Mark 7

Scripture: Mark 7:1-37


  • Some Pharisees and teachers of the law come down from Jerusalem to check out this Jesus guy
  • They observe that some of Jesus’ disciples aren’t following their rules for ritual hand washing
  • They ask Jesus about it and Jesus responds by telling them that they are hypocrites (yeouch!)
  • Jesus quotes a passage from Isaiah in which God condemns the Jews for giving him lip-service only because they are more interested in following their own rules rather than his
  • Jesus then reminds the Pharisees of a rule they created in which someone can dedicate something (like say a goat) as a gift to the temple, but in doing so are then unable to use that thing to help their parents (like say, sell or slaughter that goat). Jesus then points out how their man-made rule blocks God’s original commandment to “honor your mother and father”
  • Jesus turns to the crowd and tells them that external things don’t defile people, internal things do. What you put into your body isn’t important. It’s what comes out of your heart that matters
  • Jesus and his disciples then head to the vicinity of Tyre, but they can’t keep their presence secret and a Greek woman finds them and asks Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter
  • Jesus tells the woman that he came to help the Jews first, that “it’s not right to toss the children’s bread to the dogs”
  • The woman is persistent and says that even the dogs are allowed to eat the crumbs that spill over the edge of the table
  • Jesus grants her request and the woman’s daughter is healed
  • Heading into the region of the Decapolis, Jesus and crew run across a deaf and mute man whose friends want him to be healed
  • Jesus takes the afflicted man aside, touches his ears and tongue and says, “Be opened” and the man is healed
  • Amazement ensues

Historical Context:

Ritual washing

The ritual washing that Mark refers to is most likely the cleansing of the hands (up to the elbows) done by the Pharisees after they had been in the market. In an abundance of caution, the Pharisees attempted to wash away any exposure they may have had to possible sources of ritual impurity in the market to purify themselves before eating.[1]

In some religious sects, ritual bathing, or immersion of the whole person, was constantly practiced (such as the Essenes who  immersed daily and were thus called tovelei shaharit “dawn-bathers” or hemerobaptists “day-immersers”). A group thought to be connected to the Pharisees called the chaverim also immersed themselves fully before communal meals.[1]

William Barclay tells of a rabbi who was imprisoned by the Romans and who “used the water which was given to him for handwashing rather than for drinking, and in the end nearly perished from thirst, because he was determined to observe the rules of handwashing.”[2]

Isaiah 29:13

It is significant that Mark mentions that the Pharisees are from Jerusalem (7:1) because it directly relates to the passage in Isaiah that Jesus quotes, a passage in which God condemns David’s city to destruction for it’s inhabitants’ infidelity.

Jesus quotes this passage to emphasize that the Pharisees’ fear of God is coming from the over-emphasis of God’s wrath instead of God’s love. The Jews had created their own rules and are thinking that God won’t notice that the people are no longer listening to him, but to their man-made rules instead. This passage in Isaiah emphasizes that God’s commands are being treated like human orders, which we must obey out of fear of punishment, instead as instructions given to us out of love so we could live our life ‘to the full’.[1]


In Judaism, korban is the term for a variety of sacrificial offerings described and commanded in the Torah. Such sacrifices were offered in a variety of settings by the ancient Israelites, and later by the Jewish priesthood, the Kohanim, at the Temple in Jerusalem. A korban was usually an animal sacrifice, such as a sheep or a bull that underwent shechita (Jewish ritual slaughter), and was often cooked and eaten by the offerer, with parts given to the Kohanim and parts burned on the Temple altar. Korbanot could also consist of turtle-doves, grain, incense, fruit, and a variety of other offerings.[1]

Anything dedicated to the Temple under the pretense of korban forthwith belonged to the Temple, but only ideally; actually it might remain in the possession of the person who made the vow. Since a person’s offering may have been accompanied by a solemn oath, the offerer was no longer permitted from ever using the property offered to the Temple for the support of himself or anyone else even if the gift remained in his possession; so a son might be justified in not supporting his old parents simply because he designated his property or a part of it as a gift to the Temple, that is, as korban.[1]

Thus to say that something is korban is to say both that it is a gift to the Temple and that it is forbidden to others.[1]

In Jerome’s commentary, he says “The Lord commanded that poor parents should be supported by their children and that these should pay them back when old those benefits which they had themselves received in their childhood. The scribes and pharisees on the other hand taught the children to answer their parents by saying: It is Corban, that is to say, a gift which I have promised to the altar and engaged to present to the temple: it will relieve you as much there, as if I were to give it you directly to buy food. So it frequently happened that while father and mother were destitute their children were offering sacrifices for the priests and scribes to consume.”

Corban indicates how complexity had replaced simplicity in Judaism. Their elaborate laws had replaced the most basic of God’s commands.


The term “dogs” used by Jesus (kynaria) does not refer to wild and unkempt street dogs, but to small dogs taken in as house pets (this, the diminutive form of the word kyōn “dog” originally referred to puppies or little dogs, then later extended to lap dogs). Thus, it is not a derogatory term per se, but is instead intended by Jesus to indicate the privileged position of the Jews (especially His disciples) as the initial recipients of Jesus’ ministry.[1]

In first century Palestine, street dogs were regarded as scavengers and therefore unclean, but in well-to-do households influenced by Greek custom, dogs were sometimes considered as pets. Jesus is thus making an illustration here: the children of the house must be fed before the pets.[1]

The word “bed” used to describe where the young girl was found lying after she was healed (7:30) may also be translated “dining couch” which suggests a higher social level for the woman and her daughter. They may in fact have been owners of pets therefore the inspiration for Jesus’ analogy.[1]


In both the Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds, saliva was considered to have therapeutic properties. Early Roman historians, Tacitus and Suetonius, record a time when the emperor Vespasian was begged by a blind man to anoint his eyes with spittle. Also, in the Talmud, as a part of the law concerning the preparation of salt water on the Sabbath, the rabbis discuss in passing a prohibition on using saliva to heal eyes.[1]

Sighing was also part of a technique used by ancient healers, trying to exude their life force to give power to the words spoken so they could accomplish their task (the life force being breathed into a diseased or dormant person of object was itself the heart of various ancient magical rituals).[1]

Many magicians in antiquity recited strings of syllables, words, or phrases when performing their healings (ex. abracadabra); some of these formulas were even written and worn as amulets. Jesus, by contrast uses a common Aramaic word, “Ephphatha” which means “be opened.” Jesus is unique amongst healers in his day in that He does not use gibberish incantations when performing miracles, but rather makes a simple command in His own intelligible native speech.[1]

It is likely that Jesus touches the man’s ears and his tongue as a means of  communicating with the deaf, mute man that he was going to be healed. These signals would’ve been culturally acceptable gestures, and possibly necessary means of communication, to indicate to the man that healing was now available.[4]


  • Scribes are not a distinct sect from the Pharisees or Sadducees, but rather a type of profession that is common to both sects (though many scribes generally belonged to the Pharisaic sect); not all Pharisees were scribes and not all scribes were Pharisees.[1]
  • The presence of the scribes and Pharisees should be understood as the result of the hierarchy’s monitoring Jesus’ teachings with a view to finding fault. These were, in effect, spies sent out from Jerusalem.[2]
  • Only some of the disciples are accused of not washing themselves ritually. This may mean that the other disciples, and even Jesus himself, obeyed the Jewish food laws. It is interesting that the actions of a few of the disciples evoke opposition over religious obligations, yet Jesus still comes to their defense.[1]
  • The only hand washing required in the Old Testament for purposes of ritual impurity is that of priests before offering sacrifices (Exodus 30:18-21; 40:30-32).[1] The Pharisees, in their zeal to replicate temple holiness outside the temple, had extended this law to apply to all people before all meals.
  • Jesus calls them hypocrites (7:6), a compound Greek word (from two words “under” and “to judge”) used to describe actors playing a part behind a mask.[4] Jesus is accusing them of being like actors–hiding their real character behind a mask.[3]
  • The word translated as “defile” can also mean “communicate” and “share.” The idea is that the things coming out of a person ‘communicates’ or ‘shares’ (i.e. reveals) what he truly is. Thus Jesus’ words have another layer of meaning: one cannot see what goes inside another person’s body so how can it say anything about what that person is truly like?[1]
  • Though Mark comments parenthetically that Jesus had lifted the bans on food with this comment, this lifting of restrictions on diet was slow to be accepted. Up to a decade after Jesus said this Peter affirmed that he had never eaten “anything that is common and unclean” (Acts 10:14).[2]
  • The word translated as “envy” literally means “giving one the evil eye.” The idea of the evil eye is widespread in many cultures. The basic concept is that certain beings have the power of casting an evil spell on others or causing mishap to fall upon them by merely gazing at them, since the eye was believed to be the window on the heart or the soul and the channel through which one’s thoughts, emotions, desires or intentions could be conveyed. This concept is usually chiefly connected to envy or jealousy.[1]
  • “Folly” is from the Greek word “aselgeia,” which refers to the undisciplined soul–one who acknowledges no restraint, dares to perform any act of shame or lawlessness, and who lives in arrogant insolence without regard to considerations of decency or honor.[2]
  • The “vicinity of Tyre” refers to the lands bordering Galilee that were under the jurisdiction of Tyre. First century Jewish historian, Josephus, claims that Tyrians were “notoriously our bitterest enemies.” It is interesting that Jesus enters a territory that is not only primarily Gentile but also potentially hostile to him.[1]  This may speak to how desperatley Jesus sought relief from the crowds.
  • In the conversation with the Greek woman about the children and the bread, Jesus uses the word teknon (biological children) when referring to the “children’s bread,” while the woman uses the word paidion, a more inclusive word implying both ‘children’ and ‘servants’.[1] Note how she is immediately pushing back against the wall she’d come up against.
  • A few interesting notes about the Greek woman’s response to Jesus: (1) By placing herself under the children’s table, she laid claim to a place, lowly as it was, in the household of God. (2) She appealed not to the children, but to the master. The children, as represented by the apostles, had stood adamantly by, not interceding on the woman’s behalf, actually demanding that the Lord get rid of her (3) She identified the table as not belonging to the children but as “their master’s table.” God’s mercies did not derive from the chosen people but from himself.[2]
  • Jesus may have taken the deaf/mute man away from the crowd so that none would’ve considered the Lord’s healing to be accomplished magically.[2] The healing of someone in private would’ve also been contrary to the typical behavior of a miracle worker of the day who would’ve hoped to make money from the crowd for such an event.


  • The Pharisees saw ritual washing as a way of declaring their holiness, and were offended when Jesus didn’t agree with how they publicly identified themselves as holy. In which ways do we publicly define holiness today (ex. no smoking, no drinking, no swearing, etc.)? What “traditions” have we added to our faith to ensure we appear to be holy? What is the difference between internal holiness and external holiness and how can we tell the difference? What does this say about those who don’t follow Jesus but display exceptional morality anyway?
  • Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites, or actors, and says (via Isaiah) that they are even trying to fool God with their false holiness. What masks do we wear today? What pretense do we put on in an attempt to fool God into thinking that we’re holy?
  • The Greek woman is called a dog after asking Jesus for healing for her daughter, but pursues her original request anyway. How persistent are we with God? This is the second such story (see the healing of the bleeding woman in chapter 5) in which Jesus seems to have another priority in mind, but is waylaid by an instant woman and grants her request. What do you think Mark wanted to communicate to his audience with these stories?
  • Jesus’ healing seem to follow no predictable formula. Some people he touches, some he heals from a distance. Some he seems to enact some of the healing/medicinal rituals of his day (e.g. the deaf/mute man), whereas others have no ritualistic precedent. What does this say about Jesus’ actions in relation to those he healed? What does this say about how God acts towards those in need? What does this say about what we should expect from God?


  1. Catholic Answers Forum
  2. Coffman’s Commentary
  3. Free Bible Commentary
  4. Utley’s Commentary