John P. Meier, The Marginal Jew,
v.4, ch. 35: Jesus and the Purity Laws,
pp 342-477

(Detailed summary)

Did Jesus take a stand against the laws of ritual purity in Judaism?


The answer to this question is clear: no. Jesus does not seem to have been at all interested in questions of ritual purity. Let's see what it's all about first.

When we speak of impurity in the Jewish world, we are not necessarily speaking of sin. Rather, we are talking about being in a state that offends the holiness of God. To mark out these states, Judaism has established a certain number of rules which a modern mind can divide into four categories: ritual impurity, related to the great cycles of life (birth, sickness, sexual life, death); moral impurity, which refers to certain heinous sins such as murder, serious sexual misconduct (incest, homosexuality, bestiality), and idolatry; genealogical impurity contracted in a mixed marriage; and dietary impurity entailed by eating prohibited animals.

The gospels rarely speak of impurity. Only one passage is really explicit: Mark 7:1-23. But a detailed analysis shows that this text cannot be traced back to the historical Jesus. First of all, Mark's hand can be seen in the large number of parentheses, generalizations and universal statements, and in his typical literary style. Secondly, the citation from Isaiah is taken from the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which is unthinkable for Jesus. Moreover, the aphorism of v. 15 (Nothing from outside a man can defile him, but that which comes out of a man defiles a man) is unimaginable in the mouth of Jesus, for it would attack dietary purity, which is at the heart of Jewish identity, and thus would have immediately ostracized him among the people, whereas there is no reaction from the audience in our text. To this must be added the fact that the first Christians seem to be totally unaware of this word of Jesus, so that St. Paul will resolve the discussions on the dietary rules by appealing to his theology of salvation. Finally, the problem of unwashed hands that introduces the whole story is a false problem, because there was no rule on the subject at the time of Jesus. Mark 7:1-23 is a collection of different Christian texts around the theme of purity and sewn together by Mark to support the Church's position against the Judeo-Christians.

Apart from this text, there is practically nothing on the subject, at least no text that would enlighten us about Jesus' position on ritual purity. If so, we can assume that the subject simply did not interest him.

Jesus and the Purity Laws

  1. Purity Laws in the Pentateuch and Beyond

    According to the Pentateuch the purity laws determine that certain actions or persons or things are pure (tāhôr) or impure (tāmē'). And breaking these laws is considered an abomination (tô'ēbâ, šeqeṣ). And we are not primarily referring here to a physical object or a metaphor, but to a moral reality as in the case of murder, incest or idolatry that was really making its effects felt among the Israelites. In the Old Testament, all these precepts of purity were perceived globally, but it is legitimate for a modern mind to distinguish four categories of impurity: ritual, moral, genealogical and dietary.

    1. Ritual impurity

      Let us note at once that ritual impurity is not sinful or evil. It concerns the events of normal human life such as birth, illness, sexual activity and death. These events represent major changes in the human condition and involve the crossing of a threshold that appears mysterious. In a symbolic universe such as that of the Old Testament, they are typical of human weakness, of its carnal and mortal condition, and in this they must be separated from the holiness of God, the source of all life, and from the place where he lives, the temple. We are faced with two opposing universes. Just as chemicals and nuclear reactors, which are useful to us, would be dangerous without proper separation and protection, so are the human realities of our mortal and fleshly condition. Ritual impurity was considered highly contagious.

      However, there are times when one must accept being in a state of ritual impurity, for example, when one must prepare the body of a parent for burial; this is a moral obligation. The same is true for a couple who have a duty to be fertile. This will temporarily put them in a state of ritual impurity. We are not talking about sin at all. But the important thing is to perform the purification rites with water ablutions before coming into contact with sacred objects and places.

    2. Moral impurity

      With moral impurity, we are on a completely different order, for it designates certain heinous sins such as murder, serious sexual offenses (incest, homosexuality, bestiality), and idolatry. These actions are so horrible that they are called abominations. Unlike ritual impurity, moral impurity can be avoided because it is not part of the normal cycle of life. And for this reason it is truly a sin, a rebellion against God's will as expressed in the Torah. On the other hand, it is not so contagious as to make others impure as in ritual purity. But it does make unclean not only the person who perpetrated the action, but also the whole land of Israel (Lev 18:25). To rectify the situation, the impure person must be removed from the people of God (execution, banishment or premature death without offspring) and the impurity in the temple must be eliminated through the sacrifice of atonement, especially that of Yom Kippur.

    3. Genealogical impurity

      This type of impurity was never enshrined in the Pentateuch and appeared after the Babylonian exile (6th century BC), at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (5th and 4th century BC). It forbids mixed marriages of Jews (a holy seed) with Gentiles (Ezra 9:2). This vision of the book of Ezra was taken up by certain writings such as Book of Jubilees.

    4. Food impurity

      This impurity must be placed in a separate category: on the one hand, it does not belong to ritual purity, which is part of the inevitable events of life, such as birth and death, whereas dietary prescriptions are a matter of free choice; on the other hand, even though it could be associated with moral impurity, there is no mechanism for purification in the case of transgression, so much so that it was assumed that the prohibition would be observed without exception.

    In scholarly circles, there has been a great deal of interest in explaining the origin of all these laws and practices. Each theory has its value and its limitations. It is best to simply recognize that for a Jew it was part of the universe into which he was born, that it was his way of expressing his belonging to God and his people, that it was the way of distinguishing the holy God from all those other pagan gods, and the people he had chosen and set apart. These laws would become of great importance during the onslaught of Greco-Roman culture.

    It must be recognized, however, that these rules of purity were hotly debated in Palestinian Judaism at the time of Jesus. In the Diaspora, Philo of Alexandria clearly distinguished between two types of impurity, giving less importance to ritual impurity than to moral impurity. The Qumranites, on the other hand, combined the two types, so that moral impurity was as contagious as ritual impurity. This is totally different from the rabbinic approach found in the Mishna (200-220) and among the rabbis thereafter who would tend to compartmentalize everything. And after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, many rules will fall into disuse.

    As Jesus travels along the roads of Palestine, there are different tendencies in regard to the rules of purity. Some tend to apply the rules to new aspects of daily life, while others want to adapt or reduce them. For example, Josephus tells us of priests in Jerusalem who are stricter on the rules of dietary purity than the Scriptures require. Among the Pharisees, there are disputes among them about certain dietary rules, even though they are tolerant of other groups.

    When we turn to the gospels, the passages that deal with ritual impurity or dietary rules are very rare, and only one text really lends itself to a detailed analysis: Mark 7:1-13.

  2. Jesus and Purity in Mark 7:1-23 (NRSV Translation)

    1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" 6 He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

    'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.'

    8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition." 9 Then he said to them, "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother'; and, 'Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.' 11 But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, 'Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban' (that is, an offering to God) - 12 then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this."

    14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile."

    17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 He said to them, "Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19 since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?" (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, "It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."

    1. The Structure of Mark 7: 1-23

      1. Major Indicators of the Literary Structure of Mark 7: 1-23

        In v. 1, the Pharisees and scribes suddenly appear, having completely disappeared from the scene since ch. 3. Their arrival signals a growing opposition to Jesus. Jesus responds in two stages to their irritation that his disciples are eating without washing their hands, first by quoting the prophet Isaiah (Is 29:13) and then the Mosaic law (Ex 20:12); in both cases Jesus reproaches them for clinging to the tradition of men rather than the commandment of God.

        In v.14 the Pharisees and scribes disappear as suddenly as they appeared, without expressing any reaction to Jesus' words. The audience changes and with Jesus' questioning of the crowd a new scene begins. But since Jesus remains in the same place, Mark maintains a certain link with what precedes in vv. 14-16. On the other hand, since Jesus will make explicit in vv. 17-23 the meaning of the aphorism stated in v. 15 (There is nothing outside a man that can defile him, but what comes out of a man is what defiles a man), the latter is linked to what follows. This is why vv. 14-16 play the role of a pivot in the whole of 7-23, linking what precedes and what follows.

        With the disciples beginning to question Jesus, whereas they had remained silent until now, v. 17 introduces a new section which aims at clarifying the aphorism stated in v. 15. In v. 18 Jesus begins his explanation of the first part of the aphorism (that which enters the man), and in v. 20 his explanation of the second part of the aphorism (that which comes out of the man).

        We now perceive Mark's careful composition that links two different narratives with a aphorism that serves as a suture.

      2. Verbal and Thematic Links

        1. Connectors between the two halves of the pericope

          First, there is the person of Jesus who occupies the entire scene. The only direct speech besides that of Jesus comes from the Pharisees and scribes in v. 5. There is also the key word "koinos" (common, profane, unclean, defiled) and the verb "koinoō" (to make common, to make unclean), which together appear 7 times in this passage. Finally, there is the word: human being (anthropos). At the very beginning, it is associated with the Jews whose traditions oppose God and carries a negative and polemical meaning. Later, the meaning broadens to break down ethnic and religious barriers to describe the human being in general. This movement expresses the thought of Jesus who rejects the framework of these Jewish dietary rules. Clearly, it is not the words of the historical Jesus that we are hearing here, but Mark's words that reflect the division that exists between Christians and Jews.

        2. Connectors within units and subunits.

          These connections are provided by keywords.

          • Pharisees (vv 1, 3, 5): they are the glue of the first 5 verses (1-5), and then disappear.

          • Tradition: the word welds together the first part (1-13) where we go from the "tradition of the elders" (3 and 5), to the "tradition of men" (8), then to "your tradition" (9 and 13), these last 2 verses including the second answer of Jesus. This word supports a theological polemic.

          • Precept / Commandment (vv 7, 8, 9): these words tie together the two lines of Jesus.

          • Annulling or rejecting: the two sentences "You do annul the commandment of God" (9) and "and so you annul the word of God" (13) form an inclusion around Jesus' second reply, clearly wrapping up the first part of the pericope and concluding it.

          • Eat (vv 2, 3, 4, 5): the word helps hold together the first subunit of the first part.

          These are just a few examples of how hard Mark, or the pre-Marcan authors, worked to weld disparate elements of the tradition into a coherent whole. We are therefore looking at a multi-layered Christian composition, not a video from the year 28.

    2. A Structured Translation of Mark 7:1-23

      First half (7: 1-13): Jesus' Critique of the Tradition of the Elders

      First Unit (1-5): The Question about Eating with Unclean Hands [narrative setup]

      1. And there gather unto him the Pharisees and some of the scribes, coming from Jerusalem
      2. And seeing some of his disciples, that they are EATING the loaves of breath with DEFILED hands,
        -that is, [hands] not washed- [parenthesis]

        [explanatory parenthesis]
      3. -for the Pharisees and all the Jews, unless they was their hands with a fistful of water, do not EAT, holding to the TRADITION of the elders;
      4. And [when they come in] from the marketplace, unless they immerse themselves, they do not EAT, and many other things there are that they have received [as traditions] to hold to, immersions of cups and pitchers and bronze vessels and beds-

        [two-part accusation in form of two questions]
      5. and the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not walk according to the TRADITION of the elders, but EAT bread with DEFILED hands?"

      Second Unit (6-13): Jesus' Two Replies, First from the Prophets, then from the Law

      First Subunit (6-8): Reply Quoting Isa 29: 13

      1. But he said to them: "Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites,
        as it stands written, [accusation]
        'This people honors me with [their] lips [OT quote]
        but their HEART if far from me
      2. In vain do they reverence me, teaching [as divine] teachings the commandments of MEN.'
      3. Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the TRADITION of MEN." [accusation]

      Second Subunit (9-13): Reply Quoting Exodus 20:12 and Exodus 21:17 (LXX 21:16)

      1. And he said to them,
        "Well do you render void the commandment of God [accusation]
        in order that you may establish your TRADITION.
      2. For Moses said:
        'Honor your father and your mother,' and [OT quote]
        'The one who speaks ill of his father or mother must assuredly be put to death.'
      3. But you say:
        'If a MAN says to [his] father or mother, "Whatever you might have received from me [for your support] [is] Qorban - that is, a gift [dedicated to God]-"'
      4. you no longer permit him to do anything for [his] father or mother, [accusation]
      5. -[thus] nullifying the word of God by your TRADITION, which you have handed down.
        And you do many such things like this" [generalizing conclusion]

      Pivot (7:14-15): Jesus Teaches the Crowd His Aphorism on Defilement

      1. And summoning again the crowd,
        he said to them:
        "Hear me all [of you] and understand."
      2. There is nothing outside of a MAN
        that, [by] entering into him, [first half of aphorism]
        can DEFILE him;
        but those things that come out of a MAN, [second half of aphorism]
        are the things that DEFILE a MAN.

      Second Half (7:17-23): Jesus Explains to His Disciples His Aphorism on Defilement

      First Unit (17-18a): The Question of the Disciples and Rebuking Questions of Jesus

      1. And when he entered into a house away from the crowd, [narrative setup]
        his disciples asked him [the meaning of] the aphorism. [question]
      2. And he says to them, [rhetorical questions as response]
        1. "So are you also without understanding?
          Do you not understand that

      Second Unit (18b-19): First Half of Aphorism Explained: Nothing from Outside Defiles

        1. nothing from outside, [by] entering into a MAN
          can DEFILE him, [first half]

      1. for it does not enter into his HEART,
        but into his stomach [reason: digestion]
        and goes out into the latrine"
        -[by saying this, he was] making all foods clean. [parenthesis]

      Third Unit (20-23): Second Half of Aphorism Explained: Things from Within Defile

      1. But he said that
        "That which comes out of a MAN, [second half]
        that DEFILES a MAN.
      2. For from within, from the HEART of MEN,
        come forth evil thoughts, [reason: vices]
        fornications, thefts, murders, [v 22a] adulteries, acts of greed, malicious deeds,

        [v 22b] deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.

      1. All these evil things come forth from within [generalizing conclusion]
        and DEFILE a MAN."

    3. Identifying the Hand(s) of the Christian Author(s)

      Our analysis of the structure of the narrative has identified intense editorial work, whether it comes from one or more authors, with Mark's final touch. There are three major types of editorial activity.

      1. Parenthetical Explanations

        It is the evangelist John who is most notable for the insertion of parentheses. But Mark introduces a certain number of them to the attention of his audience throughout his gospel, and here three times.

        1. (v. 2) "defiled hands, that is not washed –"
        2. (vv. 3-5) "for the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles"
        3. (v. 11) "Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban (that is gift from God)"

      2. Generalizing or Universalizing Statements

        The fact that these generalizations occur when talking about opponents insinuates their polemical tendency.

        1. (v. 3) "for the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hand". This statement is not accurate, because the Pharisees had different positions from other Jews, some of whom were stricter.

        2. (v. 4) "and there are also many other traditions that they observe".

        3. (v. 13) "And you do many things like this." Through the mouth of Jesus, it is the voice of the editor that resounds.

        4. (v. 19) "(thus he declared all foods clean)." Mark generalizes Jesus' aphorism about what a man eats.

        5. (v. 23) After naming six vices in the plural, then six in the singular, Mark's Jesus concludes with another generalization: "All these evil things come from within."

      3. The typical literary structures of Mark

        1. The patterns of a public pronouncement by Jesus, his withdrawal into private space, q question by the disciples, a rebuke by Jesus, and finally an explanation given by Jesus.. We had this structure for example in ch. 4 with the parable of the seed. We have it again as the disciples, once at home (v. 17), question Jesus, are reproached for their unintelligence (v. 18) and finally receive the explanation of the aphorism (v. 19).

        2. The careful placement of dispute stories within the gospel. First we have a cycle of disputes in Galilee with the scribes, then the Pharisees, in chs. 2 and 3. We also have a cycle of disputes in Jerusalem, first with the scribes, then with the Pharisees in chs. 11 and 12. In the middle, playing the role of pivot, we have the cycle of disputes in ch. 7 where Pharisees and scribes intervene at the same time.

        3. The tendency of Mark to string together a series of of verbs of saying that act as punctuation points and establish the structure. Many times, without mentioning it, Jesus is the subject of the verb.
          v. 5 and the Pharisees and the scribes asked him
          v. 6 But he said to them
          v. 9 And he said to them
          v. 10 For Moses said
          v. 11 But you say
          v. 14 And... he said to them
          v. 17 his disciples asked him
          v. 18 And he says to them
          v. 20 But he said

        4. The binary style in Mark's macros as well as in the micro structures.
          • (vv. 3, 5) "The Pharisees and the Jews"; "The Pharisees and the Scribes"; "Do not your disciples behave... but take their meal"

          • The 2 sub-units (6-8) and (9-13) constitute Jesus' response, joined together by the expression "commandment of God" and the repetition of the word "tradition". Jesus answers antithetically: "Moses said... but you say" and appeals to two passages of Exodus and to the persons of father and mother.

          • One finds the binary rhythm in the pivotal group (14-15), introduced first by: "Hear me all and understand," followed by the antithetical aphorism in two tenses that repeats twice the verb to defile: "there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile"

          • The second part of the pericope (17-23) contains two occurrences of Jesus saying something to his disciples (18 and 20) which repeat the two parts of the aphorism. And his answer uses twice the verb "to enter into" (18-19) and twice the verb "to go out of" (20-21). As for the list of vices, it is divided into two parts, with one list in the singular and another in the plural. Finally, the pericope ends with two half sentences with one verb each.

      When we see such clear signs of Christian composition, we can ask ourselves: is it still possible to detect material that goes back to the historical Jesus? Let's start our analysis with the portion where Jesus speaks.

    4. Searching for the Historical Jesus in the Subunits of Mark 7: 6-23

      1. Verses 6-8: Jesus' First Reply, Quoting Isa 29: 13

        Jesus begins with a citation from Isaiah 29:13. What is remarkable here is that instead of quoting the Hebrew version as would have been normal, he quotes the Greek version of the Septuagint (known as the LXX). This might be benign if the differences between the two versions were not notorious and he needed the Greek version for his purposes. Let us compare.

        Hebrew Text Septuagint (LXX), according to Codex Vaticanus (B)
        (words with parenthesis [] are absent from codices Sinaiticus (ﬡ), Alexandrinus (A) and Marchalianus (Q))
        Transliteration of the Septuagint
        13 And the Lord said,
        "Because this people approaches (me) with its mouth, and with its lips they honor me,"

        but its heart is far from me,
        and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned (by rote),

        13 And the Lord said:
        "This people approaches me [with its mouth, and]
        with their lips they honor me,

        but their heart is far from me.
        In vain do they reverence me,
        teaching commandments of men and teachings.

        13 Kai eipe Kyrios;
        engizei moi ho laos houtos [en tō stomati autou kai]
        en tois cheilesin autōn timōsi me,

        hē de kardia autōn porrō apechei ap emou; matēn de sebontai me
        didaskontes entalmata anthrōpōn kai didaskalias.

        14 therefore I will once again act in wondrous fashion with this people, in a wondrous and startling way; and the wisdom of its wise men will perish, and the intelligence of its intelligent men will be hidden. 14 Therefore, behold, I once again will transport this people, and I will transport them, and I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will hide the intelligence of the intelligent. 14 dia touto idou egō prosthēsō tou metatethēnai ton laon touton kai metathēsō autous kai apolō tēn sophian tōn sophōn kai tēn synesin tōn synetōn krypsō.

        In the Hebrew version, Isaiah delivers an oracle of judgment that has two parts: first he accuses the people of routine worship with no real commitment of the heart, and then he announces God's verdict that he will punish his shallow people by overthrowing this religion created by the bureaucrats in Jerusalem.

        While v. 13 in the Hebrew version begins with a subordinate proposition ("Because this people..."), and thus depends on v. 14 ("therefore I will once again act...") for the main proposition, in the LXX version ("This people approaches me...") v. 13 is totally independent of v. 14. This is the form copied by Mark: "'This people honors me with (their) lips; but their heart is far from me."

        Mark goes even further. Not only does he copy the short form (as attested in the Sinaiticus (ﬡ), Alexandrinus (A) and Marchalianus (Q) codices), but he shortens it even more by eliminating "come near me" and keeping only: "This people honors me with their lips". Moreover, whereas the Hebrew text was content to speak of routine worship, the LXX introduces a new idea, that of a teaching of men which is implicitly opposed to that of God as expressed in the Torah; thus Isaiah would denounce a social group which would give a teaching in contradiction with that of God. Mark jumps on this idea to identify this social group with the Pharisees and scribes. But to emphasize the antithesis, he changes the word order of the LXX at the end of v. 13 by moving the word "teachings" (didaskalias) from the end of the verse to put it immediately after "teaching," in order to have it in apposition to "commandment of men," emphasizing the contrast.

        LXX transliteration Mark transliteration LXX literal translation Mark literal translation
        kai didaskalias.
        of men
        and teachings
        (as) commandments
        of men

        Thus, the use of this passage from Isaiah allows Mark's Jesus to respond to the reproaches of the Pharisees and scribes about his disciples' disregard of the tradition of the elders and to associate this tradition with human commandments, as denounced by God. But it is only the Greek version of the LXX that allows such a response, for the Hebrew version does not contain this denunciation of people who teach mere human commandments. One immediately sees the problem in tracing this response back to the historical Jesus.

        The problem is further complicated by the fact that the LXX version of Isaiah 29:13 is also used in the letter to the Colossians (2:21-22). The author of the epistle attacks the teaching of some members of the Christian community who propagate purity rules and various taboos. Like Mark, he rejects such teaching which is based on human views and not on Christian faith. Like Mark, he modifies the text of Isaiah, but in a different way, by pushing back the word "man" at the end to write: "according to the commandments and teachings of men" (kata ta entalmata kai didaskalias tōn anthrōpōn). What does all this mean? The epistle to the Colossians does not depend on Mark in literary terms. But it does reflect the fact that the Greek version of Isaiah 29:13 circulated in the early Christian communities as an argument for rejecting the rules of purity concerning touching, tasting and eating food.

        In conclusion, it is virtually impossible to trace this response of Jesus in Mark to the historical Jesus. It would be implausible for Jesus, who speaks Aramaic and perhaps understands biblical Hebrew, to use a Greek version of the Bible to confuse Pharisees and scribes who knew their Hebrew Bible well. Moreover, since the use of the Greek version of Isaiah 29:13 to combat purity rules was known in Christian circles, it is likely that this is a Christian composition based on the activity of a Christian scribe.

      2. Verses 9-13: Jesus' Second Reply, Quoting Exodus 20: 12 and 21: 17

        In the context of this debate with the scribes and Pharisees, this unit of verses 9-13 is closely welded to the previous unit, where Jesus called his interlocutors hypocrites, for he now gives an example justifying his attacks, i.e., the practice of reserving one's possessions to God (called korbān), thereby removing the individual from the duty to help his needy relatives. Together, these two units create a dramatic progression that reaches its climax in v. 9: whereas the tradition of the elders was spoken of at the beginning, Jesus now speaks of the tradition of men, and finally of "their" tradition by which they have not only usurped the place of God's commandments, but have outright nullified them. Thus, because of its place in the whole pericope, verses 9-13 are dependent on the preceding unity. Now, we have just said that the latter does not go back to the historical Jesus. We must therefore logically conclude that these verses, at least in their present form and setting, do not go back to the historical Jesus.

        However, if we isolate these verses from the framework in which the gospel writer inserted them, admitting that they could have circulated independently, we can ask the question: can these verses be traced back to the historical Jesus? The answer is: probably yes, for the following reasons.

        The issue of the korbān, i.e., the vow to reserve certain gifts for God, was widely discussed at the turn of the modern era in the Jewish world. For example, at Qumran the Damascus Document, although it does not use the word, castigates the subterfuge of vowing food for sacred use to avoid helping one's neighbor (CD, 16:14-20). While the Essenes use Micah 7:2 ("All are on the lookout for bloodshed; they hunt down each one's brother with a net") to justify their attitude, Jesus instead appeals to the social and more fundamental requirements of the Decalogue, in opposition to specific institutions, such as the korbān, or those letters of divorce, as we have seen in the issue of divorce.

        Archaeologists have found an ossuary south of Jerusalem (Jebel Hallet et-Tûri) that dates back to the time of Jesus and contains an Aramaic inscription that reads, "Everything that a man may find to his profit in this ossuary (is) an offering (korbān) to God from the one within."

        The Jewish historian Josephus (ca. 37-100) addresses the issue of the korbān in his Jewish Antiquities: "Those who declare themselves korbān to God - it means doron (gift) in Greek - when they want to be released from this obligation, must pay money to the priests: for a woman it is thirty shekels, for a man, fifty." (4.4.4) He does this in other works as well, such as Against Apion (1.22). The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, while never using the word korbān, states in Hypothetica (7.3) that anyone who invokes God's name on certain possessions and declares them dedicated to God should immediately refrain from using them.

        The use of the word and the practice of korbān continues in the Mishna, particularly its tractate Nedarim (vows). Among other things, one can denote a heated debate among the rabbis as to what can justify an annulment of a vow made at the expense of one's father or mother, particularly with regard to food. The tendency is to take a very strict view of the vow.

        In short, one can conclude with a high degree of probability that the issue of the korbān was hotly debated during the period from the 2nd century BC (Damascus Document) to the 2nd century of the modern era (Mishna), let alone during the time of Jesus, prior to 70 CE when Mark's gospel was composed. Thus, if we apply the coherence criterion, vv. 9-13 could go back to the historical Jesus. The idea of an Aramaic Christian Jew making up this story does not hold water: the early Christians had no interest in this korbān related issue. Applying now the discontinuity criterion, we can conclude that this scene is not a Christian invention.

        Thus, Jesus would have really addressed the issue of the korbān and rejected a strict enforcement of this vow. Unfortunately, it is no longer clear who his audience originally was. It is quite possible that it was a group of Pharisees who took a very strict approach to this institution and refused any annulment of the vow, no matter the consequences. Engaged in such a discussion, Jesus would inevitably have appealed to the Jewish Scriptures to support his point.

      3. Verses 14-23: Jesus' Aphorism on Defilement and His Explanation

        First, it is necessary to look at verses 14-15, which play a pivotal role, as the analysis of the structure of the narrative has revealed. If v. 15 and its aphorism is not authentic, the rest, which tries to explain this aphorism, does not in fact go back to the historical Jesus.

        1. The pivot of verses 14-15

          1. Most biblical scholars agree that v. 14 is an introduction by Mark himself with one of his typical formulas: "And having called the crowd to him again".

          2. Even if the aphorism of v. 15 would be thinkable in the mouth of the Jew Jesus, in fact it is unlikely for a series of reasons.

            • First of all, there is something radical about the formulation of the aphorism in Mark: "There is nothing (Greek: ouden) outside of man that, entering into him, can (dynatai) defile him, but what comes out of man, that is what defiles man." The first part of the aphorism with "nothing" and "can" is stronger than the second part, and is truly all encompassing. By attacking Leviticus and Deuteronomy head on, Jesus is rejecting the dietary prohibitions. Now, it is unlikely that by a single word the Jew Jesus would have annulled what constitutes the heart of Jewish identity and distinguishes it from the Gentiles which, in the first century CE, threatened his culture. He would have immediately lost all credibility with the people as a prophet sent to Israel. Moreover, we see no reaction from his audience to such an enormous statement. And then the gospel continues to tell us about the excitement of the crowds for his preaching. There is an inconsistency.

            • If Jesus had really said this, it would mean that he and his disciples did not fully observe the dietary prohibitions in their daily lives, for example by allowing themselves to eat pork. Indeed, when Jesus distances himself from fasting (Mark 2:18-19), it is not just a theory but a practice in daily life, and this raised questions among the Jews, because the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees practiced fasting. However, there is no mention in the gospels of Jesus or his disciples deviating from the dietary prohibitions. So v. 15 is something totally isolated.

            • Finally, if Jesus had made such a radical gesture of attacking the Jewish dietary prohibitions, how is it that this gesture was totally forgotten afterwards? Indeed, the question of the integration of Gentiles into the Christian community, which was mostly of Jewish origin, arose quite early on: should these Gentiles be subjected to the obligation of dietary rules? But what does Saint Paul do? He decides that the Gentiles are not subject to the dietary rules because the death-resurrection of Christ and the gift of the Spirit has freed them from the observance of the Mosaic law (see Galatians 2:15; 4:7; Romans 2:1; 8:39). Why did Paul not simply appeal to the word of Jesus on the subject, as he did on the issue of divorce (1 Corinthians 7:10-11), on the practice of the Eucharist (11:23-26) and on the economic support of the missionary (9:14)? Similarly, in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 15:1-29), Luke tells us about what we usually call the Council of Jerusalem where Peter, James, Paul, among others, must face the pressure of Christians who want to impose Jewish rules on the newcomers. How will they settle the debate? For example, Peter will evoke his vision of a sheet with all the animals of the earth and the call of the Spirit to eat even what a Jew considers unclean, for before God nothing is unclean (see Acts 10:1-17). It would have been simpler to appeal to the authority of a word from Jesus. One conclusion is obvious: such a word never existed.

            Some biblical scholars have tried to find a solution by saying that Matthew (15:11) best reflects the original source that Mark would have modified. Indeed, Matthew has a much less radical version: "It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, but what comes out of his mouth, that defiles a man. As we can see, the emphasis in Matthew is on the second part of the aphorism. But to assert the priority of Matthew over Mark is to deny all the achievements of redactional criticism.

            • All of Matthew chapter 15 displays Matthew's typical tendency to rewrite Mark. For example, he shortens and tightens Mark's narratives that tend to stretch a bit too far.
            • He eliminates some of Mark's parentheses that are not only erroneous, but offensive to a Jew (see Mark 7:2-4 about the Jews washing themselves after returning from the market).
            • He eliminates Mark's generalizations in a polemical context, such as that there are many other practices that the Jews do by tradition (Mark 7:4).
            • Matthew, on the other hand, emphasizes the role of Peter (15:15).
            • He accentuates the polemic with the Pharisees (15: 12).
            • He softens or eliminates statements about the Law that might scandalize a devout Jew, such as Mark's comment that Jesus would have declared all foods pure (Mark 7:19).
            • In v. 20 he ends his version of Mark's story with an emphasis on unwashed hands, creating an inclusion with v. 2 on the issue of unwashed hands, diverting attention from dietary rules.

            In conclusion, we must recognize that the aphorism of Mark 7:15 is a Christian creation reflecting the teaching and practice of the Church around the year 70, and perhaps aimed at resistant groups in Judeo-Christian circles. We already have an echo of this teaching in Paul around AD 58 when he writes to the Romans, "I know this, I am certain in the Lord Jesus, nothing is unclean (koinon) in itself." This vocabulary about the unclean (koinon) is the same as in Mark 7:1-23. It should be noted that Mark's gospel was probably addressed primarily to the Church of Rome. Thus, it is possible that this aphorism about the purity of food that Mark puts into the mouth of Jesus reflects the same Christian teaching and stand that Paul was the first to echo in his letter to the Romans.

        2. Verses 17-23

          Since these verses are an explanation of the aphorism of v.15, and since we have recognized that it does not go back to Jesus, we must logically conclude that they too do not go back to Jesus. To support this conclusion, we can add that this set displays the features of Mark's vocabulary, structure and theology.

          • We have a typical Markan structure where, after an enigmatic statement by Jesus (the aphorism), Jesus gives an explanation in private (at home) to his disciples, but not without first reproaching them for their lack of intelligence (see for example the parable of the seed in Mark 4);
          • The explanation of the aphorism has two parts, both of which Mark introduces in his usual way: "he said to them (legei )" (18); "He said (elegen )" (20);
          • The two explanations of vv. 18 and 20 take up the vocabulary of the aphorism which we consider inauthentic: from outside of a man, to enter, to defile, that which comes out of the man;
          • Finally, the list of vices in vv. 21-22 is unique in the four gospels and is found only in the New Testament epistles.

    5. Verses 1-5: The Question about Eating with Unwashed Hands

      These verses serve as an introduction to the entire set of verses 6-23. Yet we have just argued that this whole set does not go back to the historical Jesus, with the possible exception of the discussion of the korbān in vv. 10-12. Moreover, vv. 1-5 are about the cleansing of hands and have nothing to do with the problem of dietary rules that follows. We must therefore also conclude that this introduction does not go back to the historical Jesus. To all these reasons, we can add others which have to do with the content of vv. 1-5.

      1. First of all, to claim that "all Jews" practice the rites related to the purification of hands is flatly false; it was at most a trait of some Pharisees.

      2. It cannot even be said that all Pharisees practiced these purification rites. For there is no law in the Pentateuch that would require ordinary people to wash their hands before eating. Even the rigorous community of Qumran did not practice hand washing before the communal meal, but rather immersion of the body in water.

      3. The earliest attestation on the purification of the hands is found in the Mishna (the year 200-220), tractate Yadayim. But even in the Mishna this practice seems to be recent, and we find subsequently various opinions in the Tosefta and the Talmud of Jerusalem about its non-obligatory character. In the Talmud of Babylon (t. Ber. 5:27) the rabbis of the house of Hillel remind those of the house of Shammai that this rule does not come from the Torah. In fact, it is possible that this practice originated in the Diaspora where there was no access to the Jerusalem temple and its purification rituals, the same milieu where the gospels of Mark and Matthew were written.

      4. The conclusions of some biblical scholars who have tried to recover the historical value of the question about hand washing do not hold water. They use texts from the 3rd to 5th centuries (Mishna, Jerusalem Talmud, Babylon Talmud) to project them into the 1st century. In particular, rabbinic literature mentions a rigorous group of Pharisees, the hăbūrōt. Unfortunately, no New Testament text and no Jewish document before the year 70 alludes to this sectarian group. Also, turning the Pharisees of Mark 7:1-5 into hăbūrōt is totally unjustified, especially since it would be incomprehensible to see these hăbūrōt attacking Jesus' disciples rather than other Pharisees not converted to their practice.

      5. Other biblical scholars also try to recover the historical value of the question about the cleansing of the hands by arguing, in spite of everything, that the aphorism of verse 15 (There is nothing external to man that, entering him, can defile him, but...) provides Jesus' answer to this question. Let us forget for a moment that we have already declared this aphorism to be non-historical. Leviticus and Deuteronomy clearly distinguish ritual impurity from moral impurity. Now, the laws forbidding the use of certain animals as food are in a class by themselves in the rules of ritual purity. Indeed, ritual purity is intended to deal with the normal cycle of birth, sexuality, illness and death. But by considering the eating of forbidden animals an "abomination" and prohibiting it altogether, the rules of dietary impurity come close to moral impurity, along with murder, incest and idolatry. This perception continued in Judaism, so that the Mishna places hand cleansing in the 6th order with ritual cleansing, tractate Taharot (purities), but places dietary rules in the 5th order, tractate Qodašin (holy things). How could Jesus have been so ignorant of this distinction found in the Pentateuch and throughout Judaism? In short, the aphorism of v. 15 is not an answer to the original question about hand washing, nor is it historical. And the whole of Mark 7:1-23 is just a collection of Christian traditions that Mark has stitched together to support his theology.

  3. Other Possible References to Ritual Purity in the Gospels

    Since the rest of the gospels on ritual purity are interpreted in the light of Mark 7:1-23, depriving the latter of its historical character also makes all the other passages on the subject problematic.

    1. "Bodily impurity" was considered the most virulent ritual impurity, so much so that the Rabbinic Writings considered it the father of all impurities. Thus, one who touched a dead body or walked in a cemetery was unclean for seven days, and had to go through the most elaborate rules of purification. Now, since life expectancy was limited in those days, people had to contract ritual impurity on a regular basis, and given the distance from the temple in Jerusalem for purification, ordinary people had to spend months in a state of impurity.

      The gospels show very little interest in ritual impurity. Yet, during his constant travels, Jesus must have contracted this impurity. The gospels tell us that Jesus touched the dead body of Jairus' daughter (Mk 5:41), that he visited the tomb of Lazarus, or that he touched the coffin of Jairus' daughter. They never mention any problem.

      In the same vein, we have a series of curses.

      Matthew 23: 27-28 Luke 11: 44
      27 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful,
      but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth
      44 Woe to you, For you are like unmarked graves,
      28 So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. and people walk over them without realizing it."

      Despite the fact that both texts deal with curses and the contrast between what people can see and the reality of things, Matthew and Luke report different words that could be traced back to Jesus. Apart from confirming that the Law considers tombs and dead bodies unclean, these texts tell us nothing about Jesus' personal convictions.

      Matthew 23: 25-26 Luke 11: 39-41
      25 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 39 Then the Lord said to him, "Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.
      26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean. 40 You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41 So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you.

      The texts of Matthew and Luke here come from the same source, probably the Q Document, because we have the same antithetical literary structure, the same vocabulary, and the differences in each can be explained by the theological agenda of each, such as Luke's on almsgiving. Since both texts go back to the same source, we do not have the multiple attestations argument to trace them to the historical Jesus. In any case, this source tells us nothing about Jesus' position in front of the rules of ritual purity.

    2. The story of the woman with blood loss who touches Jesus (Mark 5:25-34) must be eliminated from the scope of our research, because the rule of ritual purity concerned only menstruation. Moreover, there is nothing in the gospel to suggest any problem of impurity.

    3. The rules governing female menstruation (Leviticus 15:19-24) would grow in importance over time, especially in the time of Jesus, and would survive the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, so much so that they would be enshrined in an entire tractate of the Mishna, Nida. Yet the gospels remain completely silent on the subject. We know that women accompanied and supported Jesus throughout his ministry, and certainly experienced their menstrual periods. Similarly, all those men who accompanied him, whether single or estranged from their wives, certainly experienced nocturnal ejaculation. If the gospel does not mention it, it is because Jesus himself saw no interest in it, unlike intertestamental Judaism.

    4. Let us conclude with the question of skin diseases, which are commonly and wrongly translated as leprosy. Mark 1:40-45 tells us that Jesus touched the leper to heal him. However, Leviticus 13-14 does not state that a leper touching a person makes him unclean. At Qumran, specifically in the Damascus Document, the priest is even instructed to carefully examine the leper's body, beard, and hair, which implies physical contact. The first person to speak of ritual impurity in the case of contact with a leper is Josephus in a late writing, Against Apion (1, 31, 281). Only later would rabbinic law clearly decree that contact with a leper makes one unclean. In conclusion, it is likely that contact with a leper at the time of Jesus was not a problem. Moreover, Mark 1:40-45 tells us nothing about Jesus' position on the rules of ritual purity.

  4. Conclusions on Jesus and Ritual Purity

    1. The entirety of Mark 7:1-23 does not come from the historical Jesus with the exception of the word on the korbān, but represents various stages of the Judeo-Christian tradition as well as the redactional work of Mark. Thus, according to the information we have, Jesus never spoke on the washing of hands or dietary rules.

    2. This silence takes on even greater importance when it extends to the whole of the traditions about Jesus where the question of the rules of ritual purity could have arisen. It is enough to think of contacts with dead bodies, tombs, women with their menstrual periods or men experiencing night-time ejaculations, or even lepers. This silence shows Jesus' complete lack of interest in the question, in contrast to what would happen later in the first Christian communities.

    3. What conclusion can be drawn from all this? When we examine Jesus' attitude to the Mosaic law, we find neither a complete rejection nor a total submission. One will look in vain for a systematic approach, as with a teacher or a rabbi. He is a charismatic religious being who appeals to his intuitive and direct knowledge of the will of God.

Next chapter: Does the commandment to love God and neighbor, as well as enemies, come from Jesus?

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