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Bible Encyclopedias

Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature

Washing of Feet

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The custom of washing the feet held, in ancient times, a place among the duties of hospitality, being regarded as a mark of respect to the guest, and a token of humble and affectionate attention on the part of the entertainer. It had its origin in circumstances for the most part peculiar to the East.

In general, in warm Oriental climes, cleanliness is of the highest consequence, particularly as a safeguard against the leprosy. The East knows nothing of the factitious distinctions which prevail in these countries between sanitary regulations and religious duties; but the one, as much as the other, is considered a part of that great system of obligations under which man lies towards God. What, therefore, the health demands, religion is at hand to sanction. Cleanliness is in consequence not next to godliness, but a part of godliness itself.

As in this Oriental view may be found the origin and reason of much of what the Mosaic law lays down touching clean and unclean, so the practice of feet-washing in particular, which considerations of purity and personal propriety recommended, hospitality adopted and religion sanctioned.

In temperate climes bathing is far too much neglected; but in the East the heat of the atmosphere and the dryness of the soil would render the ablution of the body peculiarly desirable, and make feet-washing no less grateful than salutary to the weary traveler. The foot, too, was less protected than with us. In the earliest ages it probably had no covering; and the sandal worn in later times was little else than the sole of our shoe bound under the foot. Even this defense, however, was ordinarily laid aside on entering a house, in which the inmates were either barefoot or wore nothing but slippers.

The washing of the feet is among the most ancient, as well as the most obligatory, of the rites of Eastern hospitality. From; , it appears to have existed as early as the days of the patriarch Abraham. In , also, 'Abraham's servant' is provided with water to wash his feet, and the men's feet that were with him. The same custom is mentioned in . From , it appears that the rite was sometimes performed by servants and sons, as their appropriate duty, regarded as of an humble character. Hence, in addition to its being a token of affectionate regard, it was a sign of humility.

The most remarkable instance is found in John 13, where our Savior is represented as washing the feet of his disciples, with whom he had taken supper. Minute particulars are given in the sacred narrative, which should be carefully studied, as presenting a true Oriental picture. From , sq., it is clear that the act was of a symbolical nature, designed to teach brotherly humility and goodwill.

It was specially customary in the days of our Lord to wash before eating (; ). But Jesus did not pay a scrupulous regard to the practice, and hence drew blame upon himself from the Pharisees (). In this our Lord was probably influenced by the superstitious abuses and foolish misinterpretations connected with washing before meat. For the same reason he may purposely have postponed the act of washing his disciples' feet till after supper, lest, while he was teaching a new lesson of humility, he might add a sanction to current and baneful errors [ABLUTION].

The union of affectionate attention and lowly service is found indicated by feet-washing in , where, among the signs of the widows that were to be honored—supported, that is, at the expense of the church—this is given, if anyone 'have washed the saints' feet.'

Feet-washing became, as might be expected, a part of the observances practiced in the early Christian church. The real signification, however, was soon forgotten, or overloaded by superstitious feelings and mere outward practices. Traces of the practice abound in ecclesiastical history, and remnants of the abuse are still to be found, at least in the Romish church.





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Washing of Feet'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature".

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