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Ritual Purity -- What it Meant

What was the significance of ritual purity -- and impurity -- in the New Testament?

Marc Turnage, the executive director of the Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies, provides a regular column to PE News that offers deep and sometimes surprising insight into the Word of God through close examination of the culture of the day, biblical sites, and archaeological records. In this article, he examines the topic of ritual purity in the New Testament.

Ritual purity was one of the most important issues within Judaism during the first century. Disputes over purity created divisions between the streams of Jewish piety -- Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes.

Ritual purity had nothing to do with sin, nor was it permanent. A woman after her menstrual period or giving birth was ritually impure (see Luke 2:22). A husband and wife after martial relations were considered impure. Someone who came in contact with a corpse (see Luke 10:30-35) was impure for a period of time.

Ritual impurity simply meant that a person could not enter the sacred area of the Temple of Jerusalem for a period of time, and they could communicate their impurity to others by touch. Once the period of impurity passed, the person ritually immersed and could be admitted into the Temple in Jerusalem. Different Jewish groups extended the laws of purity in various ways, some being stricter than others.

Concern about purity also appears within the New Testament both directly and indirectly.

The New Testament describes various figures like Mary, Jesus, and Paul undergoing purity rituals, immersions (Luke 2:22; 3:21;Acts 9:18; and 21:26; see also Matt. 23:25-26). Mary and Paul are both specifically described "purifying" themselves before entering the Temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2:22; Acts 21:26). Purity had relevance to all parts of life within the first century; however, the issue of purity mostly pertained to those entering the Temple in Jerusalem. A person who was ritually impure could not enter the sacred area of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The New Testament mentions the Temple in Jerusalem more than any other location. It was the center for Jesus' activities in Jerusalem. His followers met in the Temple and worshiped in the Temple. Paul's journeys to Jerusalem were to visit the Temple. The New Testament does not mention Jesus and his followers ritually immersing to purify themselves every time they went on the Temple mount. We can assume, however, that they did because all pilgrims entering the Temple's sacred courts had to immerse in one of the ritual immersion pools (mikva'ot) around the Temple in Jerusalem or even in the Pool of Siloam (John 9:1-11), located south of the Temple Mount.

For years, archaeologists have uncovered artifacts throughout the land of Israel that underscore the importance of ritual purity to the Jewish people in the first century. Archaeological sites, even in Galilee and the Golan, have yielded stone vessels (John 2:6), which according to Jewish law can be repurified where pottery cannot, and ritual immersion pools. In Jerusalem archaeologists have uncovered a number or ritual immersion pools, both public and private, including the one-acre square pool of Siloam, as well as a robust stone vessel-making industry from the first century.

In 2011, archeologists excavating in the City of David, around the pool of Siloam, uncovered a unique find: a clay stamp with the Aramaic inscription, "Pure to the Lord." Eli Shukron, the archaeologist who discovered the stamp, suggests that it was a ticket given to pilgrims after they ritually immersed to show those at the doors of the Temple that they were pure to enter the sacred courts of the house of the Lord. This seal is the first discovery of its kinds directly connected to the purity of the Temple. If Shukron's interpretation of the artifact is correct, then every person visiting the Temple and wanting to enter the sacred area received such a ticket after ritual immersion, including Jesus, Mary, Peter, John, and Paul.