Pharisees and Scribes Challenge Jesus About Tradition (Matthew 15:1-20; Mark 7:1-23)

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For the time of the Passover and the seven-day festival of unleavened bread, the biblical accounts provide no information about Jesus’ activity. The next narrated event involved a confrontation with scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem. They appear to have come to Galilee to spy on him.

Having observed that some of his disciples ate without first ceremonially washing their hands, they objected, “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?” The scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem considered it offensive for him to allow his disciples to eat bread with defiled or ceremonially unclean hands. (Matthew 15:1, 2; Mark 7:1, 2, 5; regarding Mark 7:3, 4, see the Notes section.) Jesus countered with his own question, “Why do you transgress the command of God because of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3)

God’s law required children to honor their parents, and that included the duty of grown children to help them in time of need. Gross disrespect for parents constituted a serious sin. A son or daughter who cursed or reviled either father or mother committed a capital offense. (Exodus 20:12; 21:17; Leviticus 20:9; Deuteronomy 5:16; Matthew 15:4; Mark 7:10)

A traditional regulation about property devoted to God, however, came to take precedence over the obligation to aid needy parents. According to the “tradition of the elders,” whatever a person might declare to be “corban” or an offering for God could not be given to parents to relieve their plight. Even if grown children had rashly set apart all their property to God, they (according to ancient Jewish sources) could not give any part of it to a needy father or mother. The children, though, retained control over the property throughout their life. Accordingly, as Jesus pointed out, the scribes and Pharisees, on the basis of tradition, had nullified the divine command for children to honor their parents. For the sake of their traditions, they did many other things like this. While they claimed to honor God, their adherence to traditions dishonored him. This made them hypocrites, for they represented themselves as honoring God when, in fact, they failed to do so by disregarding his commands. Their course proved to be described in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “This people honors me with [their] lips, but their heart is far away from me. And they revere me in vain, teaching the commands of men as doctrines.” (Isaiah 29:13; Matthew 15:5-9; Mark 7:11-13; for comments on the Isaiah passage, see the Notes section.)

In the case of the scribes and Pharisees, they attached greater weight to the “tradition of the elders” than to the commands of God. With their lips, they honored the Most High. On account of their traditions, however, this honor did not involve their “heart” or inmost self. Their concern for scrupulous observance of tradition distanced them from God, negating his commands and interfering with their showing proper love and regard for him. Love for the Most High is demonstrated by loyal obedience to his commands. As a consequence, the professed reverence of God was vain, empty, or hollow. The teachings of the Pharisees were derived, not from divine revelation, but from men, and set aside the clearly expressed word and will of God.

Jesus next directed his attention to the crowd that had earlier gathered about him and had heard his response to the scribes and Pharisees. Admonishing all of the people to listen to him and to get the sense of his words, he told them that defilement has its source in what comes out of the mouth and not from what enters the mouth. (Matthew 15:10, 11; Mark 7:14, 15 [which passage refers to the defilement as not originating from “outside of the man”])

After leaving the crowd, Jesus entered a house with his disciples. In the privacy of the home, they expressed their concern about the reaction of the Pharisees, saying to Jesus, “Do you know that the Pharisees who heard [your] words took offense?” His reply indicated that this should not trouble them, for his Father had not “planted” these unbelieving Pharisees. “Every plant” that his heavenly Father had not planted would be uprooted. “Let them go [their way],” Jesus continued. “They are blind guides [of the blind, according to numerous manuscripts]. If, then, a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit.” Accordingly, the disciples had no reason to be disturbed by what the unbelieving Pharisees thought, for their guidance would prove to be ruinous to those who followed it. (Matthew 15:12-14; Mark 7:17 [which text speaks of Jesus having entered the house after leaving the crowd])

Peter then asked Jesus to explain what he had meant by his parable about the source of defilement. (Matthew 15:15; see the Notes section for additional comments.) Indicating that the disciples should have understood his words, he replied, “Are you also still lacking in comprehension? Do you not understand that nothing going into a man from the outside can defile him, for it does not enter into the heart but into the belly and goes out into the sewer.” Food does not affect the individual’s inmost self, altering his moral character. (Matthew 15:16; Mark 7:18, 19; compare Matthew 15:17, where “mouth” appears instead of “man.”)

The language Jesus used about what a person might eat allowed for a broad application. Commenting on his words, Mark added that Jesus had pronounced all foods clean, as the bodily processes subsequent to eating are the same for all foods. (Mark 7:19; see the Notes section for additional comments.)

The expressions of the mouth come from the heart or the inmost self of the individual, and can reveal internal corruption or defilement. As Jesus said, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false testimony, and blasphemy. These are the things that defile a man, but eating with [ceremonially] unwashed hands does not defile a man.” The impulses to act in a corrupt manner originate with the individual and reveal his moral condition. A failure to comply with a humanly devised precept about ceremonial cleanness, however, did not make the food unclean and the eater a corrupt person. (Matthew 15:18-20; Mark 7:20-23 [which passage also mentions greed, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, a wicked eye (one that looks with evil or corrupt intent), arrogance, and folly]; both in Matthew and Mark the wrongs mentioned are plural in the Greek text.)


Ancient Jewish sources set forth various requirements for the ceremonial washing of hands. The water had to be poured from a utensil not consisting of prohibited material. A quarter of a log was the stipulated amount of water to be used. This would have been roughly one-third of a cup, the log measure being about two-thirds of a pint. If poured water ran back over any part of the hand over which it had flowed, the hand was regarded as unclean. The poured water had to reach up to but not beyond the wrist. (Tosefta, Yadayim, 1:1, 1:6, 1:7, 1:8, 2:2, 2:4, 2:5) Failure to observe the ceremonial washing of hands came to be regarded as a serious offense, comparable to having relations with a prostitute. (Babylonian Talmud, Sota 4b)

According to a literal reading of the majority of extant Greek manuscripts of Mark 7:3, the hands were washed “to the fist” (pygmé). Perhaps, based on the background Jewish sources provide, “fist” (if this is the original reading) means to the limits of the fist or up to the wrist.

Fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus and the fifth-century Freer Gospels read pykná (“often”), and the Vulgate says crebro (“repeatedly”). The passage is not preserved in any of the earlier extant papyrus manuscripts, and the limited manuscript support for the reading pykná makes it questionable that it is the original one.

Modern translations commonly paraphrase the words of Mark 7:3 and do not include the word “fist.” “The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing.” (NIV) “They always wash their hands in the proper way before eating.” (CEV) “For Pharisees and Jews in general never eat without washing their hands.” (REB) “The Pharisees, and indeed all the Jews, will never eat unless they have washed their hands in a particular way.” (Phillips) “The Pharisees and all the Jews never eat before washing their hands in a special way according to their unwritten laws.” (NCV)

Mark 7:4 sets forth additional clarifying information for the benefit of non-Jewish believers. When returning from the market, the Pharisees and other Jews would sprinkle themselves with water, thereby cleansing themselves ceremonially from any uncleanness with which they may inadvertently have come in contact. They also observed many other traditions. These included procedures for immersing cups, pots, and bronze vessels to cleanse them ceremonially.

In the time Isaiah prophesied, the Israelites worshiped at the temple in Jerusalem. Their worship, however, was but an outward expression and not a reflection of the heart or the deep inner self. With their mouth, they had approached YHWH. At the temple, they made expressions of praise and thanksgiving and thus glorified him with their lips. Lacking genuine affection for YHWH, the people approached him without their heart or inmost self being involved. They had a kind of fear, awe, or reverence for God, but it did not spring from a proper appreciation of him and his ways. The source of their fear was the commandment of men.

King Hezekiah, for example, undertook an extensive campaign against idolatry and instituted sweeping reforms respecting worship. The reforms, though, did not appear to have brought about lasting changes in the spiritual state of the majority. After the death of Hezekiah, a period of rampant idolatry followed. This suggests that what the people did during Hezekiah’s reign did not stem from internal conviction respecting the rightness of honoring YHWH but was the result of complying with royal decree. (2 Kings 18:1-6; 21:1-9)

In Matthew 15:15, Peter is represented as requesting Jesus to explain the parable, but the parallel account (Mark 7:17) says that the disciples were the ones who asked for an explanation. It appears that Peter spoke representatively for the other disciples, as his words “explain to us” indicate. Jesus response was directed to all of them. The pronoun “you” in the next verse is plural, not singular.

At the time the disciples heard Jesus’ words about food, they would not have understood them to mean that the dietary requirements contained in the law no longer applied. Even after Jesus’ resurrection, Jewish believers did not eat food that the law designated as unclean. In response to a vision directing him to slaughter unclean animals and to eat the meat, Peter protested, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything defiled or unclean.” (Acts 10:14; 21:20, 21) Consequently, the comment (in Mark 7:19) that Jesus indicated all foods to be clean reflected the circumstance of a community of believers composed of Jews and non-Jews. His words reveal that he did not authorize imposing dietary restrictions on those who would become his disciples.

Although Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23 relate to the same incident, there are differences in the wording and in the order in which the conversations are narrated. The basic thoughts, however, are the same. As in other cases, the quoted conversations convey the meaning but do not preserve the exact words, which were not spoken in the Greek language. With the exception of minor differences, the quotations from Exodus 20:12; 21:17[16], and Isaiah 29:13 follow the wording of the extant Septuagint text.

The oldest extant manuscripts do not include, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” These words of Mark 7:16, however, do appear in many later manuscripts.