Jesus and Added Traditions

Jesus undermines the religious rationale for dietary restrictions. With the Messiah’s arrival, old rituals have lost their relevance – Mark 7:1-23. 

In Mark, the city of Jerusalem is the headquarters of the opposition to Jesus, especially the priestly authorities of the Temple. From this point forward, he experiences growing conflict with the religious authorities - the Pharisees, scribes, and representatives of the high priest. And not long after this next incident, his enemies began to plot his destruction.

Controversy erupts over what constitutes ceremonial uncleanness. The Greek term rendered “unclean” more correctly means “common” (koinos). It 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 service to God.

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

And with the arrival of the Messiah, the era of fulfillment commenced. And this means that some if not many of the old ways of doing things are 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 for maintaining ritual purity were developed later by the religious authorities (“the elders”), 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 are required to wash before entering the Tabernacle. For non-priests, the washing of hands is required only if a person has touched a bodily discharge.

The things that render Israelites “unclean” if touched included human excretions (semen, menstrual blood, spit, excrement), women after childbirth, corpses, lepers, and some classes of people - (Exodus 30:19, 40:13, Leviticus 15:11, 22:1-6).

Earlier in the gospel of 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 such ceremonial pollutions has nothing to do with hygiene and everything to do with restoring or maintaining ritual purity - (Mark 1:40, 2:13, 5:1, 5:25, 5:35).

A bed is 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 is high, which is why the passage also refers to “immersions” after a man returns from the market.

In the present passage, the dispute with Jesus 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, and NOT the Torah itself.


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 and contact with Gentiles.

  • (Mark 7:6-13) - “Now he said to them: Well prophesied Isaiah concerning you, the hypocrites, as it is written, THIS, THE PEOPLE, WITH THE LIPS DO HONOR ME, YET THEIR HEART IS HOLDING OFF FAR FROM ME. MOREOVER, VAINLY ARE THEY REVERING ME, TEACHING AS TEACHINGS ORDINANCES OF MEN. Having negated the ordinance of God, you are grasping the tradition of men. And he was saying to them: Well are you nullifying the ordinance of God, in order to keep your own tradition. For Moses said: HONOR YOUR FATHER AND YOUR MOTHER, and HE WHO REVILES FATHER OR MOTHER SHALL END IN DEATH. Moreover, you say if a man says to father or mother, Korban, whatever from me you might benefit, no longer are you allowing him to do anything for father or mother, invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you delivered. And many similar things such as this are you doing.”

Some English versions fail to convey a wordplay from the Greek text, “TEACHING TEACHINGS, the ordinances of men” (didaskontes didaskalias). This alludes 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 NEGATE the ordinance of God, and they CLING to human traditions rather than the original commandments handed down by Moses.

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

The real issue is whether this practice can be used to set aside a commandment of God. Those engaging in it use the later traditions to circumvent the original intent of the Law, in this case, for children to honor their parents, and thus they annul the commandment of the Torah.

  • (Mark 7:14-23) - “And again, having summoned the multitude, he was declaring to them: Heed me, all of you, and understand. There is nothing from outside the man that enters him that can defile him, but the things proceeding out from the man are the things defiling the man. And when he entered a house from the multitude, his disciples were questioning him about the parable. And he says to them: Thus, also, are you without understanding? Do you not perceive that nothing from outside entering into the man can defile him, because it is entering not into his heart but into the stomach and it proceeds into the latrine, CLEANSING ALL FOODS? And he was saying: That proceeding out from the man defiles the man. For from within out of the heart of men the wicked things are coming forth – fornication, theft, murder, adulteries, lusts, malice, treacheries, indecencies, an evil eye, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these wicked things are coming forth from within and defiling the man.”

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

His statement does not abrogate the Levitical food regulations, and the question of their continuing validity is not the issue here. But his 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 on the part of individuals that render a man “clean” or “unclean,” not external religious rituals or what foods are consumed.


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