“What Comes Out of You is What Defiles You” : Studies in Mark, Pt. 24

In Mk. 7.20, a scene where the religious leaders had just challenged Jesus on food regulations, Jesus teaches the crowds and His disciples that, “all foods are clean.” Now, the immediate context of this scene and of Jesus’ words has to do with food. However, there is a general, ancient principle underlying His statement: “What comes out of you is what defiles you” (7.21). Let me give an example.

Right after His statement in 7.21a, Jesus, in 7.21b-22 gives a laundry list of sins that originate from within. One of those sins that He mentions is “envy.” Actually, in the language of the New Testament that term is “οφθαλμος πονηρος,” which literally means “eye of evil” or “evil eye.” In the times of Jesus, the evil eye was a serious issue. One of the ways to bring disaster or misfortune on your enemies was to cast the evil eye on them. Now, to most Westerners, the evil eye sounds more like a superstition than anything. But lest we act like cultural imperialists or elitists, we should remember that to Jesus, in His culture, this was no small issue.

I should note that there are still cultures in the world today that believe strongly in the evil eye. Many Hispanic cultures adhere deeply to the evil eye principle. Because most Western Christians will never travel over to the Mediterranean, they are not likely to realize that even today, the evil eye is still a cultural phenomenon there. No matter where you go in Turkey, you will see the evil eye. In the pictures I have posted (below) from my trip to Turkey last January, you can see that our bus driver had one on his dashboard and that a restaurant owner placed one over the door frame of his store; they had done this for protection.

The blue and white medallion is thought to be a type of reflective charm. That is, if someone casts the evil eye on your (e.g. on your bus or on your business), the charm will act as a mirror and reflect the evil eye back on the one casting it. Thus, in the end, they have cursed themselves. One way to block or deflect the evil eye was to spit at the one casting the evil eye (hence the story where Jesus spits and heals the man’s eyes) or to strive to prevent persons from becoming envious of you. David Fiensy points out that, in the Talmud, there is a passage concerning the evil eye that says:

“If anyone is going up into a town and is afraid fo the evil eye, let him take the thumb of his right hand in his left hand and the thumb of his left hand in his right hand and say, “I, so-and-so, the son of so-and-so, am the offspring of Joseph and the evil eye has no power over us…If he is afraid of his own evil eye, he should look at the side of his left nostril” (Beracot 55b).

Again, we should not downplay this belief just because we do not practice it. Evidently, Jesus Himself understood it to be an issue of paramount importance; He did not want people to cast the evil eye on others—it was representative of wishing evil or disaster on someone.

So, what does this all have to do with Jesus’ statement that “What comes out of you is what defiles you”? Well, it actually has a lot to do with it. In the ancient world, there were four ideas about how the eye worked—none of them like our medical theories today. However, there was one prevailing theory, one that was the most common among those who lived in the ancient Mediterranean world. Plutarch, in one of his works, mentions this view: “Indeed, I said, you yourself are on the right track of the cause (of the effectiveness of the evil eye) when you come to the emanations of the bodies…and by far living things are more likely to give out such things because of their warmth and movement…and probably these (emanations) are especially given out through the eyes” [Moralia V.7,680). In the next verse of this work, Plutarch talks about how the emanations from a jaundiced eye can kill flowers and cause great harm.

Elsewhere, Plutarch records, “Man both experiences and produces many effects through his eyes; he is possessed and governed by either pleasure or displeasure exactly in proportion to what he sees” (Quaestionum convivialium 5.7). Aristotle wrote that “Sight is made from fire and hearing from air” (Problems 31, 960a), “Vision is fire” (Problems 31, 959b) and “in shame the eyes are chilled” (Problems 31, 957b). Scores of other evil eye citations could be given but that is unnecessary here. So, we can see that the common thought was that evil could emanate or come out of the eye. In other words, the evil came from within and went out through the eye. Thus, while Jesus is in the main speaking about food rules in Mk. 7.1-20, the underlying principle that He purports (“What goes out of you is what defiles you”) also applies to the moral topos that makes up Mk. 7.21-3.

One of the items in the topos, as we have seen, is the evil eye—a glance of envy that by its powerful emanations could bring disaster on those one held ill feelings towards. One of the points I wanted to make by writing this study was to show just how easy it is to read the Scriptures and to miss their ancient context. And when we miss the context, we ultimately misinterpret and from time-to-time lead others or ourselves astray. Context, then, is incredibly important. Another thing this reminds us of is that when we read the Scriptures, we cannot be cultural imperialists. We cannot act as though our culture because we have different understandings and beliefs, is better than the ancient Mediterranean culture was. No, we need to acknowledge the differences and take them for what they are. Sometimes we can accept ancient understandings but sometimes we must move past them so that we are not confined to ancient cultural norms. It is not an all or nothing approach to the Bible. We constantly need to be reminded that reading and interpreting the Bible is hard work and it must be done with sensitivity, open-mindedness and to the best of our abilities, accuracy.


  1. Michael,

    Thanks for this post. This kind of contextual information is enormously valuable for those of us who don't have Plutarch & Aristotle hanging out in our studies with us!