Maundy Thursday and the Washing of Feet: Two Ancient Sermons

04.17.2014 | Carl Griffin

In recognition of Holy Week (the seven days leading up to the celebration of Easter) Carl Griffin of the Institute’s Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts presents excerpts from two early Christian homilies—one regarding Judas and the other, Peter—which pertain to important elements of Holy Week. Both selections exemplify the creative scriptural engagement of early Christianity, the sort of engagement that fuels the fascinating work of Griffin and other scholars in his field.

Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles, by Meister des Hausbuches (1475, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin).

Today is the fifth day of the Holy Week preceding Easter, “Holy Thursday,” or as it is called in some communions, “Maundy Thursday.” Liturgically on this day, the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples is commemorated and the account of his washing of the disciples’ feet is read (John 13:1-20). In fact, “Maundy” traces to the Latin word mandatum, from Jesus’ words of instruction to his disciples after he had washed their feet: “A new commandment (mandatum) I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34). By extension, the Maundy or Mandatum refers to this foot washing. Since Jesus commanded the disciples to wash each other’s feet just as he had done for them (John 13:13), the Mandatum became a religious rite of foot washing that has been celebrated in Mass on this day in many Christian churches since at least the 5th century CE.1

Even in traditions where the Mandatum rite has not been practiced, Jesus’ act of humility and service to his disciples is seen as rich in moral significance, as Jesus himself explains in the gospel (see John 13:12-20). The washing of the feet was also seen as a type of the sacrament of baptism and the purification of the disciples.2 Some early Christian churches even practiced a foot-washing rite in connection with the baptism of neophytes, which traditionally takes place on Holy Thursday as well.3

It is therefore not surprising that the washing of the disciples’ feet has often featured prominently in Holy Week sermons. In early Syriac Christianity, as in many other traditions, sermons sought to bring this event to life through both exegesis and imagination. One thing biblical narratives rarely explore—at least to the satisfaction of many readers—is the motivation and states of minds of biblical actors. Syriac homilists did not hesitate to fill in such gaps. In John’s account of the washing of the feet, two actors are especially important—Judas and Peter.

In this post I share portions of two early Syriac homilies that illustrate how the motivations and reactions of Judas and Peter in this narrative were re-imagined. I’ve chosen these two examples both for their inherent merits and because they come from almost entirely unknown texts.

1. Zenobius of Gazir on the Betrayal of Judas

Early Syriac homilists marveled at the paradox of Judas—the fact that one blessed to belong to the company of the disciples, to receive Jesus’ ministry and gifts from his own holy hands, could betray him. Considerations of Judas’ betrayal degenerated at times into predictable ugliness, understanding him as an archetype of Jewish villainy. But primarily homilists focused on the radical contrast of Judas’ perfidy with Jesus’ humility, abasement, and graciousness toward his murderer. Zenobius of Gazir (d. after 381) was a disciple of Ephrem the Syrian, though very little is known of his life and work.4

The following is from one of two sermons on Judas attributed to him, preserved only in Armenian, both of which psychologize their subject:

After Judas had spoken with the chief priests and returned to the disciples, after all those evils that he had wrought, behold what the Lord did: “He took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself, he filled with water a basin, like a tub, and came nigh to wash the feet” of Judas (John 13:4-5), just like [washing away] all worldly sins in baptism. He began to manifest his love to Judas, the one who had gone to the crucifiers to show forth the hatred that he had towards the Master. The powers (i.e., the angels) were taken with a great stupor when contemplating the Divinity who humbled himself to wash the feet of him who resolved to betray him to death on the cross. He washed the feet of Judas with water, freeing them from the thorns picked up in the courtyard of Caiaphas; he washed them, giving refreshment to the feet exhausted from the hard work after the journey he took with them, to go and betray him to crucifixion; he dried the feet of the servant who betrayed the Master for thirty pieces of silver. He advanced in honor among his companions him who, alone among them all, had hated him. What did Judas’ heart resemble when the holy hands of the Lord washed his tired feet? Did he perhaps repent a little in his heart in that moment? Or instead, as he despised the gift of his healing, did he also despise the washing of the feet? Because Satan had suggested to him such malice, perhaps he said in his mind: If you should render to me more such gifts of thirty pieces of silver, still I will never part with these! Peter, who loved [Jesus] so much, couldn’t resist great mercies, while Judas, who was a traitor, with so much ease and impudence offered his feet to be washed.

When [Jesus] had completed everything he put on his clothes and sat down (see John 13:12). He started to teach to them the humility that he himself had shown through words and works. He who accepted the commandment to love his neighbor started immediately to show his hatred towards the Master. [Thus] he, the Master who for an example washed the feet of his friends, was betrayed into the baptism of blood. The Lord, not wanting to defame [Judas] in front of the disciples, manifest his secret with riddles about that which he had plotted with the chief priests. He pronounced these things after having said: “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:17). Then he said audibly to Judas: “It was necessary for that to be done which was written in scripture: He who eats with me has betrayed me” (see John 13:18). Once again he promised [Judas] could eat and drink with him at the heavenly table. But to Judas, neither the washing of the feet dissipated the desire for the money that the priests had promised him, neither at the words of the Lord did he shrink from his decision, nor did he fear the fact that Jesus had revealed to him in secret and with riddles that he had been deceived by the wretched promise. He despised for those assets the Kingdom and the banquet of heaven, and esteemed more the thirty pieces of money than the Lord of Paradise.5

2. Isaac of Antioch on the Washing of Peter

It seems most homilists regarded Peter’s refusal to have his feet washed as understandable and, if ignorant, at least proceeding from virtuous intent. His protest was born of genuine fear and modesty, not hubris: “It would be terrifying for you to wash my feet, as you intend . . . and if I remain silent, that would be audacity.”6 This line of interpretation follows naturally from the gospel narrative, which records only Peter’s shock and reticence. But in an unpublished homily ascribed to Isaac of Antioch (fl. 5th cent.),7 a mercurial Peter’s hubris and the other disciples’ naiveté is imagined with a generous amount of flair:

[The disciples] permitted Christ to wash them. Even if the blessed ones were not as simple as a little child, nevertheless, they had permitted him to wash them because of course he knew what he was doing, and it would be unseemly for him to try and fool them. But Peter was wroth and berated the disciples, because they did not resist and say to Christ, “You are not washing us!”

His rebuke stung his companions, and pride welled up within him, so that he prepared to say to [Jesus] when he should approach, “You are not washing me!” And when our Lord approached Peter and he said to him, “You are not washing me,” the disciples collapsed in anguish because it seemed to them they had lacked judgment. They, being simple, were shocked and ashamed of themselves: “We have lacked judgment; discernment escaped us all; alas, we did not say what Peter said.” They sunk into despair and Peter became haughty: “I resisted and forbade him—‘You are not washing me!’” (as it is written) (John 13:8).

But our Lord regarded the apostles, and at that, penitent, they calmed down over this matter. And he showed regard for Peter, who was puffed up about it, in order to elevate his understanding. And with a single utterance he brought them into agreement and accord: “If I do not wash you, you shall have no share with me” (John 13:8). The disciples came to their senses and repented, and Peter came down from his haughtiness. Pride was washed from Peter and despair from the disciples.8

The sermon of Zenobius is lively, but quite conservative in its exegesis. Its treatment of the character of Judas is respectful of scriptural narrative boundaries. In Isaac of Antioch we see greater liberty taken in filling out the narrative with interpretive and dramatic elements clearly absent from the biblical text. But in fact, early Christian homiletic is often much more free than we see in these two examples in re-imagining the thoughts, character, motivations, circumstances, and even the words of biblical actors. Some sermons place entire discourses in the mouth of Jesus that are not found in the New Testament.

When even a bare handful of extra-biblical words or sayings are found in apocryphal texts (like the recent and disputed Gospel of Jesus’ Wife) they tend to receive much attention. Homiletic expansion of scripture is probably more like than unlike apocrypha in the intent of its dramatic innovation, but this is a subject that has not yet received concentrated study.


1. For the history of the Mandatum rite, see Pier Franco Beatrice, La lavanda dei piedi. Contributo alla storia delle antiche liturgie cristiane, Bibliotheca “Ephemerides liturgicae,” Subsidia 28 (Rome: C.L.V.-Edizioni liturgiche, 1983), 197-221; and André Lossky, “La cérémonie du lavement des pieds: un essai d’étude comparée,” in Acts of the International Conference, “Comparative Liturgy Fifty Years after Anton Baumstark (1872-1948),” Rome, 25-29 September 1998, ed. Robert F. Taft and Gabriele Winkler, Orientalia christiana analecta 265 (Rome: Pontificio Istituto Orientale, 2001), 809-32.

2. The washing of the feet as a type of baptism is perhaps also to be found in the gospel text at John 13:10. See Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible 29-29A, 2 vols. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966-70), 2:558-62.

3. Foot washing in connection with baptism must have been widespread in Spain from at least the 3rd century, since the Council of Elvira (ca. 303) legislates on it. The history of this baptismal rite is discussed fully in Beatrice, Lavanda, 81-176.

4. See Anton Baumstark, Geschichte der syrischen Literatur (Bonn: A. Marcus und E. Webers, 1922), 66-67; and Ignacio Ortiz de Urbina, “Due omelie di Zenobio di Gazir in versione italiana,” Orientalia christiana periodica 26 (1960): 301.

5. Translated from the Italian version of Vardan Kaichichian in Ortiz de Urbina, “Due omelie,” 304. For the Armenian editions and a brief discussion of these homilies, see ibid., 301-2.

6. Jacob of Serugh, On the Crucifixion 1 (Bedjan 2:461, lns. 13, 15).

7. See Gustav Bickell, S. Isaaci Antiocheni, doctoris Syrorum, opera omnia, 2 vols. (Giessen: J. Ricker, 1873-77), 1:vi (no. 161); Sebastian P. Brock, “The Published Verse Homilies of Isaac of Antioch, Jacob of Serugh, and Narsai: Index of Incipits,” Journal of Semitic Studies 32 (1987): 308 (no. 519); Edward G. Mathews, “The Works attributed to Isaac of Antioch: A[nother] Preliminary Checklist,” Hugoye 6.1 (2003): 73 (no. 179).

8. Translated from British Museum Add. 14,591, fols. 32r-33r.

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Carl W. Griffin received a BA in Near Eastern studies and classics from Brigham Young University and an MA and PhD in early Christian studies from the Catholic University of America. Carl has worked at the Maxwell Institute since 2001 and now serves as the associate director of the Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts and editor of Studies in the Bible and Antiquity.