It is important that before we dig into the Gospel texts themselves we understand some of the cultural background regarding ritual purity in the late Second Temple period. The Tosefta tells us that during this time “purity broke out among Israel.” Archeological evidence verifies that in the decades preceding the fall of the Temple in 70 CE ritual purity had become a major concern even among the common people throughout the land of Israel.
“The Master and Netilat Yadayim”
Issue 108 – Fall – 2011/5772 p. 27
This isn’t the first time I’ve discussed netilat yadayim or the ritual handwashing, but I’m not making it my main focus this time. Rather, I want to address how Janicki supports his argument for Jesus advocating, or at least not dismissing this portion of First Century Jewish halacha. The clue is right in the quote that is just above. Not relying on the Bible alone to interpret the Bible.
That’s probably going to raise a few eyebrows among some people reading this. I’ve heard it said often enough that we should “let scripture interpret scripture”, which I take to mean using one part of the Bible to interpret another part. I wonder if that’s always possible or if we shouldn’t also take into consideration other information, such as the “archeological evidence” Janicki mentions. Of course, that’s not the only supporting data he cites.
While the washing of hands before eating bread is not specifically commanded in the Torah, the sages of the Talmud attempted to find a scriptural basis for it in various biblical passages. For example in Leviticus 15:11 there is the injunction, “Anyone whom the one with the discharge touches without having raised his hands in water.” They felt that the Torah made allusions to the entire scope of this practice in a roundabout way (citing Chullin 106a). -Janicki p. 27
I know that Mark 7 seems to be very clear that Christ disapproved of the hand washing ritual, but can we rely just on the text as translated into English without any contextual frame of reference to tell us the entire story? I know that Christians (and many “Messianics”) are rather squeamish when it comes to the Talmudic wisdom, especially since it was documented decades to centuries later than the events in Mark 7, but halachah did exist in Christ’s day, he was (and is) a Jew, and despite what supersessionist church teachings may say to the contrary, Jesus did not play fast and loose with his being a Jew.
I’m saying all this (and it’s not the first time) to illustrate that we cannot simply pick up a Bible, read a passage, and immediately know all of the details and subtle nuances that are being communicated. In fact, we don’t know what is being said and often, we don’t bother to try and find out. We, meaning Christians, tend to rely on the traditional church interpretation of the passage and believe that Jesus was talking about how all meats were clean and ham sandwiches were forevermore a really cool snack. However, a close reading of even the English text (minus Christian perspective) will reveal that he wasn’t talking about food at all.
Interestingly enough, from the Jewish point of view, scripture is interpreted by tradition as well, although the tradition points to the sages and the Mishnah. This is something completely foreign to Christians and many “Messianics” who say they embrace the “Jewish Jesus.” But from our early 21st century perspective, do we really know just how foreign Jesus would be to us if we could go back and meet him on the streets of his home village or in the courts of the holy Temple in First Century Jerusalem?
Connecting to the Master and thus to the God of our faith means entering worlds where we are considered strangers. We have to cross the barriers of time, culture, and education. We have to set aside our western preconceptions and look at the person Jesus as an ancient near-eastern man living in an occupied nation; a former carpenter turned itinerant Rabbi. This isn’t the Jesus you learned about in Sunday school or the European-looking actor you’ve seen portray him in half a dozen films.
To learn about the true “Maggid of Nazaret”, you’ll need to do what Toby Janicki did in researching the Master and the Netilat Yadayim. You’ll need to look for him in all of the ancient Jewish places, in all the traditional Hebrew texts. You won’t find him any place else.