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Jesus on (Ritual) Purity

Often Jesus is portrayed as a rebel with a cause, regularly breaking rules and traditions — but was that really the case?

The Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies (CHLS) provides a regular column to AG 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, Wave Nunnally, Ph.D., professor of Early Judaism and Christian Origins at Evangel University and a regular instructor in Israel for CHLS, examines the conception that Jesus was a rule breaker — at odds with the Law of Moses and Jewish traditions.

As important as understanding Jesus in his original context is, modern Christians have a number of hurdles to overcome to do so. For example, Sabbath observance, sacred calendar issues, and ritual purity were of highest importance to Jesus’ generation, but are simply not on the radar screen of the average follower of Jesus today.

In addition to this, another hurdle is the accepted view that Jesus was a radical iconoclast — breaking rules, shattering norms, and rewriting laws and customs that had been in place for centuries. Because of what we have often read and heard, we typically think of the Master as taking on longstanding institutions such as Sabbath observance and ritual purity. We picture Him as regularly setting aside the Law of Moses and established Jewish tradition in favor of a “new” way of life that focuses on more nebulous, broader philosophical concepts like “love” and “mercy.”

A more discerning look, however, causes us to rethink many of these engrained caricatures of the Savior. For example, in a previous article we saw that Jesus comes from a very Torah-observant family. His mother and earthly father provided for Him stalwart examples of lives submitted to radical obedience, servanthood, and the Scriptures (“Christmas and the Importance of Family.” AG NEWS, Dec. 16, 2016.).

When it comes to Jesus Himself, even passages that appear to picture Him as being at odds with the Law of Moses and the Judaism of His day, upon closer scrutiny actually show Him to be an upholder of the best form of those traditions. Examples of this can be seen in His understanding of Sabbath observance (Jesus in the Grainfields, Part 2: The Response of Jesus in Context.” AG NEWS, April 3, 2017.) and in His handling of the situation of the woman accused of adultery (“Jesus and the Law of Moses: the Woman Caught in Adultery.” AG NEWS, April 28, 2017.). In both of these texts, Jesus is not seen breaking with tradition or voiding the Law of Moses, but rather in both instances, upholding the highest ideals of both.

In this article, the question of Jesus’ attitude toward another hallowed institution of ancient Judaism will be addressed. Jewish concern for “ritual purity” was as important in the first centuries BC and AD as Sabbath observance and sexual fidelity. That it is not important in the life of the average western Christian today does not mean this was the case in the time of Jesus. In fact, Jesus was already involved in the biblical rules of ritual purity when He was only 40 days old (Luke 2:22). In fact, the New Testament mentions issues of ritual impurity (“pure,” “impure,” “clean,” “unclean,” “uncleanness,” “unwashed,” “defiled,” etc.) literally dozens of times.

Granted, sometimes these terms are used in reference to ethical or moral impurity, but a large number reflect the first-century Jewish concern for ritual (not moral, ethical, or hygenic) purity. It is to these references, and most importantly to Jesus’ teachings that use such language and meaning, that we now turn our attention. Even when we don’t initially share His points of reference, the better we understand the world of Jesus, the better we understand Him and His words!

One way we can do this is by reading the discussions and decisions of the earliest rabbis. There, we are immediately struck by the amount of material dedicated to the careful consideration of every detail related to the issue of ritual purity.* In the earliest collection of these materials (the Mishnah), one of the six major divisions (as the New Testament is divided up into Gospels, Pauline Epistles, etc.) is entitled Taharot (“rules of ritual purity”). In turn, it consists of 12 different tractates (like individual “books” of the New Testament such as Romans, Ephesians, etc.). One of these “tractates” is called Ohalot (“Tents”), and in this tractate, there is a phrase that is regularly repeated. When the rabbis are attempting to support the reasoning that lies behind a particular ruling they give as to why a certain thing becomes or does not become unclean, they recite this principle, “…because it is the way of impurity to go out, and it is not its way [the way of impurity] to enter in” (Mishnah Ohalot 3:7 [twice]; 4:1, 2, 3; 9:9, 10, etc.).

So if this was such a well-known and often repeated principle, wouldn’t Jesus have known about it and is it possible that its echoes might even be heard in His life and words? Said another way, if Jesus was closely acquainted with the principles, practices, and terminology regarding ritual purity, can knowing a bit about it help us appreciate Him and His teachings more fully?

For starters, in Matthew 15, the scribes and Pharisees ask Jesus, “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread" (v. 2). Here it is obvious that the issue is ritual purity (germs were unknown at this time, so this discussion is not about hygiene!). Listen to how Jesus responds with the background provided by the Mishnah in mind, “Not what enters into the mouth defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man." (Matthew 15:11).

Most commentators have taken this passage to undermine the entire purity-impurity system of contemporary Judaism. In context, however, Jesus’ teaching is perfectly in keeping with a major principle of ritual purity! If there is anything “revolutionary” going on here, it is that Jesus is employing a principle well-known to His hearers which is typically applied to external matters and then applying it to internal matters! He is saying to His audience: “Be consistent in your application of accepted principles — if this is true of ritual purity, it should also be true with respect to moral purity! Never be satisfied with external conformity — instead, make it a matter of the heart!” So Jesus has not “overthrown the tradition”: He has merely pushed the envelope to its logical and consistent conclusion (see Matthew 5:17). Here as elsewhere, Jesus is merely insisting on living a life of covenantal consistency that is more integrated and holistic.

On another occasion, Jesus was in Jerusalem and in full view of the largest cemetery in the country. There, He observed about certain hypocritical leaders,

…first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness (Matthew 23:26-27).

Because “impurity flows from the inside to the outside,” and because their insides were impure, this impurity flows from within them to negatively impact everything they touch! These words would have been easily understood by Jesus’ disciples and his opponents, because they all shared the same language, presuppositions, and religious practices!

Other examples of Jesus’ application of this same principle can be seen in His willingness to associate with “tax-collectors and sinners” who did not practice ritual purity (Matthew 9:11-13, etc.). He was also willing to touch a leper (Matthew 8:2-3=Mark 1:40-42=Luke 5:12-13, compare Leviticus 22:4-6; Numbers 5:2-3). The same can be said of His willingness to not only allow the ritually unclean “woman with an issue of blood” to touch Him, but to honor her trust in Him and bring her healing (thus becoming ritually pure, see Matthew 9:20-22=Mark 5:25-29, compare Leviticus 15:25-27). He was willing to touch a vessel and drink water that belonged to a Samaritan woman (John 4:7-9) despite the fact that “The daughters of Samaritans are deemed as being as impure as menstruants from the cradle” (Mishnah Niddah 4:1). He didn’t even flinch when a woman known for her ungodly lifestyle anointed and kissed and wet His feet with her tears, and wiped them with her hair (Luke 7:37-39)!

All these actions become understandable as examples of Jesus’ application of the rabbinic principle that “impurity goes from the inside to the outside, not from the outside to the inside.” Instead of the “impurity” of all these kinds of people coming into Him, His purity and wholeness was going out of Him and into them (see this very dynamic at work in Luke 8:43-46). This rationale explains these actions of the Master as deriving from the heart of rabbinic Judaism and argues against Him being a renegade Jew.

In this article, we have seen Jesus as respectful of Scripture and the faith of His fathers. We also have also seen that He speaks the language of and is closely connected to the collective wisdom of His culture. We have seen, yet again, that the more we understand His world, the better we understand Him. This is the power, freshness, and clarity that only comes when we read the Bible in context. This is what we do on a regular basis with every group who comes to study with us in the lands of the Bible, where faith regularly becomes sight!


*The rules of ritual purity are the “most highly developed area” within early rabbinic material (Stephen G. Wald, “Mishnah” in Encyclopaedia Judaica (2007), 14:321).