One clear example of this phenomenon appears in Paul's first letter to the "gathering of God" at Corinth (1 Cor 1:2). When they assembled as a group, they enjoyed a regular meal together, which they enjoyed in a way similar to a "potluck" (1 Cor 11:17-19). Paul was less than satisfied with their practice, which to outsiders would have seemed little different from other dining associations in Greco-Roman culture. Paul chided them for not observing what he called the "Lord's Supper" (1 Cor 11:20-22). He gave specific instructions on how they should observe the meal (1Cor 11:23-32), and told them they should eat in this way when they gathered as a group—turning the meal into a mystical experience. Over many years their simple fellowship meal evolved into the mystical community ritual that became the celebration of the Mass.
There may well be another example of a simple act of hospitality evolving into a religious ritual. It is difficult to be certain because most of the aspects of common living in the ancient past are lost in the shadows of history, and hence critical points on a trajectory are usually concealed. In John 13:1-16 at the final meal Jesus shared with his disciples before the Passover Jesus rose from his couch, stripped off his outer garment, girded himself with a towel, and washed the feet of the disciples. Reclining again in his place at the table, he said, "I have given you an example that you should do as I have done to you" (John 13:15).
As most of you are aware, the final meal Jesus shared with his disciples in the synoptic gospels is a Passover meal (Mark 14:12) at which Jesus says the traditional words over the bread and wine: "This is my body"; "this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many" (Mark 14:22-25). To which Luke adds "Do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19). This Passover meal becomes in time instituted in the Christian community as the celebration of the Lord's Supper/Eucharist/Mass. There is no Eucharist in the Gospel of John; there is no act of ritual foot washing in the synoptic gospels.
The background of the foot washing scene in John likely comes from a common act of hospitality extended to guests in the Middle-eastern home (Gen 18:4-5; 19:2; 1 Sam 25:41; Luke 7:36-50; John 12:1-8), and/or from a requirements of personal hygiene (Gen 43:24; Judges 19:21; 2 Sam 11:8; Song 5:2-3). In the latter case apparently one's personal hygiene became associated with ritual cleanness (Ps 24:4; Lev 13:6, 34; 14:8-9; 15:1-33; Num 19:19; Exod 30:17-21; 40:30-32; Gospel Oxyrhynchus, 2:3). But exactly how personal hygiene came to segue into ritual defilement is unclear.
Although the background of the foot washing scene in John is found in Middle Eastern customs of personal hygiene, hospitality, and ritual defilement, the foot washing scene in John 13:1-16 is described as an example of humility. Jesus said it this way:
If I then your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you example, that you should do as I have done to you. (John 13:14-15).
The question is: does Jesus' command (mandatum) in John 13 direct the establishment of a community ritual, or is it, as Jesus said, simply an example of humility (Mark 10:42-44)? That is to say, leaders should think of themselves as servants of those whom they serve. In a sense my question is academic, however, since some early Christian groups began practicing foot washing—widows in the community "washed the feet of the saints" (1 Tim 5:10) as a part of their service to the community (1 Tim 5:3-16). The earliest discussion (400 CE) about ceremonial washing is attested in a letter of Augustine (LV, 33), where it is mentioned that some churches simply rejected the practice of foot washing, while others did not accept it as a custom lest it be confused with the act of baptism; others, on the other hand, observed it in connection with Lent. In the seventh century the earliest trace of the celebration of foot washing was in connection with Maundy Thursday of Holy Week.1 Today many churches continue foot washing in connection with Holy week on Maundy (from the Latin word mandatum) Thursday.2
Which brings me back to my question above: was Jesus consciously establishing a church ordinance? To judge from the character of Jesus' career represented in the gospels that would not appear to be the case. In the gospels Jesus is represented as a peripatetic teacher of wisdom who wanders from village to village without founding communities.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1Shepherd, "Foot Washing," IDB, 2:308; see also Weiss, "Footwashing," ABD 2.828-29.