Currently in mid-March, 2020, hand washing is very much in the news because of the COVID-19 virus. As a result, I would like to make a few comments about a particular passage of Scripture that talks about washing hands, but which is easily misunderstood. It is found in Mark 7:1-3, from the New Revised Standard Version.
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders;
A cursory reading of this portion makes it sound as if Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands before eating. One may even think that Jesus Himself did not wash His hands. The last part of this verse gives us a clue that is not the case, for it says the tradition is to “thoroughly wash their hands.” The word “thoroughly” is a literal translation of what some more modern versions translate as “a ceremonial washing” or “Jewish ritual of hand washing”.
Looking at Jewish culture and customs of the time, one finds out that it is most probable that Jesus and all his disciples did wash their hands before eating, but that they did not rigidly follow the normal Jewish custom on how to do it. That would involve pouring water over each hand in a very specific way while chanting the blessing. As a result, for the religious Pharisees and scribes, not washing the traditional ritual way is like not washing at all. As a result, these religious leaders believed that Jesus and His disciples’ hands were still “defiled”, unclean in the sight of God. For them it was a sin, disobedience to God. Here is a video clip that shows how some modern Orthodox Jews perform ritual hand washing, which is probably in many ways the same as Jesus’ time.
As a translation consultant, I help translation teams from different languages in Mexico as they strive to translate the Scriptures into their heart languages in the most accurate and natural way possible. After a portion of Scripture is translated, for example into their Mixec language, it is then revised and checked in the community. The translation team then finds someone who speaks some Spanish and hopefully did not work on the original translation, and that person reads the translation and writes down what it says in Spanish (without looking at a Spanish Bible). This is called a backtranslation.
As I read over this backtranslation, I make consultant comments. For this particular passage, I help make sure the team understands that Jesus and his disciples did wash their hands, but that they did not do it “ritually” or “ceremonially” as the tradition of that time dictated. I then try and help them find a way to add either a word or a short phrase (as many modern translation do) to give the reader, who may have little or no exposure to any Bible teaching, a clue that they did wash their hands, they just did not do it exactly according to the ritual. For to imply that they did not wash their hands at all is wrong information.
There are many other parts of this particular passage that makes it difficult to translate, but hopefully this one aspect regarding hand washing gives an idea of some of the challenges of not only translating it, but also how we understand our English translations. We have easy access to many different translations, commentaries, internet searches, etc., to find out what a particular passage means, but in many parts of the world, the only thing many people will have will be this one translation the team is working on. By Gods grace, may it be as clear, natural and accurate as possible.