Busted (14): Mark’s “Error” Regarding Jewish Handwashing Rituals

Washing-handsCritics are fond of claiming that the gospels are full of historical errors, and that they are therefore unreliable as historical documents.  Today’s article focuses on an alleged error in Mark’s gospel.  Let’s get started by allowing biblical scholar, Bart Ehrman, to enlighten us regarding Mark’s ineptitude as an historian:

Mark 7:3 indicates that the Pharisees ‘and all the Jews’ washed their hands before eating, so as to observe ‘the tradition of the elders.’ This is not true: most Jews did not engage in this ritual.1

Well, there you have it.  Mark was wrong, pure and simple.  Bart knows with absolute certainty that Mark’s statement is not true and that most Jews did not engage in handwashing rituals.  After all, according to Exodus, Leviticus2 and the Torah,3 only priests were called to observe those rituals, not “all the Jews.”  Critics say that such practices were not widespread until the period after 70 A.D., long after Jesus’ time on earth.

Based on all this, Dennis Nineham also concludes that “the story as it stands can hardly be historical.”4 It appears that Mark’s gospel is therefore invalid as a historical document and Christianity lies in ruins.

Not so fast…

There is quite a bit of evidence to support the contention that while only priests were formally called to observe handwashing rituals, in reality, their observation was widespread among the population in general.  To start, scholar Tim McGrew cites some Jewish sources that bracket Jesus’ time period:

  • And as is the custom of all the Jews, they washed their hands in the sea and prayed to God, …” —Letter of Aristeas (~200 BC), sec. 305
  • The law “does not look upon those who have even touched a dead body, which has met with a natural death, as pure and clean, until they have washed and purified themselves with sprinklings and ablutions; …” Philo (~AD 30), The Special Laws205
  • See also the Mishnah, tractates Yadayim 1.1-2.4, m. Hagigah 2.5-6, etc.5

Interesting that the Letter of Aristeas uses the same language:  “..all the Jews.”  McGrew also cites another scholarly source that supports Mark’s account:

The centrality of impurity to Jewish life in the Second Temple period is supported by archaeological evidence. The discovery of mikvaot in such diverse places as Gamla, Sepphoris, Herodium and Massada suggests that in Palestine the removal of impurity was not a rite reserved only for approaching the sacred precincts of the Temple, but was common practice for Jews of all walks of life…[T]he textual evidence suggests that the Jews of the Diaspora also purified themselves, if not through immersion, then by sprinkling, splashing or hand washing. (Susan Haber, “They Shall Purify Themselves”: Essays on Purity in Early Judaism (Society of Biblical Literature, 2008), pp. 130-1316

Finally, Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, in one of the finest modern-day studies on the historicity of the gospels, have the following to say about the matter:

While it is true that, as far as the Torah is concerned, the only people who must perform ritual hand washing are priests, there is reason to suggest that by the first-century, the Pharisees—who had as their ideal something like the “priesthood of all believers”—were encouraging all Jews to keep the cultic purity rites of the priests, and that ritual hand washing would have been one of their teachings.  Along similar lines, Gundry has made a plausible case for the claim that ritual hand washing may well have been far more widespread in first-century Jewish culture than many have realized.  Furthermore, even apart from these considerations, the conclusions that Mark is flat-out “wrong” on this point simply because he makes the claim for “all Jews” is achieved only as one anachronistically forces upon Mark modern historical/semantic conventions and precision standards quite alien to those operating within the ancient Jewish world.7

Given all of the above, it would appear that the narrow-minded and dogmatic ones are the critics.  On this issue, critical scholars appear to be reaching a bit too far in an effort to “prove” that Mark’s gospel is historically unreliable.

Notes

  1. Ehrman, Bart, Jesus Interrupted, HarperOne, 2010, p. 287
  2. Exodus 30:18-21; 40:30-32 and Leviticus 22:1-16
  3. Eddy, Paul Rhodes and Boyd, Gregory A., The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition, Baker Academic, 2007, 451
  4. Nineham, Dennis, Mark, p. 193
  5. McGrew, Timothy (Professor and Director of Graduate Teaching, Western Michigan University), Alleged Historical Errors in the Gospels (Matthew & Mark), Presentation to St. Michael Lutheran Church, MI, 21 May 2012, slide 25, accessed 6 Jan 2016 http://www.apologetics315.com/2012/05/alleged-historical-errors-in-gospels-by.html
  6. Ibid, slides 26-27
  7. Eddy and Boyd, pp. 451-452
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