When I took a preliminary look at the readings for September 3rd, Pentecost XIII (Proper 17B), I noted at once that the gospel was from Mark ch. 7, and immediately thought: “the purity issue”. When I turned up the actual text provided in the Episcopal Eucharistic Lectionary, I discovered that the P.B. Lectionary did not give the full text of Mark, 7.1-23: in particular it omits what I have long considered one of the most explosive texts in the New Testament: verse 19. It reads, “because it [the food one eats] does not enter into [the] his heart but into the stomach, and thence into the sewer”. [The Greek αφεδρων (afedron) was probably in Koiné, much stronger, perhaps, s--t house]. And then we come to the time bomb, an editorial comment of Mark’s, “(thus he declared all meats clean)”. NRSV.
It occurred to me that the Common Lectionary might have corrected this egregious omission, but once again I was disappointed.
In the earlier part of this chapter the lectionary framers also leave out verses 9-13, a pericope that gives an example of substituting human regulations for the divine law. The law in question is, “honor your father and your mother”, and Mark records that Jesus refers to a later tradition about the use of “Corban”. Altogether this is an obscure passage on which too much ink has been expended, and an argument can be made in favor of editing it out; even so, there is also good reason for leaving in obscure passages, at least to remind us about the gaps in our knowledge of the historical situation of Jesus’ time. But when one comes to verse 19 what justification can be produced for excision?
Two possible reasons
Is it, perhaps, that Jesus could not have mentioned anything so indelicate as an earth closet (which one assumes was the height of luxury in First Century Palestine)? Anyone who has tried in Education classes to get people to consider Jesus having diarrhea, cursing at a septic blister on his foot, or even perhaps, suffering from ED (I haven’t tried this one yet) will know the shocked responses one is likely to get.
If the reason is not some deeply buried Christological heresy which discounts the humanity of Jesus, could it be that the fear of criticizing anything in Judaism in the first century CE is now likely to be read as anti-semitic? This ought not to be the case, because what is at issue here is Jesus’ wholesale criticism of purity systems, which flourish in all religions be they Eastern or Western; and certainly Christianity cannot be exempted from that generalization, except, perhaps for a brief period in its earliest days. Whatever the reason for the truncated reading, it has the effect of blunting Jesus’ trenchant criticism of the human tendency to set up barriers (like social classes or caste systems), to encourage attitudes of superiority (as in racism) and, in general, to enable those in power to control the "lower orders".
It is widely accepted that one of the major reasons for the opposition to Jesus’ teaching and practice was the way he welcomed people indiscriminately to eat with him and his disciples. Such intercourse with “impure” people was not that of an accredited Rabbi, and our missing verse might suggest that Jesus went even further: Mark’s editorial comment suggests a firm tradition that Jesus rejected the food laws. Acts 10.9 ff and the somewhat confusing “decree” of the Council about admitting Gentiles (ch. 15) indicate that it was not long before the early community broke away from at least this aspect of the purity system, though Paul’s letters, and especially Galatians 2.11 ff., show an on-going struggle between exclusive and inclusive policies.
This dietary liberation, in general, has continued throughout the history of the church. A second breach of the purity system, however, has not. The evidence has mounted during recent decades that women had a very different status in early Christianity than was the case in Judaism, and, unhappily, became the case again as the 2nd century C.E. progressed. Galatians 3.28 – “there is no longer male or female” is little short of incredible, coming from a conservative converted Rabbi, but, sadly, it was a view that did not survive the church’s absorption into the Roman Empire.
In chapter 3 of Meeting Jesus again for the First Time, Marcus Borg has some excellent reflections on the ramifications of the contemporary purity system of Jesus’ time and his trenchant attack on it. (HarperCollins Paperback,1995). He writes, “The same hermeneutical struggle [reading scripture as an holiness code or as a pattern of compassion] goes on in the church today. In parts of the church there are groups that emphasize holiness and purity”, and, he continues, “draw sharp social boundaries between the righteous and sinners…An interpretation of Scripture faithful to Jesus and the early Christian movement sees the Bible through the lens of compassion, not purity”. (Borg p. 59).
Let us hope that the Lectionary framers left out Mark 7.19 in a fit of absent-mindedness and not as a contribution to the hermeneutical struggle. (I assume one can discount the presence of crypto-monophysites?)
Careful readers of these verses in Mark chapter 7 will have doubtless noticed that verse 16 is not mentioned: not surprisingly because the best MSS of the N.T. omit it. You will find it in the KJV (“If any man have ears to hear, let him hear”), but not in the NRSV which goes from verse 15 to 17. The verse has a very large number of MS witnesses, all belonging to what is generally known as the Koiné text (later called the Textus Receptus), and this is a shining example that in textual criticism, there is not safety in numbers since a wrongly inserted verse in an early copy may well be copied by hundreds of scribes. Of course, this particular verse is neither here nor there; the ruckus over Westcott and Hort’s Revised text of 1881 and 1885 centered on texts like I John 5.7-8, the comma Joaneum: it was the omission of the only unambiguous reference to the Trinity in the whole N.T. (and, of course, other sensitive texts) that produced a state of near apoplexy in men like Dean Burgeon.
In closing, a footnote to a footnote: in the KJV “if any man” in the Greek is ei tis. This ‘indefinite pronoun’ has the same form for the masculine and feminine. Interestingly, modern versions continue to translate tis as “man” in many instances where “anyone” would be more accurate. Purity system, anyone?