Washing of Hands and “All Foods Clean” The Incongruities in Interpreting Mark 7

Mark 7 finds Jesus engaged in a normal discussion about the Torah and tradition, that seems to many Christians, to end in a note lifting Torah and tradition.  Jesus argues that the Pharisees and Scribe’s means of following the traditions of the elders invalidates the Law of the LORD.  However, if Jesus did as Christians argue, lift the food regulations, He would be committing the same wickedness He had just condemned.  He would be replacing the Law of God with human ruling. 

Though the traditions of the Elders are often said to arise after the 70 AD destruction of the Temple, there is no need for us to move the time so late.  The existence of Judaism outside of the land and apart from the Temple existed as early has 586 BCE with Judah’s exile into Babylon.  This would confirm the testimony within Judaism that the traditions went back to the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.  Granted, we cannot argue as certainly for the statement that the Oral Traditions were given to Moses on Sinai, except in the way in which we can say that Levi (in the loins of Moses) gave offerings to Melchizedek.  The best of the oral tradition was in the written Word in seed form, and the oral tradition was largely halakic extrapolation of the written. 

This earlier dating helps us with another problem that arises in critical readings of the Gospels.  It is clear that among the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Followers of Jesus there is question over who has the authoritative reading of particular words of the Law.  A strong appeal is made to the age of the tradition, as the very name, “tradition of the Elders” indicates.  If one is using the age of a tradition to support its legitimacy, an appeal to a fictitious lineage of elders would be the worst way to accomplish this.  What is more, if it is widely held that the tradition came to its peak with the pair Hillel and Shammai, it seems incongruous to place this teaching a generation after Jesus when it shone most brightly into the scene the generation before Jesus.

The question of moving the sanctity of the Temple altar unto the diningroom table need not be motivated by the 70AD destruction of the Temple. It was more likely begun in the exile, amplified by the return to the land and ultimately would lay the foundations for the survival of Judaism after 70 A.D. The commitment to exceed the commands would then be rooted in a conviction not to repeat the exile. This very sentiment is found in the closing arguments of Zechariah in 515 BCE who wrote of a day when “every cooking pot in Jerusalem would be holy unto the LORD.” The sentiment would have been further flamed by Malachi (430BCE) who warned if the the level of ritual purity and commitment was not raised by God’s people, the LORD would return and “smite the land with a curse.”

In rare uniformity, various Jewish sources point to the washing of the hands of the Priests in the laver of the Temple as the source for the traditions of the hand washing before the HaMotzi blessing. The question is, what ritual factors are attended to by this practice. Oddly, the problem here is not hands that are unclean but hands that are clean. Nor is the problem that the food is not clean, rather the problem is that the food is declared Holy. By declaring the food on the table to be like the food on altar, it becomes necessary raise the level sanctity of all other aspects of the meal. Handling consecrated food with unconsecrated hands would result in a desecrated table. Our misunderstanding here is reflected in even our best Bible translations that render say the disciples were eating with “impure hands.” The Greek “common hands” indicates that their hands were clean for common use- that is use in the home. Translating it “impure hands” might lead us to believe these are hands not fit for the table. Mark simply indicates these are hands not fit for the Altar of the Temple in Jerusalem.

If you have ever done or witnessed the netilat yadayim, you know that is not about cleaning. This is a ritual act. If your hands are dirty, please don’t rely upon this ritual instead of scrubbing with soap before coming to the table. Performing the ritual at the altar was a matter of life and death. Performing the ritual at the table was a matter of the heart, and could foster devotion to the LORD. However, to wash one’s hands in the manner of the priest was symbolic, as was claiming the food on the table was consecrated to God. Were these really dedicated foods, they might be eaten in the Temple, but not in the home. Were the meal “Most Holy,” it would not be eaten by the offeror at all. To eat holy food with clean hands would descrate the food. It would need to be eaten with holy hands. To eat common food with holy hands would contaminate the hands. If one factor in this practice were not symbolic, the tradition itself would have produced ritual defilement. By seeing the situation for what is was, Jesus declaration removed the impasse by declaring this and all food good to eat without additional ritual. If Jesus did away with Kosher law it likely is not established by Mark 7. What is established is that we no longer need to live at home like we are in the Temple, unless we want to. Nor do we have impetus to demand others live in this way. Were the disciples and the Pharisees sitting down to a meal of ham and oysters, this conversation would have been very different.