unclean! unclean!/david

So as I read through this passage this morning — yes — I posted the passage without reading it first — and what most strongly niggled me was the word “common”. the translations I’m familiar with all say “unclean”.

Common. And I take the opposite of common in this sense to be elite. This is all about boundary markers, who’s in and who’s out. And Judaism does like its boundary markers:

Deuteronomy 19:14 You must not displace your neighbour’s boundary mark, positioned by men of old in the heritage soon to be yours, in the country which Yahweh your God is about to give you.

Mind you — so does Quakerism. That’s in part what the funny hats and thee and thou and the give-peace-a-chance-bumper-stickers are about.

Mark tells us: The Pharisees, and indeed all the Jews, will never eat unless they have washed their hands in a particular way, following a traditional rule. And they will not eat anything bought in the market until they have first performed their “sprinkling”. And there are many other things which they consider important, concerned with the washing of cups, jugs and basins.

Now I would have bought this one if he just said Pharisees. Thanks to 2000 years of Christian appropriation of western history the Pharisees are pretty much the stuck up prigs of the cosmos to pretty much everyone except maybe the Hasidim. But Mark went one step further and said indeed all the Jews. This tells me a lot.

Mark no longer thinks of himself and his community as being the Jews. The Jews are the other guys. Here it is only 30 years later and Mark is pointing to Jews and saying — not us. Somebody moved the boundary markers.

All the Jews wash their hands before meals to keep from being “common” (unclean). But his (Jesus’)disciples ate their meals with “common” hands. But Jesus’ disciples are Jews. If all the Jews did this and Jesus’ disciples did not, then we have two choices. First, all the Jews didn’t. there’s a class distinction here. Maybe commoners didn’t except on special occasions. I can believe this. I know a Muslim who drinks alcohol except during Ramadan. Second possibility: Jesus taught his disciples to ignore the rule.

If Jesus taught his disciple to ignore a long standing ritual purity law then why do they go to him afterwards and ask for an explanation? Should they not already know the answer to their question?

What I’m seeing here is a relaxation of the boundary rules attributed to Jesus. But in the act of witnessing to it my story teller is actually placing the those boundary markers in a new place rather than removing them altogether. Sort of like pointing the finger and laughing at another person’s belief system to show how open-minded you are. I’ve learned God’s humour tends towards the ironic — mostly as we humans make such good targets of satire.

So what do I do with this? Where are the boundary markers I set? And just how proudly do I maintain them?

I have one foot in two different faith communities. The Protestant church I attend has its boundary markers — though I don’t think anyone really agrees where they belong. And the Quakers I know and love think they don’t have any — and paradoxically — that is their most rigid one. Like I said, God’s humour tends towards the ironic — mostly as we humans make such good targets of satire.


7 responses

  1. “…What most strongly niggled me was the word ‘common’. The translations I’m familiar with all say ‘unclean’.”The Greek word here is koinos. This is the same word as that from which the dialect of Greek in which the New Testament is written takes its name: koine, the “common”, i.e. “shared” and “impure”, Greek of the eastern Mediterranean. In its positive sense, koinos is the root of the Greek words koinônos, “companion”, and koinônia, “community”. In Luke’s description of the early Church, this same word koinos describes its communism: Acts 2:44, 4:32, “they had all things in common” (en autois hapanta koina).In all these cases, the essential idea behind the meaning of koinos is not the idea of “lowly” (“common” as opposed to “elite”) but the idea of mixing and merging.You are quite right, I think, to link this whole line of thinking to Hebrew concerns with boundary markers, but I believe you are locating the boundaries that are under attack in this teaching (Mark 7:1-23) in the wrong place. What “the Pharisees and all Jews” in Mark 7, and Peter in Acts 10, are struggling with, is not the boundary between Jew and non-Jew, “who’s in and who’s out”, common versus elite, but the boundary between one category of consumable and another.From the Jewish point of view, if one is a faithful follower of the Most High, one does not mix categories of consumables. One does not, for example, mix milk with meat. One does not wear linsey-woolsey clothes that mix two kinds of fiber in one weave. One does not eat the meat of animals that combine the traits of one class of animal with the traits of another class, as the pig and the rock hyrax do. One does not hybridize one’s food crops. One does not mix conservative politics with NPR. And one does not mix dirt with food, as one is likely to do if one eats with unwashed hands.To any of these things is, ultimately, in the Jewish way of thinking, to defile one’s own self with admixtures, impurities, and thus to make one’s own self less pure than God meant it to be.This is the line of thinking that Christ answers in Mark 7:15, and God in Acts 10:15, in both cases by saying that all things are pure except for human sinfulness itself.

  2. Thanks for the clarification.I’m still left with the technical question: if the discviples were doing it — why didn’t they know why?And with the application question: why do the heirs of this teaching feel so obligated to re-instate those boundary markers?

  3. In regard to your first question: A lot of teaching does not present the “why” of a thing until the student has been doing it for a while. In teaching skills, the teacher says, “Hold the racket/the golf club/the violin bow this way, and move it thus” — or, even more simply, “Watch how I do it. See? Now do it the same way.”Teachers find that students learn faster when the “why” part of the brain is not getting in the way. So explanations are deferred until the student has enough experience of the practice to see the sense of the explanation.Following the lead of Alasdair MacIntyre, we may argue that the “virtue” teachings of Christ were primarily about practice, not theory. As such the “whys” were at best secondary parts of his teaching. Christ would in that case have deferred the explanation in the same manner as a tennis, golf or violin teacher.In regard to your second question: I have already argued that the “boundary markers” involved were not marking the boundary between Jew and non-Jew (or true religionist and non-true religionist), but between one category of consumable and another.I do not personally see any evidence that “the heirs of this teaching feel so obligated to re-instate those boundary markers”. Christians are not being asked to wash their hands before they eat as a religious obligation. (They are asked to do so for sanitary reasons, but not because of their Christianity.) Nor are Christians being asked to keep kosher kitchens, or to avoid shirts that blend cotton and polyester, or to shun pork and rock hyrax.

  4. I take your point on the differences between purity codes and boundary markers in the exclusive sense. I’m also thinking purity codes become boundary markers in the sense I have used them with some regularity.And while few Christian groups today are practicing the Jewish codes, that’s because we move dthe markers before reinstituting them. Peter sat down to eat without washing his hands. Butlater Paul would upbraid him for not eating with gentiles. Jews “earned” their repuations as money-lenders in part because medieval church law forbade Christians from charging interest to other Christians. I know of at least two pastors afraid to file for personal bankruptcy (and/or divorce) because it was grounds for dismissal from their congregations. Church program ideas get nixed because that would be too much like what the Pentacostals (or Presbyterinas, or whatever) do up the street.

  5. [I’ve been sick. And because I’ve been bullied onto Google, this cursed site just ate my comment while it sent me to sign in. Maybe I’ll put it better this time.](New English bible has also dumped 16: “Some witnesses here add ‘If you have ears to hear'” etc. Must not have been in the best old manuscripts.)Everybody in this discussion is “a Jew” to us. But we have a group of Pharisees, who want to make the nation holy by imposing the obligations of priestly life on everyone, and they show up with “Judeans”, authorities from Jerusalem, representatives of classes who live on pilgrimages, donations, taxes–in a cultural conflict with Jesus’s Galileans, peasants who survive by hiding the sheep when the landlord visits.Jesus probably hasn’t said anything about washing hands one way or the other. But his disciples are uncooth locals, and the authorities are asking, roughly, “If you’re such a great teacher, how come your students don’t know their table manners?”Aramaic is a language of metaphor & grandiose idioms. So Jesus makes a great sweep of a brushstroke here, merely to say that a little dirt on one’s food just makes for extra minerals… but he is not telling anyone not to eat kosher. They’re all Jews; of course they eat kosher. The logical, long term implication of his line of thought here will ultimately take his movement away from kosher laws–but meanwhile, and for a long time to come, no one has specifically given up the practice.

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  7. “Peter sat down to eat without washing his hands. But later Paul would upbraid him for not eating with gentiles.”– But I don’t think this was the re-instituting of a purity code of the sort Christ rejected. It was the first generation of Christians struggling to understand, by trial and error, what Christ’s teachings implied in the way of inclusiveness.Every generation of Christians goes through this, and a lot of Christians never do get it, as witness the continuing problem of Christian ethnic bigotries. But I do not personally think that the fact that Christianity must be learned anew in every generation, and that many fail to learn it, is in itself the same thing as a reinstituting of the sort of purity code that Christ rejected. It would only be the reinstituting of a purity code if the code were made a formal doctrine — which it has been, for a time, in some places, but has never to my knowledge been lastingly done anywhere.”Jews ‘earned’ their reputations as money-lenders in part because medieval church law forbade Christians from charging interest to other Christians.”– Medieval church law forbade usury because usury was described in the Bible as a sin, i.e. a departure from God’s will regarding how humans should treat their neighbors. This is quite consistent with Christ’s teaching, in the Markan passage we have before us, that it is what comes out of a person that defiles him. Usury is an action that comes out of a lender and defiles him.”I know of at least two pastors afraid to file for personal bankruptcy (and/or divorce) because it was grounds for dismissal from their congregations.”– Divorce is (in those pastors’ churches’ view) an absolute sin, because something sharply criticized by Christ in the Gospels, something that comes out of a person and defiles him. So in those churches’ view, the forbidding of divorce is not contrary to the Markan passage we’re considering, but consistent with it.(Other churches believe, of course, that it depends on the particular divorce, whether it’s contrary to Christ’s intention or no.)– Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Friends forbade bankruptcy, and made it grounds for disownment, because it was a breaking of the debtor’s given word to his creditors, that he would repay what he was borrowing, and thus was contrary to Christ’s “let your yea be yea”. Again, this was a sin, something coming out of the debtor that defiled him.(I might add that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Friends meetings also intervened to help their member-debtors find ways of paying off their debts. Those meetings were not heartless in their discipline.)” Church program ideas get nixed because that would be too much like what the Pentacostals (or Presbyterians, or whatever) do up the street.”– I’d put this in a class with Peter’s initial refusal to sit down with gentiles. These are churches whose members have not yet fully worked out what it means to be Christian.I think it needs to be remembered that we are all of us just disciples — just people on the path. We are not perfectly realized. Our imperfect behavior on the way to greater realization is not necessarily, in and of itself, a reinstitution of a purity code. It may in many cases be the final manifestation of a worldly purity code that our minds absorbed before we came in seriousness to the Church — a final manifestation of a worldly code that Christ is working to erase from our minds and hearts.

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