Jesus and Tradition

In Mark, the city of Jerusalem is the headquarters of the opposition to Jesus, especially the priestly authorities of the Temple. As his popularity grows, he experiences growing conflict with the religious authorities, the Pharisees, the scribes, and the representatives of the high priest. And his enemies began to plot his destruction.

Controversy erupted over what constitutes ceremonial uncleanness. In the seventh chapter, the Greek term rendered “unclean” more correctly means “common” (koinos) and refers not to something that is immoral or filthy, but to that which is “common” as opposed to that which is “sacred” or set apart for God’s service.

Something was not “unclean” because it was inherently evil, but because it is for common use rather than being consecrated to God.


And with his arrival, the era of fulfillment had commenced, and that meant that many of the old ways of doing things were no longer appropriate, including dietary restrictions.

  • (Mark 7:1-5) - “And the Pharisees and some of the Scribes, having come from Jerusalem, were gathering together towards him. And having observed some of his disciples, that with common hands, that is, unwashed, they ate bread, for the Pharisees and all the Jews except they properly wash the hands eat not, holding fast the tradition of the elders. And coming from the marketplace, except they immerse themselves, eat not and many other things there are which they accepted to hold fast, immersions of cups and pitchers and copper vessels and beds. And the Pharisees and the Scribes were questioning him: For what reason do your disciples walk not according to the tradition of the elders but eat bread with common hands?”

Many of the rituals followed at this time for maintaining ritual purity had been developed by the religious authorities or “elders” after the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, and many of the practices of the “scribes and Pharisees” described in the gospel accounts are not found in the Hebrew Bible.

According to the Mosaic Law, only priests were required to wash before entering the Tabernacle. For others, the washing of hands was required only if a person had touched a bodily discharge, including human excretions (semen, menstrual blood, spit, excrement), women after childbirth, corpses, lepers, and certain classes of people - (Exodus 30:19, 40:13, Leviticus 15:11, 22:1-6).

Previously in Mark, Jesus was in contact with tax collectors, lepers, Gentiles, menstruating women, and corpses. In the Levitical system, washing hands and the body to deal with ceremonial pollution had nothing to do with hygiene and everything to do with restoring and maintaining ritual purity - (Mark 1:40, 2:13, 5:1, 5:25, 5:35).

A bed was particularly susceptible to ritual pollution due to the night secretions of the body (semen and menstrual blood). The “marketplace” was also where the risk of contamination was high, which is why the passage also refers to “immersions” after a man returned from it.

In the present passage, the dispute is over the washing of hands before eating. But the Torah does not require Israelites to do so prior to eating a meal. That practice is based on later developments preserved in the oral traditions of the rabbis.

And here, the Pharisees are imposing requirements from the Law that apply to priests ministering in the Temple to the everyday life of all Jews. What Jesus criticizes is the “tradition of the elders,” the interpretations of the religious authorities.


The question raised by his opponents concerns the condition of the one who eats (“Why do your disciples eat with unclean hands?”). The term “marketplace” points to their real concern - anything from the public sphere could easily render them “unclean” due to the improper handling of food and other items by less devout Jews or contact with Gentiles - (Mark 7:6-13).

Some English versions fail to convey a wordplay in the Greek text - “TEACHING TEACHINGS, the ordinances of men” (didaskontes didaskalias), an allusion to Isaiah 29:13 - “Yahweh said, ‘because this people draw near with their words, and honor me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from me, and their reverence for me consists of tradition learned by rote.”

In the passage, Jesus uses two strong verbs (“having NEGATED the ordinance of God; GRASPING the tradition of men”). Thus, his opponents were NEGATING the ordinance of God, but CLINGING to human traditions rather than the original commandments delivered to Israel by Moses.

The term rendered “KORBAN” is from a Hebrew word that refers to offerings and things dedicated exclusively for sacred use. Some Jews set aside property to deny its use to family members, and in that way, they avoided their family obligations. Any property declared korban passed to the Temple on the man’s death - (Exodus 20:12, 21:17).

But the real issue in Mark is whether this practice could be used to set aside a commandment of God. Those engaging in it used the later traditions “of the elders” to circumvent the original intent of the Law, in this case, for children to honor their parents, and thus they annulled the commandment of the Torah - (Mark 7:14-23).

A Greek clause in the passage that is of special relevance consists of four words: katharizōn panta ta brōmata, meaning, “CLEANSING ALL THE FOODS.” Consuming some foods did not make a man “unclean,” and all food went into the stomach and ended up in the latrine. Thus, the body separates the pure from the impure.

This statement does not abrogate the Levitical food regulations, and the question of their continuing validity is not the issue here. But Christ’s pronouncement does remove the religious rationale for dietary restrictions - (Romans 14:1-17, Colossians 2:16-23).

What differentiates the holy from the unholy are the actions and intentions produced by the heart. It is moral action and willful decisions that render a man “clean” or “unclean,” not external religious rituals or what foods are consumed.



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Going on to Perfection