Jesus and First Century Jewish Purity Laws
Rules about what was pure and impure, especially laws concerning clean and unclean foods, worked to define and differentiate one religious denomination from another. Furthermore, rules about what foods were considered clean and unclean were, for a Jew, a matter of covenant loyalty and national identity. Jesus, as described throughout the NT Gospels, was a Jew who faithfully embraced distinctively Jewish rites. Therefore, I argue that the historical Jesus was an observant and devout Jew who did not violate the purity laws of his time; that the sayings of Jesus concerning handwashing and food laws found in the Gospels are not authentic, but polemics of the early Christian church to redefine food rules as a means of differentiating Christians from Jews for the purpose of embracing the Gentiles.
What did first century Jews consider pure and impure? To answer this question, an examination of Jewish purity laws and observances in Jesus' time is necessary. Purity usually symbolizes holiness, whereas impurity separates one from God, therefore, purity is a prerequisite to approach God (Neusner 1975:21). Ideas of purity and impurity, as handed down from ancient Israel, had two focuses. One, purity observances were cultic matters pertaining to priests and the temple in which cosmic and social lines were defined. Second, purity and impurity serve as important metaphors for regulating moral and religious conduct pertaining to sex relations, idol worship and disreputable behaviour (Neusner 1975:16). Furthermore, proximity to the temple was an important aspect of purity. There were specific and socially important interpretations of purity that differentiated the Sadducees and Pharisees who were in direct relationship with the Temple cult from those Jews (such as Jesus), who lived remotely where purity was commonly used metaphorically (Neusner 1975:17). For temple priests purity was a cultic matter. For example, if a Jerusalem priest had sexual contact with a menstruating woman they would be required to undergo a rite of purification before entering the temple. Ordinary Jews on Passover pilgrimages to Jerusalem would also have been required to undergo a rite of purification before entering the temple. Only Jews living remotely would use purity and impurity metaphorically for moral and immoral behaviour, such as sexual fornication and idolatry (Neusner 1975:20).
Purity observances are not prohibitions, but rather meant to regulate action, such as entering the Jewish temple if impurity has been contracted (Sanders 1985:182). Also, purity infractions such as eating or touching certain animals did not mean the impure person was a sinner, nor did it limit ordinary associations, except for a short period which required a purification bath in the immersion pool and waiting for sunset. Furthermore, contact between an impure person and a pure person was not considered a sin, but was to be avoided so as to limit contacts that might eventually come in contact with something connected to the temple. Some purity transgressions, such as eating certain fats or blood, did constitute sin and therefore required atonement, but in most cases touching or eating something forbidden did not represent sin and was rectified by washing and sunset. (Sanders 1985:183).
Did Jesus defy Jewish purity laws, specifically food taboos? The Synoptic Gospel narratives describe Jesus, not as a law breaking Jew, but as an observant Jew who conformed to the accepted religious practices of his tradition. Observance of special days is an example of Jesus demonstrating his devotion to Judaism by his Temple pilgrimage for the Passover festival. Jesus' pious law-abiding observation of the Passover ritual is illustrated in Mark 14:12-16 with instructions to his disciples for the preparation of the paschal ritual: "(12) On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, 'Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?' (13) So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, "Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, (14) and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, 'the teacher asks, where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?' (15) He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.' (16) So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal".
Jesus also adheres to Torah law. One example, Mark 1:44: Jesus instructs a leper he has healed to show himself to a priest, and when pronounced clean, he was to perform the sacrificial rites prescribe by Moses in Leviticus 14:1-7 (1993 Vermes p. 18). Another example lies in a descriptive passage (Matt. 9:20; Luke 8:44; and Mark 6:56; Matt. 14:36) that refers to a garment Jesus wore with a hem fitted with tassels (tzitzis)-a conformity with the Mosaic instruction (Num. 15:38-40).
Jesus is also depicted as a devout Jew who regularly associated with synagogues and was described as a respected healer and exorcist (Vermes 1993:13) and as a teacher of great authority: "(21) They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he (Jesus) entered the synagogue and taught. (22) They were astounded at this teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes." (39) And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons (Mark 1:21-22, 39), (Luke 4:15-16, 44), (Matt 4:23). "(15) And when the chief priest and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the crowd was spellbound by his teaching" (Mark 11:15), (Matt 21:12), (Luke 19:45). Furthermore, Jesus is described as obedient to cultic law as illustrated in Matt. 17:24-27 by his instruction to pay the half-shekel Temple-tax.
The evidence found in the Gospel story does not portray Jesus as a Jew who has come to Jerusalem to reform the law, nor offer a metaphoric interpretation of the law, but rather, the Gospel story reveals a Jesus who, is in essence, a steadfast cult of the Temple supporter and advocate (Vermes 1993:16).
With respect to Jewish food laws and handwashing, did Jesus ever contradict the law? An examination of the passages in Mark 7:1-5 and Matthew 15:1-2 reveal that it was Jesus' disciples, not Jesus himself, who were being accused of not washing their hands before eating. "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?'" (Mark 7:1-5).
Handwashing is a matter that appears in the Gospels and suggests that some Jews washed their hands before eating. There is not a great deal of information on the Jewish custom of handwashing in Jesus' time. Although it appears in the Mishnah, it is not a biblical requirement and prior to 70 CE, ordinary Jews did not accept the practice. However, it was probably a custom that arose in Jesus' time among certain Jewish groups and is one of the few purity practices to have survived since the destruction of the temple (Sanders 1985:186). Later Rabbinic Law regards handwashing as obvious, but the Mishnah (Parah 11.5) says that unwashed hands do not defile common food. Furthermore, biblical purity laws were not a particular concern for the Pharisees since it was the responsibility of the Temple priests to define and teach to the people which areas were clean or unclean. Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest to the contrary that the priests had relinquished their responsibilities in this area to the Pharisees or the scribes who taught them to the Pharisees (1985 Sanders p. 184). Temple priests were, however required to wash their hands and feet after urinating, but there is no mention of washing their hands before eating (Yoma 3:2). There is also mention in Zabim 5:12 that hands can render the heave-offering invalid and in Yadaim 2:2, handwashing is connected to eating heave offering. But, there is no evidence to suggest that if one did not follow these rules they were guilty of sin (Sanders 1985:185). It is also a highly unlikely scenario that the Pharisees, on the Sabbath, made a special excursion from Jerusalem to the cornfields of Galilee to scrutinize Jesus and examine his disciples' hands for cleanness. (Mark 7:1) (Sanders 1985:265). Did Jesus debate such issues with the Pharisees? This is difficult to prove and even if true, these stories are best interpreted as a record of some kind of conflict between Jesus and Pharisees on points of the law. Furthermore, it important to note that no transgression of the law was attributed to Jesus; it was his disciples who were in question (Sanders 1985:265).
The passage in Luke 11:37-41 suggests Jesus is the transgressor of not washing his hands before eating: "(37) A Pharisee invited him (Jesus) to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. (38) The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner. (39) Then the Lord said to him, Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. (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." This highly allegorical passage has been adapted from Gospel of Mark by the author of Luke to support the bias of a Jesus rejected by Israel, whose message is to be delivered to the nation of Gentiles. Furthermore, Jewish purity, as already discussed, when used metaphorically, was common with Jews who lived remotely from the Temple cult or used by Jews after the Temple's destruction in 70 CE (Neusner 1975:17). Either scenario is incongruent with Jesus' time or proximity to the Temple cult and contradicts a Jesus who is described throughout the Gospels as a law-bidding Jew.
Mark's handwashing dispute is followed by another more important discourse concerning food purity. For the Jews, food laws symbolized law and lawlessness and determined how a Jew would conceive and participate in social relations among other humans and between humans and God. Food was an important symbol of God's power. Good food was God's blessing and ability to bestow life, whereas, bad food or starvation implied God's judgment and punishment. Furthermore, acceptance of food observances meant acceptance of God's authority, but breaking the food laws or seeking forbidden food meant rejecting God's power. Also, God's word was symbolized by food. Eating the right foods signified communing with God, whereas, impure foods symbolized separation from God (Feeley-Harnik 1981:72).
The authenticity of Mark 7:14-23, is, in part, independently attested by Thomas 14. I hypothesize that the passage, "what goes into your mouth will not defile you, but that which issues from your mouth-it is that which will defile you" (Thomas 14), is probably closest to the original aphorism attributed to Jesus since it has all the earmarks of the oral tradition; whereas the Synoptic versions shows clear signs of editorial activity with the inclusion of the allegorical content. Mark's discourse on handwashing and his attempt to answer the issue with a second topic regarding food purity suggests that the evangelist did not understand the distinctions between the handwashing code and dietary law (Sanders 1985:400). As already discussed, the Mishnah says that unwashed hands do not defile everyday food, nor did common Jews accept the practice of handwashing prior to 70 CE. Furthermore, there is a contextual discrepancy with food purity passage. Jesus was an observant Jew who followed Torah law. There is not any evidence in the Gospels suggesting that Jesus or his disciples ate non-kosher food (Sanders 1985:266). Furthermore, food prohibitions were a Temple cult issue and it was only after the temple's destruction that food observances were a basis for moralistic allegory (Neusner 1975:17).
Purity rules and observances function as a means of differentiating one sect from another and the interpretation of those purity laws carry implications into the tradition as a whole. (Neusner 1975:15). In pre-Christian Judaism, eating kosher food with other Jews would have been routine (Sanders 1985:264), but since Paul evangelized among the Gentiles, food observances, table fellowship and purity concerns developed into schisms. Paul's letters provide evidence of these schisms and his arguments to alleviate them.
In Romans 14, Paul addresses quarreling Christians who are concerned about those who "eat anything", while others "eat only vegetables". Paul chastises those who pass judgment declaring, "I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean" (Rom.14:14). Paul introduces a subjective attitude towards cultural habits and creates room that accommodates food differences among Jews and Christians (Wong 2001:260). He further reiterates that, "the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 14:17) and that "everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat" (Rom. 14:20). I argue that the Markan author neatly addresses this schism between the Pauline (Gentile Christians) and Jamesian (Jewish Christians) cliques with his editorial addition in Mark 7:19, "Thus he declared all foods clean"-an interpretation with a distinct Pauline spin (Butz 2005:149).
Another schism arising in the early Christian church concerning purity observances can be found in Galatians 2:11-14. In Antioch, Paul directly opposes Peter and chastises Barnabas over table fellowship rules because they would no longer eat with Gentile Christians when a certain Jamesian faction declared it impure. Jewish law prohibits eating with Gentiles. It was considered polluting because Gentiles ate unclean food-food that may have even been offered to idols (1 Corin. 8). In Isaiah 65:4, Gentiles are cited as eating swine flesh and broth of abominable things. In Jubilees 22:16-17, Jews are instructed not to eat with them nor follow their works for they are unclean and all their ways are pollution. Social contact with anything gentile in nature-clothes, beds, bodies, or cooking vessels was considered defiling and to be avoided (1981 Feeley-Harnik p. 44). In Maccabees 1.62-63, the Maccabean martyrs are remembered for their steadfast resolve to rather die than eat defiled food. Furthermore, OT highlights Jewish heroes, Daniel (1.8-16), Tobit (1.10-13) and Judith (10.5; 12.1-20), as refusing to "eat the food of Gentiles". James and the Jerusalem church won the argument, convincing Peter and Barnabas to part ways with Paul over the issue of eating with Gentile because table fellowship was a strong marker of Jewish identity and covenant loyalty (Dunn 2008: 110).
Further evidence that the Gospel writers had Pauline biases is found in Acts. The Lukan author omits the prominent incident of Peter's break with Paul at Antioch over table fellowship observances (2005 Butz p.149). Moreover, Luke 11:37-41 betrays a Pauline bias by depicting Jesus as the actual transgressor of Jewish purity observances. This bias which absolves Gentile Christians of eating unclean foods is further amplified by the Lukan author in Acts 10:10-15, whereby God instructs Peter, "to kill and eat" but, Peter protests saying, "I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean" but, God declares, "what God has made clean, you (Peter) must not call profane". If Jesus really did declare all foods clean, how could Peter, who knew Jesus intimately, forget such a declaration and speak out about some food as profane or unclean? I argue that the author of Luke is attempting to give Peter a Pauline face through a revelatory vision of God instructing Peter to abandon Jewish dietary laws (2005 Butz p. 149). Therefore, I argue that early Christian Gospel evangelists were concerned with how to differentiate their "Jesus" from the traditional observant Jewish Jesus (1981 Feeley-Harnik p. 71). Food was a key distinguishing symbol. Thus, the passages of Mark 7:14-23; Matt. 15:17-20; and Luke 11:37-41 are polemics of the early Christian church to establish a more Pauline Jesus over the Jamesian tradition by redefining Jewish purity observances by moralistic allegory, thus creating a more encompassing sect that embraces the Gentiles. This approach is most apparent in Mark 7:18-19, "nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but things that come out are what defile...(Thus he declared all foods clean)â€ clearly targets the Jewish food laws and attempts to eliminate the schism between Jewish and Gentile Christians by moralistic allegory.
In summary, did Jesus challenge and, in some cases, violate Jewish purity laws? I think not. First, all Gospel descriptions of Jesus portray him as a covenant faithful Jew who followed the Law of Moses and taught in the synagogue and temple, so it is unlikely that Jesus violated purity observances. I consider the handwashing incident trivial and moot because, 1), it was not a biblical requirement to wash one's hands before eating, nor was it a widely accepted practice; and 2) Jesus was not the culprit, it was his disciples that were in question. Furthermore, in Jesus' time biblical purity was a cultic matter and the responsibility of the temple priests, which makes it highly improbable that the Pharisees would have thought it important to journey from Jerusalem to Galilee to see if Jesus and his disciples washed their hands and utensils before eating. As to violating Jewish food laws, all evidence suggests Jesus and his disciples ate kosher food, as was the custom of the time.
Did Jesus really say, "there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but things that come out are what defile". The Markan passage is independently attested in the Gospel of Thomas. Furthermore it passes the criterion of dissimilarity because it is an odd thing to say for an observant Jew who adheres to Torah Law. Moreover, it passes the criterion of contextual credibility, since Jews who lived remotely from the temple cult often interpreted purity laws metaphorically for moral and religious behaviour. Yet, even though this saying passes three markers for authenticity, I argue that it is an inauthentic saying of Jesus. My evidence to support this hypothesis includes: 1) Paul's letters, as the first documented accounts of early Christianity, has little information about the earthly Jesus. However, what Paul does document, are several incidents of conflict over food purity and table fellowship with Gentiles. It is Paul who argues in Romans, in the name of Lord Jesus, "nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean". Again, one might argue that Paul is citing Jesus' words from some oral tradition circulating at the time, but it is more reasonable that Paul is using the name of Lord Jesus to reinforce the credibility of his teaching. If the historical Jesus declared all foods as clean, then the conflict concerning food rules in early Christianity do not make any sense. Furthermore, if Jesus stated that all foods are clean, why would the author of Acts find it necessary to relay a story about a vision Peter had of God, instructing him on what God has made clean, he must not call profane. If Peter knew Jesus intimately, how could he forget such a profound uttering by a covenant loyal Jew-that all foods are clean! The only answer that makes sense is, "Jesus didn't say it". I posit that conflict between Paul and Peter in Antioch indicates a problematic rift in Jewish Christian and Gentile Christian religious behaviour. I therefore conclude, as the most reasonable hypothesis, that the passages found in Mark 7:1-23, Matt. 15:1-20, Luke 11:37-41 and Thomas 14 are inauthentic sayings of the historical Jesus; that these passages represent the editorial biases of the Gospel writers to redefine the boundaries of first century Jewish-Christian purity notions to distinguish Christianity as a separate sect. Thus, reinterpreting food purity rules, that were clearly a stumbling block for Jewish Christians, further opened the doors to the swelling numbers of Gentiles converted by the Pauline Christians. Therefore, the sayings of Jesus with respect to food purity found in the NT Gospels do not pass the test of contextual credibility because the evidence records a Jesus whose teachings and actions are that of a individual who identified himself as a covenant loyal Jew.
1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him (Jesus) 2 and 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 scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?"
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 things that come out are what defile."  [17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18"Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from the 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 Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 "Why do you your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat."
17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart comes evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.
37A Pharisee invited him (Jesus) to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. 38The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner. 39Then the Lord said to him, Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you.
Jesus said to them, "If you fast, you will give rise to sin for yourselves; and if you pray, you will be condemned; and if you give alms, you do harm to your spirits. When you go into any land and walk about in the districts, if they receive you, eat what they will set before you, and heal the sick among them. For what goes into your mouth will not defile you, but that which issues from your mouth-it is that which will defile you."
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