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Mark 7:3

ESV (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders,
NIV (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders.
NASB (For the Pharisees and all the other Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thereby holding firmly to the tradition of the elders;
CSB (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, keeping the tradition of the elders.
NLT (The Jews, especially the Pharisees, do not eat until they have poured water over their cupped hands, as required by their ancient traditions.
KJV For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders.

What does Mark 7:3 mean?

Mark 7:3–4 is a parenthetical comment to explain Jewish tradition to Mark's Gentile audience. The scribes from Jerusalem have joined the local Pharisees in questioning why Jesus' disciples don't ceremonially wash before they eat (Mark 7:5). When the text says "all the Jews," it doesn't mean every single Jewish person follows this tradition. "All the Jews" was a cultural euphemism used when describing Jewish culture to Gentiles. It might mean Jewish leadership, or it might mean it was a common—but not universal—custom. "Elders" often means contemporary Jewish leadership, but here refers to the writers or traditional teachers of the Talmud from the time of the Old Testament.

The ESV says the Pharisees wash their hands "properly" while the New American Standard Bible says "carefully." The definition of the Greek root word pugme is difficult to translate; it can mean with a clenched hand or up to the elbow or fist. Tradition is that, as water is precious, a handful is taken with a loosely clenched fist so the water can run through the fingers and cover the back of the other hand. They don't immerse and scrub their hands; the act is ceremonial but thorough. The practice started before Jesus' time and continues to ours.

The Mosaic Law states that priests must wash their hands and feet prior to entering the tabernacle or approaching the altar (Exodus 30:17–21). The Old Testament scribes had a habit of taking ceremonial law meant for priests and Levites and transforming that law into extra-Scriptural regulations for lay-people. One significant example is how they based their rules for following the Sabbath on the instructions God gave to build the tabernacle. In this case, they take the Mosaic Law directed at the priests and use it to "cleanse" their hands before a meal. In the second century BC, much of the Jewish populace followed suit before morning prayers.

After the diaspora of AD 70, as Jewish elders recorded the oral law in writing, Orthodox and traditional Jews transferred the ceremony of the laver and the priests to the home. They washed before eating bread or matzah as if they were priests and the bread an offering placed on the altar. By the third century AD, eating bread without washing was condemned. In the Babylonian Talmud, the Seder Nashim (Rules on Women), Tractate Sotah 4b (Suspected Adulteress) states:

"Whoever eats bread without previously washing the hands is as though he had intercourse with a harlot; as it is said, For on account of a harlot, to a loaf of bread." (Refers to Proverbs 6:26: "for the price of a prostitute is only a loaf of bread…") And, "Whoever makes light of washing the hands [before and after a meal] will be uprooted from the world." And "Whoever eats bread without first wiping his hands is as though he eats unclean food…"
Even today, Orthodox Jews use a two-handled cup to pour water twice on their dominant hand then twice on the other; Hasidic Jews pour water three times. After giving the ceremonial blessing, they do not speak until they eat some bread.
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