Scripture and Tradition in Mark 7


by Doug Ward

A Christian fellowship will naturally form its own set of traditions that become part of its distinctive identity. It might plan celebrations according to a certain calendar, follow a specified order of service, adopt a particular lectionary of Scripture readings, and select music for corporate worship. Such details are not spelled out in the Bible but should be developed with guidance from biblical teaching.


The problem of possible clashes between scripture and tradition arises in the Gospels in Mark 7 and Matthew 15, which record an exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees, a zealous and respected Jewish group that followed "the tradition of the elders" (Mt 15:2; Mk 7:3,5). Jesus had frequent interaction with the Pharisees and shared many beliefs and practices with them-for example, belief in the resurrection of the dead (Mk 12:18-27) and the practice of saying a blessing before a meal (Mk 6:41). On the other hand, he also differed from them in significant ways.


Ritual Hand-Washing Before Meals

At one point a group of Pharisees and scribes asked Jesus why his disciples did not practice a ritual hand-washing before a meal, as they did (Mk 7:1-5). Mark 7:3 notes that those who followed the tradition of the elders would "wash their hands properly" before a meal. The ESV footnote explains that the Greek word translated "properly" means "with a fist." They would make a loose fist and pour a specified amount of water over it, allowing the water to seep through the fingers and cover much of the hand.1


We do not know when the custom began. It may have been a way to imbue a familiar practice-washing hands before eating-with new meaning, reminding participants of who they were and expressing the participants' desire to live holy lives before God. It was a common custom for Jews in that era to wash their hands before prayer or study of the Scriptures, for similar reasons.2


We do know that the custom came to be surrounded by complex ritual purity concerns. (Eventually a tractate of the Mishnah, Yadayim, would be devoted to rules about impurity of hands.) It was taught that if a person with unwashed hands touched food in which liquids were present, then the food became ritually impure, and the person then would become ritually impure if he or she ate it. For people who wanted to avoid ritual impurity as much as possible, this teaching provided incentive to do the ceremonial hand-washing.


Those who formulated the rules for ritual hand-washing used passages from Leviticus (11:32-38; 15:11) as sources for their ideas. It was acknowledged, however, that these rules were not required by the Torah. They were part of the "oral Torah" that comprised the tradition of the elders. In particular, the idea that the hands of a person who was not ritually impure could spread ritual impurity is not found in the Bible. Neither is the possibility of becoming ritually impure by eating ordinary food. In Leviticus it was only the consumption of "what dies of itself or what is torn by beasts" that led to ritual impurity (Lev 17:15).


Jesus' Response

Jesus denounced the ceremonial hand-washing custom, with its complicated purity rules, as a harmful innovation. The custom was not only unnecessary but actually obscured biblical teaching. "You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men," he charged (Mk 7:8).


Jesus proceeded to elaborate upon his concerns. "There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him," he said (v 15). In Leviticus the things that lead to ritual impurity are not things that a person eats, but things like bodily fluids (especially blood) that come from inside a person.


This feature of the ritual purity rules was intended to teach a lesson about sin, which can be thought of as moral impurity. The evil thoughts and actions that lead to moral defilement come from within (vv 21-23), and the rules were meant to be a reminder to guard against such thoughts and actions. That important lesson could be lost amidst the details of the hand-washing custom.


Verse 19 contains a parenthetical comment that is frequently misunderstood: "Thus he declared all foods clean." In context, this comment means that Jesus said the consumption of ordinary food would not lead to ritual impurity. He was not cancelling the commandments about forbidden meats like pork and shellfish, as is often thought. The rules about clean and unclean meats were not at issue in this exchange, which was focused on ritual purity. Also, this was not a discussion of whether to obey biblical commandments, but on how best to obey them.3


Occasionally some Christians make statements like, "We just follow the Bible and not human traditions." Such statements fail to recognize that all Christian fellowships have traditions, as observed above. Moreover, many traditions are valuable. We learn and benefit greatly from the wisdom and customs that we have received from previous generations of believers. Traditions only become a problem when they clash with the Bible. In Mark 7 Jesus was not making a blanket condemnation of all Pharisaic tradition. Indeed, he shared certain traditions with the scribes and Pharisees. But he opposed traditions that served to contradict or obscure the teaching of Scripture. We should evaluate our own traditions by the same standard.


1See James G. Crossley, "Halakah and Mark 7:3: `with the hand in the shape of a fist' ", New Testament Studies 58 (2011), pp. 57-68.

2See John C. Poirier, "Purity Beyond the Temple in the Second Temple Era," Journal of Biblical Literature 122 (2003), pp. 247-265.

3See for example Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: the story of the Jewish Christ, The New Press, 2012, Chapter 3.

Issue 37


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