Was Jesus ignorant about germs? If so, that’s a problem.

Was Jesus ignorant about germs? If so, that’s a problem. July 12, 2020

jesus germs hygiene christianity atheism
Not a handi-wipe in sight: The Pharisees criticized Jesus and his disciples for not washing their hands before eating (this image depicts “The Last Supper”). Jesus said, “Meh.” Albrecht Durer, woodcut detail from “The Last Supper,” 1510. (Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

Scripture is clear: The Pharisees were half right, and Jesus was half wrong.

In Matthew 15:1-7 of the Bible’s New Testament, learned Pharisees (members of an influential and uber-orthodox Jewish sect in Jesus’ day) sternly question Jesus about the reported practice of the prophet and his followers to eat with unwashed hands. The scholars charged that it was a violation of “the tradition of the elders,” implying its denunciation had divine authority despite only being oral tradition in Jesus’ day and not being written into Judaic scripture until centuries later.

Jesus’ rather disingenuous non-answer to the Pharisees’ critical question was a dodge, revealing that the prophet was all too human in addition to being, as were all people in his day, scientifically ignorant.

Here’s the relevant scriptural passage, taken from the Bible’s New International Version (NIV), describing the verbal exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees:

“Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.’ He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?  For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you …”

According to Jesus in the passage, Isaiah had said, as explained by Bible.org:

“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.”

This scriptural text is a little difficult to unpack with its historical and religious assumptions that aren’t immediately understandable today.

But, in short, the Pharisees are carping on Jesus and his disciples for eating without washing their hands, as if it’s a divinely prohibited sin and not just a cultural tradition. Jesus calls the punitive scholars hypocrites for not following other actual and more important scriptural proscriptions (e.g., honoring aged parents by helping to support them), implying that, as such, they then have zero sacred grounds for assaulting him or his followers with scriptural edicts.

In fact, as we know today with modern understanding of microbes and disease and hygiene, the efficacy of the Pharisees’ tradition of hand washing before eating is exhaustively supported by science. Jesus was likely right about the Pharisees’ hypocrisy, but he couldn’t have been more wrong-headed in his relative indifference to personal hygiene.

Verses 10 and 11 of Matthew 15 illustrate Jesus’ fundamental misunderstanding of science, even if he was talking figuratively in part. He didn’t seem to know about germs or the value of personal cleanliness.

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’”

Jesus doubles down in verses 15-20:

Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”

“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.’”

Except, as we know now, it totally does.

One would think that the creator of everything, the omnipotent lord over all existence and the cause of literally everything in creation would know about germs, and wouldn’t have to wait to learn about them himself until his creations figured it out late in the second millennia.

But no, the Bible implies Jesus simply didn’t know.

Another reference in the scriptural text in Matthew regards Jesus’ criticism that the Pharisees did not always follow the commandment to honor their fathers and mothers by, among other ways, helping to support them in old age.

Bible.org notes that Jews in Jesus’ time commonly avoided having to help support their parents by pronouncing the vow of Korban on their wealth, claiming it was designated as a “gift to God” (see tractate Nedarim in the Mishnah, chapters 1, 9, 11). This was the process:

“[Vowing Korban] would mean the money was frozen and could not be used for taking care of the parents,” the website explains. “Thus, they could use their traditions to get out of taking care of their father and mother (which the Law required). Then, they might find a way of nullifying the vow so they ended up keeping the money. A clever tradition of swearing or taking oaths had grown up as a way around a clear cut teaching of the word of God.”

So, both Jesus and the Pharisees were partly correct — Jesus in that the scholars were often religious hypocrites, and the Pharisees in that eating with unwashed hands was enormously ill-advised. But they were both also wrong — Jesus erred in dismissing the critical importance of hygienic eating, and the Pharisees’ reason for condemning unhygienic eating was wrong because it cited tradition and not evidence.

Just more good reasons not to trust the Bible.

(Thanks to Patheos blogger Hemant Mehta’s recent Friendly Atheist post “Conservative Christians Lash Out After CNN Anchor Says Jesus ‘Was Not Perfect.’”)

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