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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
BASON* [Note: In the appendix to Revised OT of ‘Readings and Renderings preferred by the American Revisers,’ § viii., we read: ‘The modern spelling is preferred for the following words: “basin” for “bason,” ’ etc., but no such note appears in the appendix to Revised NT.] (νιπτήρ only in John 13:5 εἶτα βάλλει ὕδωρ εἰς τὸν νιπτῆρα: Vulgate deinde mittit aquam in pelvim: Authorized Version ‘after that he poureth water into a bason’: Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 ‘then he poureth water into the bason’).
The Gr. νιττήρ is not found elsewhere in NT, nor in LXX Septuagint, nor in Gr. profane literature (except in Eccl. writers dealing with this passage). Hence Liddell and Scott, s.v., refer only to this instance. The Vulgate pelvis, though found in Juvenal, etc., occurs in the Bible only in Jeremiah 52:19.
The general sense of νιπτήρ is, of course, plain, both from the context and from the cognate verbs νίπτειν and νίζειν both in the Bible and in profane Greek. (The former is the Biblical form, 17 times in NT, including our passage (8 times), and 25 times in LXX Septuagint). It is usually ‘to wash a part of the body’—e.g. the face, Matthew 6:17; the hands, Matthew 15:2 = Mark 7:5; the feet, 1 Timothy 5:10,—so Exodus 30:18-19 etc. John 9:7; John 9:11; John 9:15 seem to be exceptions, because the washing was in the Pool of Siloam; but here it is only the eyes that are concerned, and therefore we need not assume that the man ‘bathed.’ A real exception is Leviticus 15:12, where the wooden vessel νιφήσεται; but note contrasted use of νἱπτειν, πλύνειν, and λούεσθαι in Leviticus 15:11.
The noun νιπτήρ therefore denotes an article (not necessarily a vessel) specially suitable or intended for use in washing part of the body. We note the article τὸν νιπτῆρα, neglected by Authorized Version (a bason) but noticed by Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 (the bason). Was it the ordinary νιπτήρ of the house? In that case the use of the article is like that in τὸν μόδιον, τὴν λυχνίαν in Matthew 5:15 etc. Or was it a vessel set apart for ceremonial ablution, such as would be required by the religious feast in which they were engaged?
But, in spite of the Vulgate and modern versions, it is doubtful if the word ‘bason’ conveys to us a good idea of the article and of the scene.
The Eastern mode of washing either hands or feet, when performed by an attendant, seems to have been always by the attendant pouring water on the member, not by dipping the member in the water. Cf. 2 Kings 3:11 ‘Elisha the son of Shaphat, which poured water on the hands of Elijah.’ Kitto’s note in Pictorial Bible2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , ii. 330, with two illustrations, is convincing on this point.
‘The Hebrews were accustomed to wash their hands in the manner which is now universal in the East, and which, whatever may be thought of its convenience, is unquestionably more refreshing and cleanly than washing in the water as it stands in a basin—which is a process regarded by Orientals with great disgust. The hands are therefore held over a basin, the use of which is only to receive the water which has been poured upon the hands from the jug or ewer which is held above them. This cannot very conveniently be managed without the aid of a servant or some other person.’
Of course, this extract refers only to the washing of hands.
(1) The incident of the sinful woman who wept over our Lord’s feet, and wiped them with the hairs of her head (Luke 7:37-38), is much better explained by comparing her action with that of the host or his servant pouring water on a guest’s feet, than by supposing that the guest immersed his feet in a footbath (Luke 7:44). (2) It is true that ποδανιπτήρ is found in Pollux, Onom. x. 78, but here a definition of the νιπτήρ is contained in the word. ‘Basins’ are such common articles, that if St. John had meant to name one he need not have used an unique word. (3) The position of the Apostles and of the guests at the feast of Luke 7 was a reclining one. This would not be compatible with the use of a basin or footbath in the ordinary sense of even partially immersing the foot. (4) Dr. A. R. S. Kennedy (art. ‘Bath, Bathing’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible i. 257b) shows that ‘affusion, pouring on’ of water, was probably meant in many cases where we read ‘bathe’ or ‘wash.’
We therefore think that the νιπτήρ was a jug or ewer, with a dish, sancer or basin, under it to catch the drippings, but that the stress of the word is not on this under-basin. We also think that it was kept chiefly in the house, and used for the many ‘hand-washings’ which the Jews practised (Matthew 15:2, Mark 7:3 etc.), but also for any ceremonial ablution. Hence it was ready in the upper room, as part of the preparation made by the ‘goodman of the house’ (Mark 14:15, Luke 22:12), and therefore is distinguished by the article.
It may be asked whether the feet-washing in John 13 was ceremonial. As we understand the matter, the Galilaean disciples, either because they bad never adopted the Pharisaic strictness about ‘washings’ or (less probably) because our Lord had condemned them, were not in the habit of observing them (Matthew 15:2, Mark 7:1-4). Our Lord defended His followers (Mark 7:5-23, Matthew 15:3-20), in the upper room they found all things ready for the observance. Whether they did observe it before a meal which was not an ordinary one, we do not know. But there was another observance, not of ceremony but of courtesy and comfort (Luke 7:44), in which each might have acted as host or as servant to the other if the spirit of love had ruled in their hearts. Christ would teach them this lesson (John 13:12; John 13:16). Incidentally He taught them other lessons, which they could not fully understand at the time, about the cleansing of the soul, daily defilement, and the duty of preparation before receiving the Eucharist. In this Christian sense the feet-washing was ceremonial, or rather typical, but it was not a recognition of any validity in the ‘traditions of the elders.’ The main lessons for the time were those of humility, self-abasement, and love. Our Lord used the νιπτήρ standing by to teach these.
Kitto (Pictorial Bible2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , ii. 331) says: ‘In the East, the basin, which, as well as the ewer, is usually of tinned copper, has commonly a sort of cover, rising in the middle, and sunk into the basin at the margin, which, being pierced with holes, allows the water to pass through, thus concealing it after being defiled by use. The ewer has a long spout, and a long narrow neck, with a cover, and is altogether not unlike our coffee-pots in general appearance: it is the same which the Orientals use in all their ablutions.’
We notice that the assistance of a servant or of a friend is necessary. This is sometimes mentioned, e.g. 1 Timothy 5:10, 1 Samuel 25:41, and is probably implied in Genesis 18:4; Genesis 19:2; Genesis 24:32 etc. But in the cases where the English versions suggest nothing of the kind, the Heb. is the Kal of רָחַץ as in 1 Samuel 25:41 (cf. Dr. Kennedy’s article cited above).
Lane’s account (Modern Egyptians, ch. 5) is similar: ‘A servant brings him a basin and ewer (called tisht and ibreek) of tinned copper or brass. The former of these has a cover pierced with holes, with a raised receptacle for the soap in the middle; and the water being poured upon the hands, passes through this cover into the space below, so that when the basin is brought to a second person the water with which the former one has washed is not seen.’
Our conclusion therefore is that the νιπτήρ was most probably not a ‘large basin,’ but the set of ewer and basin combined, kept in every Jewish house for the purpose of cleansing either the hands or the feet by means of affusion.
Dr. Anton Tien,* [Note: Oriental Secretary to Lord Reglan during the Crimean War, translator of the Turkish Prayer-Book, and reviser of the Arabic Prayer-Book, author of Turkish, Arabic, and Modern Greek Grammars.] in a full communication to the writer of this article, which we abridge, says tesht is the most correct rendering of νιττήρ. The Bible Society’s Arabic NT has maghsal, a noun of time and place = ‘washing’ and ‘a place for washing,’ not a correct rendering. The SPCK version has mathar (cf. Heb. טהר) = ‘purification,’ ‘place or time of purification,’ also an incorrect rendering. The word tesht is the exact rendering of the Gr. word νιττήρ. It comes from a root = ‘to pour or rain slightly.’
The tesht and ibreeq are made of either metal or earthenware, with a strainer of the same material placed inside the tesht (or basin), never outside or under, and in the middle of the strainer there is a small raised place for the soap. The ibreeq (Syrian and Egyptian Arabic) is a water-jug, with a spout for the water to come through like a coffee-pot, from which the water is poured on the hands or feet, which are held over the basin. They are to be found in every Eastern house, especially in Mohammedan houses; they are used continually in the mornings. There are no washstands in the houses. The servant holds the tesht on the palm of his left hand and the ibreek in his right hand, and a clean towel placed on his left shoulder for each person (John 13:4), who washes his face and hands, taking the towel from off the servant’s shoulder. The towel is thrown down, and the servant puts a fresh one for the next person to use.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Bason'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/b/bason.html. 1906-1918.