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In Mark 7:5, we see the accusation that Jesus and His disciples eat food with defiled hands:

“So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”” ‭‭Mark‬ ‭7:5‬ ‭NIV‬‬

In Matthew:

““Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”” ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭15:2‬ ‭NIV‬‬

How should the word ‘defiled’ be understood in these passages?

Do the accusations refer to physical hygiene and defilement? a lack of ritual / spiritual cleanliness? or both?

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Both in Mark 7:5 (KJV) and Matthew 15:2 (KJV) refers to unwashed hands (physical). There was a tradition among the Israelites that one should wash their hands before eating.

Mark 7:5 KJV

Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?

Matthew 15:2 KJV

Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.

In the succeeding verses in Matthew 15:3 where Jesus told them (the Pharisees) that washing hands is a tradition, and how Israel is so stubborn in their own tradition, that they are disregarding/transgressing the commandments of the Lord. (parallel verse in Mark 7:8)

Also eating with unwashen hands does not make a person sinful as written in Matthew 15:10-11 (KJV)

10And he called the multitude, and said unto them, Hear, and understand: 11 Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man. (parallel verse in Mark 7:14-15)

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The record we have of this incident uses three different words to describe the same thing:

  • Matt 15:2 - οὐ νίπτονται = not washed, and
  • Matt 15:20 - ἄνιπτος = unwashed
  • Mark 7:2, 5 - κοινός = common (literally), profane; dirty, unclean (ritually), and
  • Matt 7:2 - ἄνιπτος = unwashed

That is, in this instance, "common" meant "unwashed" or "unclean", etc.

The primary objection of the Jews here is stated explicitly in matt 15:2:

“Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They do not wash their hands before they eat.”

Mark explains this more fully:

Mark 7:2-5 - and they saw some of His disciples eating with hands that were defiled—that is, unwashed. Now in holding to the tradition of the elders, the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat until they wash their hands ceremonially. And on returning from the market, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions for them to observe, including the washing of cups, pitchers, kettles, and couches for dining. So the Pharisees and scribes questioned Jesus: “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders? Instead, they eat with defiled hands.”

Thus, there was no question here of hygiene but purely that of ceremonial cleanness as defined by the tradition of the elders.

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