Footwashing in the Old Testament and Extra-Biblical Sources
Footwashing occurs frequently in the Old Testament. Generally, there are at least three situations where footwashing is observed: cultic settings, domestic settings for hygiene and comfort, and domestic settings devoted to hospitality. In the Torah, priests are required to wash their hands and feet before entering the holy place of the tabernacle to offer sacrifice on the altar. Moses receives these commands in Exodus 30:17-21. Exodus 40:30-32 describes these instructions. 1 Kings 7:38 and 2 Chronicles 4:6 mention ten basins(40 baths) in which the priests were to wash. Also, the high priest is expected to wash his hands and feet on the Day of Atonement(Lev. 16:24). John Christopher Thomas says, “This cleansing from bodily uncleanness was a symbol of putting away of the filth of sin; the washing of the body therefore was a symbol of spiritual cleansing, without which no one can draw near to God, and least of all those who were to perform the duties of reconciliation.” The hands and feet would be washed regularly because of their relatively higher exposure to being “contaminated.” Philo says, “One should not enter with unwashed feet on the pavement of the temple of God.” He goes on to say, “Washing the hands and feet is a symbol of a blameless life, of years of cleanliness employed in laudable actions, and in straight traveling, not on the rough road or more properly pathless waste of vice, but on the smooth high road through virtue’s land. Let him who shall be purified with water, bethink him that the mirrors were the material of this vessel, to the end that himself may behold his own mind as in a mirror.” Thomas says, “The order for the High Priest and priests to wash themselves is made more emphatic by the observation that death will follow any performance of the priestly functions without cultic purity, as the ‘holy’ works destruction on the ‘unholy.’” Footwashing has a lengthy history associated with cultic rituals and purity in the Old Testament.
Coloe says, “Footwashing had particular significance in the synagogue, where it recalled God’s apparition to Abraham under the oaks of Mamre.” Genesis 18:4 says, “Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.” Abraham’s role in washing the feet of the divine messenger is brought out in the Testament of Abraham, “Then Abraham went forward and washed the feet of the commender in chief, Michael. Abraham’s heart was moved and he wept over the stranger.” In his act of personally washing the feet of his guests, Abraham is established in the Jewish tradition as the great model of hospitality. Coloe says, “A common greeting in ancient Israel is to offer water to a guest and to invite him to wash his feet(Gen. 18:4, 19:2, 24:32, 43:24; Judges 19:21, 1 Sam. 25:41, 2 Sam 11:8), and to rest(Gen.18:4), spend the night(Gen.19:2), or accept food(Gen. 24:32-33; Judges 19:21).”
Footwashing is also associated with servitude in the Old Testament. Psalm 60:8 says, “Moab is my wash basin, upon Edom I toss my sandal…” Thomas says, “The reference to a wash pot or basin…in connection with casting off the sandal clearly indicates their common use for the purpose of washing feet. It is clear from the reference that Moab is to be so reduced that he becomes the wash basin which is carried by a slave to pour water over his master’s feet.” This leads Thomas to conclude that there is a loose connection between sandals and servitude. Psalm 58:10 says, “The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.” Here, blood will be used to wash the feet of the righteous.
In the Old Testament it is common to associate footwashing with the priestly admission into the tabernacle and temple. Footwashing also prepared you for a variety of activities, like a meal for example. Footwashing was also used for personal hygiene and comfort. Thomas reports, “Footwashing was so common that the lack of adequate preparation could be expressed by the phrase ‘with unwashed feet.’” Also, footwashing is generally the responsibility of servants. A host or hostess can offer the hospitable act, but it is ordinarily carried out by slaves. Those who receive footwashing are almost always the social superiors of those who render the service. Lastly, and very rarely, in cases of deep love or devotion a host might wash the feet of another.
In the Graeco-Roman World, footwashing also has a ritual component. Footwashing is associated with entering holy sites. Thomas says, “Homer and Strabo imply that footwashing normally precedes entrance into a sacred place, whether oracle or temple.” Thomas also points out that Favius Pictor, a Roman historian in the third century BCE, preserves testimony that at some point certain Roman priests participated in ritual footwashing. Footwashing was also very common as a form of personal hygiene in Graeco-Roman Society. Thomas says, “It appears that footwashing was so common in domestic contexts for hygienic purposes that it gave rise to a traditional saying which described the commencement of a course of action without due preparation as rushing into matters with unwashed feet.” This usage is similar to the Old Testament saying listed above and implies that footwashing was done regularly.
Footwashing was also a sign of hospitality. One of the primary forms of footwashing was as a sign of welcome. According to Thomas, the best documented and most frequent accounts of footwashing are found in contexts where the washing precedes a meal or banquet. Similar to the Old Testament, footwashing was almost exclusively the duty of slaves or servants. Not only do servants draw the water, wash the feet, and dispose of the water, but it appears that a slave could not refuse to render this service, no matter how old he or she might be. Thomas says, “Footwashing could be used as a synonym for slavery. To wash another’s feet symbolized the subjugation of one person to another. Those who received footwashing from another were social superiors of those who performed the task.” In short, footwashing was widespread in Graeco-Roman culture with varied meanings.
Footwashing in the New Testament
Footwashing is also represented in Luke and John(similar stories with the anointing of the Jesus’ head in Matthew and Mark) as well as in 1 Timothy. In Luke 7:36-50 a sinful woman enters the house of a Pharisee and anoints Jesus’ feet. In Luke 7:44 Jesus reminds his host that he was not offered water for his feet. This suggests that footwashing was a normal practice at or before a meal. Simon seems to think that the woman’s sinful status disqualifies her from washing Jesus’ feet. The fact that she uses her tears instead of water could show her willingness to honor Jesus even though she has no water to use to wash his feet. It also points to her “love”(Luke 7:47). Mark 14:3-9 tells the story in a different way. In Mark, the woman uses “costly ointment of nard” which is poured on Jesus’ head, not his feet. Jesus says the woman has anointed him in preparation for his burial. Matthew 26:6-13 has the anointing of Jesus’ head and the act is done to anoint Jesus for his burial as well. Both Matthew and Mark say what she has done “will be told in remembrance of her(which it is as we read it today in perpetuity).”
This brings us to John which has two stories of footwashing. The first comes in John 12:2-8. The family meal shortly before the Passover in John 12:1, which is given an unusually precise day in relation to the Passover by the evangelist(the anointing meal occurred on the first day of the week; there we have the reunion of (the raised) Lazarus with his sisters and with Jesus in the context of a communal meal. Elser says, “The first day of the week has significance because it will also be the day on which Jesus is discovered to have been raised, exactly one week later: ‘Now on the first day of the week.’” Here, the unnamed woman in Mark, Matthew, and Luke is given a name, Mary. The “alabaster jar of very costly ointment(of nard in Mark)” is given a quantity, one pound! This is extravagant and is approximately a year’s pay worth of nard. Mary anoints Jesus’ feet for the day of his burial. C.H. Dodd says, “The theme of the discourse here is clear and simple. It treats throughout of death and resurrection: the seed that decays to give birth to a crop(Jn. 12:24); the principle of dying to live(12:25); Christ’s self devotion; His death as judgement on the world.” Before Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, we are told the authorities were going to arrest Jesus whenever he appeared. Dodd says, “When he(Jesus) arrives at Bethany, we are emphatically reminded that this is the place where Jesus gave life to the dead Lazarus at the risk of his own life and that Lazarus himself was a there, a living witness.” Lazarus is a living witness to the truth of life out of death. In a sense, the raising of Lazarus from the dead is a confirmation of Jesus’ claim to be the resurrection and the life, and at the same time an anticipation of what will take place on the last day.
Jesus also identifies Mary, Martha, and Lazarus as friends whom he loves. Jesus calls the disciples friends later in John’s gospel. In the Mediterranean world, ‘love’ had the underlying meaning of attachment to a group: family, village, ethnic group or fictive kin group. Malina succinctly states, “Since in first-century Mediterranean society there was no term for an internal state that did not entail a corresponding external action, love always meant doing something that revealed one’s attachment – that is, actions supporting the well-being of the persons to whom one is attached.” In John’s Gospel God reveals God’s abiding loyalty to Israel by sending his only Son so that those who believe in him might have endless life. Jesus reveals his abiding loyalty by saving his ‘friends’ and giving his life for them. In John 15:13 Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Sacrifice for friends is the greatest sign of true friendship, and as indicated above, Jesus was willing to lay down his life not only for Lazarus, but for all. Against this backdrop, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with her hair and extremely costly nard for Jesus’ burial. Dodd says, “It seems clear that for John’s purpose the significant point of the story comes in 12:7, with its reference to the burial of Jesus. The exegesis of the verse presents difficulties, and the text itself is not altogether beyond question; but it seems that the intention is to associate the incident with the thought of burial, in preparation for the saying about the buried seed in 12:24. Lazarus is seated beside Jesus, whom he ‘called out of the tomb(12:17),’ he is anointed as one would anoint a corpse. If in 11:53 Jesus is designated for death, here he is designated for burial.” Mary washes the feet of her teacher. As I have demonstrated above, this was a normal practice which fits into the idea that those of lower social status serve those with greater social status. It is an abnormal act in that it is extravagant(the pound of nard). J. Ramsey Michaels says, “John seems to know of Luke’s version and points out that Martha typically served the supper, and Mary ‘anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. But, John also knows Mark’s details of the ointment being ‘pure nard,’ of its value at 300 denarii, and the statements about the poor including a shortened pronouncement from the mouth of Jesus.”
1 Timothy 5:9-10 references footwashing. Many have thought that this suggests that footwashing was carried out in the early church(see below). These verses lay out certain prerequisites which a widow must meet in order to qualify for support from the church. Footwashing is listed among other acts that were considered good works for widows. Thomas notes, “The mention of footwashing in a list of duties is a rarity. This unique placement of footwashing in a list of qualifications for a specific position or office implies that there is something particular about the rite.” This has lead some to believe that the command to wash feet should be taken literally and this is attested to in the literature of the early church.
Footwashing in the Early Church
Tertullian is one of the first writers to acknowledge that footwashing was practiced as part of Christian worship. He said, “I must recognize Christ, both as he reclines on a couch, and when he presents a basin for the feet of his Disciples, and when he pours water into it from a ewer, and when he is girt about with a linen towel – a garment specially sacred to Osiris. It is thus in general I reply upon the point, admitting indeed that we use along with others these articles, but challenging that this be judged in the light of the distinction between things agreeable and things apposed to reason because the promiscuous employment of them is deceptive, concealing the corruption of the creature, by which it has been made subject to vanity.” It seems as though Tertullian is making a reference to John 13 and the linen towel Jesus wore as it relates to the mystery religion associated with Osiris. He also references the continued use of the basin, water, towel, and footwashing. Thomas says, “Footwashing was important for the community since Tertullian is willing to risk similarity with the Osiris cult in order to defend the practice.”
Athanasius said, “This bishop shall eat often with the priests in the Church, that he may see their behavior, whether they do eat in quiet and in the fear of God. And he shall stand there and serve them; and if they be weak, he shall wash their feet with his own hands. And if he is not able to do this, he shall cause the archpriest or him that is after him to wash their feet. Suffer not the commandment of the Savior to depart from you, for all this shall ye be answerable, that they likewise may see the lowliness of the Savior in you.” He said, “That they likewise may see the lowliness of the Savior in you.” This is profound in that it gets at the sacramental aspect of footwashing. It is not necessarily the action of washing the feet that makes clean, but rather, the participation in the humble act of the Lord and Teacher.
Chrysostom similarly urges Christians to imitate the actions of Jesus. He said, “Let us wash one another’s feet” He said. “Those of slaves, too?” And what great thing is it, even if we do wash the feet of slaves? For He Himself was LORD by nature, while we were slaves, yet he did not beg off from doing even this… Yet what shall we then say, we who have received the example of such great forbearance, but do no imitate it even slightly, and who, on the contrary, adopt the opposite attitude: both magnifying ourselves unduly and not rendering to others what we ought? For God made us debtors to one another – after He Himself had begun this process – and debtors in regard to a smaller amount. He Himself, to be sure, was Lord, whereas if we perform an act of humility we do it to our fellow slaves. Accordingly, He made an indirect reference to this very thing, by saying: “If therefore, I the Lord and Master,’ and again: “So you also.” Indeed, it would have followed logically for us to say: “How much rather we slaves,” and He left this conclusion to the conscience of His
hearers.” Ambrose also captures the sacramental aspect of footwashing when he says, “I, then wish also myself to wash the feet of my brethren, I wish to fulfill the commandment of my Lord, I will not be ashamed in myself, nor disdain what himself did first.” Augustine writes, “And wherever such is not the practice among the saints, what they do not with the hand they do in heart… But it is far better, and beyond all dispute more accordant with the truth, that it should also be done with the hands; nor should the Christian think it beneath him to do what was done by Christ. For when the body is bent at a brother’s feet, the feeling of such humility is either awakened in the heart itself, or is strengthened if already present.”
The act of kneeling and washing another’s feet is participation in the action of Christ that does not require ordination or even ‘membership.’ The very act itself produces the humility and orientation that Christ longed for from his friends/disciples which the early church attests to.
Footwashing in John 13 – A Bief History of Interpretation
There are many different interpretations of the meaning of footwashing in John 13. One of the most prevalent seems to be footwashing as an example of humility. Footwashing, as I have noted above, is typically the job of slaves and servants. Jesus lays aside his clothes and girds himself with a towel, which would be reminiscent of something a slave might wear. This act of humility fits well with Jesus command to the disciples to perform the task for one another.
Another interpretation is that footwashing is a symbol for the Eucharist. The primary reason for this is the pericope’s setting. Jesus’ action of footwashing in John takes the place of the institution of Eucharist which is recorded in the Synoptics. Thomas says, “It is often assumed that the author of the Fourth Gospel is drawing attention to a connection between the two stories.” Jesus’ command to continue the practice of footwashing is similar to the command to repeat the Eucharist.
Still, another view not entirely unrelated to the Eucharist is footwashing as a symbol of Baptism. The use of water and the focus on cleansing in footwashing helps many to see the connection to baptism. Most arguments for the symbol of baptism focus on the word leloume÷noß in 13:1. The verb lou/w implies the idea of a complete bath which is similar to baptism. Thomas argues that lou/w is often a synonym for Baptism in the New Testament.
Footwashing is also tied to the forgiveness of sin. Some scholars argue that there is cleansing/forgiveness of sin apart from baptism that is needed and tie this view to the removal of post-baptismal sin. Footwashing is also seen, due in part to the context in John, as preparation for the Eucharist. Some view footwashing as an argument against baptism and ritual purification. This is due in part to the footwashing apparently replacing baptism or the Eucharist in John. Thomas says, “This view is grounded in Peter’s proposal that his hands and head be washed in addition to the feet. Jesus’ response makes explicit that ritual washings of the kind Peter proposes are unnecessary; only the footwashing is needed.”
Others view footwashing as a sacrament separate from both baptism and the eucharist. Often, it is seen as a sacrament linked to penance and the removal of post-baptismal sin. It has also been linked to the ordination rite and the preparation for disciples to serve at the Lord’s table.
Lastly, footwashing is seen as a soteriological sign that is held together with Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection. Dodd says, “Christ, the eternal Son of man, who descended from heaven to ascend to heaven again, to whom all authority is given, descends to the lowest place of service. The washing of the feet, therefore, is a ‘sign’ of the incarnation of the Son of God, consummated by His self oblation in death.”
So, is footwashing an example of humility? Is it a symbol of the eucharist? A symbol of baptism? Of another sacrament or a replacement of both the eucharist and baptism? Is footwashing a sign of the forgiveness of sin, or a soteriological sign of Jesus’ death and resurrection? Clearly, footwashing is a richly symbolic act with multivalent meanings.
Footwashing in the Liturgy
Footwashing, as it is practiced today is usually on Maundy Thursday. The service begins with the confession and forgiveness sins with the option of individual forgiveness and the laying on of hands. This is followed by the Apostolic Greeting, then the prayer of the day which highlights either Jesus’ betrayal or links footwashing with service. Then, the Word is read. The first reading is from Exodus 12 which tells the story of the Passover. The Epistle reading is from 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 which gives us Paul’s account of Jesus’ words over the bread and wine. The Gospel Acclamation is “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another just as I have loved you.” The Gospel reading is John 13:1-17, 31b-35 which is Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and the new commandment to love one another as Jesus loved you. After the sermon, there is footwashing which is framed by words of love and service. Then there are prayers of intercession, the peace, and the meal. Lastly, there is the stripping of the altar and the departure in silence.
Footwashing has a lengthy history in both biblical and extra-biblical sources and culture. Footwashing is represented in the history of God’s chosen people throughout the Old Testament. All of the meanings of footwashing detailed above are present when Jesus washes the disciples feet. That is, footwashing is full of these other meanings. There is the cultic setting where priests wash their hands and feet before entering the holy place of the tabernacle to offer sacrifice upon the altar and the priests washing their hands and feet on the day of the atonement. The idea that the ‘holy’ kills the ‘unholy’ if the ‘unholy’ is not purified. Christ, in a sense, the temple, was anointed by Mary who evokes a weeping Abraham from the Testament of Abraham whose heart was moved by the stranger, the stranger(Jesus) whose identity is revealed in the raising of Lazarus. This could be seen as juxtaposed with Jesus cleansing the temple in the beginning of John with the anointing of Jesus, the temple, by Mary in chapter 12. This imagery also draws on Abraham’s reputation for being hospitable. Similarly, though distant, is the image Philo brought up when he said, “One should not enter with unwashed feet on the pavement of the temple of God.” Here, Jesus, one with the Father, anointed by Mary, the living temple, has his feet anointed, the God who walks with us in this Garden(Genesis 2), today, to wash our feet, to prepare us for the feast in the shadow of the cross and resurrection, imploring us to share a part of himself. And there is more, footwashing occurs most often in Graeco-Roman society in the context of preparing for a banquet. On Maundy Thursday, Christ himself is preparing us for the feast that he has prepared for us for all. Ordinarily, the preparatory footwashing would be carried out by a servant or a slave, but there is nothing ordinary about today with Mary’s pound of pure nard which fills up the temple with its sweet aroma. Today, the slave, Jesus in his linen cloth, humbles himself after he knows that “the Father had given all things into his hands, that he had come from God and was going to God” uses those same “hands” that had “all things” to wash the feet of those he loves. His first act after acquiring all things was to take the form of a slave/servant(Philippians 2) and prepare the disciples for the banquet.
In the Old Testament, footwashing was used to help guests feel comfort, but in John’s gospel Peter becomes uncomfortable with the act that formerly brought comfort. Mary uses expensive oil(symbolic of death) to wash Jesus’ feet, but Jesus uses water(symbolic of life), the symbol of baptism, to cleanse the disciples in love and service. It is truly the bath that makes us dirty with all of our neighbor’s needs. All of these images explode onto the act of footwashing on Maundy Thursday amidst the backdrop of confession and forgiveness, the Exodus story’s recounting of the Passover, Paul’s recollection of Jesus’ words at the Lord’s Supper, the prayers of intercession, the Eucharist, the stripping of the altar, and the chilling silence of Good Friday and “My God, my God…” Augustine said, “For when the body is bent at a brother’s feet, the feeling of such humility is either awakened in the heart itself, or is strengthened if already present.”
Martin Luther once said, “When you read in the gospel or hear it read that Jesus Christ comes here or goest there, that he heals the sick and raises the dead and forgives sins, you are to understand that he is coming here, that he is forgiving you and raising you from the dead, and healing you.” This is what each Gospel book intends. In fact, this is what footwashing does. Christ, who ‘had all’ from the Father in his hands, became a servant, and invited all of us to have a share with him(Jn. 13:8). Jesus says he is “the Lord and Teacher(Jn.13:14)” and he washes the feet of the disciples, effectively becoming a slave on account of love. He then says, “Servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them(13:16).” Jesus takes the form of a slave and washes the feet of others effectively making them his master, but Jesus asks them to do this to each other(Maundy = command in Latin) which effectively makes the disciples the slaves of all if the feast is kept. Christ’s first act of freedom is to make him a slave to all. Consequently, Christ then asks his disciples to be slaves of all as well, today, to your neighbor, to the least of these.
Footwashing is primarily observed on Maundy Thursday. The image of footwashing is transformed by its use on this particular night in this particular context. Footwashing is different than other symbols in that the act of footwashing, or receiving footwashing, gives the actor direct access into one of the primary messages of the act, humility and service.
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 Lazarus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Eleazar, which means “God Helps.”
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 Philip Esler and Ronald Piper Lazarus, Mary, and Martha: Social-Scientific Approaches to the Gospel of John. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 89.
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