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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Clean, Unclean, Common

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‘Common’ (κοινός, communis) is an honourable word in classical Greek = ‘shared by the people.’ In Hellenistic Greek, it has sometimes this same meaning (Acts 2:44; Acts 4:32, Titus 1:4, Judges 1:3), but sometimes a less honourable one (= Lat. vulgaris). This depreciation arose out of the transcendence of religion to the Eastern mind. What was ‘shared by the people’ had become profaned for the god (cf. the English word ‘worldly,’ meaning first secular, then unspiritual). We see the process with κοινός in Hebrews 10:29 -‘counted the blood of the covenant a common [i.e. secular] thing.’ In Revelation 21:27 we go a step further, and ‘anything common’ means the worldly, the unspiritual (cf. Jos. Ant. xii. ii. 14, xiii. i. 1). Elsewhere ‘common’ corresponds to positive, active uncleanness (Acts 10:14; Acts 10:28; Acts 11:8, Romans 14:14, 1 Maccabees 1:47; 1 Maccabees 1:62, Jos. Ant. XI. viii. 7; the verb is found in Acts 21:28, Hebrews 9:13).

The distinction, ‘clean’ (καθαρός) and ‘unclean’ (ἀκάθαρτος), refers in the OT and primitive religions to definite departments of life, such as food, sanitation, contact with the dead, and marriage (Leviticus 11-15). In the OT it is mainly a common-sense distinction, made, however, from religious motives, and becoming part of the ritual of the Hebrews. It was thus a practical differentiation between them and surrounding peoples. It arose out of a good idea, but when separated from this idea grew into a proud national badge. Such national and religious customs, so long held, seem stronger than they are. One push of a new movement will often destroy, almost in a moment, the habits of centuries. We find this process to-day in the East. In the NT it may be seen in the case of Simon Peter; he combined Christian beliefs and Jewish distinctions without at first being willing to perceive their variance. His vision (Acts 10) woke him, and, though he relapsed for an instant (Galatians 2:9), the work was done; and when that generation passed away, the religious nature of these distinctions had gone from Christianity; cleanliness, instead of being godliness, was next to godliness. These details of conduct were left to the reason and the conscience. The transition stage, where some cling to the old laws and others obey the new spirit, with its problems of faith and charity, is treated in Romans 14.

There is another ground for this ceremonial distinction of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean,’ i.e. contact with idolatry, which in the OT makes unclean (Deuteronomy 7:25). St. Paul allows (1 Corinthians 8) that an idol is nothing and cannot affect meats offered to it. But idolatry is something-its atmosphere, its offerings, its gatherings into temples. It becomes the embodiment of demons (1 Corinthians 10:20); there is a ‘table’ of demons, an agreement with hell, and no man can with impunity associate with even the outward forms which this agreement takes, or frequent the places where it is moat generally made. The Apostle treats marriage (q.v. [Note: quod vide, which see.] ) in a similar way. He would place restrictions on the marriage of believers with unbelievers. It is as if a Christian were participating in idolatry (1 Corinthians 10:18-20, 2 Corinthians 6:14-16), or trying to mingle the communion of God with the communion of devils. If, however, they are already married, the principle of faith triumphs over all forms. The believing partner sanctifies the unbelieving one, and their children are holy (1 Corinthians 7:14). St. Paul recognizes the value of forms for the human spirit, but he subordinates them to the conscience. Many of the old tabus on food, marriage, travel, the Sabbath, were rooted in fact. They were based on laws of health, decency, human nature; but they were not deeper than that. They were not religious principles to be obeyed without thought and absolutely guaranteeing purity.

Men are always tending to revert to forms, and there was yet another movement in later NT times, which felt after this old distinction. It adopted that of matter and spirit, in which spirit is clean, matter unclean. It had ordinances like ‘Touch not, taste not, handle not’ (Colossians 2:21), it tried to refine in all manner of ways, it forbade men to eat meat and to marry (1 Timothy 4:3). St. Paul answers in Titus 1:15 : All the external refinements in the world will not avail to give purity; purity of heart, the will to be pure, alone secures it in body and spirit.

Literature.-Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) , article ‘Unclean’; W. R. Smith, RS [Note: S Religion of the Semites (W. Robertson Smith).] 2, 1894, Additional Note B; F. J. A. Hort, Judaistic Christianity, 1894, chs. 6, 7; J. B. Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon3, 1879, pp. 83ff., 408-414; R. C. Trench, NT Synonyms8, 1876, p. 308.

Sherwin Smith.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Clean, Unclean, Common'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/c/clean-unclean-common.html. 1906-1918.

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Wednesday, August 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20
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