Our English translations give the impression that Jesus misquotes Isaiah. Isaiah 29:13 is translated “they remove their hearts far from me,” but Jesus is quoted as saying “Well did Isaiah prophesy . . . their heart (kardia auton) is far from me” (Mark 7:6). Jesus seems to change the plural “hearts” to the singular “heart.”
Jesus doesn’t in fact misquote Isaiah, at least not at that point. English translators mistranslate. In the Hebrew of Isaiah 29:13, “people” (‘am) is personified as a singular entity, with a singular mouth, lip, and heart.
Where Jesus’ quotation differs is in the number of the pronouns. In the Hebrew text, each of the possessive pronouns is singular - “his mouth, his lip, his heart.” Quoting the Septuagint, Jesus uses “their” with the singular heart.
Though the number of the pronoun changes, in all three versions - the Hebrew, the LXX, and Jesus’ quotation - there is a jarring combination of singular and plural. In the Hebrew it’s a “people” imagined as a single person; with Jesus, it is a collection of people who have a single heart.
This might seem like nit-picking, but I think it’s essential to grasping what Jesus is saying in Mark 7. He returns to talking about “heart” later on (Mark 7:19, 21), and the earlier collective-singular use has to be kept in mind. According to Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah, Israel pumps with a single heart. And in the “parable” (v. 17) he is still talking about the singular heart.
Jesus’ statements about foods cannot be a simple cancellation of the food taboos. He does purge foods, but there’s more going on. For one thing, Mark calls Jesus’ words a “parable.” A parable is a riddle that relies on a comparison, often in narrative form but sometimes not. If the statement about food is a simple cancellation of food regulations, it would not be a parable. Besides, the argument that Jesus uses - food goes into the stomach and out, not into the heart - applied just as much to the food laws when they were instituted. Taken non-parabolically, Jesus’ isn’t just cancelling food laws but arguing that they had always been illegitimate, based on a biological mistake.
The “parable” that Jesus tells in Mark 7 is about the body: What defiles a man is what comes out rather than what goes in (vv. 14-15). His initial explanation is also parabolic: What goes into a man goes into his stomach not his heart (vv. 18-19). That is not yet an explicit, open explanation of the parable. It is an elaboration of the vehicle of the metaphor, not yet the tenor.
What is the other side of the comparison? To what is a man-eating-food being compared? The answer comes in verses 21-23, when Jesus returns to talking about the “heart of men.” Once again, Jesus combines a singular “heart” with a plural “men.” This links back to the singular heart of Israel in the quotation from Isaiah 29. The source of Israel’s defilement comes not from without but from within, from something that Jesus (following Isaiah) calls the “heart” of the people.
In a recent sermon on this passage, Pastor Rich Lusk pointed out that there are twelve evils in the list of things that proceed from the heart of men (clearer in the Greek than in English). Lusk rightly connected these two the twelve tribes of Israel. It is as if Jesus replaces the names of the tribes with a twelve-fold list of evils. Israel no longer consists of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, etc.; Israel’s tribes are not called Fornication, Theft, Murder, Adultery. Under the leadership of the hyper-scrupulous, hyper-purity conscious Pharisees, Israel has become a thoroughly defiled people. It is virtually the same set of charges that Paul brings against the Jews in Romans 2.
What, though, is the heart from which all these defiling desires, practices, and attitudes flow? James Jordan has pointed to the association of the temple with the heart. In the wilderness, Israelites whose hearts were moved gave contributions for the building of the tabernacle (Exodus 25:2; 35:5). The tabernacle is made from the hearts of Israel and becomes the heart of the people. When Solomon builds the temple, the Lord promises to put His own heart in the place where His Name is (1 Kings 9:3).The temple is Israel’s heart because it is the place where the Lord’s heart dwells.
By the time of Isaiah, though, the temple had become a source of defilement and death. Yahweh rejected the worship of His hypocritical people, who offered prayer with bloody hands and covered their injustices by offering sacrifice. Jesus discovers the same hypocrisy in the Israel of His day, again emanating from “their heart,” the temple.
To this we can add Paul’s discussion of hearts in 2 Corinthians 3. What has happened in Christ is that the heart of stone - the stony tablets of the Law - have been replaced by a heart of flesh - the flesh of Jesus, Torah incarnate, and the flesh of hearts on which the Spirit writes. Jesus brings a new heart to Israel by being the new temple in her midst.
It’s true that the “heart” is the center of the individual person, from which flow the desires, attitudes, and actions that shape his life. That too is a biblical perspective, and it’s analogous to the more corporate understanding of heart and body that we’re reflecting on here. Just as the heart of the people is the garden-spring from which life (or death) flows, so the heart of a person is the well-spring of his life (or death). In Mark 7, Jesus isn’t talking about the individual heart. Or, he talks about the individual’s heart and stomach only as the “vehicle” of a parable whose “tenor” is about the defilement of Israel. Jesus is talking about the single heart of a people that becomes a source of defilement for the people, and the individuals who make up the people. In terms of Mark 7, the solution is the gift of a new heart to Israel.
This is now the solution that the Pharisees pursue. They think that Israel is defiled not by what flows from the temple and its teachers, but by the defiling quasi-Jews and Gentiles who occupy the land. They think that impurity comes from outside, from the world, rather than from the very center of the chosen people.
And this is where the cleansing of foods comes in. Food laws are about Israel’s relation to the Gentiles. Unclean foods represent Gentile outsiders. But the temple-heart of Israel cannot be defiled by what comes from without, cannot be defiled by Gentiles, any more than the heart can be affected by what the stomach receives. Israel’s defilements were always the result of her own idolatries and evils.
There’s also a shift happening. As long as Israel had a heart of stone (tablets, stone temple), she was separated from the nations and symbolized that separation by observing food laws. Jesus breaks down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile (Lusk pointed out that this episode is followed by encounter with the Syrophoenician woman), and in doing so removes the rationale for food laws. Impurity is not contracted from Gentiles, who are being welcomed to table. Impurity comes from the sins that are promoted or excused by the Pharisees themselves, and their defiling allies in the temple. Jesus can do this because He is the new temple in flesh in the heart of a new Israel where there is neither Jew nor Greek.