Reviews of the Enoch Seminar 2021.01.04

Matthew Thiessen. Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020. Pp. 256. ISBN: 9781540964878. $35.00. Paperback.

Christine Hayes
Yale University

Arriving in California to begin my doctoral education in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley, I was handed a two-thousand-page manuscript by a kindly professor of Hebrew Bible who asked me to provide comments on its general readability. I swallowed hard, began to read, and was astonished at the unfamiliar world taking shape before my eyes. In regular meetings over the course of the next many months, the professor and I spent hours discussing every page of the manuscript, and while I hope I provided the assistance that had been requested of me, I know that I was the true beneficiary of these private tutorials. It was 1986, the professor was Jacob Milgrom, and the manuscript was the magisterial Leviticus 1-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, the first instalment of Milgrom’s three-volume commentary on Leviticus for the Anchor Bible Series.

In his scholarly volumes, as well as several thoroughly accessible works intended for the non-scholarly public, Milgrom laid out the ritual logic and fundamental concepts underlying the biblical systems of sacrifice and ritual impurity. The explosion of scholarship on biblical and post-biblical ritual impurity that led to the 1991 publication of Leviticus 1-16 and continued well beyond it, should have been a boon for New Testament scholars seeking to understand the synoptic gospels. After all, like all inhabitants of the Mediterranean basin in the first centuries of the common era, the Jews and Jewish-adjacent Gentiles who produced the writings collected in the New Testament operated in a world structured by ritual purity beliefs and practices. And yet, with few exceptions, scholars of New Testament studies have not taken full advantage of the opportunity afforded by the work of Milgrom, Jonathan Klawans, Vered Noam, and numerous others, to acquire the detailed knowledge of Jewish ritual purity beliefs and practices essential for a full understanding of the actions and statements of the characters in the gospel narratives, including those of their chief protagonist, Jesus of Nazareth.

Enter Matthew Thiessen’s Jesus and the Forces of Death. Thiessen elegantly and efficiently closes the yawning gap between decades of Jewish Studies scholarship on ritual impurity and the attempt by New Testament scholars to characterize Jesus’s relationship to the purity beliefs and practices of his day. The result is a Jesus who makes both narrative and historical sense as a first-century Jew for whom the ritual and cultic norms of the community are unquestioned axioms. Carefully distinguishing between the historical Jesus, about whom little can be said with confidence, and the Jesus depicted in the gospels, Thiessen rejects a long-standing scholarly tradition that pits the Jesus of the gospels against the Judaism of his day (xi; 3-5). This tradition caricatures first-century CE Judaism as a spiritually impoverished legalism that maintained class and gender inequities through, inter alia, harsh and heartless ritual purity practices; it goes on to depict Jesus as abandoning ritual purity law, dietary law, Temple protocols, and Sabbath and festival observance in favor of interior spiritual realities. This interpretation of Jesus, Thiessen argues, is a retrojection of later Christian supersessionist views onto the tradition’s central hero and should be recognized as “religious apologetics masquerading as historical research” (5). Thiessen’s contrasting interpretation of Jesus as situated squarely within the Judaism of his day corrects misconceptions of both first-century Judaism and Jesus. It marks a major contribution to a growing body of scholarship (including Thiessen’s earlier volumes) that increasingly understands the Jesus of the gospels to be genuinely concerned with matters of law observance (xi), to be not merely Jewish, but very Jewish.

As evidence that Jesus broke with the Judaism of his day, scholars have pointed to the latter’s alleged violation of Temple protocols and Torah piety, Sabbath prohibitions, and ritual purity laws. Against this widespread view, Thiessen maintains that no such violations occur in the gospel narratives. Concerning Jesus’s alleged disregard for Temple protocols and Torah piety, Thiessen demonstrates in chapter 2 that details concerning the early life of Jesus as well as his family’s practices are consistent with early Jewish Temple practice and Torah piety. He decisively refutes those who view Mary’s presentation of the newborn Jesus to the Temple as a violation of the law of parturient purification and as evidence of Luke’s status as a relatively uninformed gentile. Pointing out that Mary’s actions are entirely consistent with a more stringent position on the question of infant impurity attested in ancient Jewish sources, Thiessen concludes that it is not Luke, “who betrays his ignorance of actual Jewish customs and the Jewish ritual purity system in the first century CE; it is modern scholars.” 

Concerning Jesus’s alleged violation of the Sabbath, Thiessen’s chapter 7 shows that the gospel controversies about Jesus’s actions on the Sabbath can likewise be situated in well-attested legal debates in Second Temple and early rabbinic Judaism. Fleshing out the logic behind Jesus’s response to the accusation that his disciples have desecrated the Sabbath by plucking grain, Thiessen shows that Jesus’s approach to Sabbath law aligns with known Second Temple period and rabbinic views (see, e.g., Maccabees and traditions attributed to the school of Hillel) that prioritized charity, righteous deeds, the preservation of life, and/or the relief of suffering over Sabbath observance (in contrast to views attested at Qumran and attributed to the school of Shammai). In short, when Matthew’s Jesus allows his hungry disciples to pluck grain, or when Jesus heals a man of his physical suffering on the Sabbath, “he is not some lone voice calling out in a supposed wilderness of inhumane Jewish legalism; rather, he is one of many Jewish voices who have come to the conclusion that mercy and charity take legal precedence even over such crucial things as temple service and Sabbath” (162). 

But the bulk of Thiessen’s case for a nomian Jesus centers on the vexed question of Jesus’s attitude to ritual impurity (chapters 3–6).  Since a proper reading of the gospel’s depiction of Jesus’s approach to ritual impurity depends on a clear understanding of the ritual logic and fundamental concepts of the biblical purity system, Thiessen wastes no time in providing the kind of primer that should be required reading for any scholar of the New Testament. Summarizing Milgrom’s life work in an easy-to-read chapter 1,he explains that the biblical sacrificial cult and the ritual purity system that ensured its life-sustaining operation depended on the community’s recognition and proper handling of two binary distinctions that are connected but not identical: holy (qadosh; lit. “separate”) vs. non-holy (or profane; hol) and pure (tahor) vs. impure (tame’). Since the significance of Thiessen’s work cannot be appreciated without a quick review of the biblical and early post-biblical system of ritual purity as set forth by Milgrom and refined by other scholars, I offer my own summary here.[1]

The term “holy” (qadosh) connotes the realm of the divine which is by definition distinct and separate (the root meaning of “qadosh”) from the mundane, created world.  In the biblical view, the only intrinsically holy entity is God. The holiness of other entities derives from their proximity to or association with the deity. For example, the sanctuary becomes holy when God’s indwelling presence fills it (Exodus 40). Similarly, persons, places, and things (including days) acquire a degree of non-intrinsic holiness (they are “sanctified”) by entering into a relationship with the deity, best described as a relationship of ownership that transfers the person, place, or thing— even if only temporarily—from the common or non-holy realm into the sacred realm.

The biblical system of ritual purity found in Leviticus regulates access to or contact with the holy temple and sancta. Only ritually pure persons and objects, that is, persons and objects not currently defiled by one of the sources of ritual impurity, can access and contact sacred space and objects. Contact between the holy and the ritually impure must be avoided. If ritual impurity reaches the sanctuary and accumulates there it will eventually force the withdrawal of God’s beneficent presence, because the holy cannot reside where there is impurity.

Leviticus shows a marked monotheizing tendency that demythologizes ritual impurity, rejecting its identification with metaphysically real demons or evil gods, as was common in the cultures of the ancient Near East generally. Instead, the priestly authors of Leviticus deploy ritual impurity as a symbolic marker of all that is incompatible with or antithetical to Israel’s god—a god who transcends the cycle of mortality. Thus, the sources of ritual impurity described in Leviticus 12–15 are the physical substances and states linked to the cycle of corruption (death) and generation (sexuality) that characterize the mundane world from which God is separated—specifically, corpses/carcasses, a “scale-disease” that resembles death, and reproductive/genital fluxes. Ritual impurity is not in itself sinful (although failure to remove it and contacting sancta while impure are sinful). On the contrary, it is a feature of human life; incurring ritual impurity is not only inevitable but sometimes obligatory. It is contagious to persons and objects in specific ways, but it is impermanent, removed by the passage of time, ablutions, and/or rituals.

Equally antithetical to Israel’s god is moral evil, or sin, which generates a moral impurity. In contrast to ritual impurity, which is symbolic of mortal existence and its cycle of death and birth, moral impurity is depicted in Leviticus as arising from the commission of certain heinous sins, specifically idolatry, bloodshed, and various sexual transgressions. It defiles the sinner as well as a range of sancta, including the land of Israel and the sanctuary. Moral impurity is not contagious (one does not contract impurity by touching a sinner), and is removed not by rituals of bathing, laundering and the like, but by punishment or a process of repentance and atonement.

 Severe or unattended ritual impurity (symbolizing our mortal condition) as well as brazen or unrepented moral impurity (symbolizing sin) defile the sanctuary in Israel’s midst. If allowed to accumulate unchecked, they will render the sanctuary unfit for divine habitation and the deity will withdraw, to the detriment of the community.  To prevent this, the sanctuary must be regularly cleansed by Israel’s priests through the application of blood. Blood represents life (Lev 17:11), and the blood of sacrificial animals has been assigned by Yahweh as a “detergent” (Milgrom’s term) to cleanse the sanctuary of the defilement caused by the Israelites’ ritual and moral impurities, thereby effecting expiation for them. In the symbolic schema offered by Leviticus, blood, the symbol of life, overpowers and expunges impurity, the symbol of sin and death. In short, the sacrificial system and the ritual purity system work together to ensure God’s continued protective presence and blessing in the community by maintaining a “safe” residential space, or sanctuary, free of moral evil (sin) and the natural processes associated with the mortal cycle of corruption and generation (death, and the process of sexual reproduction that it necessitates). 

What is Jesus’s attitude to ritual impurity in the gospel narratives? Thiessen notes that in all three gospels, Jesus encounters people who suffer from one of the three involuntary and untreatable physical conditions that render a person a primary source of severe ritual impurity: an abnormal or diseased genital flux, lepra (a non-contagious and relatively minor skin ailment linked with death in biblical culture and long misidentified as leprosy), and death itself. The person suffering from any of these untreatable conditions remains impure and unable to contact sacred space and objects, until the defiling condition is healed or resolved and the requisite offering is performed (an offering that purges the temple, not the offeror, of the defilement that was engendered by the offeror’s previous impure state). Thiessen correctly notes that while the ritual purity rules help severe impurity-bearers manage their condition by ensuring that their interactions with others will not lead to a defilement of sancta, and while the sacrificial system reduces the damage these impurities inflict on the sanctuary by purging the sanctuary of their baleful effect, neither system eliminates (heals) the physical condition that is the source of the impurity. Because these impurities are not secondarily derived but inhere in the body of the sufferer—and indeed, are an endemic aspect of human existence—the condition causing them must first heal or resolve on its own. Only then can the impurity-bearer perform the necessary rituals that cleanse the sanctuary of the defilement their condition has generated and restore their ability to access the sanctuary and handle sancta until such time as a new impurity arises (as it inevitably will).  It was, after all, an unremarkable fact of life in antiquity that people cycled in and out of the varying degrees of ritual impurity associated with the natural and endemic processes of death and sexual reproduction, the inescapable and defining traits of mortal existence.

According to Thiessen, the gospel writers depict Jesus as assuming and operating within this system even as he improves upon it, for Jesus provides not merely a management plan but a permanent solution to the recurrent problem of involuntary physical conditions that are a source of severe impurity. In the gospel narratives, Jesus encounters individuals whose bodies bear a powerful impurity that is the nemesis of the holy; but Jesus’s body bears an even more powerful holiness—a holiness so potent that far from being harmed by impurity as one might expect, it overwhelms and utterly vanquishes the physical conditions that are the source of the severe impurity. Jesus, as the holy one of God, is presented as a new weapon against the forces of impurity which under normal circumstances are capable of driving holiness from the world; with Jesus, the gospels assert, a potent holiness has appeared on the scene, a holiness that can destroy sources of severe impurity rather than retreating before them.

And so it is that Jesus’s touch communicates a holiness that eliminates a man’s lepra in his first encounter with a severe ritual impurity in Mark 1 (the subject of Thiessen’s chapter 3). Jesus is not to be understood as violating ritual impurity law by touching the man as there is no prohibition against contracting ritual impurity. Indeed, most ritual impurity is natural and involuntary and some is the inevitable result of virtuous activities that are positively commanded—such as sexual reproduction and burial of the dead—a fact widely misunderstood by NT scholars. Nor is Jesus’s act to be understood as the miraculous healing of a horrific and highly contagious illness since the ailment is minor and non-contagious, despite its severe impurity consequences. Thiessen argues convincingly that the point of the story in all its versions is Jesus’s miraculous elimination of the source of the man’s impurity. Unlike priests, who can only diagnose the man’s condition and assist with the safe management of the impurity it generates, Jesus has the power to utterly eliminate the condition altogether. After doing so, Jesus instructs the man to present himself to the priest so that his pure status can be affirmed and the appropriate sacrifices offered—entirely in keeping with Lev 13 and 14. As Thiessen points out, Jesus’s actions do not contradict or challenge halakhic norms but uphold them; moreover, his treatment of the man afflicted with lepra is not unprecedented in Jewish tradition, as both Moses (Numbers 11) and Elisha (2 Kings 5) are said to “purify” persons with lepra by eliminating the condition afflicting them. In so doing, Moses and Elisha are not understood to be rejecting or violating the system of ritual impurity. Nor should Jesus be so understood.

In Chapter 4, Thiessen discusses Jesus’s encounter with a second severe impurity bearer (Mark 5 and parallels). In this case, Jesus’s natural, or ontological, holiness is so powerful that contact with even the hem of his garment is sufficient to unleash an involuntary charge of holiness that eliminates a woman’s diseased genital flux. Thiessen decisively refutes a series of standard misreadings of this story: given universal cross-cultural beliefs about the impurity of genital fluxes in the late antique Mediterranean world, the story is clearly a story about impurity and not merely healing; the condition that afflicts the woman is not simple menstruation but the diseased and treatment resistant flux described in Lev 12 that prevents persons from entering sacred areas; the condition is not part of a regime of purity legislation targeting women for exclusion since the rules regarding diseased fluxes affect both men and women, both priests and laity, without distinction (Lev 12); and the woman does not sin by touching Jesus’s garment for two reasons. First, according to Lev 12, the flux bearer may touch others with hands that are washed (we may note here, following Milgrom, that it is the flux itself that is impure, not the flux bearer, which is why impurity is communicated to items upon which the flux bearer sits or lies and why washing the hands to ensure that they are free of flux enables the flux bearer to touch others). Second, even if the woman’s unwashed hands were contaminated with some flux and capable of conveying impurity, we have already noted the absence of a prohibition against contracting impurity. There is, however, a prohibition against conveying impurity to that which is holy, and this, according to Thiessen is the reason for the woman’s hesitation to touch Jesus. She evidently believes that Jesus is the holy one of God, and hesitates for fear that she might defile him, but in the end her faith in his holy power prevails (for which Jesus praises her), and indeed the holiness discharged from his body is said to heal her condition and eliminate her impurity. In this encounter, Jesus takes no action that can be interpreted as signaling an indifference to ritual impurity (even in Matthew’s version of the story in which Jesus touches the woman intentionally) since again, there is no prohibition against coming into contact with an impurity bearer.  Moreover, the gospel writers are keen to communicate that Jesus is an unprecedented source of potent holiness that is invulnerable to impurity.

If the story of the gonorrhoeic woman emphasizes the independent operation of Jesus’s holy power in overcoming impurity, stories of his encounters with the dying and dead (Mark 5, Luke 7, John 11) emphasize his ability to overcome the strongest of all impurities even at a temporal and spatial distance. In chapter 5, Thiessen examines these stories, pointing to widespread beliefs about corpse impurity and proper burial of the dead in the broader late antique Mediterranean context. Once again, he corrects errors rampant in the existing scholarship (many will be interested in Thiessen’s excellent contextualization of the story of the good Samaritan within a larger “conflict of laws” debate illuminated by ancient Jewish sources). He argues against interpretations of these revivification stories as stories about mere “healing,” rather than the elimination of the most intractable and inexorable ritual impurity (indeed, the entirety of Mark 5 is a series of confrontations with various ritually impure entities and conditions). Once again, he argues against the view that Jesus dismisses ritual impurity and/or violates ritual impurity law by touching corpses or entering the houses containing them, correctly pointing out that there is no prohibition against a lay Israelite contracting corpse impurity.  He offers a succinct summary of the message conveyed by these stories: “Despite the fact that corpse contamination was the strongest form of impurity in Jewish purity thought, the Gospel writers depict Jesus repeatedly overcoming it…the Gospel writers were convinced that Jesus was a source of holiness that was even more powerful than death itself” (p. 122). Death, the most intractable source and common denominator of all ritual impurity, is the one truly inescapable element of the human condition, but the gospel narratives depict Jesus as carrying a holiness that is capable of vanquishing death—not unlike Elijah and Elisha who possessed and exercised a similarly revivifying holiness.

And with that, the inexorable ritual and narrative logic shaping the larger gospel narrative of Jesus’s battle with impurity comes into clear view: for the gospel writers, that battle must culminate in Jesus’s final victory over mortality itself. What other ending to the story can be expected than that he himself should prove to be invulnerable to death, that he himself should be resurrected to eternal life, and that the holy power effecting his final defeat of death should have the spillover effect of opening many tombs and revivifying long dead saints—without any physical contact at all? As Thiessen writes, “Whereas corpses usually emit some miasma of impurity, Jesus’s corpse appears to emit a miasma of holy power” (p. 111) capable of defeating death and revivifying the dead.   As the holy one of God, Jesus is not only invulnerable to ritual impurity, but he is also able to defeat and escape the very cycle of mortality that produces it (a claim that surely underwrites narrative and latter theological attempts to distance Jesus from sexuality as well).

As Thiessen correctly emphasizes, to destroy the sources of ritual impurity is not to destroy the system of ritual impurity itself (6, 93, 121); on the contrary, to do battle with ritual impurity and to vanquish it assumes the latter’s reality and power.  Like many others in Mediterranean antiquity, including other Jews (for which see the work of Vered Noam), Jesus appears to have invested impurity with a metaphysical reality, like that of holiness. And it is a small step from the idea of impurity as a metaphysically real power to the claim that impurity is animate and demonic. Little wonder that in addition to recounting Jesus’s elimination of the physical sources of severe impurity, the gospel narratives depict him doing battle with and vanquishing the metaphysical sources of severe impurity—impure spirits (pneumata). In chapter 6, Thiessen situates the stories of Jesus’s battle with impure spirits within the larger context of late ancient beliefs about malevolent demons (daimons). In the gospel narratives, Jesus is armed with a holy pneuma capable of overcoming the impure pneumata that possess and torment humans. In sum, the gospel writers depict Jesus as theholy one of God (a title that the impure spirits themselves confer upon him in Mark 1:24) bearing a uniquely powerful holiness that heals and uproots not only the three severe ritual impurities of the priestly legislation but also the demonic spirits widely believed in late antiquity to be the metaphysically real source of ritual impurity (149).

From the perspective of the authors of Leviticus, the (re)animation of ritual impurity in the form of a metaphysically real and demonic force in Second Temple Jewish circles and in the gospels would have been viewed as a “return of the repressed.” As noted above, and as argued by Yehezqel Kaufman and Jacob Milgrom, ritual impurity in Leviticus does not arise from the activity of powerful demons. The priestly source of the Hebrew Bible attempted to “monotheize” the conception of ritual impurity by transferring it to the morally neutral and inescapable natural processes that characterize mortal existence in the mundane (non-holy) realm, as a reminder that the human and divine are distinct, that only the latter is to be revered, and that although the characteristic features of human nature—death and the sexual reproduction it necessitates—are themselves neither prohibited nor sinful, their deification mostly certainly is. It is for this reason that Leviticus chooses to mark them as giving rise to an impurity that must be kept separate from all that is truly holy. How far this demythologized view extended beyond priestly circles is a matter of great uncertainty. It is clear that dualist perspectives, in which cosmic and metaphysically real forces of good and evil are locked in a perpetual struggle, appear in other biblical sources, and forcefully reassert themselves in Second Temple writings—particularly at Qumran. And as Thiessen has now shown, a similar metaphysical dualism characterizes Jesus’s approach to ritual impurity as depicted in the gospel narratives.

 In a concluding chapter, Thiessen describes the full “purification mission” of Jesus that emerges from the gospel narratives: not only does Jesus eliminate ritual impurity—both its physical conditions and its metaphysical source, the impure pneumata—but he also eliminates moral impurity through the forgiveness of sins. Many first century Jews would have seen these actions as the illegitimate usurpation of a power belonging to God alone, but the gospel writers did not. According to Thiessen, the latter “were convinced that God had introduced something new into the world to deal with the sources of these impurities: Jesus. By inserting a new, mobile, and powerfully contagious force of holiness into the world in the person of Jesus, Israel’s God has signaled the very coming of the kingdom—a kingdom of holiness and life that through the mission of Jesus overwhelms the forces and sources of impurity and death, be they pneumatic, ritual, or moral” (p. 179). 

And here is where the “Jesus within Judaism” approach reaches its outer limit. Thiessen is correct to insist that Jesus’s actions and approach to ritual impurity—even his belief in its metaphysical reality—find parallel and precedent in ancient Jewish sources and are explicable only from within that context. Nevertheless, the claim that he was not merely a holy man of God (like Elijah or Elisha empowered by God to also raise the dead) but rather the holy one of God, embodying a holiness so potent that it has utterly vanquished sin and death—those inescapable conditions of human existence—set the Jesus movement on a course that would eventually take it, by its own lights, out of Judaism.

In sum, it is to be hoped that Jesus and the Forces of Death augurs an era of greater integration of the achievements of Jewish Studies scholarship into the study of the New Testament. The book illustrates the positive results of such an integration. Armed with a thorough understanding of biblical and post-biblical ritual beliefs and practices, Thiessen persuasively counters centuries of erroneous interpretations that with few exceptions have read Jesus as hostile to the temple cult and purity system. He shows that the gospel writers depict Jesus as not only conversant with the system of ritual impurity prevailing in his community but also compliant with it. More significantly—and here’s the kicker—Thiessen shows that Jesus sometimes adopts stringent positions among the legal positions available, and that his “mission of purification” was predicated upon an acceptance of the metaphysical reality of ritual impurity. This ancient view was de-emphasized by the authors of Leviticus in two ways: they downplayed the metaphysical reality of ritual impurity by associating it with natural mortal processes, and they attributed moral impurity to the sinful choices of morally free humans rather than the activity of demons. Similarly, in rabbinic legal sources, the “realist” understanding of ritual impurity appears as a minority voice over against a more dominant nominalist treatment of ritual impurity, and a moral understanding of sin predominates over a metaphysical understanding. Against these demythologizing tendencies, a belief in the metaphysical reality of ritual impurity and in demonic responsibility for sin was prevalent in the cultures of late antiquity, including Second Temple Judaism and, as Thiessen has demonstrated, the gospel narratives about Jesus. Unsurprisingly, this belief has continued to find expression, to varying degrees and with varying degrees of success, in Christian and Jewish cultural formations down to the present day.

 Jesus and the Forces of Death is a brilliant book. Full of insights on matters large and small, it makes a powerful case for locating Jesus within Judaism. In more specific terms, it adds to a growing body of scholarship that aligns Jesus with Jewish groups known to have adopted a posture of metaphysical realism (or ontological “essentialism”) on a range of hotly debated topics in late Second Temple and early post-destruction Jewish society.

[1] This summary conforms to the summary in Thiessen’s first chapters though with differences in emphasis and is drawn from my article on “Purification and Purity” in T&T Clark Companion to Second Temple Judaism, eds. Loren Stuckenbruck and Daniel Gurtner (New York: T & T Clark, 2019).