“In Mark 7:11-12 Christ condemns the Pharisees for rejecting the commandment of God by their tradition. What specifically were the Pharisees teaching in these two verses? What is Corban?”
In order to understand the situation under consideration, the entire context must be viewed. It reads as follows.
And there are gathered together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, who had come from Jerusalem, and had seen that some of his disciples ate their bread with defiled, that is, unwashed, hands. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands diligently, do not eat, holding the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the market-place, unless they bathe themselves, they do not eat; and there are many other things, which they have received and hold to, [such as] washings of cups, and pots, and brass vessels.)
And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why don’t your disciples practice the tradition of the elders; instead, they eat their bread with defiled hands?”
And he said unto them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, But their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, Teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men.’ You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.”
And he said unto them, “Full well do you reject the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother; and, He that speaks evil of father or mother, let him die the death’: but you say, ‘If a man shall say to his father or his mother, That wherewith you might have been profited by me is Corban,’ that is to say, Given to God; you no longer allow him to do anything for his father or his mother; making void the word of God by your tradition, which you have delivered: and many such like things you do” (Mark 7:1-13).
Here are the areas upon which one needs to focus in order to understand the context cited above.
The leaders of the Jewish community were criticizing the Lord’s disciples (and indirectly Christ himself) for eating with unwashed hands. We need not think of “unwashed hands” in the hygienic sense; rather, it was the custom of the Jews to ceremonially cleanse themselves from any “defilement” they perceived they had picked up from contact with Gentiles (whom they considered religiously and socially “unclean”).
This attitude and activity was not a part of Moses’ law, but a strictly human tradition that had evolved in the Hebrew culture over the years. When, therefore, the Pharisees and scribes noted that the Savior’s disciples were not conforming to this rabbinic “tradition,” they felt they had an indictment against Christ and his men.
Knowing well, therefore, the attitude that prompted the charge, Jesus did not take the time to explain the matter to his critics. Rather, he “turned the table” on them, and focused attention on a serious violation of Moses’ law by another of their human traditions.
The law of Moses required the Hebrew people to “honor” their parents. That term “honor” did not suggest mere “lip service”; it included the idea of caring for them in their various needs.
Some of the Jews, however, had concocted a scheme to avoid parental responsibility. They would designate certain of their financial resources as “corban.” The Greek word korban is related to the term korbanas, signifying the “temple treasury.” In Jewish practice, therefore, the word “corban” had been coined as a sort of “vow” term. According to the prevailing tradition, one could designate his financial resources as “corban,” which, practically speaking, was a way of “tagging” them, suggesting, “this belongs to God,” and thus was not to be used for personal interests.
There is a passage in the writings of the Jewish historian, Josephus, that illustrates the fact that funds from the temple treasury were “corban,” hence could not be used for secular purposes, e.g., city improvements, as in the building of an aqueduct for water supply (Wars 2.9.4).
Thus, in the manner just described, the covetous, ungrateful Jews callously neglected parental responsibility by an appeal to this perverted human tradition. In so doing, they flouted the law of God.
And yet, on this occasion, they had the unconscionable nerve to accuse the Lord and his disciples of a breach of spirituality because they ignored uninspired rabbinical tradition. This was the epitome of inconsistency.
Christ thus quoted from the prophet Isaiah, charging the Pharisees with hypocrisy. While they professed a reverence for the law, by their manipulating evasions they demonstrated that they neither respected nor understood their obligations to the law of God.