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Ritual Purity and Entrance into the Holy Place: The Process

Professor Wave Nunnally examines Scripture and more to reveal what the process was for individuals to enter the Holy Place in the Temple — a place where unauthorized entrance brought instant death.

(Wave Nunnally is emeritus professor of Early Judaism and Christian Origins at Evangel University/Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, president of Bible Unplugged, and founder of Nunnally Institute for Hebraic Studies. The following work explores the procedure that permitted people entrance into the Holy Place in the Temple.)

For at least three decades I have been curious about what procedure, if any, was followed regarding entrance into the Holy Place. The actual “Temple” that once stood at the center of the larger “Temple Mount” is where the Holy Place was located. Ancient evidence confirms that unauthorized entry into these precincts brought instant death while the Temple still stood:

     • Archeology (two Greek inscriptions, the first found by Charles Simon Clermont-Ganneau in 1871 and the other found by J.H. Ilife in 1936)

     • Philo (Embassy to Gaius 212)

     • Josephus (History of the Jewish War 5:193-194; 6:124-126; Antiquities of the Jews 12:145-146; 15:416-420)

     • The New Testament (Acts 21:28, 31; 22:22)

     • Rabbinic literature (Mishnah Middot 2:3; Kelim 1:8; Tosefta Kelim Bava Kama 1:10)

The texts cited above describe two categories of individuals that were prohibited from entering the Holy Place: non-Jews and Jews who were either in a state of ritual impurity or who had a bodily defect (e.g., Acts 3:2, 8). It is precisely this prohibition that lies behind the mob’s actions against Paul which almost resulted in his death (Acts 21:28, 31; 22:22).

In addition, this carefully guarded access into the inner confines of the Temple Mount provides background for a clearer understanding of Paul’s reference to the “middle wall of partition” (Ephesians 2:11-22; see especially verse 14 and a complete discussion of the entire issue at “The Middle Wall of Partition”).

The purification process that was required for entry also lies behind the narratives of the ritual purification undergone by Joseph, Mary, and presumably the infant Jesus before they could enter the Temple (Luke 2:22-39), by the many pilgrims coming to Jerusalem at Passover (John 11:55), and by Saul/Paul (Acts 21:24; 24:18). Therefore, familiarity with this particular Jewish practice positions us to have increased understanding of numerous New Testament texts.

For years, I looked for information as to the mechanics of this important practice. How did this process work in the time of Jesus and Paul? Where did ritual purification take place prior to entry into the sacred precincts of the Temple Mount (the “Holy Place”)? How would anyone know who was and who was not in a state of ritual purity before they entered?

The Mishnah1 (the first written record of what was the Oral Law) and especially the Tosefta2 (a separate compilation of passages not included in the Mishnah, but is often seen as a supplement to it) make it clear that Jews who knowingly entered the Holy Place in a state of ritual impurity were subject to the death penalty. With such a severe penalty levied on those who committed that infraction, it only stands to reason that there had to be some system of proof of Jewish ethnicity and of a status of ritual purity to be allowed entrance into the Holy Place. Yet there was no archeological or textual evidence to support this conclusion, only intuition.

Then in late 2011, another piece of the puzzle came into place. In the same vicinity where dozens of ritual immersion baths (mikvaot) have been found just south and west of the Temple Mount, archeologist Eli Shukron found a small “token” that reads, “Pure to YaH”. This helps explain how those who sought entry into the Temple-proper would have proven their right to enter, but where would they have gotten such a “token”? Who would have the authority to issue such a “permission to enter”?

The very suggestion of the involvement of someone other than the immerser would appear to contradict our understanding of ritual immersion (t’vilah) in early Judaism. This is because t’vilah was self-administered. On the other hand, while the immersion was self-administered, the now-ritually pure individual would have to provide evidence to prove that the t’vilah had been done and done properly. With death as a possible outcome, it is not likely that the ritual status of the individual would have been left to the “honor system.”

Further, there had to have been a system of verification on both ends of the process. On the front end, there had to have been an official who oversaw the self-administered t’vilah and who issued the token to the newly purified Jew. Then at the end of the process, there had to have been an official controlling entrance to the Holy Place who would accept the token as proof of Jewish identity and status of ritual purity. Only then would a person be allowed entry into the Holy Place, and only in this way could the sanctity of the holiest place in the world be preserved.

A token such as that found by Shukron provided the evidence that a system of proof did indeed exist, but I had yet to find any kind of text, biblical or extra-biblical, that set forth the procedure or the personnel involved in this system of verification. In the past, I had speculated that there were specific individuals responsible for this important duty, such as priests, Levites, or rabbis.

This all made sense on a number of levels, but still, I had zero textual evidence that this was the case. I had only conjecture, and as we know, modern “logic” apart from ancient evidence can quickly lead us into the ditch.

Here’s a case in point: modern commentators and preachers concluded long ago that Jews did not travel through Samaria. The reasoning was solid: Jews had concerns about ritual purity and concerns for their own safety/security. The latter arose out of the ever-increasing racial/religious acrimony between the Jewish community and the Samaritans as evidenced throughout Second Temple Period literature and in texts from the New Testament.3

However, as it turns out and as I’ve published (“Did Jews Travel Through Samaria in the Time of Jesus?”), the best attempts at logical historical reconstruction could not have been more incorrect. All of the ancient evidence from the early rabbis, from Josephus, and from the New Testament itself provides clear indication that Jews regularly traveled through Samaria. They also ate Samaritan food, spent the night in Samaritan inns, left animals there for safe keeping, owned property there, farmed there, and even tithed to the Temple from the produce raised there. So rather than writing or teaching authoritatively that such a complete system of verification must have existed in antiquity, I waited, hoping that literary or archeological data would come to light that would enable us to justify this conclusion, but based on ancient data rather than modern intuition.

During a recent flight, I found myself reading an early rabbinic text called Avot d’Rabbi Natan [A] (loosely translated as “The Chapters of the Fathers according to Rabbi Nathan”). As I was reading a section on the concerns that righteous men might have about maintaining ritual purity when their wives were menstruating, the text began to describe a man who took certain precautions only because he was מתירא…ממי שפוקד על הטבילה, “fearful of the one who officiates over [or “the one who examines concerning”] the ritual immersion.”4

Quite unexpectedly, the text that I’d been hoping would surface for over 30 years had finally presented itself at 30,000 feet! There was indeed an officiant; however, he was not an administrant of the immersion because immersion was self-administered. Rather, as this text describes, he was an official observer/examiner, who oversaw immersions that were being performed for the purpose of removal of ritual impurity.

To contextualize the language of this passage with greater security, I wish I could cite multiple additional passages where the same words and phrases are used in the same context in the literature of the early rabbis. Unfortunately, after a lengthy search for additional evidence, I was unable to find even one more instance where this phrase appears in rabbinic literature. So, until a parallel passage or one using synonymous language presents itself, we have only Avot d’Rabbi Natan 2:2 with which to work.

That said, there is evidence elsewhere that such an official observer existed. The Babylonian Talmud provides evidence that someone other than the immerser was watching for things that would render that individual’s t’vilah invalid (Chullin 10a).

Further, the pokaed (officer/official/examiner/overseer) of our Avot d’Rabbi Natan text appears to approximate the m’vakaer (official/examiner) of the Dead Sea Scrolls in that individuals are not merely to be believed on the basis of their own testimony. This in turn seems to be a specific application of the rabbinic principle that a person is not allowed to testify on his own behalf.5 The same principle is expressed in New Testament texts.6 While this might fly in the face of the rules of modern, Western jurisprudence, it was most definitely a reality in Israel in the time of Jesus and the early rabbis, as indicated by the texts cited above from early rabbinic literature and from the New Testament.

Precisely who exactly was this officiant? Was he a priest, a Levite, a rabbi, or an average “Israelite” (a Jewish commoner) appointed to the task?

In the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), priests served a similar function within the system of ritual purity.7 However, in the literature of the early rabbis, a very large percentage is spent dealing with the issue of ritual purity. Their concern is further established by texts in the New Testament.8

Therefore, there were indeed at least two groups who had a vested interest in ritual purity and who were sufficiently qualified to serve as the officiant/examiner/observer of ritual immersions for the purpose of entry into the Holy Place: priests and rabbis. However, any greater specificity as to the identity of the officiant/examiner/observer will have to await future discoveries and discussion.

In any event, for those seeking entrance into the Holy Place, such an officiant/official observer/examiner would be the most likely person to issue them a token (such as the one found by Shukron) indicating that they had indeed engaged in a legitimate and properly “witnessed” t’vilah experience. That token could then be shown to a Levite charged with guarding the entrance to the Holy Place,9 and in this way entry into the Holy Place would be granted.

As a result of this brief study, the importance of archeology and the ancient literatures of Judaism has been underscored yet again. The background provided by this ancient evidence enables us to come to familiar New Testament texts with a greater sense of clarity, and in turn, they are able to impact us more powerfully. Having evidence in-hand enables us to avoid mistakes often made when intuition, speculation, and interpretative tradition are all we have to go on.

If the Bible is our only authoritative rule for matters of faith and practice (what we believe and how we live), we owe it to God, the Body of Christ, and ourselves to read, understand, and apply it with the care it deserves. Further, those who instruct us in the faith are doubly responsible to exercise such diligence (James 3:1). Personal opinion, what’s popular, what makes us feel good, and position/title should not be the determining factor(s) in what is preached and taught.

May we all pursue the truth of Scripture, allowing the evidence to speak loudly and clearly!

1Middot 2:3; Kelim 1:8.

2Kelim Bava Kama 1:10.

3(Matthew 10:5; Luke 9:52-53; 10:30-37; 17:15-18; John 4:9; 8:48, etc.).

4(2:2, end; see Marcus Jastrow, Sefer Milim: A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature. New York: Judaica Press, 1971, p. 1206, פקד).

5Mishnah Ketubot 2:3, 9; Jerusalem Talmud Sotah 1:3.5; Sanhedrin 4:6.2; Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 27b [3x]; Gittin 71a; Sanhedrin 9b; Yevamot 25b; Midrash Tehilim 6:7; 118:4, etc.

6John 5:31-39; 8:13-14, 18; 10:25; 15:26-27; and 1 John 5:7-8.

7Leviticus 13:2, 9, 49; 14:2-3, 48; Deuteronomy 24:8, etc.; see Matthew 8:4, etc.

8Matthew 15:2; Mark 7:3-4; Luke 11:38, etc.

91 Chronicles. 9:17, 19, 21, 22, 24, 26; 15:18; 16:38; 23:5, 26-32; 26:1, 12, 19; 2 Chronicles 8:14; 23:4; 31:14; 34:9, 13; 35:15; Ezra 2:42; 10:24; Nehemiah. 7:45; 12:25; 13:22; see also 2 Kings 22:4; 23:4; 2 Chronicles 23:19; Ezra 2:70; 7:7, 24; Nehemiah 7:1, 73; 10:28, 39; 11:19; 12:45, 47; and 13:5 where there is a close connection between doorkeepers/gatekeepers and the Levites, though most of these texts suggest that the doorkeepers/gatekeepers now constituted a special category of Levites who are distinguished from other forms of levitical service.

PHOTO: First-century mikveh (ritual immersion bath) at the southern entrance to the Temple.