by Daniel Downs
In the gospel of Mark, we are introduced to a number of controversies that are still relevant today. One such legal controversy between Jesus and the religious and governing lawmakers of his day is recorded in chapter 7.
“The Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:
‘THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS,
BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME.
‘BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME,
TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.’
“Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” (vv. 1-8)
Was the author of this text correct about the traditions? I found no explicit text in the Torah contradicting Jesus’ criticism of the traditions mentioned. Only under specific conditions were those and similar cleansing traditions or laws required. In Exodus 30:17-21, a laver (large bowl) was made for priest to wash their hands and feet before entering the tent of meetings or inner court to perform their work at the altar. Priests were to have cleansed garments as well before entering the inner court (Num. 8:6-7 & 15-16). Moreover, anyone coming in contact with a dead corpse and anything the corpse or the person(s) who defied by it must be either destroyed with fire (pots, dishes, ovens, tents, etc.) or cleansed with water (persons, and anything else.) This is found throughout the Torah (Lev. 11:13-40; Num. 19:11-20). Beyond this, anyone with a bodily discharge (from a sore, boil, pimple, etc. or from a seminal discharge) has become unclean. Anything that person and discharge has come in contact with is defiled as is anyone else who has come in contact with that person or defiled things. The unclean person(s) and things must be cleansed with water (Lev. 15:1-33). All of this was applied to those with diseases like leprosy (Lev. 14:1-57).
The traditions mentioned in verses 1-8 must refer to the oral torah, which were rabbinical applications of the written Torah. After the destruction of the Temple, they were canonized in what is called the Talmud.
It is clear that Jesus and the early Jewish church regarded the oral torah as traditions of men not of God. Today, Karaite Jews do not regard the oral torah as binding either.
It must be pointed out that the predominately gentile Church has its own type of oral law in the form of Canon law or denominational bylaws and respective doctrines. As with the oral torah, the oral law of the Church is an application of the sacred text of divine revelation some of which has been directly received from God (e.g., Ex. 3; Acts 9; Gal. 10-12) and some resulting from divinely inspired reason (e.g., Deut. 13:1-5; Rom. 1:18-32).
The question is whether any oral law should be followed? According to the gospel of Matthew, laws made by those who sit in the seat of Moses are to be followed because of the divinely ordained office. (Matt. 23:1-3) Yet, Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees and Sadducees who do not follow it themselves cast doubt on the validity of their own laws. A contemporary example of sitting in the seat of Moses would be our elected and unelected officials in both state and federal government. For example, U.S. Supreme Court justices created law permitting women to kill their unborn children. By doing so, they sanctioned opposition to God’s law against killing. God’s law also prohibits stealing. Yet, Congressional lawmakers increase taxes through inflationary tax spending without taxpayer approval. Moreover, God’s law forbids lying, but many federal and state laws gain support and passage by means of deceit and bold-faced lying. Abortion, gay rights, federal incorporations, and even educational funding are some examples. The real issue, then, is about obeying God’s law as well as God-kind of law that are always just. It is always just for lawmakers to practice their own law both then and now. If they did, modern liberals of all stripes would most likely be a true minority in America.
Another way to answer the above question is that only humans were made by and for God’s law and not human contrived law. When man-made law aligns with God’s law it should be followed. This is idea that legitimated the Puritan struggle for religious freedom, the separation of church governance from societal government, the rule of law, and the Declaration of Independence. Nevertheless, human interpretations and applications of divine law are only binding when applicable. The controversy over the disciples eating without washing their hands is one good example of it not being applicable. That is because human need trumps application when the specific law is not being violated.
In other words, Jewish lawmakers created a legal tradition that covered all conceivable applications while the specific need for food legitimated the disciples’ disregard of their general law. The essence of Jesus’ response to those leaders was that no defilement of any kind listed in the Torah had occurred. Consequently, the oral Torah was not applicable.
Here is found some basic concepts of Western civilization’s rule of law tradition, which some claim began with Samuel Rutherford’s book titled Lex Rex or Law is King (1644).