradition”. Apparently, these particular Jews are in the habit of declaring that food, money or other resources that might have been used to help their father or mother is ”corban”, which means devoted to God and, thus, should not be given to one’s parents. By declaring this, the Pharisees and scribes are preventing Jews from helping their fathers and mothers, which Jesus seems to be indicating was the original intent of the commandments. He goes as far as saying that many of the traditions they have handed down (and still hold to) actually nullify the word of God. (vs. 13)

Jesus next turns from addressing the Pharisees and scribes to addressing the larger crowd. Verses 14 and 15 say:

And again calling the multitude to him he said to them: “Hear me, all of you, and understand. There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him; but the things that proceed from a man are they that defile a man.” (Mark 7:14-15)

Jesus’ comments take us back to the original topic about eating food without observing the traditional cleaning rituals. The Pharisees and scribes had asked Jesus, “Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with common hands?” (5) So what does Jesus’ response mean exactly? If we continue reading to the end of the passage (verses 17-23) we see that the disciples were wondering this very thing and asked Him about it:

And when he had entered the house apart from the multitude, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them: So even you are without understanding? Do you not perceive that nothing from without by entering into a man can defile him? Because it goes not into his heart, but into his belly, and is cast out into the sink, making all meats clean. But he said: That which proceeds from a man, that defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, lewdness, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetousness, wicked counsels, deceit, wantonness, an evil eye, blasphemy, haughtiness, folly: all these wicked things proceed from within, and defile a man.” (Mark 7:17-23)

Jesus twice repeats what would have been a shocking statement to a 1st century Jew: “…do you not perceive that nothing from without by entering into a man can defile him?” (15 & 18) Jewish law contains dietary restrictions in which certain foods are considered unclean. The Pharisee’s original question was asking why Jesus’ disciples’ were not following the traditions of the elders (3) and washing themselves and their cups and pitchers and vessels before taking food. And Jesus’ response was that it’s not what goes into a man’s mouth that makes him unclean, it’s what comes out of it. He is saying that by following the “commandments of men” the Pharisees are missing the point and erroneously looking for purity and righteousness in outward physical signs and behaviors. The commandments of God, on the other hand, are concerned with the inward purity and righteousness of our hearts.

So Jesus first drew a distinction between the “commandments of men” and “traditions” — which He says includes withholding help from your parents and ceremonial washing before eating — and the “commandments of God”, which deal with our hearts. And then he specifically says that eating food is not what defiles a man and makes him unclean. Why? Because it goes not into his heart, but into his belly, and is cast out into the sink, making all meats clean. (19) Don’t miss that last line: “making all meats clean“. In the modern translations of this verse, this phrase is followed by the parenthetical statement in question, “Thus he declared all foods clean“. So this statement, added or not, is actually consistent with the meaning of this teaching as a whole.

Don’t get me wrong, nothing should be added to the written word of God. And if this was, in fact, a later addition, I am all for removing it. My point is that whether or not we accept that parenthetical statement, the meaning of the passage remains the same; namely, that God’s commandments are ultimately focused on the condition of our hearts rather than on outward physical signs and behaviors. (Mark 7:6)