Can you explain the “Corban” tradition?

CAN YOU EXPLAIN THE “CORBAN” TRADITION?

by Shawn Brasseaux

In order to get the full impact of certain Bible passages, we need to establish the cultural and/or historical context. The “Corban” tradition is one such example. Upon understanding its background, we will accomplish two goals. Firstly, we will better grasp the thrust of the verses. Secondly, we will recognize a modern-day parallel. This issue is a fitting commemoration to today, the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation!

“CORBAN” INTRODUCED

The Lord Jesus Christ issued a very stern rebuke of Israel’s religious leaders in Mark chapter 7: “[9] And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. [10] For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: [11] But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free. [12] And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; [13] Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.”

“CORBAN” DEFINED

If we look closely, we see that the Holy Spirit actually defined “Corban” for us in the verse. “It is Corban, that is to say, a gift…” (Mark 7:11). “Corban” is unique to Mark’s Gospel Record: it appears this once in Scripture. In Matthew 15:5, the parallel passage, we read simply: “But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me;….” But what exactly is this “gift?” To whom or what is it given? And why was the Lord so opposed to this “Corban” practice?

“Strong’s Greek Dictionary of the Bible” provides the first few clues:

“G2878 κορβᾶν korbân, kor-ban’; of Hebrew and Chaldee origin respectively (H7133); a votive offering and the offering; a consecrated present (to the Temple fund); by extension (the latter term) the Treasury itself, i.e. the room where the contribution boxes stood:—Corban, treasury.”

The above Greek word appears twice in the underlying text of the King James Bible—Mark 7:11 (what we just read) and Matthew 27:6. Speaking of Judas Iscariot’s 30 pieces of silver, Matthew 27:6 affirms: “And the chief priests took the silver pieces, and said, It is not lawful for to put them into the treasury [Korban/Corban], because it is the price of blood.” This was the Jerusalem Temple treasury, the place where offerings or gifts were kept.

“Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words” provides more information about “Corban:”

“(a) ‘an offering,’ and was a Hebrew term for any sacrifice, whether by the shedding of blood or otherwise;
(b) ‘a gift offered to God,’ Mar 7:11. Jews were much addicted to rash vows; a saying of the Rabbis was, ‘It is hard for the parents, but the law is clear, vows must be kept.’ The Sept. translates the word by doron, ‘a gift.’ See korbanas, under TREASURY, Mat 27:6.”

As an interesting side-note, we see an example of a gift being offered at the Jerusalem Temple in Matthew chapter 5: “[23] Therefore if thou bring thy gift [doron] to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; [24] Leave there thy gift [doron] before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift [doron].”

WHY THE “CORBAN” TRADITION WAS MENTIONED AT ALL

Why did the Lord Jesus even bring up this “Corban” issue? What point was He getting across? Why was the offering of this gift so evil and thus so offensive to Him? In order to ferret out the reason, we must go to the beginning of the chapter.

Mark chapter 7 from the beginning: “[1] Then came together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem. [2] And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen, hands, they found fault. [3] For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders. [4] And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables. [5] Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?”

Prior to Jesus mentioning the “Corban” tradition, the Pharisees and scribes had come to Him to criticize. His disciples were eating without first washing their hands. However, let it be clearly understood that they griped, not for hygienic reasons, but on religious grounds! Pay attention to verses 3-5: “[3] For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders. [4] And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables. [5] Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?”

Notice all those assorted and repeated “washings” Jesus delineated in verse 4. They were “the tradition of the elders.” The Pharisees and scribes were deeply offended that Jesus’ disciples ignored it concerning their hands! To expose their hypocrisy, Jesus brought up the “Corban” issue. Here were these Pharisees and scribes grumbling about people breaking their fallible religious rules, but they themselves were blatantly rejecting and canceling God’s infallible Word. Furthermore, it did not bother these religious leaders one whit. In fact, they permitted others—the children offering the “Corban”— to also break God’s Word! What should not have angered them did. What should have angered them did not!

We continue reading in Mark chapter 7: “[6] He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. [7] Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. [8] For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do.” Of course, some 700 years before Christ, JEHOVAH God had said the same concerning Israel’s worthless religious system.

The Holy Spirit wrote in Isaiah 29:13: “Wherefore the LORD said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men:….” Jesus Christ appealed to this to validate His condemnation of Israel’s vain religion during His earthly ministry. Israel’s spiritual blindness in Isaiah’s day still lingered in the nation when her Messiah showed up. All the while despising and violating and replacing God’s Word in their hearts with their manmade rules and regulations, these religious Jews were singing and speaking beautiful words to God. Alas, whether in Isaiah’s day or Jesus’ day, it was all just mindless ritual, rote duty, habitual phoniness, and empty religion!

Please notice the parallel passage of Mark chapter 7, which contains extra information. Matthew chapter 15: “[1] Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying, [2] Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread. [3] But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? [4] For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. [5] But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; [6] And honour not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition. [7] Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, 8 This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. [9] But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”

WHY THE “CORBAN” TRADITION OFFENDED THE LORD JESUS CHRIST

Now that we have a basic understanding of the “Corban” issue, we want to see just why the Lord Jesus singled it out to prove His point about Israel’s empty religious practices. Returning to Mark chapter 7: “[9] And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. [10] For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: [11] But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free. [12] And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother;….”

The Fifth Commandment is in view here, as God commanded Israel through Moses in Exodus 20:12: “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.” It was reaffirmed many years later in Deuteronomy 5:16: “Honour thy father and thy mother, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee; that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.”

As Jesus stressed, God gave Israel another instruction through Moses concerning one’s parents. “Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death…” (Mark 7:10). The Law of Moses commanded in Exodus 21:17: “And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death (cf. Leviticus 20:9; Deuteronomy 21:18-21). Respecting parents was such a serious matter that a child who “curseth” (reviles, speaks evil of) his parents was to “die the death” (or, “surely die”)!

In spite of the gravity of God’s instructions about Jews respecting and taking care of their parents, they overlooked, rejected, and substituted God’s Word. Notice Matthew chapter 15 again: “[4] For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. [5] But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; [6] And honour not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition” (cf. Mark 7:10-13).

At the time of Christ’s earthly ministry, there was a man-made religious tradition in Israel. If a man simply said that he would dedicate his possessions to God (as in giving an offering at the Jerusalem Temple), he was thereby freed from any financial obligation to his parents. Israel’s religious leaders said that he did not have to honor his parents—namely, support them financially—because his wealth was reserved as “Corban” (a gift, that is, presented to the Temple). Instead of instructing the Jews in the ways of JEHOVAH God through Moses, these religious leaders gave precedence to a “commandment of men”… and that “tradition of men” outright contradicted God’s Word! Now we see why Jesus Christ was so critical of the practice.

We will take a brief moment to review. According to the Pharisees and other Jewish religious leaders, a child did not have to honor his parents—to wit, support them financially—if he declared his wealth “Corban” (a gift to the Temple). After all, that gift was supposedly an “act of worshipping God” (when it fact it contradicted true worship of God because it violated His Fifth Commandment!). The religious leaders enjoyed gifts to the Temple because they could take the wealth for themselves… forget the needy parents of the person offering the Corban! This “escape clause” from the Fifth Commandment of God explains why the Lord Jesus Christ said what He did in the surrounding verses.

One more time, Mark chapter 7: “[6] He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. [7] Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. [8] For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. [9] And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. [10] For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: [11] But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free. [12] And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; [13] Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.”

Matthew chapter 15: “[3] But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? [4] For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. [5] But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; [6] And honour not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition. [7] Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, 8 This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. [9] But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”

CONCLUSION

Dear friends, religion has not changed one bit in the 2,000 years since Christ’s earthly ministry to Israel. Man has not changed one whit since the books of Matthew and Mark. We hear so much about “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture” in religion today—especially in Roman Catholicism—and yet it really is not “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture” at all. To many, it is, “We found these Bible verses to prove our ‘pet’ ideas, but we do not care about Scriptural context or even if we violate other Scriptures! We will quote Scripture, so long as it furthers our agenda. Scripture takes a back-seat if it contradicts our church or takes away from our authority!”

Friends, while religious people claim to “follow the Bible” and be “Bible believers,” this is often not the case when they are closely investigated. After all, the same religious leaders who habitually and deliberately violated the Mosaic Law professed to be “followers of Moses” (John 9:28)! This is the type of (antithetical) nonsense you get involved with when you start trying to reconcile two authorities. We cannot serve two masters—we must follow either the Bible alone, or tradition alone. If we at all attempt to hold to both, they will compete and (because of our [human] sinful flesh) the manmade tradition will invariably become the final authority. It happened to Israel in Isaiah, Matthew, and Mark. It will surely occur today—yea, it has occurred today. The Protestant Reformation—or better, Protestant Revolution—recovered the truth God’s authority is in the Bible alone and not in church tradition. May we not revert!

This author will never forget the time long ago when he asked a “Bible-believing” Roman Catholic priest why so much emphasis was placed on one particular religious tradition when the Bible taught something else entirely. The priest, acknowledging this discrepancy existed (!), sharply blurted out words that this author has never forgotten: “I do not follow the Bible! I follow tradition!

And so, dear friends, the words of the Lord Jesus Christ continue to echo all these centuries later….

“Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition…. Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.”

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Colossians 2:8).

Also see:
» Did not Jesus speak words not recorded in Scripture?
» What is the real “Immaculate Conception?”
» Should Christians observe Lent?

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