I enjoy Professor Bart Ehrman’s blogging on the New Testament and related issues, which is usually clear and concise, and mostly discerning and (I think) right.

But today Bart has made a more dubious claim: that the author of the Gospel of Mark “almost certainly was not” a Jew.

Bart’s claim is based primarily on his interpretation of Mark 7.3, where the author of Mark explains why the Pharisees were so upset that Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands before eating. The author of Mark explains:

“For the Pharisees, and all the Jews [pantes hoi Ioudaioi], do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders…” (Mark 7.3)

The problem here is the phrase “and all the Jews”. This cannot literally be true of all Jews in Mark’s day. So on this basis, Bart argues as follows:

“The fact that Mark has to explain to his audience that “all the Jews” wash their hands, in keeping with traditional religious practices, shows that they must not have been Jewish.  Otherwise they would have known all about it, because it would be something they themselves did all the time.

But even more important is this.   As it turns out, it’s NOT TRUE that in Jesus’ day “all the Jews” followed this practice.  This was a practice restricted to the Pharisees, and a few other Jews.  But only a minority of Jews.

The Jewish historian Josephus claims that at this time there were something like 6000 Pharisees.  It is usually estimated that there were something like four million Jews in the Roman Empire.  Do the math.  The vast majority of Jews were not following the Pharisaic rules.   Until later.  After the destruction of the Temple, Pharisees, because of a set of complicated historical reasons, ended up becoming the dominant force within Judaism, and eventually determined the shape of Jewish thought and practice.   But not in the 20s of the first century.

The result is that Mark is just not right that all Jews followed this practice. If he was a Jew (certainly living outside of Palestine: he is writing in Greek), he would have known that.  He knew only what he had heard about Jews.  And like many other Christians at the time, he assumed that all Jews followed the practices of Pharisaic Judaism.  He just didn’t know.  And that must be because he himself did not come out of Judaism.”

The main problem with this line of argument is that Bart has taken the phrase “all the Jews” in a rather literalistic sense. But it is very unlikely that Mark really meant that every Jew in the first century AD was scrupulously involved in handwashing before eating. It was an exaggeration. Mark frequently exaggerates things in his Gospel. In Mk 1.5, Mark reports that John the Baptist had baptized “all of Jerusalem” in the River Jordan. This is not literally true, and would have made the river very full! Again, in Mk 11.11, Mark claims that when Jesus visited the Temple, he looked around at “everything” (panta). As Jesus scholar James Crossley comments, “This [description in Mk 11.11] gives us enough information to know that Jesus thoroughly looked around the Temple yet it can also be assumed that he did not look around, say, the Holy of Holies” (Date of Mark’s Gospel, 185).

But Bart’s argument only works if Mk 7.3 is interpreted overly literalistically.

What also makes Bart’s interpretation difficult is that the Letter of Aristeas, which is almost certainly written by a Jew, also claimed that “all the Jews” practiced handwashing. And this was written some 200 years before Jesus.

“And as is the custom of all the Jews [pantes hoi Ioudaioi], they washed their hands in the sea and prayed to God and then devoted themselves to reading and translating the particular passage upon which they were engaged, and I put the question to them, Why it was that they washed their hands before they prayed? And they explained that it was a token that they had done no evil (for every form of activity is wrought by means of the hands) since in their noble and holy way they regard everything as a symbol of righteousness and truth.” (Letter of Aristeas 305-306)

For these reasons, it is far better to interpret Mk 7.3 as an exaggeration, not as a literal claim that every Jew washed their hands before eating. So Mk 7.3 does not, contra Bart, indicate that the author of Mark was not Jewish. In fact, as Crossley discusses, there is good evidence that handwashing was widespread among Jews in the first century AD (Date of Mark’s Gospel, 184)

I will leave a comment on Bart’s blog, along these lines.


Bart agrees, and has removed his original post: