Tradition: of the elders

gospel-of-markTradition of the elders. 1 Now when the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands. 3 (For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. 4 And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves. And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles (and beds).)

One is quickly reminded that Mark is writing for a non-Jewish audience as he explains a detail about ritual purification that would be unneeded for a Jewish audience. It also seems clear that Mark has an outsider’s almost disdainful view of the practices (vv.3-4) but in any case there is no interest in Jewish debates on the matter. While the Pharisees with some scribes represent perhaps differing takes on the customs of purification, there is no immediate retort to the customs themselves. Instead, Jesus quickly takes up the tradition of the elders (v.3).

In Judaism there is the written Law (Torah) as seen in the Hebrew Scriptures, but there was also the Oral Torah. According to Rabbinical Judaism, the Oral Torah was given to Moses with the Torah at Mount Sinai, as an exposition to the latter. The accumulated traditions of the Oral Law, expounded by scholars in each generation from Moses onward, is considered as the necessary basis for the interpretation, and often for the reading, of the Written Law. Jews sometimes refer to this as the Masorah, roughly translated as tradition, though that word is often used in a narrower sense to mean traditions concerning the editing and reading of the Biblical text. The resulting Jewish law and custom is called halakha. The halakha is the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from the Written and Oral Torah. It includes the 613 mitzvot (“commandments”), subsequent talmudic and rabbinic law and the customs and traditions compiled in the age after Moses.

In the time after Jesus and the later destruction of Jerusalem by Roman armies, what had previously only been committed to an oral testimony among the scholars, came to be written down in a work called the Mishna. The Mishnah teaches the oral traditions by example, presenting actual cases being brought to judgment, usually along with the debate on the matter and the judgment that was given by a notable rabbi based on the halakha, mitzvot, and spirit of the teaching that guided his decision. In this way, it brings to everyday reality the practice of the mitzvot as presented in the Bible, and aims to cover all aspects of human living, serve as an example for future judgments, and, most important, demonstrate pragmatic exercise of the Biblical laws, which was much needed since the time when the Second Temple was destroyed (70 CE). The Mishnah does not claim to be the development of new laws, but rather the collection of existing understanding of the meaning of God’s commandments in the Torah.

Shepherd and Teacher. So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”

In Mark 6:34 and following, Mark represents Jesus as the true shepherd of Israel. One easily hears the echo of Ezekiel 34:10 in which God promises that he himself will shepherd: “Thus says the Lord GOD: Look! I am coming against these shepherds. I will take my sheep out of their hand and put a stop to their shepherding my flock, so that these shepherds will no longer pasture them. I will deliver my flock from their mouths so it will not become their food.” While this passage is normally considered in the context of the kings of Israel and Judah, in the post-Exile period the “shepherding” of the people to the Covenant became the responsibility of the religious leaders of the nation.

In the question the Pharisees and scribes take as a given the tradition/understanding of the requirements of the Torah and mitzvot. They are not only questioning Jesus’ adherence to the accepted traditions and understanding, but they are questioning his leadership. The logic is that if Jesus does not teach his disciples even the most basic practices of piety, he cannot be an orthodox or acceptable religious teacher. The litmus test is the accepted tradition and the understanding surrounding it. In addition, their question seeks to embarrass Jesus in front of the crowds and thus undermine his authority as a teacher.


Mark 7:3 washing their hands. The practice was to wash “the fist”, but the exact meaning of this term is disputed. Did it mean one washed up to the wrist? Did it indicate the amount of water to be poured? Did one pour with a cupped hand? The full details are not clear, but it seems that only a small amount of water was needed to meet the requirement. The instruction from the Mishnah (m. Yadayim 1.1; 2.3) was to use an amount of water equivalent to the size of one and a half eggs. Observance of this custom was especially important after coming from the marketplace, where uncleanness might easily be contracted (cf. y. Shevi’it 6.1).

tradition of the elders. Lit., “the tradition of the elders” (for discussion on this, see Josephus Antiquities 13.297, 408). The body of detailed, unwritten, human laws regarded by the scribes and Pharisees to have the same binding force as that of the Mosaic law; cf Gal 1:14. According to the law, priests were to wash their hands before offering a sacrifice (Num 18:8–13), something that kept them from becoming “common” or unclean (Lev 15:11, LXX). This instruction was then extended to lay people in the first century, especially by the Pharisees and Essenes (b. Hullin 105a, 106a-b; b. Shabbat 13b-14b).

Mark 7:4 purification of cups and jugs and kettles. Commands regarding washings and issues of cleanliness covering all kinds of situations can be found in Lev 11–15. Jewish tradition came to expand this practice to discuss the specific objects washed in detail so as to protect a person from uncleanliness.

Mark 7:5 tradition of the elders. Lit., “walk according to the tradition of the elders.” To “walk” in Judaism is to “live” in a certain way. Jewish halakha (from the verb for “go” or “walk”) taught about the walk of actual religious life and practice. The expression “tradition of the elders” refers back to Mark 7:3.


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