The Jewish Athlete, Pork Pizza, and Mark 7:19—Jesus, the Pharisees, and the Oral Law

Dr. Brad H. Young


A Jewish student athlete at McKinley High School in Canton, Ohio was humiliated by being compelled by his football coach to eat an entire pepperoni pizza in the middle of the gym in front of the whole team as a punishment for missing a weight training practice, Newsweek magazine reported on Jan. 9, 2022. The coaching staff and the team were fully aware that eating the pork pizza was a violation of the athlete’s faith commitments and his identity. He and his family were known to be active in the Jewish community and to be observant. The family has kept dietary laws based upon the Bible and Jewish tradition since 2013. He and his family follow kosher guidelines. Cammy Pedroja of Newsweek quoted Edward Gilbert, the athlete’s father and attorney, “What’s interesting is everyone on the team knows this child will not eat pork.”


The degradation of a Jewish athlete being forced to eat non-kosher food in a spectacle of public humiliation or to face individual punishment and also to cause his entire team to be punished is indeed a reprehensible ordeal beyond comprehension. It is absolutely abhorrent! Coaches generally have athletes run laps, do pushups, or stay after practice for additional training as a disciplinary correction. More training benefits the team. This coach’s deliberate action to force a young student to violate his deeply held religious conviction is a dehumanizing act of hate. Public derision of Jewish faith tradition evokes the worse images of historical crimes against humanity and violates any sense of decency and basic goodness in a just society that values equality. But it is especially egregious in a country that has a bill of rights with the primary first right of religious freedom as its supreme law.


In US society, however, Jew hatred has been increasing at an alarming pace. The year of 2021 saw a shocking rise in anti-Semitic attacks, verbal abuse, and violent exchanges against Jewish individuals in public places. Sometimes anti-Jewish remarks by officials and celebrities go unchallenged. The year 2022 began with a terrorist taking a rabbi and members of his congregation hostage at gunpoint during a Bar Mitzvah celebration on the Jewish Sabbath in Colleyville, Texas. Thankfully the hostages were rescued, unlike the horrific Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue massacre that left 11 dead and 6 wounded on October 27, 2018. Words of hate have consequences.


The Canton school board took swift action against the head football coach and his six assistant coaches. None of them will have their contracts renewed. The school board voted unanimously to release the entire coaching staff. They could have chosen another way to deal with the issue. They might have required the coaches to undergo sensitivity training or to participate in a course on Judaism as a remedy. Under the circumstances as reported, their immediate action to fire the coaches was definitely the best course to follow. These coaches should not be teaching our children.


Is Anti-Semitism only a Jewish Problem?

Anti-Semitism should not be viewed as a Jewish problem. It is a problem for our entire society. As a Christian, I am especially concerned with Christian anti-Judaism which impacts the broader culture both directly and indirectly. The tragic history of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism should be a major Christian concern. The past cannot be changed. But the future trajectory should be changed through improving the relationship between the Jewish and Christian communities through education and engagement. Prominent theologian T.F. Torrance has observed a gentilizing of the Jewish Jesus which compromises the integrity of the historical record (see quotation below). Attacking the faith of Jesus undermines the Jewish and Christian relationship and falsifies the original proclamation of the kingdom in the New Testament.


Anti-Judaism and Bible Translation

As a Christian educator and Bible translator, sometimes I can see the problem of anti-Jewish sentiment in the Scripture text as it has been translated. A very pertinent example from the Christian Scriptures is the Gospel text of Mark 7:19. In the context, Jesus is addressing concerns about human traditions that are not supported by the Bible. Human traditions must not cancel a divine commandment. Jesus is emphasizing the attitude of the heart and the need for spiritual revitalization. The desire to do wrong is rooted in the heart. To illustrate this point Jesus opens a discussion about how ritual impurity happens. What causes defilement? Is a cup made impure by what is outside of it, or by what is inside of it? This type of discussion and debate is well known in Jewish literature. A family discussion among Jews about how to interpret and to apply Scripture is at the core focus of rabbinic literature.

The Change of Audience and Mark 7:19

One challenge with New Testament translations is a change of audience. Often when Christian translators read the text, they see Jesus the Christian arguing against his Jewish enemies. The Jews are viewed as antagonists who disagree with Jesus out of mean-spirited hostility. This is not the original contextual environment. For the record, respected Jewish scholar A.J. Levine has remarked that a sure proof that Jesus was indeed Jewish is the fact that he argued with other Jews. This is mishpachah, “family” in Hebrew, which may describe a normal Jewish family in concentrated dialogue and interactive debate. The Talmud records heated discussions between highly esteemed leaders like Hillel the Elder and the great Shammai. Such debate leads to a better understanding and application of sacred Scripture in the everyday practice of faith.

What is disturbing about English translations of Mark 7:19, is the addition of wording added by translators for clarification. These words do not appear in the Greek canonical text. The added words tend to Gentilize the Jewish Jesus. These widely used translations put words into the mouth of Jesus, essentially canceling Jewish dietary laws from Scripture. The participial phrase, “cleansing all food,” is translated with the additional wording, “Thus he [Jesus] declared…” Jesus makes a declaration or pronouncement that all foods are clean. One quite possible conclusion from the added words is that pork is now on the menu.


Could Jesus be making a declaration about non-Kosher food? Bold type has been added for clarity.

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

…Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from the outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach and goes out into the sewer? (Thus he declared all foods clean.)

English Standard Version (ESV)

…Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from the outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled? (Thus he declared all foods clean.)


New International Version (NIV)

…Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into the heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body? (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) Mark 7:18b-19.


The NRSV is used by most mainline protestant churches and also has an approved Catholic edition. The ESV is supposed to be a word-for-word formal equivalency translation and is finding favor with many evangelical communities of faith. The NIV is the most troubling version by emphasizing that this declaration is being made by Jesus himself in the passage. Many newer translations follow this approach.


On the contrary, the participial phrase should not be disconnected from the sentence. A sound linguistic analysis must view it as describing the digestive process. This is the approach taken by the Hebrew Heritage Bible Newer Testament as well as the King James Version. The sentence is connected to the participle. It describes the process of digesting the food.


Hebrew Heritage Bible Newer Testament (HHBNT)

…Do you not grasp the teaching that whatever goes inside the individual from the outside cannot cause defilement because it does not go into the person’s heart, but only into the individual’s stomach where it passes through [a natural process] purifying all foods, and is eliminated into the sewer?

King James Version (KJV)

…Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him; Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?

Mark 7:16b-19

Both the HHBNT and the KJV preserve the connection between the participle and the sentence in its context. In addition, other translations keep the sentence together showing foods being cleansed, purged, or purified as they pass through the stomach (compare William Tyndale, John Wesley, W.B. Godbey, the Delititzsch Hebrew Gospels, and the Tree of Life Version). In 2017, an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion David Bentley Hart published a translation of the New Testament with Yale University Press which sought to maintain the raw reality of the Greek Koine language without augmentation or correction. His translation follows the Greek text and keeps the participle interconnected with the full meaning of the sentence, “Because it enters not into his heart, but into the bowels and is expelled into a latrine, purging away everything that has been eaten” (Mark 7:18-19). His accurate translation for the participle, “purging away,” preserves the force of the teaching message within its linguistic context.


A Change of Context

In the authentic cultural context of the first century, Jewish faith experience was concerned about ritual purity. Uncleanness was incurred from contact with a dead body and associated impurities. Temple worship required ritual purity. Today’s modern culture does not share this concern and is uninformed about the biblical issues related to ritual defilement and purity. The Dead Sea Scrolls indicate that the Essenes believed that ritual impurity could be contacted from outside. It is likely that this would be the view taken by the Sadducees, though full knowledge of their approach to this legal issue is unavailable. By way of contrast, the Pharisees and most likely the common Judaism of the time would follow and agree with the argument of Jesus, namely, the inside of the cup is what causes ritual uncleanness. Not infrequently Jesus is in harmony with the common Jewish practice of the time, like the saving of life overrides the Sabbath laws (Luke 6:9) or the rite of circumcision on the eight day takes precedence over the seventh day Sabbath rest (John 7:23). The illustration concerning ritual purity and defilement uses the accepted practice of the common Judaism of the time in contra distinction with arguments from other factions within the community at large. Most of the people listening to Jesus or the text’s first readers would agree that it is not what is outside the cup that causes defilement but rather what is inside it. Others like the Essenes and the Sadducees would likely take issue with this teaching.


A Change of Language

Translating the text from Greek into English transforms the setting in life. As a matter of fact, many scholars are convinced that the Gospel text is based upon a Semitic source. At least many early church leaders like Papias have spoken about a Hebrew Gospel (Eusebius, Eccl Hist 3.39, 16). Moreover, evidence for Semitic influence, either Hebrew or Aramaic is found in the grammar, vocabulary, and syntax of the Synoptic Gospel texts. A first-century Hebrew discussion among Jewish Torah learners about ritual impurity and what is most important gives vivid reality to the historical environment. All engaged in the debate would probably follow the Jewish dietary laws of the time. Hence, any food being eaten by anyone involved in this conversation would have been considered Kosher. Speaking from the culture of the common Jewish practice of the time, Jesus reminds everyone joining the conversation that it is what is inside the cup that causes defilement. Many would have agreed. Impurity from the inside of the cup, like the inside of a human heart is the problem. The illustration is very powerful within the environment of Jewish interactive debate during the first century.


Common sense reasoning would take an approach for the illustration that dirt on the outside of a cup would not make the inside of the cup dirty. A person could wipe clean the outside of the cup and drink the contents. Within Jewish oral tradition, prevailing views on ritual purity rules from the Mishnah held that uncleanness on the outside of the utensil did not transmit impurity to the inside. Impurity on the inside of the vessel, however, made the outside unclean (m. Kelim 25:6). In the context, Jesus quotes Isaiah 29:13 as a passage which critiques using a human tradition to contradict the commandment of God. The heart must be tender toward God and the divine word. Some of the Pharisees developed a ritual hand washing tradition which moved the purity of the Temple worship to the daily meals within the home. Ceremonial hand washing replicated the Temple ritual. Jesus’ disciples were not following this tradition and were being criticized for not washing their hands before meals (Mark 7:5). This was not for hygienic purposes, but it was for ritual holiness or ceremonial purity. Using the words of Isaiah, Jesus said that this was a human tradition and not a commandment from God. He used the legal and prophetic tradition, Moses and Isaiah, to emphasis the higher moral principle connected to the condition of the human heart, “this people draw near with their mouth…while their hearts are far from me,” and so, this hand washing custom is based upon “a commandment of men” (Isa 29:13). The meaning of the Hebrew root word for sacrifice karav means, “to draw near.” The Torah spoke about the circumcision of the heart (Deut 30:6). The people needed to draw near to God with their hearts and not with another ritual.

Jesus, the Pharisees, and the Oral Law

The Pharisees championed the teaching that two Torahs were given to the people, one was written and the other was oral. The Oral Law is needed to explain the spiritual meaning and practical application of the Written Torah. Jesus made reference to the Oral Torah in teaching that healing is permitted on the Sabbath (Matt 12:11-12). But the Oral Torah should supplement and support the Written Torah and not replace the commandment of God with human designed traditions. Jewish experience valued engagement with Torah learning for better understanding and for more accurate observance in practice. In Matthew 23:2, Jesus upheld the Jewish oral tradition by telling his disciples, “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you…” This teaching has far-reaching ramifications for the disciples of Jesus. The text does not comply with current Christian views of the Pharisees. On the one hand, the content of their teachings possessed merit. On the other hand, these religious elites were criticized for not practicing their own teachings. Jesus criticized the hypocritical practices of some Pharisees without rejecting the foundational principles of a vibrant oral tradition explaining and upholding the law and the prophets. Jesus provided persuasive arguments within a family discussion and within the framework of legal debate among Pharisees.


The family discussion was not merely interested in laws derived from more laws rooted in a meaningless legalistic casuistry, but rather the discussion focused on the concerns of ordinary people who wanted to discover a deeper spiritual meaning in daily routines and sacred rituals guiding social interaction. Observing revered rituals brought enrichment into personal piety and spirituality. Archaeology has uncovered many stone cups and vessels in the material remains from Jewish settlement during the time of Jesus. Carved stone ware dishes were prevalent in Jewish homes because unlike earthen ware they were impervious to ceremonial impurity (m. Kelim 10:1). Ritual purity seems to have been widely observed in many Jewish homes. Family purity was a biblical imperative. Jesus countered the criticism against his disciples for not washing their hands with an illustration about purity issues. Jesus engaged in the conversation on ritual purity by saying that defilement is not transferred from the outside to the inside. An outside washing of the hands will not change the inside of a heart. After all, it was an accepted application of ritual purity in daily practice that what is found inside the cup is the source that causes defilement. With this analogy, Jesus focuses on what is of primary concern: the heart itself. Jesus did not cancel Judaism, his own faith tradition. But he did speak prophetically into the lives of the people, and he did engage in the family conversation as one brother to another.


Jesus says, moreover, that he was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt 15:24). He was reaching out to his community in a way that impacted daily life. He did not wish to be removed from his family, nation, or heritage. The declaration translation of Mark 7:19 introduced a new subject about declaring all food clean. This troubling distraction undermines the force of Jesus’ teaching message.


A Change of Message and the Contamination of the Heart

The added words to the text, “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean” actually change the focus of the teaching. In context, Jesus is focusing on the contamination of the heart. The controlling idea should be apparent and should be kept in sharp focus, “Because what causes defilement is from within a person and comes out of the human heart, evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, wanting what belongs to others, wickedness, use of deception, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these actions tainted by wrong come out from within and defile the individual” (HHBNT, Mark 7:21-23).

The pronouncement translation distorts the original teaching message with an unnecessary aside. It is highly unlikely that Jesus intended to make all foods clean in contradiction to Torah teachings. He did not come to destroy Torah (Matt 5:17). This translation is unwarranted from the Greek text linguistically and obscures the authentic message concerning the individual’s heart within the original context in culture.


The Early Church

On the one hand, the early church did not require non-Jewish believers to keep Kosher, but on the other, the first- century Jewish followers never abandoned observing traditional practices (see Young, Paul the Jewish Theologian, 36-40). At the Jerusalem Council some significant leaders argued that non-Jews entering the community must be circumcised and keep all the laws of Jewish life for Israel (Acts 15:1). This would be the same as demanding conversion to Judaism as a requirement to accepting Christ. After intense debate, the Jerusalem Council decided on a less stringent approach upholding and highlighting ethical monotheism. Loving and serving the one true God of Israel and following ethical conduct in treating others as you would want to be treated is the result of the Jerusalem Council’s decisive action. This approach is also reflected in the Apostle Paul’s teaching about the fruit of the Spirit and the spiritual danger of being controlled by the passions for the self-gratification of the physical body (Gal 5:16-26). The Jerusalem Council’s decision in Acts 15 also included the prohibition against eating strangled meat or drinking blood. All involved in the early community were expected to reject idolatry. According to the decision, the non-Jews would learn more from hearing the teachings of Moses which are preached in the synagogue on every Sabbath (Acts 15:20-21). In Galatians, the Apostle Paul argued that anyone who was circumcised according to Torah must keep all the traditions of Jewish faith and practice. This indicates that the Apostle Paul continued to follow Torah precepts even after his faith experience on the road to Damascus (Gal 5:3). The apostle may well have chosen the salad or vegetables at some community meals serving what would be considered questionable menu items for Jewish observance.


Humiliation and Degradation

Tragically in the long history of the church, Jewish individuals were sometimes forced to convert to Christianity with convincing proofs. They were forced to eat pork to prove the authenticity of their conversion. They were forced to work on Saturday. The yellow star from the Holocaust was not invented by the Nazis, but it was used much earlier by the church establishment to identify Jewish members of their town. Humiliation and degradation is not new. Now in a secular setting at a public school in Ohio the football coaches and the team humiliated and shamed a Jewish athlete for keeping faith and observing kosher dietary requirements. This young man was compelled to eat a pepperoni pizza as punishment or face the severe consequences. Inflicting humiliation and shame is now a prominent feature of social media culture. Similar shaming tactics are sometimes used against Muslims, Christians, and many others. Tragically Jew hatred has become more socially acceptable and common place in public discourse.


The Faith of Jesus

After the Holocaust, great advances have been accomplished in the encounter between the Jewish and Christian communities. Protestants, Catholics, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Jews have joined together for interaction, discovery, and a renewal of ethical monotheism in a bond of peace. A towering figure of influence not only for Catholics but also for many other Christians, Pope John Paul II declared that whoever encounters Jesus comes face to face with his Jewish faith and experience. In Mainz, Germany on April 28, 1980, Pope John Paul II made the point clearly, “Whoever meets Jesus meets Judaism.”


T.F. Torrance isolates the problem for many Christians, “We have tried to understand Jesus within patterns of our own various cultures so that in the West and the East we have steadily gentilised our image of Jesus.” (Meditations of Christ, 18). In Mark 7:19, the ever-popular declaration, “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean,” inserted into the words of Jesus seems to uncover a subconscious desire to gentilize the Christ of the church. It neutralizes and abrogates the faith followed by the first-century Jesus. The translators may well be motivated by their good intentions and justify the result with Greek grammatical or stylistic explanations. The end result, however, is a subversive compromise that at best is misleading.


Jesus was a pious Jew. The Church’s Christ cannot kill the Jewish Jesus. The true Christ of faith must embrace the Jewishness of Jesus without shame or embarrassment. He did not dispossess his people. He did not cancel the Hebrew Scriptures. His calling as the Messiah is a Jewish role defined within faith’s experience above, below, and beyond. He would never eat bacon.

The Faith in Jesus

In reality, the faith of Jesus should strengthen and enrich the Christian’s faith in Jesus. The modern Jewish and Christian encounter enables Christian believers to value the common Judaism of first-century Israel. The essence of ethical monotheism is to love God with all one’s heart and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The pure in heart will see God (Matt 5:8). Healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation flow from within the human soul. It is what comes from within the heart that causes defilement. Moreover, it is what comes from a change of heart that will cause the healing to begin.


Brad H. Young


Brad H. Young (PhD Hebrew University is emeritus professor of Biblical Literature in Judaic-Christian Studies in the Graduate School of Theology at Oral Roberts University. He has taught advanced language and translation courses as well as the Jewish foundations of Christianity to graduate students for over thirty years. In addition to his well-known research on the life of Jesus, he has devoted much energy to interfaith dialogue to build relationships between the Jewish and Christian communities. He is the author of numerous books including, Jesus the Jewish Theologian, The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, Meet the Rabbis, and Paul the Jewish Theologian. He is the translator of the Hebrew Heritage Bible Newer Testament available at www.hebrewheritagebible.com.


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