A historical mistake about Jesus and ritual purity

This is a reflection about purity and Jesus.

Scholars have frequently used Jesus’ attitude toward purity to explain his teaching about openness to all people.

Cecelia Wassen (“The Jewishness of Jesus and Ritual Purity”, here) shows that some of these interpretations arise from misunderstanding or bias.

She points to the late Marcus Borg in Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teaching of Jesus. Borg, she says, saw purity as the opposite of compassion.

Similarly, Karen Wenell in Jesus and Land: Sacred and Social Space in Second Temple Judaism portrayed purity as opposed to love.

Many feminists have interpreted purity laws as sexist. Wassen gives Mary Ann Getty-Sullivan’s Women in the New Testament as an example.

She gives James Dunn’s article “Jesus and purity: an ongoing debate”, New Testament Studies, as an example of those who oppose purity to inclusiveness.

I have observed these scholarly views being taken up by preachers who argue that Jesus was for love and compassion and against coldheartedness, or that he was pro-women and against misogyny. A very widespread theme is that Jesus was inclusive while his culture divided people up as pure and impure.  By implication, it was the Jews who were coldhearted, anti-woman, and exclusive.

My understanding of purity laws in Numbers and Leviticus is that they were mostly about sacrifices. Contact with bodily emissions or with the dead by the worshiper or priest made a  sacrifice null and threatened the harmony of God and man. This was what still held true for most Jews at the time of Jesus.

Impurity was not sin, although going ahead and making a sacrifice while impure would have been.

Impurity happened in the course of life. Contact with the dead happened and was not a sin. Menstruation was not a sin. Sexual intercourse was not a sin as long as it did not involve something like infidelity or incest. Wet dreams, and probably even masturbation, were not considered sins. These things did not make you unfit for prayer, household rituals, or synagogue attendance.

They were a concern when you were taking a sacrifice to the Temple. In other words, for ordinary people, purity only concerned them at festival times like Passover when they made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Even then, impurity went away with a ritual bathing.

This was not always true for all Jews. The folks in the Dead Sea Sect rejected the Temple and had their own set of rituals and purity procedures.

The conversation of Jesus with the Pharisees in Mark 7 may go back to a practice by the Pharisees of ritual washing before meals. It is hard to know whether this is a practice from the time of Jesus or whether it became a practice after the fall of the Temple as a way to keep purity laws relevant.

Anyway, the criticism by Jesus, according to Mark, was that the Pharisees were substituting human tradition for the actual requirements of the Torah (Mark 7: 8,9 and 13). There is no attack on purity per se.  Mark 7:15 endorses the Torah’s view about bodily emissions and is possibly an authentic saying of Jesus:

there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.

But the claim in v. 19 that Jesus declared all foods clean has to do with controversies in Gentile churches about food sacrificed to idols and shows Mark’s spin.

Jesus ate with sinners. This fact has often been confused with an attitude toward purity. But impurity did not make you a sinner. There was a social stigma to associating with people whose profession or lifestyle was thought immoral. So, if Jesus ate with tax collectors, prostitutes, and grifters that had nothing to do with purity rules. He was offending against a social taboo.

Leprosy is a special case. Skin outbreaks did make you ritually impure. But that cannot be why lepers were expected to segregate themselves. There was a sense that leprosy was contagious. So the segregation of lepers was a primitive medical measure.

I think the attempt to contrast purity laws with Christian values is historically mistaken. Preachers, especially, should stop using this contrast.

About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
This entry was posted in Church, historical Jesus and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A historical mistake about Jesus and ritual purity

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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