The Jewish custom of kissing (Luke 7)

In the Biblical world, kissing could be either erotic or nonerotic in nature, but the nonerotic variety is most commonly mentioned in the Bible. In Old Testament narratives, relatives often kissed one another as a greeting, especially following a long absence (Genesis 27:26-27, 29:11, 13, 33:4, 45:15, Exodus 18:7). Kissing was also a sign of farewell prior to a prolonged departure (Genesis 31:28, Ruth 1:9, 1 Kings 19:20). Close, nonfamiliar friends also greeted one another with a kiss, such as in the case of David and Jonathan (1 Samuel 20:41), and it was not uncommon to kiss a guest as a sign of hospitality. This ritual could also demonstrate homage or submission. In 1 Samuel 10:1, for example, Samuel anointed David king and kissed him as part of the ritual. Likewise, in Psalm 2:12 the kings of the earth are commanded to “kiss the Son” as a way of expressing homage to the Messiah.

By contrast, kissing for sexual pleasure is mentioned in Proverbs 7:13 and Song of Solomon 1:2. In Biblical times public kissing was always of the nonerotic nature and was either between friends or relatives of the same sex or relatives of the opposite sex. Kissing one’s lover – or even one’s spouse – in public was taboo, because such an action might easily cross the boundary between nonerotic and erotic (Song of Solomon 8:1).

Extrabiblical literature of the time also refers to both erotic and nonerotic kissing. Egyptian love poetry written from the thirteenth century B.C. speaks of the pleasures young men and women take in each other’s kisses. Greco-Roman narratives contain many examples. of the use of the kiss in a greeting but also suggest that the Greeks and Romans were uncomfortable with publc kissing.

The custom of kissing remained common among the Jews throughout the New Testament period. Early Jewish sources suggest that there were three kinds of acceptable public kisses: those for greeting, for farewell or for expressing devotion. In Jesus’ parable, a father greets a long lost son with a kiss (Luke 15:20). Judas’ act of kissing Jesus (Matthew 26:49, Luke 22:47) connoted affection, as well as, most likely, devotion to Him as a teacher (thus Judas called out “Greeting, Rabbi!”); it was therefore darkly ironic that this was the sign of his betrayal of Jesus. A distinctive case is that of the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50, who repeatedly kissed Jesus’ feet, though she was neither a close friend or a relative. Nevertheless, her kisses were not erotic but were a sign of devotion and repentance. Even so, har actions made some of the guests uncomfortable. When Simon criticized the woman’s actions, Jesus pointed out that His host had failed to offer even the traditional kiss of greeting, whereas the woman had not ceased offering kisses of devotion.

Paul regularly called upon Christians to greet one another with a “holy kiss”, a term that appears to have been a Christian innovation (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26). It is possible that the qualifier “holy” was added to make clear that such kisses were to be given in such a way that they han no erotic connotations. It is conceivable that such a kiss was given in concert with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and thus was holy by virtue of its association with that sacrament. At any rate, the gesture was clearly intended to reinforce the bond of love between believers.

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