Purity and Holiness in the World of Jesus

Melchior Doze, Jesus Cleansing a Leper, 1864, Wikimedia Commons

Last year Matthew Thiessen released a book called Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism (Baker, 2020). It is very helpful in orienting readers to aspects of first-century Jewish theology that are not often understood among Christians. Here is a summary of the introduction and the first chapter.

Thiessen explains that his book argues that Jesus came not to abolish the ritual purity system that we see in the Hebrew Bible, especially the book of Leviticus, but to destroy the contagions, the things that make people impure. In other words, Jesus came not to overturn the Torah’s purity rules but to eliminate impurity, within the Torah’s purity system, as it were. He acknowledges that his perspective on purity has been shaped by the work of Jacob Milgrom, which is good, since Milgrom is the leading scholar on Leviticus in the late twentieth century.

In the first chapter, he explains how purity works, from the priestly literature of the Old Testament.

You are to distinguish between the holy and the profane, and between the impure and the pure.

Leviticus 10:10

So we have two binaries: holy and profane; pure and impure. It’s not two names for the same binary, but two different binaries. There is holy (temple) and not holy, profane. Here, profane does not mean evil or sinful, just not consecrated, not holy. Most Israelites lived in profane settings. The other binary is pure and impure. Most Israelites would live in a state of purity, but they would contract impurity through various ways, like having a baby, or having sex, or touching a corpse. None of these things were sinful, but they did make you impure, and you needed to go through a cleansing ritual in order to restore your purity.

If you were impure, you could not approach the tabernacle/temple.The tabernacle/temple existed to protect God’s kavod (glory) from the impurities of the world. God’s presence (holiness) could be dangerous: Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10); Uzzah (2 Sam 6).

Therefore, you shall separate the people of Israel from their impurity, so that they do not die by their impurity by defiling my tent which is in their midst.

Leviticus 15:31

Thiessen next discusses two types of impurity: ritual and moral. These types are not categorized as such in the biblical literature (13n6) but arise from scholarly analysis. Thiessen provides this chart (p. 13), but he attributes the content to Jonathan Klawans.

Ritual ImpurityMoral Impurity
unavoidableavoidable
from a natural substancefrom an action
communicablenoncommunicable
bathed awayatonement/punishmnet
not an abominationan abomination
not sinfulsinful

Thiessen makes a couple of important points here. First, these are not the only kinds of impurity; Thiessen mentions genealogical impurity and demonic impurity (the latter not really present in the Old Testament, or not as much as in the New Testament). Second, ritual impurity does not have much to do with sin, unless you fail to remove it in the prescribed way, in which case your ritual impurity can lead to moral impurity (= sin).

Since there are plenty of studies of sin (= moral impurity), Thiessen concentrates in this book on ritual impurity.

major sources of ritual impurity: genital discharges, lepra, corpses (Lev 12–15; Num 19). (Thiessen uses the transliteration lepra instead of the English word “leprosy” because the malady in the Bible was certainly not what medical professionals today call leprosy.)

When the profane comes into contact with something ritually impure, the profane becomes ritually impure. … Such combinations of the profane and the impure were natural and generally inevitable. For instance, childbirth, menstruation, and sexual intercourse result in ritual impurity. These are natural human functions. … Only in the event that people do not properly dispose of their impurities does the issue become one of wrongdoing. When a person who has a ritual impurity comes into sacred space, he or she sins.

Thiessen, p. 15

Some Bible quotations that undergird the point that it is dangerous to approach the sanctified (holy) space in a state of impurity (uncleanness).

But those who eat flesh from the LORD’S sacrifice of well-being while in a state of uncleanness shall be cut off from their kin.

Leviticus 7:20

Say to them: If anyone among all your offspring throughout your generations comes near the sacred donations, which the people of Israel dedicate to the LORD, while he is in a state of uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from my presence: I am the LORD.

Leviticus 22:3

They shall keep my charge, so that they may not incur guilt and die in the sanctuary for having profaned it: I am the LORD; I sanctify them.

Leviticus 22:9

This is a matter of reverence toward God. If you are ritually impure, get clean before contacting something holy.

The biggest problem would be for God’s people to allow impurities to accumulate to such an extent that the holy God could no longer dwell among them. Thiessen follows Milgrom in linking impurities to the forces of death (p. 16), but he also notes opponents to this linkage, such as by Frymer-Kensky and Maccoby, who apparently link purity/impurity more generally to mortality, in distinction from the immortal God.

The Hebrew Bible sometimes accuses the priests of failure to do what Leviticus 10:10 says is their chief purpose, i.e., teaching how to distinguish holy from profane and pure from impure.

Its priests have done violence to my teaching and have profaned my holy things; they have made no distinction between the holy and the common, neither have they taught the difference between the unclean and the clean, and they have disregarded my sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them.

Ezekiel 22:26

Its prophets are reckless, faithless persons; its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law.

Zephaniah 3:4

For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the LORD of hosts.

Malachi 2:8

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.

Hosea 4:6

Ezekiel envisioned a time when the priests would do their duty.

They shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean.

Ezekiel 44:23

The priestly literature in the Hebrew Bible describes rituals aiming to cleanse someone who had contracted impurity. As Thiessen says:

God had armed Israel with ritual practices that were efficacious in removing those impurities; these practices were basically a combination of time and water (and, in special instances, blood or ashes).

Thiessen, p. 19

That is, Leviticus describes purification rituals in terms of: wash in water, wait until evening. That’s time and water. Sometimes it says you have to sprinkle something with blood, or use ashes.

Thiessen continues:

But these ritual detergets were limited in their ability to remove impurity. They essentially removed the lingering effects of whatever condition made the person impure, but they did not, could not, and never were intended to remove the physical conditions that caused impurity. They did not, for instance, heal abnormal genital discharges, cure lepra, or turn corpses back into living being. Proper maintenance, not transformation, of the current conditions of the world was their sole, divinely ordained goal.

Thiessen, p. 19

Thiessen concludes the chapter with a brief discussion of apocalyptic, which hopes for a transformation of the world. That’s where Jesus comes in. Here is the last paragraph of the chapter.

It is within this world of apocalyptic hope that one must situation the Gospel writers and their portrayals of Jesus. The Gospel writers depict Jesus as being divinely equipped to deal with the actual sources of impurity. Once the underlying conditions that create ritual impurity are removed, peopel are free to follow the simple steps that will remove the lingering ritual impurity. We see this explicitly, as I will discuss in chapter 3, in Jesus’s treatment of the man with lepra (Mark 1:44). The Jesus of the Gospels is the holy one of God, a man who embodies a contagious power or force that is opposed to and ultimately destroys the powers that create impurity and death.

Thiessen, p. 20

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: