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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Washing the Hands and Feet

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The particular attention paid by the Jews to the cleansing of the hands and feet, as compared with other parts of the body, originated in the social usages of the East. As knives and forks were dispensed with in eating, it was absolutely necessary that the hand, which was thrust into the common dish, should be scrupulously clean; and, again, as sandals were ineffectual against the dust and heat of an Eastern climate, washing the feet on entering a house was an act both of respect to the company and of refreshment to the traveller. In the following account of them, we add many particulars not given in previous articles. (See WASH).

I. Washing the Hands was transformed by the Pharisees of the New-Test. age into a matter of ritual observance (Mark 7:3), and special rules were laid down as to the times and manner of its performance. The neglect of these rules by our Lord and his disciples drew down upon him the hostility of that sect (Matthew 15:2; Luke 11:38). Whether the expression πυγμῇ used by Mark has reference to any special regulation may, perhaps, be doubtful; the senses "oft" (A.V.) and "diligently" (Alford) have been assigned to it; but it may possibly signify " with the fist," as though it were necessary to close the one hand, which had already been cleansed, before it was applied to the unclean one. This sense appears preferable to the other interpretations of a similar character, such as "up to the wrist" (Lightfoot); "up to the elbow" (Theophylact); "having closed the hand" which is undergoing the washing (Grotius; Scaliger). The Pharisaical regulations on this subject are embodied in a treatise of the Mishna entitled Yadaim, from which it appears that the ablution was confined to the hand (2, § 3), and that great care was needed to secure perfect purity in the water used. The ordinary, as distinct from the ceremonial, washing of hands before meals is still universally prevalent in Eastern countries (Lane, 1:190; Burckhardt, Notes, 1:63; Thomson, Land and Book, 1:184). (See HAND).

The Mosaic law directed that in certain cases the Jews should wash their hands, to signify that they were guiltless of the blood of an unknown person found murdered (Deuteronomy 21:6). Pilate was probably aware of this custom, for, from Matthew 27:24, we find, "When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it." He knew that this symbolical act was calculated to make an impression, and would be distinctly understood. To himself, also, the adoption of this ceremony was perfectly natural, as the rite was common among the Greeks and Romans as one of expiation for an act of unintentional or unwilling homicide. See the monographs on the subject cited by Volbeding, Index Program. pages 55, 59, 121. (See RED HEIFER).

II. Washing the Feet did not rise to the dignity of a ritual observance except in connection with the services of the sanctuary (Exodus 30:19; Exodus 30:21). It held a high place, however, among the rites of hospitality. Immediately after a guest presented himself at the tent-door, it was usual to offer the necessary materials for washing the feet (Genesis 18:4; Genesis 19:2; Genesis 24:32; Genesis 43:24; Judges 19:21; comp. Hom. Od. 4:49). It was a yet more complimentary act, betokening equally humility and affection, if the host actually performed the office for his guest (1 Samuel 25:41; Luke 7:38; Luke 7:44; John 13:5-14; 1 Timothy 5:10). Such a token of hospitality is still occasionally exhibited in the East, either by the host or by his deputy (Robinson, Res. 2:229; Jowett, Res. pages 78, 79). The feet were again washed before retiring to bed (Song of Solomon 5:3). A symbolical significance is attached in John 13:10 to washing the feet as compared with bathing the whole body, the former being partial (νίπτω ), the latter complete (λούω ); the former oft repeated in the course of the day, the latter done once for all; whence they are adduced to illustrate the distinction between occasional sin and a general state of sinfulness. After being washed, the feet were on festive occasions anointed (Luke 7:38; John 12:3). The indignity attached to the act of washing another's feet appears to have been extended to the vessel used (Psalms 60:8). (See FOOT-WASHING).

Feet-washing (pedilavium) 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. The reader who wishes to see an outline of these may consult Siegel, Handbuch der christl.-kirchl. Afterthumer, 2:156 sq.

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Washing the Hands and Feet'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/w/washing-the-hands-and-feet.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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