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Foot-washing in a Historical Perspective


I.       Foot-washing in a Historical Perspective

Due to the climate in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, it was common for people to wear sandals or go bare-foot while doing their daily activities. Hence, the feet were constantly exposed and got dirty easily. Foot-washing, like eating and sleeping, became an essential daily activity that one could not do without.  The purpose of this article is to discuss the origin of the sacrament of foot-washing, from the historical practice of foot-washing to its present significance in Christianity. The following is the historical background to the custom of foot-washing, and how it evolved from a social activity to a religious sacrament.

A.     Foot-washing in the Ancient Near East.

According to the documents, pictures and texts of the Ancient Near East, foot-washing was one of the daily activities within the cultural milieu of Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. The people used water to wash the feet of visitors as a form of greeting and as an expression of hospitality. In the Old Testament, it was customary to was one’s feet to purify oneself prior to performing religious sacrifices. However, this foot-washing was different from that established by the Lord.

B.     Foot-washing in Ancient Greece

From the literary texts and historical records of ancient Greece, it is clear that foot-washing was a part of their daily, social and religious way of life.  

1.        Foot-washing and bathing.

In a poem written by Homer, after a battle between Diomedes and Odysseus, Odysseus had to wash in the ocean to remove the perspiration from his neck and thighs. Following a bath and foot-washing, his feet were anointed with oil.

In the Grecian Baths, there were basins for foot-washing as well as regular bath tubs. The last stage of bathing was foot-washing. In the days before bathing was customary, people used a basin of water to wash their feet. When they were finished, they would splash the remaining water onto the street.

2.        Foot-washing as a form of hospitality.

The work of Homer, Od 19, 343/507, showed that foot-washing was a customary form of greeting honourable guests.  It was only when Eurykleia washed the scarred feet of Odysseus that he was able to recognize him.

3.        Foot-washing as a Form of Religious Ritual

As recorded in Homer Od.22,478/82, after Odysseus killed someone, he would wash not only his own hands and feet, but also those of his men. For the Greeks at that time, it was considered a form of blasphemy towards the gods if one were to enter the temple without washing one’s feet. Water basins were provided in front of temples for people to wash their feet, as at the temple of Aphaia in Aegina. In Pollux 1, 25, the term ἀπονίπτειν, (cleanliness) and other terms relating to cleanliness were used in conjunction with foot-washing as a special form of religious ritual to be performed before entering the temple.

4.        Foot-washing in A Sociological Context

Foot-washing was often the chore of female slaves, and was considered lowly work. However, if a free person washed the feet of others willingly, it was a great expression of friendship. At home, washing the feet of elderly family members was considered a form of respect.  Aristophanes, in Wespen 605/11, mentioned the pride felt by a rich man when his daughter washed and anointed his feet upon his return from a day of hard work.  Schol. Aristoph. vesp. 606 mentioned that since ancient times, the role of foot-washing and anointment was considered a woman's task, and was held as a precious virtue.

C.     Foot-washing of the Ancient Roman Empire

In general, Romans adopted Greek culture and their form of foot-washing was similar to that of the Greeks.

1.        Foot-washing and Daily Hygiene

For the Romans, foot-washing was an important part of their daily activities. If a person did not wash his feet for a day, he would be considered uncivilized and would be harshly criticized. At dusk, after everyone washed their feet, then they would splash the water on the street. As recorded in Juvenal 3, 268/77, anyone unfortunate enough to be walking along the Roman street at night would often be drenched by this dirty water.

2.        Foot-washing and Banquets

The Romans were greatly influenced by Greek civilization. Preparing water to wash the feet of guests was one of their customs. During a banquet, a basin of cold water would be placed in front of the guests to increase their appetite and to help refresh them.

D.     Foot-washing and Its Religious Ritual

The Romans believed that man could only approach the gods if they were fully cleansed (Cic. leg. 2, 24). The ritual of foot-washing before sacrificial offerings was a significant act of religious cleansing.

E.     Foot-washing and Slaves

Foot-washing was among the lowliest types of work performed by slaves (often by females). In order to exert his authority, the tyrant Caligula forced the elders of the Senate to wash his feet (Suet. Calig. 26,2).

II.    Foot-washing of the Jews

The significance of foot-washing in the lives of the Israelites was based on the teachings of the Old Testament.

A.     Foot-washing and Body Hygiene

The Israelites did not have the privilege of bathing everyday, since water was scarce. Because of the mild Mediterranean climate, the people did not require daily baths. However, daily foot-washing was a necessary form of hygiene.  It was a luxury to return home and wash one’s feet at the end of the day (in 2 Samuel 11:8-13, David wanted Uriah to return home from the war to wash his feet). It was also the last cleansing act before retiring to bed. After the feet were washed, the doors were closed, the working garments were removed and one went to sleep.  After having washed their feet, people were reluctant to open their door to visitors (c.f. Luke 11:5-13, the story of the visitor who came at midnight to borrow some loaves of bread).

Since foot-washing was a daily cleansing ritual, every family owned storage tanks of water for this purpose.  Most families used wooden or clay water tanks, but wealthier families owned gold or silver vessels (Job 25,26).

However, for those who were experiencing great tribulations or deep sorrow in their lives, garments were not changed nor did they bathe.  The crippled Mephibosheth did not care for his feet from the day David departed from the city, until the day he returned safely (2 Samuel 19:24).


B.     Foot-washing as a Form of Hospitality

When guests paid a visit, it was customary to wash their feet as an expression of hospitality and welcome.  When the faithful old servant went to take a wife for his master’s son, he and his men were invited to have their feet washed upon reaching the house of Laban (Gen 24:32) Although the old servant insisted upon speaking about his master’s commands before eating, he had to first have his feet washed).

Abraham's hospitality towards the three strangers was a moving story, for he stated "please let a little water be brought and wash your feet" (Gen 18:4). Even Lot who had gone astray in Sodom did not forget that foot-washing was an expression of hospitality (Gen 19:1-2).  The Israelite custom of foot-washing as an extension of hospitality was preserved right to Jesus’ time (Luke 7:44).  The anointment of feet with fragrant oil after foot-washing was not a common act but one that expressed the highest form of respect and honour (Luke 7:38,46; John 12:3).


C.     Foot-washing as A Religious Ritual

Cleansing was the primary ritual conducted before taking part in religious sacraments (ref. Leviticus). The hands and feet were the parts of the body most easily soiled.  Washing the hands and feet was not only a daily ritual, but later became accepted as a religious activity (Matt 15:20).  In the Old Testament, the function of the bronze laver in front of the tabernacle was for the cleansing of the hands and feet of the priests before they made burnt offerings (Exo. 30:17-21).

D.     Foot-washing as a Form of Servitude

The type of relationship between two people may be revealed by the act of foot-washing.

1.        Foot-washing Conducted On Masters By Slaves

The washing of the master's feet by the slaves was considered as the lowliest form of servitude, performed only by slaves in bondage.  In Psalm 60:8, "Moab is my washbasin" denotes the lowly act of foot-washing.  Hence, under the moral law of the Israelites, Jews who were slaves did not have to wash the feet of their masters; however, they could wash the feet of the master's sons and their students.  "And if one of your brethren who dwells by you becomes poor, and sells himself to you, you shall not compel him to serve as a slave" (Lev 25:39).

2.        Foot-washing conducted on Husbands by Wives

The washing of the feet of husbands by wives was not considered a lowly task of servitude, but rather was esteemed as a honourable expression of love.  The daily household tasks to be performed by wives included: the grinding the flour, baking bread, laundry, cooking, weaving, nursing the young and to spread bed covers for the husband.  If the wives had maids, then the daily chores of the wives were performed by them.  However matters such as serving tea, spreading bed sheets and washing the hands and feet of the husband were tasks too personal for any maid to perform, even if there were hundreds or thousands of maids.  Even today, orthodox Jewish women still abide by these rules.  Abigail, a beautiful and virtuous woman, when accepting David's proposal of marriage stated, "Here is your maidservant, a servant to wash the feet of the servants of my lord" (2 Sam 25:41). This quotation has two meanings: on one hand it expressed her willingness to serve, and secondly, her humility was evident by her immediate response when she "rose in haste ... and became the wife of David."

In the event of a funeral within the family, the wife was not permitted to wash the feet of her husband. The custom at that time was that husbands and wives were not permitted to lie together during the period of mourning.

During the “period of impurity” of the wives, they could not wash the feet of their husbands.

3.        Foot-washing As A Portrayal Of Piety Towards The Father By The Children

In order to show love and piety towards their father, it was the children’s duty to wash his face, hands and feet.  This act of foot-washing was not conducted out of servitude, but out of love for their parent.

4.        Foot-washing Conducted on the Rabbi By Their Pupils

The relationship of students to a Jewish rabbi was similar to that of a slave and his master.  Hence whatever the slaves would do for their master, the pupils would have to the same for their teachers; foot-washing was one of these tasks.  However, the washing of the rabbi’s feet by the pupils was different from that performed by slaves.  The pupils washed the feet of the rabbi out of complete respect and honour.  However, those pupils who came from foreign lands did not have to perform foot-washing, lest they be mistaken as slaves.  They had to wear a "Tephillim" to prove they were students of the rabbi and not slaves.

In j Pea 1,1, 15 c 58, the following case was recorded: rabbi Jischmael (135 B.C.) returned home one day and wanted to wash his feet.  His mother insisted that she wash his feet, in order to express her respect towards her son.  Jischmael refused, since he was afraid that he would break the fourth commandment (the sin of not honouring one's parents) if he permitted his mother to wash his feet.  However, his mother then went to another rabbi to report the disrespect shown towards her by her son. In the end, her wish was granted, and she was allowed to wash her son’s feet.

According to the rules of Jewish society, one should wash the feet of those individuals who were highly respected, even if they were not “officially” a rabbi.  Simon the Pharisee referred to Jesus as "rabbi", but did not wash his feet; he was later reprimanded by Jesus for this action (Luke 7:36-50).


III. Foot-washing in the New Testament

The significance, mystery and symbolism of foot-washing as recorded in the New Testament (John Ch. 13) is presented in the following sections.

A.     Foot-washing in the Gospel of Luke and The Pastoral Letters

In Luke 7:44, Lord Jesus praised the woman who washed His feet, but also rebuked the rudeness of Simon for not providing water for foot-washing.  Jesus accepted the foot-washing of this woman, a sinner; this symbolized the salvation that He was extending to all mankind (a Jewish man would normally accept foot-washing only from his own slave, or from his wife, children or students). The sins of this woman were forgiven by this humble gesture.

In 1 Timothy 5:10, one of the duties of widows in the church was foot-washing. This included the washing of the feet of saints who came from afar, and was an expression of love and servitude towards others.

B.     "Foot-washing Sacrament" in the Book of John

John Chapter 13 (verses 4-12) records the washing of the disciple’s feet by Jesus the night before he was crucified. Jesus did not give any explanation for this foot-washing; it was an expression of His love. He rose from the table, laid aside his garments, girded himself with a towel and washed the feet of his disciples. When it was Peter's turn, he refused to allow Jesus to wash his feet. According to Jewish customs, Jesus' should not be washing his disciples' feet.

The washing of the disciple’s feet by Jesus was a significant act, since never before had a master washed the feet of his servants. The event occurred after the meal was served, therefore it was not an act to welcome the guests. Jesus was not the slave of His disciples, nor were his disciples His masters. Furthermore, this foot-washing was not like an expression of a wife’s love to her husband.

Peter strongly objected to Jesus washing his feet, since he was a strict follower of Jewish customs.  When Jesus replied, "If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me", Peter instantly understood the significance of this event. Peter quickly replied, "Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!" At this moment, Peter may have regarded Jesus’ foot-washing as a religious rite (priests had to wash their hands and feet before performing sacraments); he therefore asked Jesus for a complete cleansing of his entire body. However, Jesus did not grant Peter's request. He did not wash Peter's hands and head; this differentiated the washing of his disciples' feet by the Lord Jesus' from the cleansing rites of priests in the Old Testament.

Just as Jesus set an example for us by being baptized by John the Baptist, the disciples had to receive foot-washing from Him in order to “have a part in Him”. Furthermore, those who had their feet washed by Jesus were required to wash the feet of others. The foot-washing by Jesus was conducted in the form of a sacrament which the people at that time could not understand. Even Peter, who had followed Jesus for years, failed to understand the significance of this event.

Each individual disciple had their feet washed by Jesus; therefore the relationship between each individual disciple and Jesus was strengthened (disciple-Jesus; Jesus-disciple). After this, the disciples were sent out to preach to others and follow the examples set by Jesus.  In order to “have a part with Him”, they were instructed to wash the feet of other disciples who had already been baptized in Jesus’ name. This was a once-in-a-lifetime sacrament performed by the masters on the new disciples. However, the spiritual message of foot-washing should be continually preached.

Despite the fact that Jesus bade His disciples to practice the sacrament of foot-washing after baptism, there is no record of His disciples performing this sacrament in the New Testament; neither is there any mention of the disciples washing one another's feet. The following questions have often been raised: Did the Lord's disciples perform the sacrament of foot-washing after baptisms? If so, why is it not recorded in the bible? These questions will be discussed in part II.

IV.  Foot-washing And Ancient Christianity


A.     Foot-washing Sacrament And Its Ceremonial Practice

Historical records describe the sacrament of foot-washing until the 11th or 12th century. After this, the sacrament was abolished by the churches of Ireland.

According to the research of E. Peterson (Fruehkirche, Judentum und Gnosis, 1959, s 224-234), the disciples understood the relationship between the sacraments of foot-washing and water baptism after the disciples received the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. The disciples then performed the sacrament of foot-washing in Antiochia. The sacrament of foot-washing was later spread to Milan, until the time of Ambrosius, the Bishop of Milan (333-397). However, due to the rising doubts about the nature of the sacrament of foot-washing within the churches, there was growing opposition to its practice. However, Ambrosius defended the importance of the sacrament of foot-washing against this strong opposition.

B.     Foot-washing Sacrament and the Support of its Ceremonial Practice

Some priests believed that foot-washing had the effect of removing minor sins committed after water baptism (e.g Basil. hom. temp. fam 4 [pg 31, 313B]).

Theodor V. Mopsvestia from the Academy of Antiochia believed that the sins of the apostles (committed after receiving water baptism from John the Baptist) were washed away by Jesus when He washed their feet (Joh;CSCO 116=Scr.Syr.63,182/4).

Gregor Von Nyssa (334-394) interpreted the verse in the Song of Solomon (5:3) "washed my feet" as the last cleansing act of the bride; this prefigured the Lord washing the feet of His disciples before His departure (Cant 115,5,3 [6, 330f Jager]).

Clemens von Alexander, Hieronymus and Kyrillonas believed that the apostles were able to succeed in spreading the Gospel because Jesus prepared them for their mission by washing their feet [Paed. 2, 63,2 (GCS 12,195)].

In the "Baptism Regulations of Milan", the sacrament of foot-washing was highly regarded, since it was a part of the baptism sacrament. Bishops conducted the baptisms, while other divine workers washed the feet of the newly baptized (Ambr Sacr 3,4 [CSEL73,39]).

Ambrosius wrote articles defending the ceremonial nature of the sacrament of foot-washing. He stated that only through divine revelation of the Spirit of God could one understand the "ceremonial nature" of the sacrament of foot-washing. Even Peter, who had followed Jesus for many years, could not understand the significance of this sacrament (non Advertit mysterium et ideo ministerium recusavit: myst.6, [CSEL 73, 1023]). Later, Peter emphasized the importance of foot washing, and regarded it as an essential part of water baptism. He repeatedly told the believers that the foot-washing practiced in the Milan area was correct, whereas the abolishment of foot-washing in Rome was the result of deviation from the truth (Sacr. 3,5 [CSEL 73,40]).

He also strongly rejected those who did not actually practice foot-washing, but interpreted it as a symbolic gesture of the Lord's teachings to love one another, to serve, and be humble (sunt tamen, qui dicant..., quia hoc non in mysterio faciendum est,... sed quasi hospiti pedes lavandi sint. Sed aliud est humilitatis, aliud sanctificationis: sacr. 3,1,5 [CSEL 73,40]).

Other than the districts of Milan, literary records reveal that areas of Gallien, Ireland and North Africa also practiced foot-washing.

C.     Foot-washing Sacrament and Opposition of its Ceremonial Practice

After the age of the apostles, the importance of the sacrament of foot-washing was in doubt. The greatest opposition came from Origenes, a teacher from the Academy of Alexander, who declared foot-washing as merely "Symbolic".  He believed that the importance of foot-washing came not from the literal practice of foot-washing as conducted by Jesus, but through the spiritual significance of the act itself. Our sins were completely cleansed during baptism; it was not through foot-washing that sins were cleansed.  If our sins were to be cleansed through foot-washing, then the importance of baptism would be minimized.  Christians should often practice the spiritual teachings in “washing one another’s feet", in accordance to the Lord's command.


In the commentary of the Gospel of John, Origenes explained the mystery of foot-washing as follows: "disciples should have a complete part in Jesus, since the Holy Spirit would dwell in them after foot-washing. Through foot-washing, they were prepared for the spreading of the Gospel, because of the promise within the Bible: "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who proclaims peace, who brings glad tidings of good things, who proclaims salvation" (Rom. 10:15, Isa. 52:7), (Joh 32,4. 7/9 [GCS 10, 431f, 436/8, 4417]).

The skepticism of Origenes is shared by modern theologians. The focus on both "symbol" and "mystery", and the argument of the "wisdom of God" versus the "wisdom of man" confused both Origenes and modern theologians.  The sacrament of foot-washing was therefore not understood correctly.

D.     The Disappearance of The Sacrament of Foot-Washing in the History of the Churches.

Augustinus also did not believe that foot-washing should be regarded as a sacrament.  His reasons for opposing foot-washing were similar to those of Origenes (cf Ps. 92, 3 [CCL 39, 1293]" non ad sacramentum tamquam mundationis pertineliat...). While he was in Milan, he became familiar with the practice of foot-washing. He reported that some people refused to receive foot-washing on the same day as baptism, because they feared that the effectiveness of the baptism would be reduced.  There were even some who abolished foot-washing from the list of church sacraments; however, there were still people who continued to practice foot-washing. (ep. 55,30 [CSEL 34,2,207f]).

Due to a predominance of "educated and wise people" in the churches, the sacrament of foot-washing came under question and was eventually abolished.  The wave of opposition against foot-washing grew.  This matter was not only analyzed and questioned by theologians, it was also discussed among the highest levels in the churches.  In the year 306 A.D, a major church conference was held in Spain "Das Konzil von Iberis" (Cn. 48 [2,8 Bruns]). One of the topics discussed was the sacrament of foot-washing. In the end, the resolution “Kanon Act 48” prohibited bishops and priests to perform foot-washing for the newly-baptized.  Therefore, the newly-baptized did not need to have their feet washed by the bishops or divine workers.  This prohibition had a great effect on the practice of foot-washing, since from that time onwards, no trace of this sacrament could be found in any of records of the Spanish churches.

Until the Carolingian Period (Karolingische Periode 768-814), the church regulations issued by Rome were enforced everywhere. Foot-washing, which was still performed in France, diminished in practice.  In the 11th and 12th centuries, the sacrament of foot-washing was abolished in the Irish churches. Since that time, the True Jesus Church is the only Christian church which practices the sacrament of foot-washing. However, foot-washing is conducted with humility and servitude in Abbey churches and by some pious Christian groups.

V.     Conclusion