JESUS ON HYGIENE

2-Aug-2015


In a video I recently watched, Dr. Richard Carrier takes a close look at the 7th chapter of the Gospel of Mark, introducing it by asking rhetorically: What ought we to do after we wipe our butt?

What follows is partly Dr. Carrier's observations and partly my own. I certainly owe him the credit for steering my thoughts towards this particular Bible passage.

Mark, chapter 7, starts out with Jesus making a point about following scripture, as (according to the gospels) he so often did. Jesus' preaching, in this particular case, was initiated in response to complaints from the Pharisees, the observers of one particular brand of Judaism, that Jesus' disciples were eating food without washing their hands beforehand. From verses 1-5:

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers, and kettles.) So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, "Why don't your disciples live according to the traditions of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?"



Well, Jesus let them have it (verses 6-8):



[Jesus] replied, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: 'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.' You have let go of the commands of God and are holding onto human traditions."



Jesus then gave an example of what he was talking about (verses 9-13), pointing out a tradition established among the Jews that ran counter to God's command through Moses to "honor your father and mother": according to this post-Moses tradition, a man could tell his parents that he intended to take everything he would have given them and give it to God instead, after which the man was allowed, indeed required, to break off contact with his parents. (One can see why the Jewish religious authorities might like that idea.) Then Jesus returned to the subject at, well, hand: the washing of hands before eating. In verses 15-19:



[Jesus said] "Nothing outside you can defile you by going into you. Rather, it is what comes out of you that defiles you." [In other words, it's what you do, not what you eat.] After [Jesus] had left the crowd and gone into the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. "Are you so dull?" he asked. "Don't you see that nothing that enters you from outside can defile you? For it doesn't go into your heart but into your stomach, and then out of your body." (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)



That's telling them, Jesus.

But, as Carrier pointed out, the washing of hands before eating surely had a practical basis. The Jews did not know why eating food without washing hands often led to illness, but it seems clear that somehow, somewhere along the way, they must have noticed the connection, and took it to be a sign that the illness, if not directly caused by evil spirits, might be a sign from God that they should have washed their hands.

Today, two thousand years later, we know why such illness occurs: germs. Your hands, at all times, are covered in tiny, invisible microorganisms, many (though not all) of which are harmful to humans. When you touch your food with those hands and then ingest the food, you're bringing those harmful organisms into your body, where, contrary to Jesus' claim that everything you eat goes into your stomach and then right back out again, many of the organisms stay and make you sick. Washing your hands removes so many of those organisms that your immune system can usually handle the ones that remain.

In Mark 7, we have Jesus telling a crowd, and repeating to his disciples, that there can't possibly be anything wrong with anything you eat, and there is no reason to wash your hands before eating it.

If you assume that everything in the Bible is true, and in particular that every quote that it attributes to Jesus really was said (and that Jesus ever actually existed to say those things), Carrier notes that, since Jesus clearly didn't know about germs, he must not have the direct pipeline to God that would allow him to speak with authority about what God desires, commands, and has planned. Obviously an omniscient God would know about microorganisms and how they interact with humans: he is held to have created all living things, germs included, and established the interactions of all living things. How could God not tell Jesus, at this point, that the information about hygiene he was spreading around simply wasn't true?

Meanwhile, I'm struck by an entirely different fact about this passage in Mark.

There are, as everyone who studies the Bible (seriously) knows, quite a lot of contradictions in it. I believe there is a book that claims to list 6000 contradictions within the Bible. I haven't looked at that book, and I imagine that among the 6000, some of them may be a bit of a stretch, but I'm aware of a lot of contradictions, and it's usually pretty clear that the contradictions result from the fact of the Bible having multiple authors and not really much effective editing involved in putting the works of those authors together.

In this passage, though, written by a single author describing a single scene and the things Jesus said during it, we have the writer ("Mark") saying contradictory things almost in the span of a single breath, and attributing the (unnoticed) contradiction to Jesus.

At the very end of the passage, Jesus has repeated his remarks, when alone with his disciples, about the absence of any need to wash your hands before eating, pointing out (again) that anything you eat can't harm you. In reading that, I took it to imply nothing more than "Don't bother following that human-established tradition of washing your hands." But Mark says it went farther than that: He remarks parenthetically: "(In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)" That was Mark's comment, not mine.

Apparently, according to Mark, we have this interaction between Jesus and the Jewish leadership to thank for being able to have bacon with our breakfast, a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch, and pork chops for dinner. But let's look again at the entire passage, from start to finish, and see what has happened.

Jesus speaks, with considerable force, urging everyone to gather around to hear him, and roundly criticizes the Jewish authorities for abandoning the commands of God (in particular, "Honor your father and mother") given in scripture, replacing them with traditions they established on their own in defiance of God's law. It makes sense that Jesus would take offense at that.

But then, just seconds later, Jesus, by saying "Nothing you eat can hurt you," is suddenly, according to Mark, declaring all foods to be clean.

Say what? Moments after calling the Jewish leaders "hypocrites" for abandoning God's laws as given in scripture, Jesus abandons several of God's laws as given in scripture: all those dietary laws established by God and presented to Moses.

I anticipate an objection from Christian apologists: No, I can hear them saying, this isn't a contradiction. Jesus was calling out the Jewish leaders for changing (or abandoning) God's law on their own, without the authority to do such a thing. Jesus, on the other hand, did have the authority, as he was speaking for God. Indeed, it is generally believed, in Christian theology, that Jesus, with his life, death, and resurrection, threw out the Old Covenant between Man and God, established through the laws of the Torah, in its entirety, and replaced it with a New Covenant, based on salvation through the sacrifice made by Jesus on Man's behalf.

I have a threefold reply to that:

(1) Jesus, in more than one place in the New Testament, including right here in these verses from Mark 7, said or implied that the old laws are still in effect;

(2) Jesus, here in Mark 7, is not saying "I am speaking for my Father and replacing the old dietary law, in effect until now, with a new one." On the contrary, he is saying that the old law about what foods could be eaten never made any sense and shouldn't have been a law in the first place. Not exactly what you'd expect God to say through Jesus.

(3) This very passage in Mark 7, in itself, as I've already (or Carrier has already) pointed out, contradicts the idea that God speaks directly to us through Jesus. God would never have had Jesus say, "Don't wash your hands before you eat. Nothing that passes into you through your mouth can be unclean." God would know that was complete nonsense. Jesus didn't know it was nonsense, and Mark didn't know it was nonsense, but God certainly would.

So, starting from the premise that the Bible itself is the Word of God, that Jesus was the son of God and spoke for him, and that everything in the Bible really happened (none of which I accept, but Christians do), how does one account for this?



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