Mark 7


‘The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) So, the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, ‘Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?’ He replied, ‘Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.’ And he continued, ‘You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)—then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus, you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.’ Mark 7:1-13

The Pharisees

The word ‘Pharisee’ is from a Greek word ‘pharisaios’ taken from the Hebrew, Aramaic ‘Perisha’, meaning ‘Separated one.’ In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were one of the three chief Jewish sects, the others were the Sadducees and the Essenes. Of the three, the Pharisees were the most separated from the ways of the foreign influences that were invading Judaism, and from the ways of the common Jewish people in the land.

The sect of Pharisees is thought to have originated in the 3rd century B.C., in days preceding the Maccabean wars, when under Greek domination and the Greek effort to Hellenize the Jews, there was a strong tendency among the Jews to accept Greek culture with its pagan religious customs. The rise of the Pharisees was a reaction and protest against this tendency among their fellow kinsmen. Their aim was to preserve their national integrity and strict conformity to Mosaic law. They later developed into self-righteous and hypocritical formalists. Later they were among those who had condemned Jesus to death.

During the time of Zerubbabel and Ezra there was a clear call to separation from foreigners and anything unclean. Some verses that clearly indicate separation during this time period is, Ezra 6:21 / Nehemiah 9:2

Although it isn’t absolutely clear when the name of ‘Pharisees’ had actually been given to a religious group within Judaism, it seems like during these early times there were those who had intended to preserve the Law by having a stricter view of uncleanness, not only from the uncleanness of the heathen but from that with which they believed had affected the great portion of Israel.

As the priests and scribes were attempting to determine the inner development of Judaism after the captivity they apparently became more and more separated from the ways of the foreigners as the Lord had prescribed.

Sometime during the Maccabean period, groups within Judaism had sharply contrasted with each other and two religious parties were developed from them. The Sadduceean party came from the ranks of the priests, the party of the Pharisees from the scribes. The Pharisees were more concerned with legal issues and the Sadducees with their social position.

It appears that during the Greek period, the chief priests and rulers of the people began to neglect the law; the Pharisees united themselves and became an association that made a duty of the law’s meticulous observance.

They appear in the time of John Hyrcanus, 135-105 B.C. under the name of ‘Pharisees,’ no longer on the side of the Maccabees but in hostile opposition to them, because the Maccabeans’ chief concern was no longer the carrying out of the law but extending their own political power.

The Pharisees had won the favour of the nation, and even Queen Alexandra, recognizing religious authority and seeking her own peace for her people, abandoned the power to the Pharisees even though Alexander Jannaeus had tried to exterminate them with the  word. This was a major turning point which brought the whole conduct of internal affairs into their hands. All the decrees of the Pharisees put away by Hyrcanus were reintroduced, and they completely ruled the public life of the nation. This continued for generations to come.

Even with the changes of government under the Romans and Herodians the Pharisees maintained their spiritual authority. Although the Sadduceean high priests were at the head of the Sanhedrin, the decisive influence upon public affairs was in the hands of the Pharisees.

How fearfully the prophecy of destruction that Jesus had foretold was fulfilled! In a few brief years, the Roman legions of the Emperor Titus utterly destroyed the city and its glorious temple. Over a million Jews perished in the siege in a few days, and a hundred thousand more were taken away in captivity.

Without its marvellous temple, the Jewish religion was forced to take on a new character, and after the final Jewish rebellion, 132 A.D. all hope of rebuilding the temple was lost, and the work of these rabbis took a different direction.

The Mishnah, compiled by the Patriarch Judah, 200 A.D., which is the final work of these rabbis, began a final work in the history of Jewish scholarship. It is a monument of Pharisaic scholarship and a testimony to the final triumph of Pharisaism, which now is compiled into the ‘Talmud’ which has become synonymous with Judaism.


The ‘Scribes’ were copyists of the Scriptures and because of their minute acquaintance with the Law they became recognised authorities. They were sometimes called ‘lawyers.’ Scribes and Pharisees were the religious leaders of the nation. The incredible influence of the Pharisees among the masses cannot be mistaken.

They were the most honoured in Judaism at the time of Christ. The Pharisees and scribes challenged the disciples because they ate with unwashed hands. The issue here wasn’t hygiene, but religious ritual. The Pharisees had developed elaborate cleansing procedures that they believed were a part of God’s will.

The truth is, God had never commanded these washings; they originated with the doctrines and traditions of men.

Jesus answered His critics by pointing out the difference between God-given commandments and human traditions. He showed that their insistence on following rules established by men caused them to actually break God’s law. He cited the case of ‘Corban.’ This was a Jewish tradition that prohibited a person from using his resources to provide for his aging parents if he had previously declared those resources ‘dedicated’ to God. Their obedience to men’s doctrines led them to disregard God’s will.


The big question was, how authoritative is the oral law?

The Pharisees accepted the oral law along with the Torah, and it was believed to be equally inspired and authoritative, and all of the explanatory and supplementary material produced by, and contained within were the oral tradition. This material began to emerge during the Babylonian Captivity that was brought upon the Jewish people.

The Captivity was explained as divine punishment for the neglect of the law, and many during this period earnestly turned to the law. During the Captivity or Exile, detailed commentaries on the law appeared in the form of innumerable and highly specific restrictions that were designed to ‘build a hedge’ around the written Torah and thus guard against any possible violation of the Torah by ignorance or accident.

The situation that the Jews were in, ‘Post-Exilic Period’, and how they were to deal with it exactly, wasn’t clearly written in the Torah, according to some Jewish authorities. A new legislation had to be produced from that which already existed. It was like an evolution of traditions that would continue to grow, and would finally achieve written form as the ‘Mishnah’ in 200 A.D.

During the time of Jesus, the oral law came to be revered so highly that it was said to go back to Moses himself and to have been transmitted over the centuries orally, paralleling the written law that also derived from him. This is exactly what the Pharisees believed, and also it was these ‘traditions’ that Jesus condemned.

The Jewish historian, Josephus said several times that the Pharisees were ‘experts in the interpretation of the Law’.

Of the various sects, the Pharisees were regarded as ‘the most accurate interpreters of the laws’ and also were known for their austerity of life. Josephus further specifies that it was exactly this obsession with ‘regulations handed down by former generations and not recorded in the Laws of Moses’ that constituted the breach between the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

Jesus continually referred to the oral law as the ‘tradition of the elders’ or the ‘tradition of men’, Matthew 15:1-9 / Mark 7:1-23. Some examples in the New Testament alluding to the scrupulous concern of the Pharisees with the minutia of their legalism are.

The tithing of herbs, Matthew 23:23 / Luke 11:42. The wearing of conspicuous phylacteries and tassels, Matthew 23:5. The careful observance of ritual purity, Mark 7:1ff. Frequent fasting’s, Matthew 9:14. Distinctions in oaths, Matthew 23:16ff.

The scrupulous details of the minutia of the law are easily seen in the Mishnah. This encyclopaedia of Pharisaic legalism instructs the reader with incredible detail concerning every conceivable area of conduct. The legal material of the Mishnah is described as ‘Halacha’, literally ‘walking’, that which prescribes, as contrasted with the other basic type of material in oral tradition especially in the ‘Gemaras’ and ‘Midrash’ known as ‘Haggadah’, or that which edifies and instructs.

Under the direction of their scribes, the Pharisees tended to multiply ‘Halacha’. This concern for every jot and tittle of performance might give the impression that the Pharisees were excessively rigid and intolerant.

It is interesting to note that in their interpretation of the written Torah they often were more liberal than the literalist Sadducees. There was often disagreement among them concerning the oral law, which in the eyes of the Pharisees was just as important, if not even more important than the written law.

In the last decades of the 1st century B.C. there sprang up two rival schools of interpretation among the Pharisees. The one, led by Shammai, was very stringent and unbendingly conservative; the other, led by Hillel, was very liberal and willing to ‘reconcile’ the laws with the actual situations of everyday life.

The Mishnah records this rivalry between the two schools often to illustrate truth. In fact, in the New Testament it seems that when the Pharisees brought difficult questions to Jesus they were relating to the disputes between these two schools of interpretation, e.g., divorce, Matthew 19:3 ff. It’s also interesting that many Jewish scholars have compared Jesus with Hillel in such a way that Jesus could be regarded as a disciple of Hillel.

When Jesus answered, the question posed by the Pharisees concerning divorce, Matthew 19:9. He apparently agreed with Shammai against Hillel. Hillel made a statement similar to Jesus’ summary of the law.

It is kind of a negative formulation of the Golden Rule, ‘What you would not have done to thyself do not to another; that is the whole law, the rest is commentary’.

Before the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. it seems that the harsher attitude of the followers of Shammai tended to prevail among the Pharisees, but after the catastrophe the meek attitude of the followers of Hillel had won out. The division among the Pharisees had come to an end.

Although the oral law of the Pharisees and its ‘microscopic precepts’ was condemned by Jesus as a ‘burden’ that is impossible for men to carry, the work is quite impressive. This is true not only of the scope, the complexity of structure, and the inventiveness, not to say genius, of its exegesis, but also as a monumental expression of concern for preservation and righteousness.

The bottom line is that the most significant issues in the Law were lost in the trivial details of Pharisaic tradition. Any system that is governed by rules will ultimately fail. Only in the New Testament and in the teachings of Christ do we see that it is ‘the mercy of God which leads us unto repentance.’

Notice that Jesus calls them ‘hypocrites’.

A number of different things might pop to mind when we hear the word ‘hypocrite.’ Maybe it’s a politician caught in a scandal, maybe it’s a religious leader doing something counter to their creed, maybe it’s a scheming and conniving character featured in soap operas. But it’s likely that the one thing that doesn’t come to mind is the theatre.

The word ‘hypocrite’ ultimately came into English from the Greek word ‘hypokrites’, which means ‘an actor’ or ‘a stage player.’ The Greek word itself is a compound noun, it’s made up of two Greek words that literally translate as ‘an interpreter from underneath.’

That bizarre compound makes more sense when you know that the actors in ancient Greek theatre wore large masks to mark which character they were playing, and so they interpreted the story from underneath their masks.

The Greek word took on an extended meaning to refer to any person who was wearing a figurative mask and pretending to be someone or something they were not. This sense was taken into medieval French and then into English, where it showed up with its earlier spelling, ‘ypocrite’, in 13th century religious texts to refer to someone who pretends to be morally good or pious in order to deceive others.

Hypocrite gained its initial ‘h’ by the 16th century. It took a surprisingly long time for hypocrite to gain its more general meaning that we use today, ‘a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings.’ Our first citations for this use are from the early 1700’s, nearly 500 years after hypocrite first stepped onto English’s stage.

Men’s doctrines vs. God’s commands

Men continue to follow their own traditions and doctrines rather than God’s Word. Just like the scribes and Pharisees, people today believe that their doctrines actually are God’s will. They haven’t learned how to distinguish between unnecessary rules and binding commands. Jesus showed how easy it is to tell the difference, look at their source!

Any religious practice or teaching that comes from man is wrong, those which come from God are right. We should examine everything we do to see whether it comes from God or man. Everything from God is in the Bible. So, if what I believe isn’t taught by Scripture, I can know it must be from man.

‘Again, Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.’ After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. ‘Are you so dull?’ he asked. ‘Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.’ (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) He went on: ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.’ Mark 7:14-23

The Pharisees focused primarily on external things, but Jesus showed that what actually defiles a person are the things inside his heart. In the Bible, the heart refers to the mind or spirit of man. Every sin germinates and grows within man’s spirit and is then expressed in external action.

In this way, the Lord showed how foolish it was for the Pharisees to be frantically seeking external purity by a ritual hand washing procedure. This principle also proved that God no longer had rules prohibiting the eating of certain foods.

We need a heart check-up

Jesus’ words should motivate us to carefully examine our own heart. Heart disease is a warning symptom, and if not detected and cured, will result in all manner of sin. Jesus warned about greed, envy, pride, and lust. These attitudes are wrong, and must be checked at their onset. We must care for our heart by feeding on the pure Word of God and constantly seeking the Lord.

‘Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. ‘First let the children eat all they want,’ he told her, ‘for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.’ ‘Lord,’ she replied, ‘even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he told her, ‘For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.’ She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.’ Mark 7:24-30

In this chapter, probably a chapter more difficult to understand than anything else we may encounter in Mark’s record, we see Jesus ‘escaping’ from the vast crowds who literally pursued Him where-ever He went in Galilee. This wasn’t the only occasion when He sought to get away for a time of quietness and recuperation.

Tyre and Sidon were the two most important cities, north of Galilee, in what was earlier known as the ‘Phoenician Empire’. The Lord had entered territory which was formerly Canaan and Gentile territory. Today we know it as Syria.

Why did He go there, when, as He actually said, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ Matthew 15:24 and, when He sent out His disciples, He expressly told them, ‘Do not go to the Gentiles’, Matthew 19:5.

He certainty didn’t want it to be known that He was there, and, just as certainly, He wouldn’t be ‘mobbed’, as He was in Jewish territory. The house into which He entered was a Gentile house, because no Jew would have lived in that region. Whatever His reason for visiting that region He was recognised by one woman, with the result that ‘He could not keep his presence secret’.

The persistence and clamour of this woman, who demanded His attention, brought Him to the attention of the people! In response to her worshipful petition He quoted Isaiah 29:13 from the Septuagint version. This was virtually the Authorized Version of the Old Testament widely used in Judea at that time.

Although, she probably wasn’t familiar with the Jewish Scriptures, and she is unlikely to have spoken Aramaic, she certainly understood the Greek that He used. Jesus was bilingual.

Remember that Galilee was the region known as the Decapolis, where the inhabitants had used Greek as a second language since the time of Alexander.

Although, at first glance, it seems that He treated the woman coldly, and used the word ‘dogs’ to refer to Gentiles in the usual Jewish manner, He softened the word by using the diminutive form, speaking of ‘the little clogs’.

Professor F. F. Bruce even suggested that Jesus may have had a twinkle in his eyes, as He used the word! perhaps He was testing her, and, in any case, we mustn’t suppose that by using that expression He was approving the contemptible attitude that the Jews displayed towards other races. She would be perfectly aware of what the Jews would think of her!

Whatever may have been the reason for the Lord’s use of the expression, the woman quickly took up the Scripture quotation in her reply. ‘Yes! But even the little dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall from the table!’.

We encounter an expression something similar to this in the story of the Rich man and Lazarus, in Luke’s record of the sayings of Jesus. In Luke 16, it is used to describe the pieces of bread on which the diners wiped their hands, and threw to the ‘unclean’ dogs that waited for them. Remember that the Jews didn’t keep dogs as house-pets in those days!

The word which in this chapter has been translated ‘crumbs’, probably would be better rendered ‘scraps’, because there was no Greek word that could be accurately translated ‘crumbs’ in our sense of the word.

The only two people whose faith was commended by the Lord in His recorded ministry, were a Roman Centurion and a Syro-Phoenician woman. Two Gentiles!

At first, Jesus refused, He said that it ‘wasn’t good to take bread from the children and feed it to the dogs’. What He meant was that according to God’s plan it wasn’t time yet to heal and teach the Gentiles, the Jews, ‘the children’ were the ones God intended to be the recipients of the bread, ‘healings and blessings in general’ first. God planned that later on through the Jewish people the Gospel would be introduced to the Gentiles.

This woman showed great faith, humility and quickness because she responded, ‘Yes, but even the dogs under the table get to eat the crumbs’.

She implied that just a mere crumb of Jesus’ miraculous power would be sufficient to heal her daughter. She also recognised that this didn’t signal the beginning of a major Gentile campaign. As a result, Jesus healed her daughter. The conversation had made it clear that she wouldn’t misinterpret the healing as a sign that the time for the Gentiles had come.

‘Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him. After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, ‘Ephphatha!’ (which means ‘Be opened!’). At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened, and he began to speak plainly. Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. People were overwhelmed with amazement. ‘He has done everything well,’ they said. ‘He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.’ Mark 7:31-37

In avoiding the region that was governed by Herod Antipas, Jesus returned to the area of Galilee, Matthew 15:29. You undoubtedly noticed that Jesus used an unusual procedure to heal this deaf man.

After taking him away from the crowd, Jesus put His fingers into the man’s ears, and touched the man’s tongue with His own saliva. Apparently, Jesus was using ‘sign language’ to communicate with him, and to let him know who was about to heal him. Had Jesus not done this, the man would have suddenly begun to hear, but wouldn’t have understood why.

This man couldn’t speak clearly because he was deaf. In private, Jesus signalled to the man by touching his ears and tongue because the man couldn’t hear. The word, ‘Ephphatha’ was an Aramaic expression that means ‘to be opened.’ Aramaic was possibly the language Jesus and the disciples spoke as their common language.

Notice that there was no prolonged healing indicated here. A true miracle is defined by the instantaneous result of its effect. A miracle was defined by being openly perceived by others who couldn’t deny it. This was the case with this miracle, Acts 4:14-16 / Acts 7:36-37.

Jesus commands them not to tell anyone because was simply to discourage people from coming to Him only for healing, Mark 5:43. Miracles were for the primary purpose of confirming God’s messengers and message, Mark 16:17-20 / John 20:30-31.

As a result of this healing the were utterly astonished and the extent of their astonishment measured the undeniable evidence of the miracle. A true miracle is so definite and obvious that it affects one intellectually and emotionally.

It was an occurrence that changed the lives of sincere people. The multitude’s affirmation was absolutely correct, ‘He has done everything well!’

Go To Mark 8



"For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline."

2 Timothy 1:7