The Tradition of Hand Washing (Mark 7:1-8)

In Mark 7:1-5 the Pharisees question Jesus over his lack of attention to the tradition of “hand washing” before meals.  This is “markan sandwich,” since hand washing will return in 7:14-23, with the material on Corban in the center (7:6-13)

While the crowds are growing larger and the miracles are increasing in number and intensity, the Pharisees are growing increasingly angry with Jesus because he does not observe their traditions concerning ritual purity.  “Unclean hands” refers to the state of ritual impurity, therefore the Pharisees are accusing Jesus of behaving in a way that would make him unclean with respect to their traditions.

Mark provides a short explanation of the sorts of washings that the Pharisees use to ensure that they are always ritually pure, making the section accessible to the non-Jewish reader.  Jesus uses this attack as an opportunity to preach against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, including the very difficult verse in which Mark interprets something that Jesus says as declaring all foods to be clean  (7:19).

As Neusner has pointed out, the Pharisees tried to create the conditions of purity required in the Temple.  It is critical, however, to realize that the Pharisees were in fact a popular group in the first century among the common people (JW 2.162-163, 166, cf. Antiq. 13:172 and Antiq. 18.12-15).  They were the interpreters of the Torah for many of the common people, although they were criticized for their traditions by the Sadducees and Qumran community.  They did not seek to impose their tradition of hand washing on all the people, only their own group.

What is Jesus doing here?  Is he intentionally ignoring the tradition of the Pharisee because it is not biblical?  Was this a “mission strategy” intended to draw the sinner into a relationship with Jesus?   Is he trying to challenge these traditions, or is he simply eating a meal with sinners?  When Jesus ate at the house of a Pharisee, did he wash his hands as we expected?  Maybe we can consider this a case of “all things to all men.”

A more interesting question (to me) is why the Pharisees think that Jesus ought to submit to their tradition of hand-washing.  I think that Jesus was teaching things which resonated most with the Pharisees and there is at least a possibility that they thought he was “one of them.”  Jesus is described as discussing the Law with Pharisees and weighing in on issues like a Rabbi (divorce, for example).  But he was not a Pharisee in that he did not attempt to maintain Temple purity at all times.  Theologically he was “conservative” but socially (from the Pharisee’s perspective) he was permissive.

Is it possible to use either of these perspectives as a model for modern ministry?

24 thoughts on “The Tradition of Hand Washing (Mark 7:1-8)

  1. Mark 7: 6-8, And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,”This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” Jesus is obviously talking to the pharisees. Telling them that even though they obey the law; outwardly they seem to be doing good. However, inwardly, there hearts are not the same as their outward actions. Jesus is intentionally ignoring the tradition of the pharisees so that he can show them that there heart is not the same as their actions. It may have been a “mission strategy” intended to draw the sinner into a relationship with Jesus by just revealing to them their sins. I do not think Jesus washed his hand because it does not say that Jesus ever did. Since Jesus revealed their sin to them; He is “all things to all men,” Jesus could have washed His hands in order to treat the pharisee as an equal.
    The reason why the Pharisees think that Jesus ought to submit to their tradition of hand-washing is because they do not know the real reason why Christ is here on earth. Also, it is a good point made that the Pharisees think that Christ is a Pharisee, even though He does not try and follow all of the laws like the Pharisees do.

  2. Seeing as I was not there to hear Jesus say these things to the Pharisees, I have no idea what Jesus’ tone of voice was. I can gather from the surrounding passages that Jesus had some sort of a calm yet criticizing tone to what he was saying to them. The idea of being ritualistic was held by Jews in that time to follow the law, Jesus target was not the Jews. It was not the people who appeared righteous, Jesus makes it quite clear in His ministry that he is targeting the lost and the “unclean”. It is an interesting question that arises, why did the pharisees try to make Jesus feel guilty for not washing his hands, when people around him were not either? Obviously they are just trying to find some excuse to kill Jesus and therefore they make a big deal out of these things to call Jesus out in a sense and try to make him look bad.

    • I like what you are saying here Joey S. Obviously, none of us were actually there to hear Jesus speak. That is a good assumption to make, that Christ was firm, but yet calm in His speech. That is exactly the audience that He was going after-the lost. I do not think that Pharisees realized that or not. If they did, they simply ignored that fact and focused on trying to accuse Jesus of some sort of crime.

  3. “They did not seek to impose their tradition of hand washing on all the people, only their own group.” I would agree that it is interesting that the Pharisees wanted Jesus to submit to ritual washings. It seems like they liked Jesus enough that they wanted to see Him as one of their own, but could not get past the fact that He did not act within their cleanliness traditions. I can just hear the Pharisees saying, “if only He would conform then He might be the One.” The Pharisees, like every other Jewish sect at the time, had a certain idea of what the Messiah would look like and how he would behave. I can imagine that each group envisioned someone of their school of belief rising up as the Messiah. As we have discussed, most people expected a military/political leader who would rise to overthrow Rome. Was this an image of “the Messiah” the Pharisees helped spread? The Pharisees saw something in Jesus but it definitely was not what they were expecting.

    I believe Jesus in these moments was trying to challenge their picture of the Messiah. He was calling them to understand the true values of the Messiah. In Mark 7:6-9 Jesus tells the Pharisees what they have fallen into: “you have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” Ouch! In referencing Isaiah 29:13, Jesus pierces through their very intentions in keeping traditions of the law.

    • I think you are on the right track, Anna. The Pharisees were, IMHO, the closest to Jesus, which is why they were interested in him from the beginning. Theologically, with respect to legal interpretations, Jesus is practically a Pharisee. With respect to practice, however, he rejects their oral tradition as an unnecessary (and sinful) extension of Torah. Jesus is not rejecting Law, but the Pharisaical traditions which go beyond the actual laws themselves.

      But is this any different than present-day Christians who make Jesus out to be exactly like themselves? Republican Jesus, Liberal Jesus, Hippie Jesus, Gun-Loving Jesus….they are all variations on the same thing the Pharisees wanted to do.

  4. I like what Joey asked: “why did the pharisees try to make Jesus feel guilty for not washing his hands, when people around him were not either?” I feel like the Pharisees were just trying to make Jesus look like the bad guy and put him down. I feel Jeus was doing this for the “unclean” because it says so and he wanted them to see that he can be like them and not afraid of what other people think. I really like what it says on page 319 “Having dissociated himself from the oral laws more generally, Jesus returns to the specific issue of handwashing to declare that it is not food and drink (which go into the body) but even thoughts, speech, and behavior (which come out of the body) that truly defile”. I really like that because it’s like the Pharisees didn’t have a good attitude so it was pointing at them that they are “unclean” and not the actualy unclean that are “unclean”.

  5. I also really like what Anna had to say. I like looking from things in that way also. They saw something in Jesus that they wanted and possibly could be the one but there was something that was holding it back: “not washing his hands”. I feel like a lot of people are like that in the world today and they may like you and all and can see you as one of their friends but then once someone does something that you don’t like, you’re going to make them out to be the bad guy. I also liked what Anna said “I believe Jesus in these moments was trying to challenge their picture of the Messiah”. Jesus does that a lot in many ways that we may not even pick up, like I didn’t even think of that until Anna had posted it. Jesus wants us to think and sometimes he does it in ways that we may not like but we need to see it.

  6. This is a really interesting topic. I have never really thought about the Pharisees before as only picking out Jesus and his disciples as not following tradition and washing their hands before they eat. Anna brought up a really good point, “It seems like they liked Jesus enough that they wanted to see Him as one of their own, but could not get past the fact that He did not act within their cleanliness traditions.” This painted a really clear picture for me. It helped me not only to see the Pharisees’ side of things, but it helped me to see that Jesus is not conforming to traditions and that he is not going to take part in anything that is not in God’s overall plan. In Mark 7:20-23 Jesus explains to the disciples what exactly it is that makes a person “unclean.” He says, “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.'”

    We can use this to witness today to help explain to an unbeliever what it is that makes them “unclean.” If you tell an unbeliever that they are unclean, they will think that you mean physically unclean. You can explain to them that it is not the physical uncleanliness that you are talking about, but the spiritual uncleanliness. You can explain to them how it is not anything physical like dirt and grime that makes us unclean in God’s eyes, but it is our thoughts and actions that “dirty” us. We can use this passage in Mark 7 to help begin to witness to unbelievers.

  7. Anna makes an excellent point about the Pharisees possibly wanting to see Jesus as one of their own, but I have to believe that thought process quickly changed in their minds. While understanding context and historical accuracy is crucial to understanding Jesus’ ministry, I think there is an obvious line drawn from Jesus’ ministry and the Pharisaical traditions. It would not take much thought into the preaching, or rather, teaching, of Jesus for the Pharisees to begin to see something challenging and seemingly heretical.

    I believe the root of the idea of cleanliness here is Jesus pointing out the reason for the sin of being “unclean”. It was not that their hands weren’t washed before dinner, or that the were not following tradition close enough, but rather that their hearts were in the wrong. Similar to the idea that sacrifices could not cover sin, because there needed to be a permanent, propitiatory sacrifice, the pharisees were not simply unclean on the outside, they were filthy on the inside. As counter-cultural as Jesus’ teaching seems, it is not, in fact “anti-cultural”; it is merely progressively pro-cultural.

  8. What if Jesus was using this moment of disagreement with the Pharisees as a way of portraying future events? What if He was using this to give us a sign that in the near future we would no longer need those traditions from the Old Testament? What if this was one way Jesus was trying to say “you don’t need the old covenant. I am going to be the new covenant for your salvation.”? Those are just some of my initial questions I think of with this passage.
    I also think Jesus didn’t believe in following what the Pharisees did because they were thought of as hypocrites in His mind. I think Jesus also knew that He didn’t need an outward “cleansing”. He was clean/pure/righteous in all areas of His life that He didn’t see the need to follow those traditions.
    I also wonder if Jesus knew that if was known for following the traditions of the Pharisees that when all of the prophecy was fulfilled that many who followed after Him might revert back to the Jewish traditions and believe in the old covenant instead of on the new covenant He was about to bring in?

  9. It is interesting to note the “possibility” that the Pharisees might have thought that Jesus was “one of them.” Did they realize what Jesus was saying or did they think He was a rogue Pharisee in the beginning of His ministry? I always thought that Jesus was hated by the Pharisees judging by the amount of times that He gives reference to them in His teachings on prayer or called them hypocrites. The Pharisees might have thought this at first, but when they start saying things threatening things (Luke 11) or starting to plot to kill him (Matthew 12:14), then it came be gathered that they hate Him. It would be neat to see what the Pharisees were actually like in the time when Jesus was on earth.
    As for the part where the disciples did not wash their hands doesn’t it say that it is not only the Pharisees who practice this ritual? Doesn’t it say “The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless” they wash their hands ceremonially in Mark 7:3.

  10. I think the point of “dismissing” all the Old Testament traditions was to show that they didn’t matter anymore. You always see Jesus going against the norms of the Pharisees. He would touch unclean people, but this didn’t make Jesus unclean. Jesus would heal people on the Sabbath as well. When thinking of how Jesus went against the grain of society I thought of a passage where Jesus healed the crippled woman on the Sabbath in Luke 13. Verse 14 says, “Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” Then Jesus replied in verse 14 by saying, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? At the end of the passage, it describes the teachers of the synagogues as humiliated. I can just imagine someone going up to a pastor in today’s churches and telling them something that was allowed in the congregation. It kind of makes me think that our churches are in desperate need of a little Jesus because we are so used to doing things “our way” that we sometimes miss the entire point of which we should going.

    • “…the Old Testament traditions.” I think this is an oversight, Greg, since the “traditions” rejected in these texts are not from the Torah, but they are developments beyond the Torah, the oral traditions which developed to help keep the Torah int he first place. I am not aware of any text where Jesus rejects a Law from the Torah. He does not break the Sabbath, he breaks the Pharisees’ interpretation of “work on the Sabbath.” The same is true for handwashing.

      Maybe the only example is in Mark, “Jesus declared all foods clean,” but that is an editorial remark from Mark, written well after Acts 10.

  11. Greg, I think you are right on when you say what Jesus was doing in the passages He called the pharisees “hypocrites”. Essentially He was saying that you [pharisees] are so caught up in your man made traditions that you have made them to be on the same level of importance as God’s laws. I don’t think he was saying that the old traditions didn’t matter, however. I do believe Jesus was calling their faith into question asking questions like, how can you even begin to do all these traditions and cleanings when you don’t ever do the most important cleansing? Like Greg’s example, you say that people shouldn’t be healed on the sabbath [which was a desirable thing for a pharisee to say], but Jesus rebuked them because they missed the point. In the same way, Jesus was trying to show them how ridiculous it was that they could NOT get past Jesus and his disciples not washing their hands, which although an important part of their tradition and heritage, was not the end goal of ceremonial washing. I don’t wash my hands so that they are symbolically clean, but there is more to the washing and tradition of old [like Joe Johnson stated above]. Jesus was trying to show them that if their heart was not in the right place, what does it matter that they went through the motions of traditions? What kind of fulfillment is that in their pursuit of honoring God in the temple, the most holy place? It appears as if the Pharisee’s has adopted this erroneous thinking that as long everyone saw them washing their hands and “being clean,” they were in the clear. They were SO worried about external and public affairs, that they did not address the issues of the heart, which I think Jesus was trying to show was just as important, if not more.

  12. I believe that Jesus is ignoring what the Pharisee’s see as clean and right to do. I think he is trying to build a relationship with the sinners not only by eating at their homes with them, but by not washing his hands before a meal. Jesus is probably aware that the sinners do not wash their hands before meals, so they see Jesus who is a holy man and maybe feel comfortable because he is going about daily rituals just like them. I believe that the Pharisee’s thought Jesus was one of them so they thought he would follow their rules that they set out. They claimed to be holy people and they heard that Jesus was a holy man, so they thought he would agree with and follow the things they believed.

  13. “They did not seek to impose their tradition of hand washing on all the people, only their own group.” (Long) It seems odd that the Pharisees spent a lot of their time trying to persuade Jesus to follow their traditions. Maybe having the Messiah attached to their particular group would profit them? It is interesting how most of these Pharisees are never named. They always are in a group and it seems like they are always trying to test Jesus. Maybe this was to see if He was authentic? No one knows the motives of all the Pharisees. Nicodemus in John 3 is a Pharisee who approached Jesus in the evening, he said: “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him” (John 3:1). From his perspective the Pharisees understood that Jesus was sent from God. It almost seems like Jesus was courting them to the truth. He often responded to the Pharisees using the law, which they knew very well. It is just another example how Jesus reached out to all types of people in His ministry.

  14. Going back a few posts, I really liked what Joey said when she said she wasn’t there to hear Jesus and how his tone was projected. I do feel, however, that he was being firm yet calm just like Joey said. I really like what Professor Long says when he thinks that Jesus was very sarcastic, because I agree! After reading scripture and getting a feel for the tone Jesus projected I too think he is a very sarcastic guy. This, in my opinion, makes it easier for us to relate to him. I feel like if he was this harsh jerk who thought he was better than everyone else, he would not have made such an impact on society and Christianity the way he did.

  15. I really like this passage of Scripture found in Mark. I was wondering the same thing myself, why did Jesus not wash his hands to uphold to Jewish tradition. I like how Jesus points out in verse 7 that the men worship God in vein but the teachings they uphold to are by men. Basically what Jesus is saying here is that the pharisees have not stayed true to the commands of Jesus but rather they decided to go about their own ways and be hypocrites. I like how Katleylynd pointed out that in reading through the scriptures and seeing what Jesus had to say makes it easier for us as Christians to relate to him and also follow him.

  16. Jesus knows everything both inward and outward of heaven, earth and sea, He also know the intention of the Pharisees of accusing his disciple of not wishing hands before eating; the pharisees teach and give law to the people to observe, but they themselves are not ready to obey the law or follow the teaching. the pharisees do ”eyes service” unto God, and they call people attention to their traditional Law than the Law of God (Ten commandment), and they are blind of the true worship, offering, sacrifice, Holiness of God. (Matthew 23) (Mark 7:8-13), Jesus defended His disciple because He knew that not dirtiness of hands, foods, cloths, and body that make human-being unclean to God, but the dirtiness of the heart (adultery, fornication, lie, steal, lasciviousness, thefts, deceit, pride, murder, malice, fight, e.t.c. make human -being unclean (Mark 7:20-23) because human -being heart is the temple of God (holy spirit) (1 Corinthian 3:16-17).

  17. I think Jesus and His disciples did wash their hands before eating — who doesn’t? — only they didn’t do it ritualistically, according to “the tradition”, and that was the Pharisees’ issue.

  18. Since I didn’t see anyone mention it. Is Aristeas 305~306 the earliest record we have of this tradition?

    305 Now following the custom of all the Judeans, they washed their hands in the sea, as they might pray to God. Then they devoted themselves to the reading and the translation of each passage.
    306 Now I also asked this question, “What is their purpose in washing their hands before praying?”
    Now they explained, that it is evidence that they have done no evil, for all activity is done by means of the hands. This is how they beautifully and sacredly refer everything to the righteousness and the truth.

    • You might be right, A.H. In The Life of Adam and Eve they stand in the waters of the Jordan to be purified; Testament of Levi 2:3 has something like that as well. Aristeas is likely a bit earlier. I suppose we could count all the milvoth around the Temple Mount, but those are not “hand washing”.

  19. Jesus declared all food clean… Yes all that is considered to be “Food”. To think that the Son would abolish what the Father has commanded is a fleshly deception. “God never changes! Note we should observe Law for Salvation, but because we are Saved…

    • Nelson, I’m grateful for your post. It’s sad the ‘declaring all food clean’ bit was ADDED, and sadder yet folks are deceived to think that was really in the texts. The ritual had NOTHING to do with the food they were eating and it was the RITUAL He was targeting.

      John 5:30 ….. I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me
      John 8:28 ….. as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things.
      Acts 28:17 …. Paul called the chief of the Jews together: …….. ‘Men and brethren, though I have committed nothing against the people, or customs of our fathers……..’ – note this includes teaching contrary to scripture.

      If anyone understands correctly who Jesus claimed to be, then you have to wrestle with the fact He gave the food laws in the old testament. For all things were created by Him, for Him…. In the beginning Jesus created the heaven and the earth.

      As Jesus said from the beginning, if you love me, obey me.

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