Baker Academic

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Crowd-sourcing Purity

Jesus Blog readers,

I am tinkering with the following paragraphs about purity concerns in Jesus' context. Inevitably, I've found myself attempting to summarize a massive amount of literature dealing with Israel's Pentateuch reception and application. I'm looking for help. What would you add/subtract from the following? Where have I made missteps?



Many (perhaps all) of Jesus’ contemporaries who lived in and practiced day-to-day Jewish life believed that their God was transcendent. Not only was God separate from the created order, God was holy in a way that made God fundamentally distinct from the world of humans. In the priestly story of creation, the elements of the Earth are said to be good. But only God is holy. Thus we see a very ancient worldview distinction between that which is common and that which is holy.

Unfortunately, in this worldview, the common elements of creation are subject to disorder and eventual death. Humanity—while fundamentally good—is prone to disorder and dominated by death. Or, put another way, humans live in the reality of impurity. Impurity is a power opposed to life; it is an infection that results in, physical, ritual, and moral disease.[1] God, on the other hand, is holy.

The narrative of Exodus—the story that provided the foundation of Israel’s collective identity—claims that God is holy and that it is dangerous for humans to be in God’s presence. God, however, provides a way for the Israelites to participate in God’s life-giving holiness. This is accomplished by Moses who follows divine instructions for creating a space for the transcendent God of Israel to reside on the Earth. It is then imperative for the priests to prepare the common people to approach this holy space. Thus certain rituals are established to cleanse Israel from impurity. It is therefore integral for God’s holy presence to reside in the land with the people.

Eventually, this holy site where God resides is built up as a Temple. In this culture, Israel’s God was present in the Jerusalem Temple. Israel’s instructions for pure living helped to orient the people to God’s Temple presence. Everyday actions like food, sex, farming, care for strangers, etc. became ways to orient the people to the holy presence of God.

[1] It is important to make a distinction between impurity and sin. Ritual impurity was inevitable and in most cases had nothing to do with human error. Childbirth, disease, contact with the dead, and bodily fluid caused impurity. Such elements of human life and death were not necessarily sinful but required purification through rituals. Moreover, these rituals (like baptism) were not difficult to accomplish. Moral impurity, on the other hand, was indeed connected with human error: e.g. worship of idols (Lev 19:31; 20;1-3); sexual taboo (Lev 18:24-30); murder (Num 35:33-34). In very basic terms, most of the rituals practiced in Jewish life related to the maintenance of life and death. Or, at least the elements that seemed most related to life and death (e.g. blood, semen, menstruation, food production). Much of the first part of Leviticus deals with ritual purification as it relates to Temple worship (the place where God resides on Earth). Much of the second half of Leviticus deals with broader issues of purity in every-day life (what scholars call the Holiness Code). 


  1. Two separate (and random) thoughts on this.

    Mary Douglas' work on dirt defines it as "matter out of place". Thus purity oriented thinking conceptualises a place for everything and everything in its place. And if something is out of place, if boundaries are broken, then its regarded as being polluted.
    There's lots more to say about this part of the dynamic.

    The follow up point on this is the concept of pollution being infectious. If the clean is touched by dirt then the clean is polluted. HOwever, the NT presents Jesus as reversing this. His holiness was infectious. When he and the polluted came into contact it was the polluted that was cleansed, rather than him becoming polluted.
    Furthermore, in this tenor, the ripping of the temple curtain is less about us having access to the holy, but the holy God coming out. Indeed, at Pentecost, if we place the disciples at the temple (9.00am sacrifice, what were all the foreigners doing NOT at the temple, wandering around the street of rich houses?? They were at the temple, with water in the mickvah's for baptism). Then it can be argued that Luke is picturing the fire coming out of the holy of holies and settling on the discples. (note: the sound comes from heaven but the fire isn't given a source). So is this the holy Spirit of God coming out and infecting his new Temple, a temple made of living stones?

    1. BF, I think you're touching on several important points. Douglas' work was very helpful to me until I learned that she has changed her tune on a number of positions she once held. So I'm feeling a bit inadequate to navigate the early Douglas vs. the recent Douglas.

      I do think you're onto something re: Xty's notion of a spiritual temple. I am not yet on board with your reading of the temple curtain.


    2. Good morning Anthony. I must re-engage with the later Douglas. At lot of my work is on understanding shame, of which pollution is one black sheep in the flock of shame. The "matter out of place" rubric is helpful, but has limitations to unpicking pollution.

      Re Luke's description in Acts 2. The idea that its sited in the temple is pretty left field, but has some backing. The summary points in favour of it are:
      - At 9am we would expect people who had come from many miles to a major festival to be at the temple for the sacrifice. Why would they miss that?
      - the upper room isn't specified, rather its "place" and "house". "house" is, of course, shorthand for temple.
      - A large number of people are mentioned. A house on a street wouldn't get that sort of crowd anywhere near it. The temple presinct and/or steps would easily have much more than 3000
      -BTW, as an aside, 3000 is the number of deaths that is recorded after the golden calf, and the levites killed people. Death came with the law. Luke recalls 3000 baptisms, and is showing the Spirit brings life. Pauline theology in dramatic portrayal.
      - There was water to baptise a lot of people. The mikvahs on the steps of the temple would have provided that water.
      - At the end of his Gospel Luke describes the disciples as "they stayed continually at the temple"
      - it makes a much more dramatic scene in a movie (if I was to direct one) and gets across the new temple message in visual ways as the audience sees the flame leave the holy of holies and settle on the church, the new temple.

      Yes, its an idea to hold lightly, but its quite evocative, and I like the way this sort of scene would visually depict the new temple thinking. Its a lot more dramatic. For that reason I use it in preaching etc. with the proviso that its to be held lightly. It certainly gets people thinking.

  2. I have a very hard time interpreting. I am wary of the systems of interpretation I have come across (and have not studied too closely). You ask about Purity but talk about both purity and the holy. I take it you are reading קדשׁ and ברר as synonyms. If I look at e.g. Jer 2:22, purity is contrasted with iniquity. Holiness is commanded in Torah so it cannot be impossible. We talk about ritual purification but the word for purity/purify does not occur in Torah nor of course is there any sense that the cult can be made light of with an adjective like ritual. (The KJV terms for purify in Torah are התא related to a sin offering).

    The instruction in 1 John 3:3 always comes to my mind when purity is mentioned, but the Hebrew translation of the NT that I have uses טהר rather than ברר for that verse. 'Clean' implies a complete cleansing and as such may be reflecting Psalm 51 (vs 4 Hebrew). So I have a conceptual problem with this 'purity' concept. There is nothing light about it. It is as heavy as that weight of glory that Paul talks about. I cannot escape with words at the moment.

  3. Anthony,

    It might be a close call, but I fear your precis of purity concerns might be a little too Temple-focused. That way of thinking about ritual purity is now outdated.

    I see, by the last sentence in your footnote, that you acknowledge purity concerns in "every-day life", but I think it bears mentioning that the ends to which these "every-day" concerns pointed wasn't always the Temple. This is because purity was necessary for *all* gestures of approach to God, and that included not only visits to the Temple, but also prayer/daily/blessings (or attendance at the synagogue) and Torah study.

    Jews in Jesus' day regularly concerned themselves with purity in contexts that had *nothing* to do with the Temple. In fact, if Israel had never had a Temple, there still would have been purity laws.

    I don't care much for your statement that "Everyday actions like food, sex, farming, care for strangers, etc. became ways to orient the people to the holy presence of God". This sounds very Neusnerian--even more Neusnerian than Neusner himself! It really looks like a way to bring everything under the purview of an outdated understanding of purity.