#183. Are certain foods impure/unclean and forbidden to eat OR not? (Lev 11; Deut 14 vs Mk 7:18-19; Rom 14:14; Acts 10:10-15)


I apologize for my rather long absence. It’s been a difficult time. But let us see if we can get back on track and finish up with the contradictions in Leviticus, and move into Numbers and Deuteronomy.

In earlier posts, I discussed the sacrificial cult of the Aaronid priesthood as detailed throughout the book of Leviticus (#137-138, #148-149, #151, #152, #155, #174, #175, #178). In sum, sacrifices were necessitated (divinely decreed in this corpus of literature) to restore purity and holiness to (potentially) impure persons, communities, and even the land. Since according to the theological tenets of the Aaronid priestly guild Yahweh dwelt among the people (#151#164-165), strict measures had to be enforced to safeguard the holiness and purity of not only Yahweh’s sacred space, his Tabernacle, but of the whole congregation as well. “You shall be holy because I, Yahweh your god, am holy” is the refrain used by the priestly writers throughout the book of Leviticus. Failure to maintain this holiness puts the deity and all the community’s sacred space at risk since impurity or uncleanliness was deemed contagious.

This worldview and belief system, constructed on ideas of sacred space, holiness, pure and impure realms, people, and acts, were needless to say challenged and even eradicated (or interpreted away as the case may prove) by later biblical writers—especially the New Testament writers who lived under a radically different worldview and belief system (see also #31, #118, #146). More importantly for our purposes, both of these contradictory worldviews or belief systems (impure/unclean/profane space, things, and people vs pure/clean/holy space and things AND the abolition of such ideas and space, or the reduction of them to just one building) were legitimated and authorized through the production of literature which, in both cases, presented each author’s god advocating and endorsing these two radically different belief systems by having the deity become the spokesperson for these very belief systems. But before we go there, let’s look more closely at the Aaronid system as envisioned in the book of Leviticus.

Throughout the book of Leviticus, and especially in those chapters devoted to its laws and commandments (Lev 11-22), the role of the priests is repeatedly expressed by the phrase “to distinguish between the holy and the profane, between the impure and the pure.” The priestly law code, in fact, is presented as the very instruction (torah) for doing this. The priestly law code’s torahs, therefore, are “to distinguish between the holy and the profane, between the impure and the pure” in matters of:

  • diet (Lev 11)
  • women, i.e., menstruation, childbirth (Lev 12)
  • skin diseases and afflictions (Lev 13-14)
  • emissions of the flesh (Lev 15)
  • sex (Lev 18)
  • miscellaneous matters (Lev 19-20)
  • the Aaronid priesthood (Lev 21-22)

To be able to distinguish between the holy and the profane, the pure and the impure is the most crucial and significant element of the Priestly literature. In other words, the whole priestly worldview boils down to seeing the world in terms of what is sacred and what is profane, what is pure and what is impure. It is at root a worldview built on the sole perspective that the cosmos is divided up into sacred space and sacred time (e.g., the Sabbath and other appointed festivals). In this regard, our modern economic worldview is, literally, world’s apart from the worldview, belief system, and values of the Aaronid priestly guild that wrote these texts. The demarcation of sacred space and the maintaining of that sacred space were the only things that mattered in living life. And furthermore, the community of people, among which Yahweh dwelt in its center, was sacred. The whole camp was sacred space. Can you imagine living in that world? A world defined by sacred space, and which placed you in that sacred space? Imagine what that would entail!

Another important difference to notice is the world as envisioned by the priests is not one plagued by good versus evil. That narrative is absent in the priestly corpus. There is no Satan, nor demonic forces that stand apart from Yahweh and who tempt men to err. There is only the pure and the impure, the holy and the profane. In other words, questions of morality or ethics are subordinated to issues of purity and impurity. A sin in the priestly literature can be one of two things: either an individual has inadvertently (#173) come into contact with something/someone impure and has therefore become impure himself—and thus this impurity/sin must be expunged from the individual via a sacrifice (#174). Or he has consciously violated one of Yahweh’s commandments “distinguishing between what is pure and impure” and in this case is “cut off” from the community (#175)—i.e., the holy people, whose sole space is defined as pure. Thus he is banished to the realm of impurity, i.e., outside the community!

This priestly worldview, and the literature that endorsed and legitimated it, is not only at odds with our own 21st century worldview, beliefs, and values—quite obviously, but this needs to be repeatedly emphasized against those who would suggest otherwise—but it is also world’s apart from the worldview, beliefs, and values of the authors of what became the New Testament. We should not be alarmed by this; after all we’re talking about the world as viewed—as created!—by an elite priestly guild of the 6th-5th c. BCE and the world as seen through the eyes of secular writers living centuries later and in a radically different geopolitical and religious world, the 1st c. CE.

So similar to the Aaronid priests who wrote texts to legitimate and sanctify their own worldview and beliefs by presenting their deity, Yahweh, as a spokesperson for those very beliefs—in this case the prohibition of eating so-called unclean foods—so too the New Testament writers legitimated their own culturally defined beliefs and worldview by presenting Jesus as the spokesperson for these very beliefs, one of which was that all foods were clean.

And he said to them—“Are you thus also without understanding? Do you not know that everything that enters into a man from the outside is unable to profane him, that it does not enter into his heart but into his stomach, and leaves him as waste”—declaring all foods clean. (Mk 7:18-19, my translation)

Whoever uttered these words, for they may not have been Jesus’ but those of the author of this text—just like the words of Yahweh in the book of Leviticus are those of the author—clearly is without understanding when it comes to the whole priestly worldview of the sacred as depicted in the book of Leviticus. Indeed, this author not only does not live in a world defined by sacred space and time as our Aaronid priests did, but such a worldview is utterly inconceivable to this author, and/or Jesus. Ideas of sacred space, people, and things, of Yahweh dwelling in their midst, etc. are all foreign to this author, and/or Jesus. It is not their world nor their belief system—indeed how could it be? We’re talking about a difference of 7 centuries in a vastly changed geopolitical and religious world! The passage above completely misses the point of the Aaronid priests who wrote Leviticus and fails to grapple with the sacred as defined by this elite priestly guild, and why it was constructed in the first place. It reduces the conversation about sacred space, people, and things to bodily parts: the heart and the stomach. Not only are the beliefs expressed above contradictory to the beliefs of the Aaronids but also to the Yahweh of the Aaronids’ text!

The specific literary or textual phenomenon that we’re discussing, yet again, is the violence of interpretation. Imagine: cultures change, geopolitical worlds and attitudes change, values change, knowledge changes, and indeed beliefs change. But imagine again that you live in a culture were a text has, for whatever reasons, become authoritative, and its god has now become—through an elaborate process of transference, metamorphosis, and reinterpretation—God. To legitimate these changing ideas, beliefs, worldviews, values—indeed ideas now associated with an ethnic multicultural world, as was the case in the 1st century CE—the present culture had to engage in a process, a subversive and abusive process, of reinterpretation in order to make these ancient authoritative texts now legitimate and endorse present policy, ideas, and beliefs. This re-interpretive process, which in the end is neglectful and disingenuous towards these ancient texts, their authors and audiences, may have been understandable and permissible from the cultural perspective and biases of the 1st century CE, but we in the 21st century CE, a more knowledgeable, intellectual, and objectively conscious society—one can only wish!—should know better, or at least possess the intellectual and spiritual (!) maturity to perceive the subjectivity, subversiveness, and violence inherent in these re-interpretive maneuvers. This is largely what I studied as a graduate student and wrote my PhD dissertation on. Such practices are blatant misrepresentations sought to legitimate ever-changing attitudes, beliefs, and values on ancient texts that have for better or worse become authoritative to and for its readers. We are still doing the same thing today.

I end with this question, or more so plea: Will the human species ever be intellectually and, yes, spiritually mature enough to be honest to these ancient texts and see and understand them for what they are, products of the past—belief systems shaped by a long-gone ancient past, and carved from specific historical crisis and worldviews that are as foreign to us as the claim that the earth is the center of the cosmos!—and, on the other hand be honest to ourselves when we as a culture and for whatever reason create new values, beliefs, and yes gods, and see them and this process for what it is—we create, legitimate, sanctify our own ideas and beliefs—rather than abusively asserting that these are the words of an archaic deity, who, if being honest, no one actually understands, knows, nor even wants as their deity. Yahweh too is an historical creation, carved from the historical circumstances, real or perceived, that plagued the ancient Canaanite world and their peoples. Studying the Bible’s texts objectively on their own terms and in their own historical and literary contexts bears this out. This is what we’re doing here.

12 thoughts on “#183. Are certain foods impure/unclean and forbidden to eat OR not? (Lev 11; Deut 14 vs Mk 7:18-19; Rom 14:14; Acts 10:10-15)

  1. There’s also the question of why Peter would need such a vision at all–of which Peter says, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean”–if Peter were with the resurrected Jesus of Matthew, who said to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).

  2. ” I’m not denying his historicity, but certainly the argument can be made that the Peter of Mark who is directly told he can eat so-called unclean foods by Jesus himself contradicts the Peter of Acts, who claims he has never eaten unclean foods and furthermore that he is ignorant of this issue having been raised earlier and by Jesus. Obviously I see what the author of Acts (i.e., Luke) is doing in his narrative—justifying the real historical movement of “Jesus’s” message going to the Jews, being rejected by the Jews, and then being extended to the gentiles. So Peter the Jew functions to justify and legitimate non-Jewish practices to Luke’s gentile audience. If a Jew can do it, then most certainly so can gentiles! This is Luke’s narrative creation.”

    but from a historical perspective can it be possible that a jew like jesus when addressing jewish priests and jewish crowds has pig on the menu?

    1. From an historical perspective, No. So when scholars attempt to reconstruct history based on fragmentary sources, such as is our case, we try to ascertain the probability of something happening given a particular social, religious, and political context. And in this case, the probability that Jesus ate pork and did so while speaking—let alone teaching—Jews in Palestine is very very unlikely. Purity issues, like those mentioned in Leviticus 11-20, were usually heightened in historical contexts where Israelite identity was “threatened” by non-Israelite contexts, e.g., Babylonian captivity, returning to the land of Judah in the 5th century and facing the indigenous peoples, and of course the Roman occupation.

      Although I have not yet come to address New Testament contradictions, you are correct in noting the particular problem here. If Luke understands, interprets, Jesus the Jew’s message as extending to the Gentiles, which he does, then he has to shape this brand of Judaism (or Jewish-Christianity) so that it fits his non-Jewsih historical context. Creating a narrative where Peter is given a revelation indicating that all foods are now clean accomplishes this. So Peter is being used by Luke as a literary character that most likely contradicted with the historical Peter. Even Paul, who sees his gospel as specifically directed to the gentile population, is faced with the problems of the dinner table in this context, i.e., what is pure to eat and not.

      Also, we can note here that Matthew, who was most likely writing for a Jewish audience, has his Jesus claim that Torah obedience is still necessitated!

  3. Nice to see you back, Dr.! Now, didn’t Paul claim to have chastised Peter over this very issue? He said that Peter was eating with Gentiles until Jewish Christians visited from Jerusalem, and then he separated himself, and Peter chided him over this two-faced behavior. Paul seems to have been on the side that ended up divorcing itself from Judaism, the more radical or liberal side that wanted to put aside the Torah — but I find it interesting that Peter is painted as being partway between the Jewish view of not associating with Gentiles and the Christian view that all men were equally clean (or unclean).

  4. @Andrew A, The idea that a Jew should not eat with a Gentile is expressed in the second-century BCE Pharisaic work *Book of Jubilees*, which is a midrash on Genesis and part of Exodus.

    Jubilees 22:16
    16 And do thou, my son Jacob, remember my words, And observe the commandments of Abraham, thy father:
    Separate thyself from the nations, And eat not with them: And do not according to their works, And become not their associate; For their works are unclean, And all their ways are a Pollution and an abomination and uncleanness.

  5. I find it interesting that in Acts 10 Peters response to the voice in his vision which tells him to kill and eat is “not so Lord”or “by no means Lord for I’ve never eaten anything common or unclean”,then after the vision he’s so perplexed.I realize the main point in Acts proceeds to be evangelizing the gentiles,but I can’t help but notice that Peter doesn’t recall the dialogue with Jesus about what defiles a person,when in the parallel account of Mk7 in Matt 15 it’s Peter who asks Jesus to explain “the parable”.
    Also in Acts 10:28 Peter says”you know it’s an unlawful thing for a Jew to keep company with or to come near to one of another nation”. I know it’s a little off topic but is there a law from Yahweh or the torah that expresses this? Was a Jew made unclean by being near a non Jew?

    1. Andrew, this is an excellent observation because it shows how “Peter” is more a literary creation in each of these two texts, Mark and Acts. I’m not denying his historicity, but certainly the argument can be made that the Peter of Mark who is directly told he can eat so-called unclean foods by Jesus himself contradicts the Peter of Acts, who claims he has never eaten unclean foods and furthermore that he is ignorant of this issue having been raised earlier and by Jesus. Obviously I see what the author of Acts (i.e., Luke) is doing in his narrative—justifying the real historical movement of “Jesus’s” message going to the Jews, being rejected by the Jews, and then being extended to the gentiles. So Peter the Jew functions to justify and legitimate non-Jewish practices to Luke’s gentile audience. If a Jew can do it, then most certainly so can gentiles! This is Luke’s narrative creation.

      That said, I am reminded of the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke where once again the issue of purity/impurity arises. Luke is questioning and redefining Torah stipulations. The priest cannot go near the half-dead Samaritan precisely because if he touches him he will defile himself (Lev 22:4-6).

      It’s been so long since I’ve done work on the NT that my response has to be initially what I recall. First, to back up a bit: the Torah stipulates regulations for the priests not to touch an impure human, and that may be conceived as an outsider. Case in point: Numbers 9:1-14 is an amendment to the Passover stipulation which stresses purity over anything else. If an individual is impure for the Passover, he is not allowed to observe it but may celebrate it on the next week—thus in effect bending the stipulation that it be practiced on the 14th of Nisan! However, any individual who is pure and fails to practice the Passover will be “cut off”—a priestly favorite. The issue is eating food while in a state of impurity or with those on the outside who are impure. This becomes a severe problem for the early Christian movement before it totally divorced itself from its parent religion, and it’s worth mentioning too from Jesus’ religion. Paul addresses this problem in both 1 Cor 8-10 and Rom 14, and here in Acts 10 to a lesser degree. I think Luke’s Peter’s “unlawful to keep company” is said in the context of sharing food with non-Jews. Both eating at the supper table with those who were deemed impure and/or meat that was impure are central problems of the early church, and together with circumcision might be the two factors that lead to the schism between Judaism and the early church.

      Also, on Herod’s temple—err, Yahweh’s temple built by Herod—gentiles were only permitted in the largest and most exterior court. There was actually a sign that prohibited gentiles from going further! I still think issues of purity and holiness were very much in the air in Jesus’ days. Zealots would not even handle Roman minted money because it was seen as defiling them! Thus too Jesus’ (maybe?) whole “render unto Caesar” exhortation needs to be seen in the light of pure/impure issues. Other 1st century texts speak of the land being defiled by the presence of gentiles. So I’m not aware of any specific law—there might be however. But needless to say I think there’s plenty ground for suggesting that this was a widespread view.

  6. Hi Steven

    I’m sorry to hear about your troubles, but I’m glad to see you’re back.

    You’re the only writer I know, who can almost make Leviticus interesting.

  7. It’s good to see your posts again, Steven. I hope that your rough times are behind you. If St. Paul is addressing kosher food-laws in Romans 14:14, why does he use a word that means profane or common (koinos) rather than a word which means “unclean” (akathartos), which he uses in 1 Corinthians 7:14 and 2 Corinthians 6:17?

    1. John, Thanks.

      Well I don’t have my books with me, and although I can look this up on the web, I sort of miss my own marked up Greek NT. I’d be inclined to initially ask if the context dictated this difference or whether these terms were synonymous for Paul, and perhaps his culture. In the citation above from Mark, the author uses ou koinosai to suggest that foods do not “profane” a man, while nevertheless katharizon (genitive participle) to denote Jesus declaring all foods “clean.” Indeed these could have been the natural terms in Greek to discuss “profane/common” on the one hand and “clean/pure” on the other. But then one wonders why a term such as akatharisai wasn’t chosen instead of ou koinosai.

      It looks like, from a quick glance at the contexts, that Paul uses koinos when speaking of food, but reserves akathartos when speaking of people—“secular/common” on the one hand and “unclean” in ritual/ethical terms on the other hand, which would have been the sense of Leviticus. Maybe there’s a sense of ritual/ethical responsibility embedded in katharsis and akatharsis? If I had my LXX with me it’d be interesting to see what terms were used there in the translation of Leviticus. I imagine katharsis and akatharsis. If my memory serves me, these are also the terms used in the healing narratives in the gospels to describe Jesus’ act of rendering an unclean—again I think ethical and ritual uncleanliness is implied—individual clean—morally and ritual inoffensive. So here the term is also used to speak of the ethical/ritual state of an individual.

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