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What defiles a man

For this play about what defiles a man, I did something I’ve rarely done in the course of writing these plays that have depended almost entirely on the raw texts, and not on any outside information or interpretive context: some historical research. The reason I did it was to investigate an explanation I was taught in my youth as a conservative Christian about what exactly Jesus was criticizing here. The story was that people were being allowed to earmark some money or property as “dedicated” to God, but to continue using it while they were alive. Then if someone, like a person’s parents, came asking for financial help, the person could say, Sorry, but all my money is dedicated to God. The priests were fine with this, because they eventually got the property or what was left of the money when the person died. Thus, the hypocrisy: to preach honoring your father and your mother while permitting this legal trick that deprived so many elderly parents of support from their children.

The question is: was this really happening back then? My brief googling session was inconclusive. I found zero direct evidence for this precise scam. However, I did find lots of historical writings emphasizing that when such an oath is made, the donor was not allowed to make further personal use of what he pledged, which could be evidence that people *were* making personal use of what they pledged. (Otherwise, why emphasize that they shouldn’t be?) However, as I said above, I found no direct evidence for this. (No one stating directly that the oaths were being abused, for example.)

I did discover that these oaths were in fact hotly debated in first century Judaism, but the precise issue was not the outright wrongdoing described above, but something trickier to make a moral judgment on: the question of whether a man who had made such an oath, but then fallen on hard times so that he suddenly needed the money or the property after all, could be released from it, and if so, what the price should be.

The other highlight of this story is the word Jesus used to describe where the food that we put in our mouths eventually goes. In the King James Version I grew up with, the verse reads, “whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him, because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats.” What did “draught” mean, my fourth grade self wondered? (How do you even pronounce it, my present self still asks!)

Later, I realized what the word must mean, but noticed that not all translations of the Bible used an equivalent word. The New King James Version I later switched to didn’t attempt a noun at all, instead phrasing it, “and is eliminated.” The New Revised Standard Version I started using as an Episcopalian said, “and goes out into the sewer,” which is better because at least it’s using a concrete noun denoting part of the physical infrastructure for the handling of human bodily waste. It’s just not quite the right part of that system.

Here’s how eight other translations of the Bible handle the “goeth out into the draught” part of the verse:

21st Century King James Version: “and goeth out into the drain”
Revised Standard Version: “and so passes on”
Wycliffe Bible: “and beneath it goeth out”
New International Version: “and then out of the body”
New American Standard Bible: “and is eliminated”
New English Translation: “and then goes out into the sewer”
Good News Translation: “and then goes on out of the body”
Living Bible: “but only passes through the digestive system”

It’s Euphemism City! It’s almost as if these translators believed that having the bare word come out of Jesus’ mouth might somehow defile their readers. (To its credit, the New American Standard Bible does include a footnote that provides the literal reading of the phrase.)

A final thought I had was that maybe the word used in the original text was a euphemism, too. Then the translators would only be staying true to the spirit of the original. But no, the Greek word ἀφεδρών was direct enough to be used in a city ordinance about the maintenance of these public facilities.

Here, then, is what I have Jesus say in this play: “A man cannot be defiled by anything that goes into his mouth. For everything he eats simply goes into his belly, and then out again into the toilet.”

And there’s the forbidden word. The simple, common, direct, and precise word.

Was that so hard?