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Historic Jesus

Several times Jesus' opponents accused him of condoning ceremonial uncleanliness, as when he allowed his disciples to eat without "washing" their utensils. The concept of the clean and the unclean the holy and the unholy, was based on Mosaic Law (Lev. 10.10). Uncleanliness meant ceremonial or ritual impurity, which became moral impurity if it was done willfully. In the eyes of his critics, Jesus crossed over the line into such moral failure when he defended his disciples' behavior after their ceremonial lapse had been brought to his attention.

Moses described a number of ways ceremonial uncleanliness could be incurred; for example, by contact with a dead body; becoming afflicted with leprosy or touching a leper; or eating the flesh of animal that was designated as unclean. For each type of defilement there was a prescribed procedure for cleansing. Religious experts after the Exile expanded the distinctions between what was clean and unclean. These "traditions" of purification kept multiplying, as generation after generation of experts added its own refinements to the rules. By the time of Jesus, every area of life was governed by rules.

Jesus soundly condemned the Pharisees and other experts who made the traditions more important than the spiritual and ethical substance of the Law. In Mark 7.3,4 we find a description of the rules concerning the cleansing of eating utensils; in John 2.6 there is a reference to the large water jars used in ceremonial washing upon entering a house; and in John 11.55 the elaborate purification rites required before celebrating the Passover are mentioned. It seemed to the traditionalists that Jesus annulled all the distinctions that made the Jews a "holy people to God," separated from the world and the Gentiles. And Jesus, in turn, excoriated the traditionalists for rejecting "the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition" (Matt. 7.9). The harshest attack Jesus made on the traditionalists is found in Matthew