Critics love to say the gospels aren’t trustworthy because they’re full of historical blunders. One such alleged error that often gets brought up is that Mark goofs regarding ritual purification, namely the Jewish custom of handwashing. Here’s biblical critic Bart Ehrman:
“Their ignorance of Palestinian geography and Jewish customs suggests they composed their works somewhere else in the empire…Mark 7:3 indicates that the Pharisees ‘and all the Jews’ washed their hands before eating, so as to observe ‘the tradition of the elders.’ This is not true: most Jews did not engage in this ritual.”Jesus, Interrupted p 287
Bart has a point. If you read the Mosaic law, this was to be practiced by the Levitical priests, not the entire Jewish nation. We can find this in Exodus 30:18‐21, Exodus 40:30‐32 and Leviticus 20:1‐16.
Wow. If Mark can’t get his facts straight about the Jewish culture of his time, and Matthew and Luke use his gospel, then we have a big problem. Mark wouldn’t have been written by someone who had firsthand knowledge of Jesus’ life and ministry. Whoever wrote Matthew, if he were a true member of the twelve disciples, obviously never would’ve used such a faulty source. It looks like we have a big problem here. But is Ehrman correct?
THE PHARISEES AND HANDWASHING
The problem here is that Bart fails to take into consideration that the Pharisees were fanatical about Jewish rites and rituals. They’d make additions to the law to make it more strict, or twist it to their own ends. Matthew tells us they’d tithe mint and cumin. (Mt. 23:23) We also read they invented the law of Corban elsewhere in Mark. (Mk. 7:11-12)
As Greg Boyd and Paul Rhodes Eddy point out in their book The Jesus Legend:
“While it is true that, as far as the Torah is concerned, the only people who must perform ritual hand washing are priests, there is reason to suggest that by the first century, the Pharisees—who had as their ideal something like the “priesthood of all believers”—were encouraging all Jews to keep the cultic purity rites of the priests, and that ritual hand washing would have been one of their teachings.”p 451
This interpretation certainly is plausible, and it does have some support from another Gospel. In John 2:6, we read that Jesus used six stone washing jars that Jews used for handwashing to turn water into wine. But couldn’t John also be in error? Maybe Eddy and Boyd are simply overspeculating.
SOME IMPORTANT JEWISH EVIDENCE ON THE RITUAL OF HANDWASHING
As it turns out, we don’t have to speculate. We have some sources outside the Bible that simply demolish this argument. As Tim McGrew points out:
“And as is the custom of all the Jews, they washed their hands in the sea and prayed to God, …” — Letter of Aristeas (~200 BC), sec. 305
The law “does not look upon those who have even touched a dead body, which has met with a natural death, as pure and clean, until they have washed and purified themselves with sprinklings and ablutions; …” Philo (~AD 30). The Special Laws 3.205
See also the Mishnah, tractates m. Yadayim 1.1‐2.4, m. Hagigah 2.5‐6.
THE VERDICT FROM MODERN SCHOLARSHIP
We also have some hard evidence from archeology, as Susan Haber calls to our attention:
“The centrality of impurity to Jewish life in the Second Temple period is supported by archaeological evidence. . . . in Palestine the removal of impurity was not a rite reserved only for approaching the sacred precincts of the Temple, but was common practice for Jews of all walks of life. The use of these immersion pools was common to the priest and the Israelite, the rich and the poor, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the sectarians from Qumran. . . . the textual evidence suggests that the Jews of the Diaspora also purified themselves, if not through immersion, then by sprinkling, splashing or hand washing.”“They Shall Purify Themselves”: Essays on Purity in Early Judaism (Society of Biblical Literature, 2008), pp. 130‐31
And just like that, the apparent historical error just falls apart. Bart Ehrman is just flat out wrong about widespread ritual washing among the Jews in Jesus’ day.
BART EHRMAN DOES A 180
Now you might be thinking “Yeah, but you’re just a dude with a blog and Bart Ehrman is a distinguished biblical scholar.” You don’t have to believe me. Bart himself has admitted his blunder on this issue (even though it’s still parroted by critics still). Here’s Bart, writing on his blog earlier this year:
“In response to my post yesterday about whether the author of Mark was a Jew, in which I said no Jew would make the claim that Mark does, in chapter 7, that “all Jews” washed their hands before eating — a claim that is simply not true — a couple of astute blog members have pointed out that there is another text, certainly written by a Jew, the Letter of Aristeas (about the how the Septuagint — that is, the Greek translation of the Old Testament — came into being), from the first century BCE or earlier, says something very similar about “all Jews” washing their hands. Hmm…. I’ve only read the Letter of Aristeas about 75 times. You’d think I would have noticed that. But alas.
So, for the first time in recorded history, I’m going to cover and atone for my abject shame by removing the post. Ugh. Many apologies for the false information, the fake news, and the alternative facts.”
I appreciate Bart taking the high road and admitting his mistake. That takes some humility. It’s too bad this mistake is already in print in Jesus, Interrupted. One would only hope that in future printings it’s removed. This is why it’s so important to be able to do a little historical homework and push back when claims like this that are casually thrown out there rather than taking a scholar’s word for it. Hopefully this isn’t the only time in recorded history Ehrman admits a mistake.
An undesigned coincidence
Let’s now briefly circle back to John. Remember that John says that the water jars were there at the wedding at Cana for “Jewish rites of purification.” (John 2:6) But if that’s the case, why aren’t they full of water? What good are empty water jars when it comes to purification?
John gives us no explanation and moves on to the crucial parts of his story. But Mark gives us the details about the ritual handwashing, indirectly explaining why the pots were empty. The wedding guests had already ritually washed before eating and drinking at the wedding feast and so they had already served their purpose.
The empty water pots tell us is that John is telling the story in the way that a truthful witness normally reports—namely as someone who doesn’t stop to give unnecessary explanations. He is getting to the punchline of the story, mentioning details in passing that make sense when they are understood against a backdrop of independent information. Mark, written earlier, provides that independent information.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.