by Doug Ward

The Gospel of John reports that Jesus, at a Passover Seder on the eve of his crucifixion, knelt and washed the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-20). This was an event full of deep meaning. It set an example of selfless service that Jesus instructed his disciples to follow (vv. 12-17). It prefigured the ultimate act of submission and service that Jesus would carry out the next day. And it taught that Jesus' sacrificial death was necessary in order for his disciples, then and now, to receive eternal life (v. 8).


However, because none of the other gospels record the footwashing episode, some scholars have expressed doubt that this incident really occurred. They suggest that John may have invented the story as a way of emphasizing the lessons listed above.


Did Jesus actually wash his disciples' feet? This question is considered in a fascinating paper by Dr. Richard J. Bauckham.1 Bauckham, one of the ablest scholarly defenders of Christianity, makes a strong case for the historicity of John 13. In doing so, he also sheds further light on the significance of footwashing for Christians, both ancient and modern. In this article I will summarize his arguments.


New Testament Evidence

Professor Bauckham makes three main points in his case for the historicity of the foot washing incident. The first involves the way in which the Gospel of John is written. Bauckham observes that John discusses a relatively small number of episodes from the life of Jesus, choosing to explore those episodes in some detail. John undoubtedly selected these events carefully for their effectiveness in conveying his intended message. But since there were many traditions about Jesus from which to choose (John 20:30; 21:25), there would have been no need for him to invent fictitious ones.


A second point in favor of the authenticity of John 13 is the consistency of its message with that of other teachings of Jesus. Although this specific episode is not included in the Synoptic Gospels, some very similar teachings are mentioned there. In Mark 10:41-45 and Matthew 20:24-28, Jesus tells his disciples that the way to true greatness is through service, giving his own upcoming sacrificial death as a prime example. Luke 22:24-27 indicates that Jesus repeated this message at the Last Supper, which is certainly consistent with the foot washing having occurred then. Moreover, Luke 12:37 presents the striking image of Jesus waiting upon his faithful followers at dinner upon his return. Finally, it should be noted that the sayings of Jesus recorded in John 13:16, 20 are paralleled in the Synoptics (see e.g. Matt 10:24-25, 40).


Bauckham's third point is based on the historical evidence for the practice of footwashing among early Christians. We see a hint of this in I Tim 5:10, which lists "washing the feet of the saints" as a part of Christian hospitality. This practice is mentioned matter-of-factly as an established tradition.2


Footwashing in Historical Context

The existence of such a tradition is especially significant when we take into account the culture of the first century Greco-Roman world. Bauckham explains that the washing of feet was an everyday task in Jesus' time, when walking in open-toed sandals was the main mode of transportation. It was also considered to be a menial task. A wealthy host would have slaves wash the feet of guests. At the home of a host with no slaves, guests would wash their own feet when they arrived.


In that culture there was a well understood social hierarchy with boundaries that were seldom crossed.3 Foot washing was considered to be a task for slaves, who were at the bottom of the hierarchy, and it was unheard of for social superiors to wash the feet of social inferiors. So the tradition of mutual footwashing among the early Christians was profoundly counter-cultural. In their dealings with the outside world, Christians were often obliged to follow the social conventions of the day (e.g. Col 3:22). But within their own communities, Christians participated in a new world order, the Kingdom of God. In that Kingdom all are of equal worth in God's sight (Gal. 3:28), and mutual service is customary.


Bauckham notes that footwashing is mentioned a number of times in the patristic literature, including references in the writings of Tertullian, Origen, Chrysostom, Pachomius, Caesarius of Arles, Sulpicius Severus, Sozomen, and Benedict of Nursia. Many of these references mention footwashing in the context of everyday hospitality. The Apostolic Constitutions (fourth century A.D.) instructs deacons to wash the feet of the weak and infirm when they visit them (3.19). Some sources also mention a custom of washing the feet of the newly baptized, probably based on John 13:10.


The combination of I Tim 5:10 and the patristic references indicates that there was a widespread Christian tradition of footwashing going back to the early days of the faith. Since this tradition cut completely against the grain of ancient society, the most likely explanation for its origin is that Jesus himself began it with own example, as John's Gospel records.



When we understand John 13 in its historical context, Jesus' powerful example becomes even more meaningful. We are called to put aside the prejudices of society and follow the radical example of service of our Lord and Master. Symbolic footwashings that are carried out as part of a Paschal celebration are a reminder of this high calling.


1"Did Jesus Wash His Disciples' Feet?" pp. 411-429 in Authenticating the Activities of Jesus, Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans, Editors, Brill, Leiden, 1999.


2Here it should be noted that I Timothy was apparently written in the 60s AD, most likely earlier than the Gospel of John, so this tradition would not have been derived from John 13.


3For further discussion, see the article "Epitaphs and Roman Social Classes" in Issue 23 of Grace & Knowledge.

Issue 24


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On 29 Jun 2008, 22:46.