Who said this? Jesus, Paul, Philo or Plato?

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by Neil Godfrey

Raphael's School of Athens, Rome
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Mark plays with literal and metaphorical meanings of words to show how spiritually blind the disciples of Jesus were. It’s a technique that works at the literary level. But in reality people are by nature attuned to the nature and prevalence of metaphor in everyday speech, so the dialogue narrated for this effect is hardly realistic, and therefore implausible as real history. But setting reality aside for a moment, we can play at historical Jesus scholarship and ask for the origin of the core saying in the following passage of Mark 7:

14Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.‘ “

17After 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 man from the outside can make him ‘unclean’? 19For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.” .  .  .  .  .

20He went on: “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ 21For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’

The Jesus Seminar (1993) declared that:

The Fellows were virtually unanimous in rejecting 7:20-23 as coming from Jesus. The list of sins is similar to others found in early Christian texts, such as the one in Rom 1:28-32. And it appears to have been introduced here to spiritualize and thus soften the previous reference to bodily defecation. (p.70, The Five Gospels)

Ten years later Geza Vermes published the counterpoint:

We are witnessing here the general moralizing tendency which Jesus adopted in continuity with the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. (p. 346, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus).

But my favourite contender for the origin of this saying comes down to a contest between Philo and Plato. Here is Plato’s saying (I think he’s really only the runner up):

The framers of us framed the mouth, as now arranged, having teeth and tongue and lips, with a view to the necessary and the good, contriving the way in for necessary purposes, the way out for the best purposes; for that is necessary which enters in and gives food to the body; but the river of speech, which flows out of a man and ministers to the intelligence, is the fairest and noblest of all streams. (Timaeus).

And the winner, in my judgment, is Philo, a Jewish philosopher who cited Plato (above):

and the mouth . . . through which as Plato says, mortal things find their entrance, and immortal things their exit. For into the mouth do enter meat and drink, perishable food of a perishable body; but from out of it proceed words — the immortal laws of an immortal soul, by means of which a rational life is regulated. (Opus Mundi/On the Creation 119)

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “Who said this? Jesus, Paul, Philo or Plato?”

  1. On our journey back to Philo and Plato, note their specific use of “mouth”.

    Helmut Koester, in the early camp regarding dating of Gospel of Thomas, made the following observation in his book, Ancient Christian Gospels, pp. 111-12 (can be found on Google Books):

    Gosp. Thom. 14c –

    For what goes into your mouth will not defile you, but which issues from your mouth–it is that which will defile you.

    Mark 7:15 –

    There is nothing outside a human which by going into him can defile him. But the things coming out of a human being are what defile him.

    The basic difference between Thomas and Mark is that Mark states
    the second half in general terms (“what comes out of a human being”),
    while Thomas specifies “what comes out of your mouth.” In this
    respect Thomas agrees with the form of this saying in Matt. 15:11 (“but
    what comes out of the mouth defiles a human being”). This might
    argue for a dependence of Thomas on Matthew. However, the
    Matthew/Thomas form of this saying is most likely original: the first
    half of the saying requires that the second half speak about words
    which the mouth utters, not excrements (see Mark 7:19). Moreover,
    what the Gospel of Thomas quotes here is the one single saying from
    the entire pericope that can be considered as a traditional piece and
    that formed the basis for the original apophthegma—consisting of
    vss. 1-2, 5, and 15—out of which the present complex text of Mark
    7:1-23 has been developed.1

    1 Cf. Luehrmann, Markusevangelium, 125-26.

  2. Thanks for bringing this up. This makes logical sense, — that is, that the original thought was expressing a balance between what goes in and out of the mouth.

    But I think Koester in this case is overlooking the fact that this saying seems to have been known well-enough before the Gospels were written, with the idea being expressed as early as Plato. There is no need to attribute the same form of this saying or thought to the first Christian author to use it.

    Mark loves to play with metaphors to show up the spiritual stupidity of the disciples. So he has taken the apparently well-enough known saying and adapted it to give the disciples room enough to be completely baffled by it. By having the human body replacing the mouth as the central image, Mark might be seen as opening up room for the disciples to be thinking in terms of defiling excrement from the start. He is driving home the total failure of the disciples to comprehend anything beyond the physical without explicit revelation from Jesus.

    All this is assuming Mark is the earliest Gospel and this passage as we read it today represents the original wording.

    Matthew then restores Mark’s image to its original “mouth” focus, thus creating a cleaner image more worthy of use by the likes of Plato and his would-be Christian successor, Jesus.

    Just another possibility.

    1. Certainly, if we can assume the Markan author were already familiar with this saying, there would be no need to attribute the same form of the saying to a Christian author. Perhaps Koester was entertaining a more contemporary Platonist connection.

      Interesting possibility you offer, Neil, for the available version of Mark.

      And thanks for cleaning up my original reply. 🙂

  3. ‘Mark plays with literal and metaphorical meanings of words to show how spiritually blind the disciples of Jesus were’

    The disciples hand-picked by Jesus were spiritually blind? How embarrassing! It must be true.

    I remember a Harry Potter book where his friends fall out with him.

    Of course, Harry Potter is fiction.

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