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Defilement Penetrating the Body: A New Understanding of Contamination in Mark 7.15

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 March 2008

Department of Talmud, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 91905 Israel


Mark 7.15, which contrasts two modes of defilement, appears in the gospel as a response to the Pharisaic custom of washing hands before eating. In this article, it is argued that this custom embodies an innovative approach to ritual impurity. Hand washing, which originated, so it is argued, in the Greco-Roman practice, was promoted by the Pharisees along with other purity laws, but stands in contrast to the biblical priestly purity system. In this logion, Jesus rejects the Pharisees' new conception of ritual purity, which was designed to guard the self from impurity. This interpretation offers both a coherent narrative and a plausible understanding of the custom within its historical-social context.

2008 Cambridge University Press

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This article is a revised version of a chapter from my M.A. thesis ‘Hand Purity and Eating in a State of Purity: A Chapter in the Development of Halakhah’ (Hebrew University Jerusalem, 2005 [Hebrew]), written under the supervision of Prof. Shlomo Naeh.