Eating with Unwashed Hands
info This commentary was written by a volunteer for our Bible translation project. It’s not an official view of our project; we are not a religious denomination and we do not establish doctrine. These commentaries reflect a variety of views and some disagree with each other.
At Matthew 15:2, we read of how Jesus’ Apostles (and likely Jesus himself) hadn’t washed their hands before eating (as was the custom in JeruSalem), and the Pharisees were objecting to this.
However, what were they really objecting to?
It has often been preached that the Pharisees were complaining that Jesus and his Apostles hadn’t performed a ‘ritual washing’ (to the elbows). Yet, the words in the parallel account at Mark 7:2 clearly show that this isn’t what the Pharisees were saying.
Notice how this verse reads:
‘Kai idontes tinas ton matheton autou hoti koinais chersin taut estin aniptois esthiousin tous artous,’
‘And having/seen some of disciples of/him as/great with/unclean hands this being unwashed eating the bread.’
Note that their hands were described as being ‘koinais’ (meaning ‘unclean‘ or ‘dirty’) and ‘aniptois’ (unwashed). So according to the text, the Pharisees considered the hands of Jesus and his Apostles to be dirty, simply because they hadn’t washed them before eating.
As you can see, there is no indication that they required some sort of ‘ritual washing.’
Understand that the Pharisees were teaching the people that lived in JeruSalem and the Province of Judea that they had to wash their hands vigorously (scrubbing them) before eating a meal. And yes, it was partly a religious thing, which was based on the rabbinic teaching that they should be a clean people.
However, that wasn’t the end of the matter.
You might notice that (at Mark 7:4, 5) the Pharisees were also teaching the people (as part of the ‘ritual’) to ‘rinse’ the vegetables that they bought in the markets and to ‘soak’ (or ‘wash’) their dishes… which sounds like just a good idea. However, apparently such customs weren’t as strictly followed by Galileans back then (Jesus and eleven of his Apostles were from Galilee). And the point that we want to get from this is that Jesus wasn’t against washing his hands before eating, or washing vegetables before eating them, or against washing dishes.
Rather, he was saying that God doesn’t require that we do such things.
So, notice what Jesus went on to say about the matter, as found at Matthew 15:20:
‘Eating with unwashed hands doesn’t dirty a man.’
Of course, Jesus wasn’t really telling us that we should eat without washing our hands.
For as the Son of God, he knew that disease and infection could be spread by allowing us to get too dirty.
But as the text goes on to indicate;
What he was concerned with here is something that was far more important!
For what the Pharisees were doing was taking what they considered to be righteous principles and turning them into laws that they required others to observe as ‘tradition,’ but which went beyond what God required in His Laws. So they were promoting their own personal opinions as laws, and some of these opinions or laws even allowed for people to show disregard for their parents.
Christians shouldn’t be making up their own rules for others to follow!
As Paul wrote:
‘Don’t go beyond the things that are written.’
For more information, see the linked document, ‘God’s Laws and Principles.’