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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