Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism
Many Christians know the stories of Genesis and Exodus, but hit a wall when they reach Leviticus. All of the rules about sacrifice, ritual, and cleanliness simply seem so foreign to our modern context. For such readers of the Bible, Matthew Thiessen’s Jesus and the Forces of Death provides a powerful corrective indeed. This book opens up the world of ancient Jewish thinking about holiness and ritual purity in a way that sympathetically explores its logic and shows how Jesus is portrayed by the gospels as taking ritual impurity seriously in his ministry.
In an introductory chapter, Thiessen explains Leviticus’ teachings about ritual purity and holiness. There are several main sources of ritual impurity in Leviticus: skin diseases, bodily fluids, and contact with corpses. Thiessen draws upon the work of Jacob Milgrom, a renowned scholar of Leviticus, who argues that all of these were conceptualized as “forces of death.” An important point that Thiessen registers is that it was not considered sinful to be ritually impure. The only potential “sin” associated with ritual impurity would be to appear in the presence of the holy God in a state of ritual impurity. Since holiness and impurity are opposing and powerful forces in the priestly worldview, it was very important not to go to the temple in a state of ritual impurity. Thus, the ritual purity system was itself a compassionate one, as it provided a way for ancient Israelites to encounter a holy God. And, as Thiessen shows in ch.2, the gospel of Luke portrays the holy family as fulfilling the obligations required for purification after childbirth in its nativity story (Lk 2:22–24).
The heart of Thiessen’s book focuses on the gospels’ portrayal of Jesus’ contact with the ritually impure: lepers (ch.3), the hemorrhaging woman (ch.4), corpses (ch.5), and “unclean” spirits (ch.6). Thiessen’s discussions contain remarkable insights that open up the world of the gospels in new ways. For example, lepra in the gospels does not refer to “leprosy,” a horrible, life-threatening disease; rather, the term probably refers to skin diseases such as eczema or psoriasis. The problem with lepra was simply that it caused ritual impurity, and this is what Mark portrays Jesus as “willing” to clean (Mk 1:41). In all these chapters, Thiessen shows that a concern with ritual purity was not a parochial feature of Judaism in the ancient world, but was widespread in the Greco-Roman world. The wealth of ancient material that he cites is one of the most impressive and enriching features of the book.
Thiessen’s main thesis is simple: though New Testament scholars have often portrayed Jesus as opposing the ritual purity system, he is actually portrayed by the gospel writers as being opposed to and eradicating the “forces of death” that render people impure. For example, New Testament scholars have read the accounts of Jesus healing the leper (Mark 1:40–45) or the hemorrhaging woman (Mark 5:25–34) as providing evidence that Jesus was opposed to ancient Jewish views of ritual purity. In contacting these individuals via touch, the thinking goes, Jesus becomes ritually impure himself, and demonstrates his disregard for the ritual purity system. These interpretations construct a compassionate and boundary-blurring Jesus in opposition to a supposedly legalistic and lifeless Judaism. Thiessen demolishes this approach to these passages, showing that so far from being opposed to the ritual purity system, Jesus is portrayed by the gospel writers as a powerful force of holiness who heals the very conditions that lead to ritual impurity. As Thiessen points out, OT miracles such as Elisha’s healing of Naaman’s lepra (2 Kings 5) are never construed by scholars as criticisms of the ritual purity system, and nor should Jesus’ healing miracles be construed in such a way.
A theme of Thiessen’s book is that it is anachronistic and inaccurate to read the stories of the gospels as stories pitting Jesus and compassion on the one hand against the law and purity on the other. According to Thiessen, passages in which Jesus seems to oppose the Jewish law and ritual purity system are better understood as portraying Jesus engaging in debates about how the law was best to be fulfilled. For example, the parable of the Good Samaritan is not about compassion versus purity, but involves the weighing of competing principles regarding corpse impurity and respect for the dead. Thiessen takes the same approach to Jesus’ apparent flouting of sacred time (ch.7). Jesus’ activities of healing on the Sabbath are not to be understood as a rejection of the Sabbath or of the law; rather, they reflect precisely the sort of arguments about how the Sabbath was to be kept and what circumstances overrode the Sabbath that were common in ancient Judaism. The chapter on the Sabbath is particularly insightful in the way that Thiessen unpacks the terms of Jesus’ arguments with his interlocutors, showing how topics such as the preservation of life and service in the Temple were generally accepted as overriding the obligation to keep Sabbath. Thus, Thiessen demonstrates that the gospels portray a Jesus engaged in debate about the relative prioritization of competing legal principles, not a Jesus who disregards or ignores the law.
Christian readers will benefit tremendously from reading this book. It will enrich one’s understanding of the cultural context of the gospels, and provides a correction for anti-Jewish (and anti-Old Testament) assumptions that are common in Christian thinking. That said, I do have some points of critique. First, for first-century Jews, regulations about ritual purity would be mediated via religious leadership, and in his quest to present the Jesus of the gospels as one who affirms the laws about ritual purity, Thiessen downplays the way that the gospels portray Jesus as criticizing and occasionally skewering the very authorities teaching those laws. Such a critique is surely part of the contrast of the priest and Levite with the Samaritan, but Thiessen does not delve into this dynamic of the parable. In Chapters 4-5 of his book, Thiessen discusses two stories in Mark 5, the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the healing of the woman with a flow of blood, but he leaves out of his discussion the significant way that Mark has structured these stories, which contrasts the elite status of the synagogue ruler Jairus with the marginalized status of the hemorrhaging woman. In the story, Jairus asks Jesus to come with him and heal his daughter. While on the way, the woman with the flow of blood touches Jesus and is healed. Jesus then halts the proceedings in order to find out who touched him, making Jairus wait while he engages in dialogue with the woman, a delay that costs so much valuable time that Jairus’ daughter dies. The contrast in social status between Jairus and the woman plays no role in Thiessen’s interpretation, because he is focused on showing how all these narratives portray Jesus as powerfully healing the very sources of ritual impurity. True as that may be, it is also the case (as Thiessen acknowledges) that there would have been a diversity of views in ancient Judaism on whether the woman should have been ostracized from the community due to her continual impurity. Jesus’ prioritization of this woman over the synagogue ruler is an important part of the narrative in Mark, and so the gospel does characterize Jesus as pushing back against some of the ostracism and exclusion involved in the strictest applications of the purity laws in his day.
Second, it is unfortunate that Thiessen does not discuss the impact that the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE would have had on the ritual purity system and its functioning. Since the whole system of ritual purity presupposes a functioning temple, it seems an oversight for Thiessen not to have addressed what the gospels might have been communicating to their post-70 readers. Third, as a reader I was left wanting a bit more by way of theological analysis. Thiessen’s purview remains strictly historical; he elucidates the gospel accounts but does not offer theological reflections or observations on how Christian readers should interpret and apply matters of holiness and purity today. Thiessen is a historian and a scholar of the New Testament; he might insist that such theological interpretation is beyond the scope of his investigation. Nevertheless, as a reader, I wanted to know more of his thoughts about the contemporary significance of these portrayals of Jesus.
These critical comments should not detract from the high regard I have for this book! It is beautifully written; it deepens understanding of the gospels; it rightfully steers Christian readers away from an all too common tendency towards anti-Judaism. Thiessen’s book masterfully forces readers to reexamine their own assumptions, and, though rooted in the ancient world, provides a basis for a more respectful dialogue with contemporary Judaism. It also reinforces the theological value and necessity of the Old Testament for Christians, even parts that seem strange, such as Leviticus 1–16. This book has the great virtue of teaching us that we cannot understand the gospels’ portrayals of Jesus if we are simply dismissive of the parts of Scripture that we find difficult to understand. For that reason alone–and the many detailed and intriguing interpretations of various passages in the gospels, many of which I have not been able to attend to in this short review–this book is highly recommended.