International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
ab-lu’-shun: The rite of ablution for religious purification seems to have been practiced in some form in all lands and at all times. The priests of Egypt punctiliously practiced it (Herodotus ii.37). The Greeks were warned "never with unwashed hands to pour out the black wine at morn to Zeus" (Hesiod, Opera et Dies v.722; compare Homer, Iliad vi.266; Od. iv.759). The Romans also observed it (Virgil, Aeneid ii.217); as did and do Orientals in general (compare Koran, Sura 5:8, etc.). Ablutions for actual or ritual purification form quite a feature of the Jewish life and ceremonial. No one was allowed to enter a holy place or to approach God by prayer or sacrifice without having first performed the rite of ablution, or "sanctification," as it was sometimes called (Ex 19:10; 1Sa 16:5; 2Ch 29:5; compare Josephus, Ant, XIV, xi, 5).
Three kinds of washing are recognized in Biblical and rabbinical law:
(1) washing of the hands,
(2) washing of the hands and feet, and
(3) immersion of the whole body in water. (1 and 2 = Greek nipto; 3 = Greek louo).
Something more than an echo of a universal practice is found in the Scriptures. The rabbis claimed to find support for ceremonial hand-washing in Le 15:11. David’s words, "I will wash my hands in innocency: so will I compass thine altar, O Yahweh" (Ps 26:6; compare Ps 73:13), are regarded by them as warranting the inference that ablution of the hands was prerequisite to any holy act. This is the form of ablution, accordingly, which is most universally and scrupulously practiced by Jews. Before any meal of which bread forms a part, as before prayer, or any act of worship, the hands must be solemnly washed in pure water; as also after any unclean bodily function, or contact with any unclean thing. Such handwashings probably arose naturally from the fact that the ancients ate with their fingers, and so were first for physical cleansing only; but they came to be ceremonial and singularly binding. The Talmud abundantly shows that eating with unwashed hands came to be reckoned a matter of highest importance-- "tantamount to committing an act of unchastity, or other gross crime." Akiba, when in prison, went without water given him to quench his thirst, rather than neglect the rite of ablution (`Er. 216). Only in extreme cases, according to the Mishna, as on a battlefield, might people dispense with it. Simeon, the Essene, "the Saint" (Toseph. Kelim i.6), on entering the holy place without having washed his hands, claiming that he was holier than the high priest because of his ascetic life, was excommunicated, as undermining the authority of the Elders (compare `Eduy. 5 6).
Bathing in the modern and non-religious sense is rarely mentioned in the Scriptures (Ex 2:5 Pharaoh’s daughter; 2Sa 11:2 the Revised Version (British and American) Bathsheba, and the interesting case 1Ki 22:38). Public baths are first met with in the Greek period--included in the "place of exercise" (1 Macc 1:14), and remains of such buildings from the Roman period are numerous. Recently a remarkable series of bath-chambers have been discovered at Gezer, in Palestine, in connection with a building which is supposed to be the palace built by Simon Maccabeus (Kennedy (illust. in PEFS, 1905, 294 f)). The rite of ablution was observed among early Christians also. Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiastica, X, 4.40) tells of Christian churches being supplied with fountains or basins of water, after the Jewish custom of providing the laver for the use of the priests. The Apostolical Constitutions (VIII.32) have the rule: "Let all the faithful .... when they rise from sleep, before they go to work, pray, after having washed themselves" nipsamenoi.
The attitude of Jesus toward the rabbinical law of ablution is significant. Mr (7:3) prepares the way for his record of it by explaining, `The Pharisees and all the Jews eat not except they wash their hands to the wrist (pugme). (See LTJM, II, 11). According to Mt 15:1-20 and Mr 7:1-23 Pharisees and Scribes that had come from Jerusalem (i.e. the strictest) had seen some of Jesus’ disciples eat bread with unwashed hands, and they asked Him: "Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread." Jesus’ answer was to the Jews, even to His own disciples, in the highest degree surprising, paradoxical, revolutionary (compare Mt 12:8). They could not but see that it applied not merely to hand-washing, but to the whole matter of clean and unclean food; and this to them was one of the most vital parts of the Law (compare Ac 10:14). Jesus saw that the masses of the Jews, no less than the Pharisees, while scrupulous about ceremonial purity, were careless of inward purity. So here, as in the Sermon on the Mount, and with reference to the Sabbath (Mt 12:1 ff), He would lead them into the deeper and truer significance of the Law, and thus prepare the way for setting aside not only the traditions of the eiders that made void the commandments of God, but even the prescribed ceremonies of the Law themselves, if need be, that the Law in its higher principles and meanings might be "fulfilled." Here He proclaims a principle that goes to the heart of the whole matter of true religion in saying: "Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites" (Mr 7:6-13)--you who make great pretense of devotion to God, and insist strenuously on the externals of His service, while at heart you do not love Him, making the word of God of none effect for the sake of your tradition!
For list of older authorities see McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia; Nowack, Biblische Archaeologie, II, 275-99; and Spitzer, Ueber Baden und Bader bei den alten Hebraern, 1884. George B. Eager