A Word for Today – Katharos


Personal hygiene is a feature of everyday life that most of us take very much for granted, yet it so often comes to the forefront when some major health scare arises. Even in the very places where personal hygiene should be of the highest standard, we repeatedly find that these are the very breeding grounds of infectious diseases! Our society clearly needs to engage more with the biblical text, as it has been keenly observed that, ‘throughout the Bible the cleansing of the body is highly regarded and practiced. No doubt this had important consequences in the prevention of disease’.1 Personal hygiene is, therefore, of paramount importance if we are to live healthy lives, especially as we interact with other people in society. In the same way, the Greek adjective katharós was used to express the idea of personal purity and moral uprightness, being free from any form of contamination, thus enabling an individual to be clean and fit for service. Moulton and Milligan suggest additionally that katharós, and its derivatives, had a wide range of usage, being applied physically to animals, land, grain, bread, milk, etc., and ceremonially, for example, of prescribing the conditions of entrance to a temple.2

In the Septuagint (LXX), katharós is mainly used to translate the Hebrew words tahor and zakak. Both these Hebrew words denote being clean, free from contamination, or, in some contexts, innocent. For example, in David’s great penitential Psalm, he asks God to create in him a clean heart, or, as one Hebrew translation puts it, ‘fashion a pure heart for me, O God’, Ps. 51. 10. According to Eichrodt, in Old Testament usage, the verb ‘to create or fashion’ refers to divine action which ‘brings forth something new and astonishing’.3 It was only as David’s heart was cleansed and renewed that he could resume serving and worshipping God. Similarly, in Ezekiel chapter 36 verse 25, God sets out how He intends to purify Israel prior to their resuscitation in chapter 37. Notice the parallel in verse 26 with Psalm 51 verse 10. In both contexts, moral and ceremonial purity are essential in approaching God. These texts reflect something of the fundamental aspect of Old Testament theology, in terms of the sharp division that is frequently emphasized between that which is clean and unclean. This was not just evident in terms of communion with God, but can be seen in almost every aspect of Jewish life, whether in terms of dietary requirements, as in Leviticus chapter 11, or simply avoiding uncleanness by contamination, through contact with a woman at childbirth or menstruation, Lev. 12, or touching a dead body, Num. 19. 11. Purification through ritual washing, as in the procedure surrounding the ashes of the red heifer, Num. 19, or even through a variety of animal sacrifices, such as the sprinkling of blood on the Day of Atonement, Lev. 16. 14-16, only, however, represented ritual purity. As F. F. Bruce states, ‘It is an inward and spiritual purification that is required if heart-communion with God is to be enjoyed’.4 Sacrifices, then, were only sufficient to remove ceremonial pollution; they could not remove spiritual defilement. Or, in the unforgettable words of Isaac Watts:

‘Not all the blood of beasts

On Jewish altars slain,

Could give the guilty conscience peace,

Or wash away its stain’

The prophets of the Old Testament constantly rebuked Israel for simply going through the motions of ritual cleansing rather than experiencing genuine heart- felt spiritual change, e.g., Isa. 1. 11-18; Mal. 1. 10-14.

When we look at the use of the word katharós in classical Greek it is found to be identified with physical cleanness, as well as purity of metals that are free from impurity. William Barclay also suggests that the word was used in the sense of ‘free from debt’, and that ‘to make someone katharós is to give him a discharge from a debt or to acquit him of a charge’.5 In the New Testament, the word katharós occurs at least thirty times, and, significantly, it mirrors much of the Old Testament concepts of physical, ceremonial, and ethical purity. The table below shows the breakdown of the word into these concepts in a small number of texts.

One of the principal Beatitudes in Matthew chapter 5 centres on this notion of purity. Scholars are divided as to whether verse 8 refers to inner (ethical) purity or ceremonial purity. In the light of the overall teaching of Christ in this passage, it probably covers both aspects of purity. In other words, those who are morally upright, because of imputed righteousness, will also seek to eschew evil in their lives. This was certainly the question that earlier exercised the mind of the Psalmist in Psalm 15, when considering the nature and character of the person who sought fellowship with God. Paul is very much a user of katharós, especially in the Pastoral Epistles where purity is seen to be an essential part of godliness, e.g., 2 Tim 2. 22. John emphasizes the practical nature of this process when he uses the related verb katharízw in his first letter, 1. 7, 9. It is through the confession of sin that the believer is cleansed or made pure through the blood of Christ, or, as Knight puts it, ‘Thus the pure heart is the one cleansed by the forgiveness and cleansing that comes to those who continually confess their sins’.6

How conscious we are of impurity in our spiritual lives will depend, to a greater or lesser extent, on the quality of our fellowship with God. To practice what James describes as ‘pure and undefiled’ religion before God, Jas. 1. 27, which may be an idiom for absolute purity, requires not only practical philanthropy but practical holiness. Keeping oneself free from the evil influences of this world is a pressing requirement of all believers. May we ever look in this regard to the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, ‘who is holy, blameless, pure’, Heb. 7. 26 NIV.

Text Concept
Matthew 27. 59 ’And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth Physical purity
Luke 11. 41 ’But rather give als of such things as ye have; and, behold, all things are clean unto you’ Ceremonial purity
John 13. 10 ’Jesus saith to him, He that is washed needeth not saved to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all.’ Inner (ethical) purity

For further reading/study


  • Harold K. Moulton, The Challenge of the Concordance – Cleansing and Purity, Bagsters, 1977, pp. 176-180.


  • W. Bauer, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, University of Chicago Press, 2001, pp. 388-389



Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, pg. 156.


The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament, pg. 311.


Theology of the Old Testament, II, pg. 104.


The Epistle to the Hebrews, pg. 206.


New Testament Words, pg. 171.


The Pastoral Epistles – A Commentary on the Greek Text, pg. 77.


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