Are we allowed to eat all animals today?

Today’s feedback answers questions from a number of people on the topic of diets, mainly addressed to Dr Jonathan Sarfati’s article Why Bible history matters, Creation 33(4): 18–21, 2011. He responds to the main points of several letters.

As my bookshelf can attest, I greatly appreciate Jonathan Sarfati’s work,

Glad that you find it helpful :)

so I was surprised to see him use a mistranslation of Mark 7:18–19 (in Creation 34(2), “Clean and unclean animals”, Feedback section), not to mention the fact that it was used out of context. A study of these verses in the Greek originals will show that “Jesus declared all foods clean” is nowhere to be found! Despite the fact that nearly all translations have this phrase (the KJV being a notable exception).

Sorry, this is simply not correct. The standard New Testament critical apparatus1 gives the clause καθαρίζων πάντα τὰ βρώματα (katharizōn panta ta brōmata) the top ranking of A, found in the main early codices Sinaiticus, Vaticanus and Alexandrinus, several other uncials, many minuscules, families 1 and 13, and part of the Byzantine family.


In fact, the only major dispute is about the inflections on the first word (the lemma is καθαρίζω katharizō = cleanse or purify). I.e. it’s about whether this statement was said by Christ, or was a parenthetical insertion by Mark—not whether it was part of the original. CMI does not believe in so-called red-letter Christianity but in the plenary inspiration of Scripture, so this statement is “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16) either way.

Reliable tradition says that Mark wrote his Gospel under the supervision of Peter. The gospels (and Paul’s letter to the Galatians) portray Peter as being rather slow on the uptake, and in Acts 10, God had to send him a vision telling him to kill and eat ‘unclean’ animals. So it’s possible that Peter reflected on his time with Jesus, and realized that he should have understood it from what Jesus taught. And since Peter missed this message when Jesus said it, he told Mark to make it clear so no one else would miss it from then on. The great 19th century Hebrew Christian scholar Alfred Edersheim, in his detailed multi-volume The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, says:

But never before could they [the Rabbis] perceive the final inference which St. Mark long afterwards derived from this teaching of the Lord, “This He said, making all meats clean.” Yet another time had Peter to learn that lesson, when his resistance to the teaching of the vision of the sheet let down from heaven was silenced by this: “what God hath cleansed, make not thou common.” Not only the spirit of legalism, but the very terms “common” (in reference to unwashed hands) and “making clean” are the same. Nor can we wonder at this, if the vision of Peter was real … Peter, who has had that vision, is telling through St. Mark the teaching that underlay it all, and, as he looked back upon it, drawing from it the inference which he understood not at the time: “This He said, making all meats clean.” [Meat in the KJV meant “food”, cf. Genesis 1:30 “every green herb for meat” (KJV).]

The context is also clear: we can’t be defiled by anything we eat, since that goes into the κοιλία (koilia, stomach), and then expelled into the ἀφεδρών (aphedrōn, latrine). It does not have contact with the καρδία (cardia, heart), which in the Bible usually means the intellect and inner being rather than emotions as it does today (see Logic and Creation). Jesus then goes on to explain that it’s the cardia that is the source of the evils that genuinely defile a man, i.e. nothing to do with the food that comes into the koilia.

My colleague Lita Sanders, a scholar in New Testament Greek, provides the following information:

19c The syntax clearly marks out καθαρίζων πάντα τὰ βρώματα as a parenthetical editorial comment, since there is no masculine singular subject within the reported speech to which it can relate (hence the emendations found in some MSS, representing attempts to ‘correct’ the syntax by those who failed to recognise the nature of the clause; see Textual Note). The subject therefore is Jesus (the subject of λέγει, v. 18a), whom Mark thus interprets as ‘cleansing all food’ in the sense of declaring that it is no longer to be regarded as ritually ‘unclean’. This is, as we noted above, a natural, indeed inevitable, deduction both from the principle stated by Jesus in v. 15 and from its further elaboration in vv. 18b–19b where the progress of the food is shown to have no effect on the καρδία. The revolutionary significance of this declaration, and its relevance to the relations between Jews and Gentiles in the early years of the Christian movement, have been considered in the introduction to this pericope as a whole.2

Mark’s parenthetical declaration that “all foods [are] ‘clean’ (v. 19) thus reveals his understanding of Jesus’ position on the matter of clean versus unclean foods. This declaration takes precedence over the dietary regulations of both the oral and written laws (e.g., Leviticus 11; Deuteronomy 14). Again in Mark, the teaching of Jesus is supremely authoritative, superseding the Torah itself. Similar to the earlier pronouncement on the Sabbath (2:27–28), in presuming to render a definitive judgment on a matter of divine revelation, Jesus assumes the role of God.3

But even if this translation was accurate, it is anachronistic to put a modern definition of “food” back into the historical setting of when these words were spoken. “Food” for Jesus’ audience was defined in Leviticus 11, so in context, He would have to have been referring to the earlier discussed issue of the erroneous Pharisaic tradition of unwashed hands transmitting ritual impurity to Biblically clean food (i.e. pork, shellfish etc would never have been thought of as “food” at the time in that culture).

Mark was writing to Gentiles, not Jews, so would have treated this as all foods. As modern Hebrew Christian scholar Dr Arnold Fruchtenbaum says in his Israelology:

To claim that the word “food” is only applicable to the kosher foods of Leviticus 11 and not to unkosher animals is incredible and not validated by any word study of the term. Juster [another Messianic Jew] obviously feels that the dietary code is still mandatory and so must find a way around this term by limiting the term “food” to refer to kosher food only. What is declared clean only refers to what Pharisaic tradition declared unclean and has nothing to do with the food of Leviticus 11! However, this is an unlikely view. It would have been defensible if it was found in Matthew’s parallel account because he did write to Jews. Mark wrote to Romans who would not have been familiar with such fine distinctions and would have taken Mark’s comment to be a statement concerning food in general.

The same argument applies to Colossians 2:16 [a key passage supporting Christian liberty in diet:

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.]

Peter’s dream of eating unclean foods was about teaching the Gentiles the message not about diet. That verse is taken out of context when the explanation for the dream is given only a few verses past the “permission” to eat anything.

—it should not be assumed that a modern definition of “food” was in mind here. Acts 10:10–15 was also quoted—but in Acts 11:1–18 Peter explains the meaning of the vision: rather than speaking of food, the vision had unclean animals representing non-Jews, and the command to eat these animals represented God’s command to not withhold fellowship with the Gentiles.

This is indeed the meaning, but the command not to withhold fellowship makes sense only if “unclean” food is also allowed. The alternative makes no sense: “Eat these unclean foods, as a symbol for fellowshiping with Gentiles—but don’t really eat this food but still fellowship with Gentiles.” The reality of the symbolic command is important for the reality of the command it symbolized.

I would say that some of the Mosaic laws were more about health and could stand, whereas some were more about tradition and were done away with the fulfillment by Jesus. We still bury the dead, export waste out of the living areas and should be treating our bodies as the temple. Eating unclean foods is very much still against the Biblical teaching for healthy living, ask any dietician or doctor.

I agree that pre-Flood, the distinction between clean and unclean animals was, in practice, only relevant to what could be sacrificed. But it should not be downplayed that this clean/unclean distinction was identical to the distinction between creatures that were later stated to be considered to be food or not. Those that were not food (e.g. pigs, shellfish) are now known by many nutritionists today to have physiologies that were not designed to efficiently expel toxins, are more prone to parasitic infections, etc, and therefore should be avoided in favor of meat from non-carnivorous animals that have complex digestive systems (like cows and sheep). The separation between clean and unclean meats for food was not arbitrary. It was Gods wisdom and concern for our health—and His reasoning still holds true for us today.

Indeed, that is a common apologetic argument. Many of the cleanliness laws had a great health benefit (see The first book of public hygiene). All the same, in my article, I showed that ritual purity is far more likely, to symbolize the separation of the Messianic People from the surrounding pagan nations until the Messiah came to break down this wall (Ephesians 2:14). For example, lobsters have legs but live in the sea, so they violate the ritual land-water boundary. On the other hand, poultry is ritually clean, but is a very common source of food poisoning (as a victim of salmonella poisoning, I have personal experience).

Dr Sarfati’s reply also stated that God’s allowance for eating animals after the flood in Genesis 9:3 was without distinction [as above in my first comment above], but this cannot be correct—if Noah and his family had taken God’s statement here to mean something other than “every clean moving thing that lives shall be food for you”, then some of the unclean animals, which only existed as pairs at that time, could have been made extinct. Given that so much effort had just been made to preserve the unclean animals through the flood, it makes more sense to understand God’s instruction here as applying within the context of clean animals only (i.e. those that are not harmful for us to eat).

Ah, so that explains the extinction of the dinosaurs ;) Seriously, this doesn’t follow. The very fact that there were seven pairs instead of one pair would mean that these “clean” animals were more likely to be eaten.

On a related issue, some Christian vegetarians have argued that the command was only temporary because of the scarcity after the Flood. But the real scarcity after the Flood was vertebrate animals, so if the command was applied then, it must be fine now that animals are much more plentiful. That the command was not temporary was shown by Christ’s example about 2,500 years later. Christ’s example also shows that meat-eating wasn’t one of the things God allowed the Jews to do because of their hardness of heart. He also shows that it can’t be wrong to eat a sentient creature, or that meat-eating is unhealthy, since there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that lambs were less sentient or unhealthy back then.

The Bible never says we can eat any animal, challenge you to find that. In fact, Noah took 7 clean animals and only a pair of each unclean animal.

But this clearly had nothing to do with diet, since it was not until after the Flood that God gave man permission to eat animals (Genesis 9:3), and without distinction. Jesus Himself celebrated the Passover which included roasted lamb (John 2:23, Matthew 26:17–29), and after His resurrection he ate fish. So there is nothing sinful about eating meat today. Certainly God created animals and humans to be vegetarian (Genesis 1:29–30), and Isaiah 11 and 66 allude to a quasi-Edenic future where animals and humans again will be vegetarian. But until this time, the example of Christ allows meat-eating for Christians today.

Actually, allowing the eating of any meat makes sense of biblical history. Only in the later Mosaic Law did God implement commands to eat only clean animals, with very specific animals named as well as guidelines. This was necessary because they had been eating all animals without distinction, as God allowed Noah to do. Also, the Jews have long taught that Gentiles were obliged to obey only the Seven Laws of Noah:

  1. Do not worship idols
  2. Do not murder
  3. Do not steal
  4. Do not commit sexual immorality (including adultery and homosexual acts)
  5. Do not blaspheme God
  6. Do not eat flesh from a living animal (i.e. with blood)
  7. Establishment of courts of law, implied by the command to execute murderers in Genesis 9:6

Many commentators understand Acts 15:29 as James in the Jerusalem Council as telling the other Apostles that all they should ask the Gentiles to do was follow the Noahide Laws (alluding to 1, 4, and 6 of the above list), rather than all the Mosaic laws (other commentators argue that these were typical practices of idolators of the day, which the Gentile Christians needed to avoid). As James, despite his reputation in extra-biblical sources as very pious and strict Jew called “James the Just”, said, “we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” by imposing the Kosher food laws.

Jesus put his approval on the law and the prophets in Matthew 5:15–20.

Matthew 5:18—“not one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled”—can’t be teaching that all the Mosaic laws are still in force today, because it would prove too much, e.g. that we should be sacrificing animals for sin in the Temple today! No, Jesus fulfilled the Law, in the same way He fulfilled Isaiah 7:14 by being virginally conceived. This virginal conception prophecy is no longer in force today, meaning that we should not look for anyone else to fulfil it. But if this had been abolished, then no one would ever have fulfilled it. Similarly, Jesus was the fulfilment of the Mosaic Law by being the ultimate sacrifice for sin, which can now take sin away rather than merely cover it as the animal blood did (Hebrews 10). And because we are now no longer under the Levitical Priesthood, we are no longer under the Kosher food laws. In any case, we are not signatories to the Sinaitic Covenant, as explained in Is eating shellfish still an abomination?

This passage also endorses the inerrancy of Scripture, which is a different thing from current applicability. A “jot” was the Greek letter iota ἰῶτα ι which in the Hebrew alphabet was yod י. The “tittle” was the smallest stroke of a pen that would distinguish letters like ב (beit) and כ (kaph), or ד (dalet) and ר (resh).

Published: 1 September 2012


  1. The Greek New Testament, 4th Ed., edited by Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo Maria Martini and Bruce Metzger, Deutsche Biblegesellschaft/UBS, 1993. Return to text.
  2. France, R.T., The Gospel of Mark: A commentary on the Greek text (291–292). Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002. Return to text.
  3. Edwards, J.R., The Gospel according to Mark. The Pillar New Testament commentary (213). Grand Rapids, Mich; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002. Return to text.

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