The Catholic University of America

Final Examination

Lesley DiFransico

for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy

Friday, January 24, 2014

2:00p.m., Caldwell Hall, Room 125






Washing AWay sin: an old testament metaphor and its influence


Director: Robert D. Miller II, O.F.S., Ph.D


Washing away sin, though a common religious practice today, is a novel concept in the Old Testament.  This study utilizes the Conceptual Metaphor Theory of G. Lakoff and M. Johnson to analyze the striking and unusual metaphorical concept of washing away sin in the Old Testament (Isa 1; 4; Jer 2; 4; and Ps 51).  In these passages sin is conceptualized as a kind of stain (a bloodstain in Isa 1:15; 4:4; filth in Jer 4:14) or a kind of impurity (Psalm 51).  The texts speak about solving sin through the metaphor of washing.  The correlation between the problem and its solution is logical: if sin is understood as a stain then washing is the remedy.  The metaphor of washing away sin demonstrates some diversity within the Old Testament and this dissertation traces the various stages of the metaphor’s development.  Though attested as a metaphor, nowhere within the Old Testament is washing, though attested as a purification ritual, applied as an actual practice for responding to the problem of sin.  Several centuries later, however, washing away sin is an actual practice among the Qumran sectarians and the New Testament Christians. 

                This dissertation goes beyond an analysis of the biblical metaphor to evaluate how it may have influenced the religious practices of select early Jewish and Christian communities.  How did this radical shift from the absence of washing as a viable solution to sin in the Old Testament to its importance in the sectarian community of Qumran and the New Testament communities come about?  Here CMT is useful.  What is a metaphor in the Old Testament, for example God washes away sin (Isa 4:4; Jer 4:14) and people was with soap to remove the “stain” of sin (Jer 2:22), influenced how communities reading these sacred texts conceptualized sin.  When sin is understood as a stain, a concrete entity that can be visualized and acted upon, communities understand washing to be a viable, symbolic practice in response to sin.  Thus, washing, though previously just a metaphor, came to be applied to sin within these communities inspired and influenced by their sacred texts.