The Historical Jesus in Context

By Amy-Jill Levine; Dale Allison Jr. et al. | Go to book overview
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Moral and Ritual Purity

Jonathan Klawans

Like many religious traditions past and present, early Judaism categorized persons, places, and other things as “pure” or “impure.” Indeed, early Jews used these terms in a variety of ways. One notion of impurity (ritual impurity) concerned contact with various natural substances relating to birth, death, and genital discharge. Direct or even indirect contact with the sources of ritual defilement rendered one temporarily unfit to enter the Temple or to encounter sacred objects. Another notion of defilement (moral impurity) concerned the dangers of defilement associated with grave sins such as idolatry, incest, and murder. While this sort of defilement was less contagious, its effects were ultimately more severe. An accurate understanding of these matters, including the distinction between ritual and moral defilement, is essential for fully understanding the New Testament. Various sayings attributed to Jesus use the terms “pure” and “impure,” and the sources we survey below provide some of the background for understanding these statements.

Our topic is both complicated and controversial. The complications arise from the difficult nature of the primary sources that treat these matters: the biblical and interpretive texts are often dryly legal, highly technical, and conceptually obscure. The situation is hardly helped by the fact that ancient conceptions of purity seem very different from our own: the modern reader is culturally programmed to scoff at seemingly irrational ritual avoidances, especially when they pertain to death and sex. Too many modern readers—scholars included—have been reluctant to give these texts the time it takes to understand their meaning and message.

The controversies surrounding the understanding of purity arise in part from the difficult nature of the texts. It is to be expected that scholars have disagreed on how certain complicated parts of the biblical Book of Leviticus are to be understood. The controversies also arise, however, from ancient and modern religious disputes regarding the place of law in general (and purity practices in particular) in Christianity and Judaism. Purity has become both a buzzword and a battleground for disputes concerning, for instance, the historical Jesus' place in


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