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I know that the phrase "to wash one's hands of" comes from Pilate in the Bible, Matthew 27:24:

When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. "I am innocent of this man's blood," he said. "It is your responsibility!"

Matthew 27:24 New International Version

But in all of the versions I've looked at, the phrase "washing [one's] hands of" doesn't appear directly. Can anyone tell me when this phrase was first used outside of the Bible to mean "absolving oneself of responsibility" or similar?

Related, but not a dupe: Does "Should I wash my hands of this?" suggest a bribe?

  • Are you looking for the earliest evidence of the expression used after the symbolic gesture of Pilate? – user66974 Jun 15 '14 at 15:48
  • Yes, that's what I'm looking for. – Lou Jun 15 '14 at 15:49
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    I guess we need Google Books starting from the 1st century!! – user66974 Jun 15 '14 at 15:50
  • I'm sure there's a very bored historian among us somewhere ;). – Lou Jun 15 '14 at 15:55
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    In English, @Matt – Lou Jun 15 '14 at 19:41
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There's a argument frame for some English verbs:

(Sbj, Obj, PP_of)

Some examples:

  • Thomas rid the town of beggars.
  • Thomas cured the boy of lupus.
  • Thomas cleared the field of trees.

of has ablative use, and the template is normally restricted in meaning to a case where an undesirable thing is taken away. When an idiom gets grammaticalized, it's always best to use an available argument frame so people can pick up on the meaning easily.

==========

The hanging speech of Lady Jane Grey, given April 12, 1554 is an early attestation in print:

GOOD Christen people, I am under a lawe, and by a lawe I am condempned to dye; not for ani thing I have offended the Quene's Majesti, for I wil wash my hands giltles therof, but only for that I consented to the thing whiche I was inforced unto. Notwithstanding, I have offended Almyghtie God, for that I have folowed over much the lust of mi flesh, and the pleasure of this wretched world, and I have not lived according to the knowledge that God hath geven me; wherfore God hath plaged me nowe wyth thyskinde of death, and that worthelye, accordyng to my desertes. Howebeit, I thancke him hartelie, that he hath geven me time to repent my syns here in this world, Wherfor, good Christian people, I shal desyre you al to pray with me, and for me, while I am now alive; that God of his goodnes will forgeve me my sinnes. And I pray you al to beare me witnesse, that I here dye a true Christian woman, and that I truste to be saved by the bloud of Jesus Christ, and bi none other meanes ; and now I pray you al, pray for me, and with me!" and so saied the Psalm of Miserere mei : that don, she saied, " Lorde save my soule, whyche now I commend into thy handes :" and so prepared her selfe meekelie to the blocke.

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    I see your point but I'm not sure I see your conclusion. – Lou Jun 15 '14 at 14:55
  • @LeoKing what's the difference between a point and a conclusion? – jlovegren Jun 15 '14 at 15:11
  • You've expressed the point that we can frame "wash one's hands of" using the general formula "Subject, Object, Prepositional Phrase, Of". But my question was about where this structure was first used, not how it can be generalised. So that's what prompted me to say that you've made a point but without a visible conclusion. – Lou Jun 15 '14 at 15:14
  • @LeoKing it is from a 1554 pamphlet due to Lady Jane Grey I wil wash my hands giltles thereof. – jlovegren Jun 15 '14 at 20:26
  • Nice. I'll give it a day or two before accepting. – Lou Jun 15 '14 at 22:39
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Etymonline.com, in their entry for "wash", gives an origin of "1550s", but no quotations.

I did find a Shakespeare quote:

Second Murderer:

A bloody deed, and desperately dispatch'd!
How fain, like Pilate, would I wash my hands
Of this most grievous guilty murder done!

Richard III, Act I, Scene IV

This would point to the last decade or two of the sixteenth century. Anyone find anything earlier?

  • Nice work :). I'll wait a while see what people find. – Lou Jun 15 '14 at 20:05
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Deuteronomy chapter 21 may hold the answer. It was written approximately 1,500 years before the book of Matthew.

This chapter describes the procedure for when someone is found dead in a field and nobody knows how he died. They were to kill a young cow as compensation to God, afterwards they would be free of guilt. Verses 6 through 9 mention the hand washing part.

6 Then all the elders of the city who are nearest to the dead body should wash their hands+ over the young cow whose neck was broken in the valley, 7 and they should declare, ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it shed. 8 Do not hold this against your people Israel, whom you redeemed,+ O Jehovah, and do not let guilt for innocent blood remain among your people Israel.’+ Then the bloodguilt will not be held against them. 9 In this way you will remove the guilt of innocent blood from your midst by doing what is right in Jehovah’s eyes.

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