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In Acts 10, why does Peter not already know that he can eat foods previously regarded as 'unclean'?

Acts 10:13-15: And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.

In Mark 7:15, Jesus taught that what we eat can not defile us, then in 7:19, he further explained this to the disciples (quite specifically including Peter: Matthew 15:15). As Bob Utley succinctly explains, Jesus "is nullifying the food code of Lev. 11," so it seems Peter ought to have known this:

Mark 7:15: There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.

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In Acts 10, why does Peter not already know that he can eat foods previously regarded as 'unclean'?

Because Peter was aware that Jesus did not nullify the food laws of Leviticus 11.

In Mark 7, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees and scribes for condemning those who eat with "unwashed" hands. Jesus does not rebuke any of the dietary laws, but only the addition of requiring "washed hands" before eating. This kind of addition was actually prohibited by Moses:

“Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I teach you to observe, that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the Lord God of your fathers is giving you. 2 You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you." -Deuteronomy 4:1-2 (NKJV)

While God did command that certain things should not be eaten in Leviticus 11 (such as pigs, camels, rabbits, etc.), there was never a command that you must wash your hands in a special way before eating:

1 Then the Pharisees and some of the scribes came together to Him, having come from Jerusalem. 2 Now when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault. 3 For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches. -Mark 7:1-4 (NKJV)

Jesus corrected the false view that not washing your hands before eating defiled you. This is made explicit in Matthew's gospel:

17 Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated? 18 But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. 19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. 20 These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.” -Matthew 15:17-20 (NKJV)

In fact, it was Peter himself who was the one to ask Jesus for clarification about this incident:

Then Peter answered and said to Him, “Explain this parable to us.” -Matthew 15:15

Also note that in both Matthew 15 and Mark 7 the disciples are only mentioned eating bread, so this is even more evidence that Jesus was not referring to laws such as those found in Leviticus 11, which concern different kinds of flesh foods:

1 Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, 2 “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” -Matthew 15:1-2 (NKJV)

1 Then the Pharisees and some of the scribes came together to Him, having come from Jerusalem. 2 Now when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault. -Mark 7:1-2 (NKJV)

Unfortunately Bob Utley is mistaken, for even in Revelation God still makes a distinction between the 'clean' and the 'unclean' when one of His angels cries out against Babylon:

After these things I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth was illuminated with his glory. 2 And he cried mightily with a loud voice, saying, “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and has become a dwelling place of demons, a prison for every foul spirit, and a cage for every unclean and hated bird! -Revelation 18:1-2 (NKJV)

While Peter did initially wonder about the meaning of his vision in Acts 10,

Now while Peter wondered within himself what this vision which he had seen meant, behold, the men who had been sent from Cornelius had made inquiry for Simon’s house, and stood before the gate. -Acts 10:17 (NKJV)

he realizes and explains the true meaning shortly thereafter:

Then he [Peter] said to them [Cornelius & friends], “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. -Acts 10:28

Summary

Jesus did not nullify the food laws of Leviticus 11. Peter knew this, and is why he initially wondered over the meaning of his vision in Acts 10. But he soon realizes the true meaning of the vision: that it was not about animals or food at all, but instead that he should call no man common or unclean.


Addendum

A comment asked about Mark 7:19, where Jesus declares all foods clean. I have quoted from several versions and marked verse 19 in bold below.

NKJV17 When He had entered a house away from the crowd, His disciples asked Him concerning the parable. 18 So He said to them, “Are you thus without understanding also? Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, 19 because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?

NIV17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 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.)

ESV17 And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)

My response is specific to the rendering of "he declared all foods clean." As mentioned in the main section of my answer, this conflict was over unwashed hands and that the disciples were only eating bread to begin with. The phrase "Thus he declared all foods [βρωματα] clean" uses the word "βρωματα" for "foods."

Thayer's definition for βρωματα (βρωματα is the plural of βρωμα):

  1. that which is eaten, food

So the last clause of verse 19 in the NIV/ESV is saying: _"Thus he declared all that which is eaten clean" as in, all that which is eaten can be eaten without having to wash your hands in a special way.

βρωματα does not exclude flesh foods, with the context of a situation indicating whether or not flesh foods would be thought of when the word is used. But my point is twofold:

  1. the disciples were only eating bread so flesh foods were not even being considered, and
  2. even if flesh foods were being considered, "unclean" flesh foods would not have been since "unclean" flesh foods were not to be eaten to begin with. Thus βρωματα, that which is eaten, would definitely exclude all "unclean" flesh foods in Mark 7:19.
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    A good but, I think, incomplete answer. It is true that in this discourse, Jesus dealt with several issues in combination, but what needs to be addressed in your answer is (Mark 7:15) "There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him." Can you explain why you believe theologians such as Utley are wrong in their interpretation that this revokes the food laws? – Dick Harfield Sep 21 '16 at 21:33
  • @DickHarfield - Utley says that Jesus abrogated the foods laws. If that were true: 1) Peter would not have refused the unclean things offered to him in his vision in Acts 10, because not only was Peter present during the events of Matt 15 / Mark 7, it was Peter himself who asked for clarification; and 2) as my answer already pointed out, Jesus was only saying that not washing your hands before eating does not defile you. The complaint of the Pharisees & scribes and subsequent response by Jesus were about unwashed hands only and not about clean or unclean foods. – Bʀɪᴀɴ Sep 21 '16 at 23:36
  • @DickHarfield - Jesus is saying in Mark 7:15, "There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him [without first washing his hands] can defile him." The disciples were only eating bread, and as such the clean vs unclean foods of Lev 11 were not even part of the discussion. This story in Matt 15 & Mark 7 is about unwashed hands only. Peter understood this and is why he objected to partaking of any of the unclean things offered to him in Acts 10. – Bʀɪᴀɴ Sep 21 '16 at 23:46
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    @BrianWeigand - maybe I'm missing something. But what then are we to make of verse 19: "in saying this Jesus declared all foods clean"? – L0ckz0r Sep 22 '16 at 2:08
  • @L0ckz0r As far as I know, that clause is not in any Greek manuscripts, but is so widely accepted that this is what Jesus was saying that the clause has been added to many Bibles for clarity. If Brian is expressing an opinion he is in a minority, which is why I ask him to show more fully how he arrived at his answer from the texts before us. – Dick Harfield Sep 22 '16 at 2:48
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It is unthinkable to interpret that Jesus would openly violate Mosaic law there; rather it was only a homiletical teaching against legalistic hypocritical traditions of Pharisees. See this repeated question for the answers https://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/24996/in-mark-713-19-are-we-to-understand-that-hebrew-food-laws-given-by-moses-were

  • Your answer appears to say that it was not open to Jesus to revoke the Mosaic laws, but that they could be revoked by Peter on the basis of a vision he had while in a hunger-induced trance. Is that correct? – Dick Harfield Sep 22 '16 at 2:49
  • Yes; the reason why Peter's vision warrants the abolishing of Mosaic law is the time of it; since new covenant has been established through as Christ accomplished his mission; thereby nailing the law to the cross. Christ couldn't possibly break the law. (Matt 5:17) – Michael16 Sep 22 '16 at 10:35
  • Do we know that Peter's vision had God's imprimatur, especially if even Jesus did not? – Dick Harfield Sep 22 '16 at 21:47
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Mark 7:18-19 reads:

18 And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)

The parenthetical note "Thus he declared all foods clean," seems to be a conclusion of the gospel writer based on later reflection upon Jesus words, perhaps shaped by subsequent events such as Peter's vision in Acts 10.

Traditionally, Peter is the source of Mark's gospel, and it is interesting that only Mark's account adds the explanatory comment "Thus he declared all foods clean."

It is not necessary to conclude that the disciples grasped the full implications of what Jesus said when he said it. The gospels are full of examples of the disciples not understanding Jesus actions and words. The preceding and following chapters both highlight the disciples' lack of understanding, both in regard to food as well:

for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. (Mark 6:52)

And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? (Mark 8:17)

In Mark 7, Christ is responding to the Pharisees accusation that the disciples did not eat with washed hands. Saying "whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him" in that context would not immediately lead his Jewish listeners to conclude that he meant a Jew could now have pickled pigs' feet or a lobster dinner.

Just as it was unthinkable that the Messiah would die, it was unthinkable that the Mosaic food codes would be abolished. These were blind spots that inevitably colored everything Jesus said. It would take Holy Spirit, reflection, repetition, and even visions of God commanding them to eat unclean foods before they realized that Jesus many years earlier had already "declared all foods clean."

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1. Question Restatement :

In Acts 10, why does Peter not already know that he can eat foods previously regarded as 'unclean'?


2. Possible Answer, It is possible that Peter might have forgotten or misunderstood :

In the same context, The Holy Spirit fell on Peter - again - to remind him of what Jesus said :

There is a Scriptural basis to assert that Jesus taught - a lot:

NASB, John 21:25 - And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.

Jesus also indicated that it would be necessary to help them remember:

NASB, John 14:26 - But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.

NASB, Acts 11:15 - And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ...

And - There is Scriptural basis to show that the disciples often misinterpreted Jesus, even very plain things:

NASB, Matthew 16:11 - How is it that you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread?

NASB, John 21:23 - Therefore this saying went out among the brethren that that disciple would not die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?”

Conclusion:

So yes, it might have taken a brutally direct divine intervention - and not just sermons on the road - to break through the huge contradiction that Peter was faced with, in Acts 10.

It is generally accepted that people can be dismissive / forgetful of difficult truths, when they have hardened their hearts - especially through indoctrination :

Acts 10:14 - "By no means, Lord, for I have never ...!"

NASB, Mark 8:17 - And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet see or understand? Do you have a hardened heart?

  • I'm afraid I have multiple issues with this answer. 1. Why is it understandable that Peter forgot something as important as this? 2. A single sentence is not adequate in a hermeneutic answer. It would probably be helpful to talk about Acts 10:13-15 and perhaps also Mark 7:15 to explain the likelihood, in your view, of this happening. 3. It is unclear how John 14:26, 21:25 relate to this question. I think - but I'm not sure - that you imply in 14:26 that Peter should remember, and in 21:25 that there is too much for him to remember everything - contradictory? – Dick Harfield Apr 20 '17 at 21:12
  • You say (Jn 14:26) that the Holy Spirit would "bring to your remembrance all that I said to you." In Acts, did this not happen before chapter 10 (is Acts 2:1-4). After this, they recalled everything Jesus had said? – Dick Harfield Apr 20 '17 at 21:43
  • If you will accept some advice: Your answer is clearly speculation, even to "Possible Answer, It is possible..." Speculation is not hermeneutics and so this answer does not really belong here. In this context, I would rather have a wrong answer that uses hermeneutics than a right answer based on guesswork. – Dick Harfield Apr 20 '17 at 21:57
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Peter did not know that he could eat foods that are lawfully unclean because nobody ever told him such a thing. Yeshua says:

Nothing there is from outside the man entering into him which us able to make common him. But the things out of the man proceeding are the things making common the man

οὐδέν ἐστιν ἔξωθεν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου εἰσπορευόμενον εἰς αὐτὸν ὃ δύναται κοινῶσαι αὐτόν· ἀλλὰ τὰ ἐκ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκπορευόμενά ἐστιν τὰ κοινοῦντα τὸν ἄνθρωπον

Yeshua doesn't say that nothing can make us unclean. He says nothing entering into the body can make us common. In Acts, it says:

The moreover Peter said, In no way Lord, for never have I eaten anything common or unclean

ὁ δὲ Πέτρος εἶπεν, μηδαμῶς, κύριε, ὅτι οὐδέποτε ἔφαγον πᾶν κοινὸν καὶ ἀκάθαρτον

And a voice again for the second time said to him, What the God has cleansed you call not common

καὶ φωνὴ πάλιν ἐκ δευτέρου πρὸς αὐτόν, ἃ ὁ θεὸς ἐκαθάρισεν σὺ μὴ κοίνου

What Peter saw was a net fall from heaven with all sorts of clean and unclean animals touching each other. To the Jew, if an unclean animal touched a clean animal, the clean animal was considered koinos, or common. There is nothing in the Law about anything called "common". However, to a Jew that was raised their entire lives believing in something called koinos, this would have been a horrific sight.

The voice tells Peter to eat, and Peter says he has never eaten anything that is common or "unclean". The word for unclean is ἀκάθαρτον, and these things are Lawfully unclean. When the voice responds, it doesn't say "don't call anything unclean", it only says "don't call anything common".

The Gentiles were considered common, and that is why the Jews were so upset that Peter sat next to them in Acts 11:2. To sit with a common Gentile would make the Jew common, and to the Jew, this was just as bad as being unclean. But Peter explains to them his vision and how it has been shown to him that no man is to be called common, and the Jews rejoiced because they all realized that the Gentiles were also granted repentance to life.

Other than that, Brain did an excellent job explaining the rest of what Yeshua was talking about. If Yeshua spoke against the Law, then Peter should have turned away and not listened to another word he said. Actually, according to Deuteronomy 13, Yeshua would have needed to be put to death. Fortunately, Yeshua never spoke against his Father's Law, because His Law is perfect.

  • My reading is that what Peter saw was not an actual net but only a vision of a net, and that he "doubted in himself what this vision which he had seen should mean." Are you saying that all we have to go on, in failing to follow the Law, is a vision that even Peter had doubted - and not the teaching of Jesus? – Dick Harfield Sep 22 '16 at 21:52
  • Well, of course it was a vision. I guess I should have added that detail but I didn't think about it. I'm not sure I understand your question. I'm saying that none of this has anything to do with the Law being "abolished". If a Gentile wishes to follow the Jewish Messiah, then he should desire to learn and follow the Law given by the God of the Jews. If Peter taught that we do not have to follow the Law, then he should have been put to death. If Yeshua taught against the Law, then he was rightly put to death. – Cannabijoy Sep 22 '16 at 22:23
  • @DickHarfield says "Peter had doubted". Yes, he didn't understand what the vision meant. Then later, in Acts 10:28, he finally does understand it, and it has nothing at all to do with food: And he said unto them, Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but *God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean*. – Ray Butterworth Jan 18 at 14:30
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If this is interpreted that Gentiles are to be accepted, then is the acceptance limited only to him as a person and not other aspects like his food preference? The vision of Peter is a literal instruction for him to eat what is considered unclean so is it right to treat this a mere figure of speech or symbolic only?

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    Welcome to BH.SE! Please take the tour to get a feel for how the site functions. This response would be more appropriate on a discussion site. In its current form, your answer is likely to be deleted. – enegue Oct 13 '17 at 12:37
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The (falacious) argument:

  1. In Mark 7:15, Christ nullified the Levitical dietary laws.

  2. Peter would have known about #1.

  3. In Acts 10, Peter doesn't know that the Levitical dietary laws no longer bind.

  4. Acts 10 occured some time after #2.

  5. Therefore we have a contradiction, since #2 implies that Peter already knew that the dietary laws were gone but #3 and #4 imply that he didn't.

The problem with the above argument is that Premise #1 is false. Here are some reasons why.


"What goes into a man doesn't defile him" ≠ You can eat whatever you want

In his Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas discusses this saying of Christ and its relation to the capital sin of gluttony. He explains that the food itself does not defile a man, but that the inordinate desire for food (gluttony, unwillingness to obey God's precepts, etc.) defiles a man.

Objection 1. It would seem that gluttony is not a sin. For our Lord said (Matthew 15:11): "Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man." Now gluttony regards food which goes into a man. Therefore, since every sin defiles a man, it seems that gluttony is not a sin.

...

I answer that, Gluttony denotes, not any desire of eating and drinking, but an inordinate desire. Now desire is said to be inordinate through leaving the order of reason, wherein the good of moral virtue consists: and a thing is said to be a sin through being contrary to virtue. Wherefore it is evident that gluttony is a sin.

Reply to Objection 1. That which goes into man by way of food, by reason of its substance and nature, does not defile a man spiritually. But the Jews, against whom our Lord is speaking, and the Manichees deemed certain foods to make a man unclean, not on account of their signification, but by reason of their nature [Cf. I-II:102:6 ad 1]. It is the inordinate desire of food that defiles a man spiritually.

How might have this principle applied in pre-Crucifixion Israel, still bound by the Mosaic Law? For the sake of argument, imagine a devout Israelite living in 500 BC. Imagine that, as a kind of sick joke, some pagan secretly places a small piece of bacon in his food. The Israelite unwittingly eats the bacon. Oh snap! He just broke God's commandment! Right? Well.... sort of. I think almost any reasonable person would agree that the Israelite would not have been defiled with sin in this case. (Although he may have contracted ceremonial uncleanness.)

Now, if the Israelite deliberately decided to eat bacon in order to satisfy his taste buds, God's commandments notwithstanding, it would have been a completely different story.

The context of Mark's Gospel as a whole supports this understanding of Mark 7:15, because Jesus was speaking to Pharisees. Mark presents the scribes/Pharisees as evil men who show off by external legal observances, yet internally have wicked hearts. They are portrayed as men of show. A Pharisee would probably be quick to condemn the Israelite for eating a piece of bacon unwittingly, but would be slow to condemn himself for any interior disordered desires.

Although this line of reasoning doesn't entirely eliminate the possibility, it nevertheless renders Premise #1 doubtful.


Before Christ's death on the cross, the Mosaic law was still binding

(Mark 1:44) And he [Jesus] saith to him: See thou tell no one; but go, shew thyself to the high priest, and offer for thy cleansing the things that Moses commanded, for a testimony to them.

(Matthew 5:18) For amen I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot, or one tittle shall not pass of the law, till all be fulfilled.


With the death of Christ, the Mosaic Law ceased to bind

We read that when Christ gave up the ghost, there was an earthquake and the veil in the temple (separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies) was torn. Several Church Fathers understood this as symbolizing the end of the Old Covenant, with its ceremonies and precepts.

To quote Thomas Aquinas again,

Objection 2. Further, the offering made by a leper after being cleansed was a ceremony of the Law. But the Gospel commands the leper, who has been cleansed, to make this offering (Matthew 8:4). Therefore the ceremonies of the Old Law did not cease at Christ's coming.

. . .

Reply to Objection 2. The mystery of the redemption of the human race was fulfilled in Christ's Passion: hence Our Lord said then: "It is consummated" (John 19:30). Consequently the prescriptions of the Law must have ceased then altogether through their reality being fulfilled. As a sign of this, we read that at the Passion of Christ "the veil of the temple was rent" (Matthew 27:51). Hence, before Christ's Passion, while Christ was preaching and working miracles, the Law and the Gospel were concurrent, since the mystery of Christ had already begun, but was not as yet consummated. And for this reason Our Lord, before His Passion, commanded the leper to observe the legal ceremonies.

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