New Commandment and Foot-Washing Thursday

Apparently the term “Maundy Thursday” comes from the Latin phrase “mandatum novum” meaning “new commandment.” The reference is to John 13, which features the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, followed by his statement about a new commandment he has given them, to love one another.

We actually reached this passage in my class on the Gospel of John yesterday, and had an interesting discussion about whether this commandment is “new,” and if so, in what sense.

1 John seems to be aware of the issue, indicating that the new commandment isn’t new. But perhaps the newness relates to the way Jesus made love a priority, allowing for commandments to be prioritized and even in some instances neutralized in relation to the commandments defined as the greatest.

Being able to be both new and old was of course essential to Christianity’s survival. If there was nothing new then it wasn’t worth one’s time. And if it wasn’t old, it wasn’t worth one’s time.

We also talked about the footwashing. Brian LePort shared some great icons depicting the discomfort of Peter and the other disciples with Jesus’ action. This is my favorite:

What do readers make of the core element of the story – that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet – considered from the standpoint of history?

It would be easy to dismiss it. It is only recorded in the Gospel of John, after all. But that is not the only relevant consideration. It fits so well with what we find recorded in the other Gospels – indeed, it sounds more in keeping with the Synoptic Jesus than John’s! Moreover, anyone who has lived in a society with an honor/shame values system will understand just how shocking an action like this would be. (Can you imagine a Romanian pastor cleaning a toilet?) It seems more likely that a controversial action like this one would be omitted by early Christian authors, than that it would have been invented.

What do others think about its historicity or otherwise?

  • http://twitter.com/brianleport Brian LePort

    I agree that it seems like a story that is unlikely to have been invented out of thin air, especially in the Fourth Gospel with its depiction of Jesus. As to why it didn’t make it into the Synoptics? Not sure. This is a good question though since it does seem to fit their portraits of Jesus. I’d be interested to hear what others think of this matter.

  • Brant Clements

    My sense of the foot washing incident is that it serves as John’s commentary on the meaning of the Last Supper, the (unstated and probably assumed) Institution of the Eucharist, and, of course, the cross. It is an object lesson in agape. Foes it have the ring of historic authenticity? By the criterion of embarrassment, yes. But lacking multiple attestation, it seems less likely.

    So, I’m torn on the question of historicity. But, i’m a preacher, not a historian, so I’m constitutionally more interested in the meaning of the story than its facticity.

  • Rufus

    I like your picture of Jesus and and some of your thoughts. The idea that you would stand and judge the historicity of the Word of God floors me. Like you or I or any of your readers are worthy of such judgment is an alabaster jar of arrogance!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      That you would treat a collection of texts as the Word of God and care nothing about whether anything in it is historical floors me.

      • http://caveat1ector.wordpress.com/ Hydroxonium

        Dr McGrath, I may have missed what Rufus has said in another place, but what he says here implies that he actually cares A LOT about whether “God’s word” is historical. Inerrantists do care; they just care in way that is different from you. (I’m not an inerrantist.)

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I think that he assumes it is historical, except where he doesn’t. I think he thinks that, in making that judgment about what the Bible is, he is not standing and judging the historicity of the Bible whereas I am. And so I responded in a manner that I hoped would be provocative and lead to further conversation.

          • http://caveat1ector.wordpress.com/ Hydroxonium

            Dr McGrath, I really appreciate your response. I did think that that was what you thought, and so I responded in a manner that I hoped would be provocative and lead you to consider a more semantically accurate way to be provocative. (Pardon my pedantry.)

  • Rufus

    Me again. You lose the joy of the Gospel by pretending you are the master of God’s Word. Old and New! Did you not hear Jesus: the Kingdom of God is like a merchant that brings out the old and the new. It is both. Jesus fulfills the one and brings in the new. Salvation, if you would have it, is owning the “new thing” that Jesus has done. Forgiveness of sins–for you. Eat Jesus–and that is not a slur, but salvation.

    • http://caveat1ector.wordpress.com/ Hydroxonium

      It’s not that we pretend to be the masters of God’s word. Here are our concerns:

      1) We do not trust the human writers to be 100% correct in their writings.
      2) We do not trust the judgment of the putative Christians who insist that those human writings are 100% correct.
      3) We do not trust the putative Christians to be 100% correct in their determination of the biblical canon. Nor those who insist that the humanly-determined canon is inerrant.
      4) We trust that God’s message for us is sufficiently preserved in those human writings, and that God’s spirit will guide us to the truth.

  • Gary

    Not making any point, but … Following a trail. Joel’s web site had a comment from someone about the new Pope washing a woman’s feet. He said it wasn’t per canon law. Then I wondered why Mary was ‘t included. (Of course. I’d assume typical attitudes of canon writers about women). Then I read the scriptures, “4riseth from supper, and layeth aside his garments; and he took a towel, and girded himself. 5Then he poureth water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded”. All the pictures have Jesus fully clothed, but the scriptures seem to indicate a naked Jesus, in only a towel, using it to wipe the feet. Seems to be bordering on a Turkish bath scenario for the image. The painters of the pictures cleaned up the activities away from Greek nudes. Or am I wrong?

    • Brant Clements

      Interestingly, though John does not say that Jesus washed the feet of any women, he does describe another banquet at which a woman, Mary of Bethany, attends to Jesus’ feet with costly perfume. The two scenes are related thematically and each informs the other’s meaning.

      • Gary

        I find that interesting. However, I can see why females are not part of the feet washing. But, “layeth aside his garments; and he took a towel, and girded himself. 5Then he poureth water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded”, what does this mean?
        1. Jesus is naked, except for a towel.
        2. Garments mean something different that all you clothes, like outer garments only.
        3. Some symbology I do not understand.
        4. Just a misquote by the original author.
        5. Very strange ceremony I do not understand.
        6. I am fixated on nudity, and I need help(probably).
        Or who knows? Or gnostic gospel connection with the “naked man”.
        Strange. Seems like no one else has a problem with the direct reading of this.

        • Gary

          Or Jesus had some ties to the Essenes. Apron = towel, and no ritual bath on site, you go with what you’ve got.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            I wonder whether there is some reason not to treat this as simply a story about Jesus washing feet in the manner that was customary upon entering a home, but because the author is at times struggles to tell his own distinctive story when another version is also in his mind, its positioning in relation to the meal ends up something other than what would be customary?

            Much the same sort of thing happens with the woman anointing Jesus with perfume. He almost slips and has her (as in Mark) anoint Jesus beforehand for burial. But then he remembers or decides that he wants to have Jesus actually be anointed for burial. And so the wording ends up very awkward.

  • Roger Wolsey
  • Eric

    Professor McGrath, since you asked what others thought, you may be interested in an article I wrote on this very topic. It is of great interest to me. Please let me know what you think of it…

    http://americanvision.org/914/will-understand-hereafter/

    • Gary

      Eric, I don’t know about your paper, seems ok to me. But man, American Vision? They are so right wing and political, during the election they totally turned me off. Personally, I think Gary DeMar has entered the twilight zone.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      That’s an interesting article. I like the way that you related the story from John and the one from Acts. There are lots of intriguing intersections between the Gospels of Luke and John, and so it is interesting to see an exploration of a possible intersection with Luke’s second volume as well. Thanks for sharing this!


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