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 service order, 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 Mark 7 and Matthew 15.
The exchange occurs 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 interactions 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.
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 praying or studying the Scriptures for similar reasons.(2)
We know the custom came to be surrounded by complex ritual purity concerns. (Eventually, an entire tractate of the Mishnah, Yadayim, would be devoted to rules about hand-related impurity and purity.) For example, if a person with unwashed hands touched food in which liquids were present, the food became impure, and the person would become ritually impure if they ate it. For people who wanted to avoid ritual impurity as much as possible, this teaching provided an incentive to do the ceremonial aspects of 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. Instead, 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 denounced the ceremonial hand-washing custom, with its complicated purity rules, as a harmful innovation. The tradition 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).
He 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). It is important to note here that 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.
Jesus continues his instruction by observing that this aspect of the ritual purity rules served to instruct 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 levitical laws 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 customs.
This discussion helps shed light on a parenthetical comment in Mark 7:19 that is frequently taken out of context: "Thus he declared all foods clean." Jesus was not canceling the commandments about forbidden meats like pork and shellfish, as is often thought. He explains that—in contrast to the oral tradition—the consumption of ordinary food would not lead to being ceremonially unclean. Again, the context is ritual impurity, not laws related to clean and unclean meats.(3)
The issue was not whether to obey biblical commandments but how best to obey them.
Occasionally some Christians make statements like, "We follow the Bible alone, not human traditions." Such claims fail to recognize that all Christian fellowships have traditions, as observed in my opening comments. Moreover, many traditions are valuable. We learn and benefit greatly from the wisdom and customs 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 practices. Indeed, he shared certain customs with the scribes and Pharisees. But he consistently opposed traditions that served to contradict or obscure the teaching of Scripture. We should evaluate our own traditions by the same standard.
(1) See 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.
(2) See John C. Poirier, "Purity Beyond the Temple in the Second Temple Era," Journal of Biblical Literature 122 (2003), pp. 247-265.
(3) Matthew Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death, Baker Academic, 2020, pp. 187-195.
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