New Testament Texts

Mikveh at QumranThe fundamental passage for our inquiry in the Gospels is Mk 7:1-23, partially paralleled by Mt 15:1-20, which is apparently dependent on it. We should note at the outset that contemporary New Testament scholarship views these passages as reflecting the early Christian community, and not the historical Jesus. From our point of view, the attempt to assign particular passages to the historical Jesus represents a concern primarily generated by faith issues, and our concern is, rather, with the early Christian community in which these texts came into their present form. We presume that the raw material and earliest traditions underlying these texts originated soon after the death of Jesus and that they were redacted into the text of Mark by sometime around the destruction of the Temple and into Matthew in the next 20 years or so.

Mk 7:1-5, paralleled by the much shorter version in Mt 15:1-2, contains the accusation by the Pharisees and scribes that Jesus’ followers transgress the “tradition of the elders” in that they eat bread without washing their hands.  The Markan version, in verses 2-4, contains a parenthetical aside explaining the customs of the Pharisees and “all Jews” regarding ritual purity and impurity to readers who are not familiar with them. The passage mentions several specific aspects of purity law, understood to be part of the “tradition of the elders,” a proto-version of the oral law: the requirement of washing hands before eating, ritual immersion after coming from public areas, and the immersion of pottery and metal vessels. Some scholars have observed that there is no contemporary evidence to the effect that such practices were in fact among Pharisees and their followers in mid-first century Palestine, since rabbinic texts are later.  We, however, disagree totally. From our point of view, the New Testament is an excellent source for the history of Judaism in the last years of the Temple and soon after, and so we see this passage as evidence for the practice of at least some Pharisees and their followers.  Further, widespread archaeological evidence of stone vessels and miqva’ot, even at a distance from Jerusalem, indicate widespread practice of purity laws.

Jesus responds to this accusation in Mk 7:6-13. Part of the passage is paralleled as well in Mt 15:3-14.  Jesus quotes Isa 29:13, referring to “a commandment of men, learned by rote,” to claim that the Pharisees have substituted human precepts for those given by God. (He may have understood “learned by rote” to refer to oral tradition.)  Further, by making a parallel with laws of vows (“Corban”), Jesus argues that extra biblical laws, traditions of the elders, can be used to reverse the biblical command to honor, that is, to provide material support for, one’s parents when they are in need (Mk 7:8-13//Mt 15:3-9). Ostensibly, Jesus is presented as arguing here that extra biblical laws can produce the opposite of what they are intended to produce. Rather than bringing people closer to living in the way of God, they may result in perverting His commandments. Transferred to the world of purity, Jesus is clearly arguing that extra-biblical stringency regarding ritual purity brings about a distancing from God. We will argue below that these texts view the use of purity as a separator as working against influencing sinners to repent.

The attack on purity laws continues. In Mark 7:14-23//Mt 15:10-24 Jesus makes the declaration that humans are not defiled by what enters their mouth but rather by what proceeds from it. He is asked by his disciples to explain this statement and he does. In what is probably a later addition to the text, a long string of transgressions is assumed to result from what comes forth from the mouth.

New Testament scholarship is virtually unanimous in seeing this statement  as a polemic against the laws of forbidden foods, what we call kashrut.  For many reasons, and as argued at length by T. Kazen, it is difficult to understand the passage in this manner. We would argue that these verses are a further argument against the extension of ritual purity from the domain of the Temple to that of the household. Jesus argues that strictures in purity are a mistake because ultimately the true purity that must be sought through religious life is that of speech and action, not that of physical food that is itself digested and excreted.

Let us sum up our reading of this passage by stating that early Christian authors have essentially placed in the mouth of Jesus the rejection of the system of the extra-biblical ritual purity that the Qumran sect as well as some pharisaic and early rabbinic authorities extended from the life of the Temple to that of the home. Jesus argues in general against the traditions of the elders, but the fundamental argument here is against non-biblical application of purity laws. We should note that we have not seen a direct argument to the effect that purity is a separator, stopping the religious elite from influencing the masses, but it is hinted that in some way these particular traditions of the elders, like the non-biblical precepts regarding vows, in some way function to inhibit observance of God’s true will.

A very similar episode is described in Lk 11: 37-41, 44. Here a Pharisee asks Jesus to eat with him and then criticizes him for not washing before the meal. Jesus responds that Pharisees are concerned with the purity of the outside of vessels, but are nonetheless “full of extortion and wickedness.” He says that true purity is within and not without, and compares the Pharisees to hidden graves, that is, to places that looked pure from the outside but were really impure. The message again is that Pharisees demand external ritual purity but ignore the need for inner, moral purity. This passage, however, appears to be an expansion of Mt 23:25-28 which presents the “Woe” passage without the framework of the story about the Pharisee who criticizes Jesus for not washing before the meal.

So far, we have addressed issues of purity in the Gospels, as they relates to food, as this is where we find the greatest evidence for purity serving as a separator, a boundary line, in the Dead Sea Scrolls. We should note, however, that some scholars have seen evidence in the Gospels to the effect that Jesus was lenient regarding impurity of the dead, menstrual impurity and separation of those with the skin disease ṣara`at, usually mistranslated as “leprosy.”  These cases, however, do not involve specific teachings but rather narratives. While we would agree that they may help to explain the climate of teachings in which Jesus’s views on purity and impurity as regards food are expressed, we did not see value in a detailed interpretation of these passages for the present study.

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