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A Goy’s Guide to Ritual Purity
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Date First Published: April 30, 2014
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For Wayne Sawyer, my pastor, teacher, mentor, and friend.
I

was brought up in a Christian home and was raised on the stories of the Bible. I went to Sunday School and listened to sermons and considered myself to be fairly biblically literate. One thing that was never explained to me, though, was the complicated and confusing system of ritual purity that plays such an important role in Scripture. Ritual purity was never explained to me in college either, where I majored in Biblical and Theological Studies, and it was passed over in silence in seminary. Such neglect gives the impression that ritual purity must not be important.

I suspect that I am not the only biblically-minded person who was never formally introduced to ritual purity. Without a formal introduction, ritual purity can appear to be arbitrary and irrational and therefore meaningless. There is also a theological hurdle that has to be overcome. Christians are often taught that the New Covenant has abolished the old code with its laws and regulations and therefore there is no point to learning about what is now obsolete. But it is arrogant and dangerous to dismiss something before understanding it, especially when ritual purity forms part of the cultural context within which Jesus lived and taught. For those who care to understand Jesus’ life and message, having a grasp on ritual purity is necessary. Without understanding it, it is impossible to assess Jesus’ attitude toward ritual purity.

In this “Goy’s Guide to Ritual Purity” I will not address Jesus’ attitude toward ritual purity. Instead, I want to take the prior necessary step of exploring what ritual purity actually is. I call it a “Goy’s Guide” because mine is an outsider’s view. I have not experienced ritual purity from within. This guide is necessarily simplistic and can only give a foundation for further study. I cannot, for example, discuss the differing approaches to ritual purity that developed in the Second Temple Period and thereafter. Those differing approaches are important, but first it is necessary to get a handle on the basics.

A Different Worldview

The concept of ritual purity is perhaps one of the most difficult concepts in the Bible for people to grasp today. Whereas in many “traditional” societies the concept of ritual purity was (and is) taken for granted in daily life, the whole framework for the concept of ritual purity is totally foreign to the secular western mindset. But understanding ritual purity is important if one wishes to comprehend the assumptions and presuppositions of the people mentioned in the Bible.

Understanding ritual purity requires an open mind and a willingness to accept that the ideas and categories we work with today are not the only valid ways of looking at the world. Those who are willing to thus broaden their outlook will be rewarded with a new appreciation for an aspect of the biblical worldview.

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Conclusion

When the biblical system of ritual purity is carefully examined, it is seen to be practical, rational, and filled with theological content. Important theological categories such as atonement cannot be properly understood without grasping the biblical system of ritual purity. This fact alone proves that ritual purity should not be dismissed as irrelevant. Even more important than its theological content, however, is the way ritual purity opens our minds to a different way of looking at the world. I consider it to be an important task to understand, accept, and sometimes to share the biblical worldview.

Suggestions For Further Reading

  • Jonathan Klawans, “The Impurity of Immorality in Ancient Judaism,” Journal of Jewish Studies 48.1 (1997): 1-16.
  • Jonathan Klawans, “Concepts of Purity in the Bible,” in The Jewish Study Bible (ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 2041-2047.
  • Thomas Kazen, Jesus and Purity Halakhah: Was Jesus Indifferent to Impurity? (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2010).
  • Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004). 
7 Comments
6 Comments
  1. This article was very helpful, Thank you for publishing it.

    I have one question. Could you please elaborate on ‘why Gentiles could not become ritually impure’? Kind regards, Anne

    • Dear Anne,
      Thanks for the opportunity to elaborate a little further on Gentiles and Ritual Purity.
      One of the paradoxes of the biblical system of ritual purity is the magnetic-like attraction between the holy and the impure. The holier a person or object, the more susceptible she or he or it is to defilement. Israelites were susceptible to ritual impurity because of their status as holy.
      Although in my simple discussion I treated Israelites as though they are “common” and only Levites—and to an even higher degree, priests—as “holy,” the fact is, the entire people of Israel is considered holy in comparison to Gentiles. It was on account of their holiness, for example, that Israelites had sanction to enter Temple courts. Gentiles were prohibited from the Temple not because of impurity, but because of their status as common. Otherwise a Gentile who had undergone the process of purification would have been able to enter the Temple courts, but this was not the case since holiness, as well as purity, was required to approach the Sanctuary.
      The natural state of any person or object is purity: in order to become impure a person or object has to come into contact with a source of impurity. In addition, there were many objects such as glassware and stone that were not susceptible to ritual impurity. Impurity simply didn’t adhere to such objects. This seems to be the case with Gentiles. The biblical commandments do not treat Gentiles as sources or bearers of impurity. Thus, the natural state of Gentiles is to be common and pure.
      Of course, by the time of the Second Temple Period different groups had developed different approaches to ritual purity. Certain groups did consider Gentiles to be impure, especially as they conflated the concepts of moral and ritual purity. Whereas in the biblical system sins defile the Temple, not the transgressor, in the Second Temple Period certain groups considered sins as defiling the individual as well. Since Gentiles were generally suspected of immorality and were especially associated with idolatry, the idea that Gentiles are impure became more widespread.

  2. Thank you for that. Now I have another question in response to the statement that “the natural state of Gentiles is common and pure”.

    What is meant by the distinction given in Acts 10:14,15 “what God has cleansed G2511, don’t call common” G2839? Is God telling Peter that the Gentiles are no longer to be considered ‘common’ but are also holy to God? Hebrew 10:29 translates same Greek word (G8239) that is translated ‘common’ in Acts 10, as ‘unholy’. That is to say: what God has cleansed/purified i.e. Gentiles, don’t call ‘unholy’, i.e. do call holy.

    (I am not a student of languages and am only using Strongs/Thayers/Apostolic Bible Polyglot/ and BDB when I do word studies, so my thinking may be muddled by various translations and changing contexts.)

    • Dear Anne,
      You have asked an excellent question, to which I can provide only a provisional answer. Although Hebrew preserves a clear distinction between “common” (חול) and “impure” (טמא), there are places in the New Testament (e.g., Mark 7:2; Rom. 14:14; Rev. 21:27) where we find “common” (κοινός) where we might expect to find “impure” (ἀκάθαρτος). This phenomenon may simply be a feature of the Greek language. Acts 10:14 seems to treat κοινός (koinos, “common”) as a synonym for ἀκάθαρτος (akathartos, “impure”). If κοινός and ἀκάθαρτος were regarded as synonyms this would explain why we find “common” where we would expect to find “impure,” and we might then understand Acts 10:15 to mean “What God has declared pure, you must not treat as impure.”
      If my explanation is correct, then Acts 10 is not a good basis for claiming a change of status for Gentiles from common to holy. Instead, the vision in Acts 10 was intended to communicate to Peter that he did not need to be afraid that having fellowship with Gentiles would make him impure.

      • Hi Joshua
        Further to the concepts of pure/impure and holy/profane, I was just reading 1 Corinthians this morning when the words ‘unclean” and “holy” in 1 Cor 7:14 jumped out at me (especially since I’ve been mulling your article over in my mind).Is this situation another case where the Greek terms akatharos, and hagios are being used with less precision than would be found in Hebrew?

        As you pointed out in your article, it is certainly difficult for a western mind to get a sense of how this worldview affected daily life. I understand how Acts 10 may be directed more to correcting Peter’s view of Gentiles than to serve as a ‘theological statement’. But then again if it took a ‘bat kol’ to change Peter’s thinking, could that be considered a theological statement? Did the Hebrew thinkers of the 2nd Temple period divide ‘theology’ from ‘life’ as much as we in the west do?

        A related question for me is: How do the statements in the OT, “one law for you and the stranger who dwells among you” e.g. Lev 24:22, Numbers 15:16 apply to the concept that Gentiles are ‘common’?

        I didn’t mean to keep coming back with more questions but your article has definitely stimulated my thinking.

        Thank you so much for giving time to these questions.

  3. Thank you Joshua for your thoughtful response. I especially appreciate your qualifying word ‘provisional’. Your humility as a scholar comes through. The insights you’ve shared in this article have been most helpful. Blessings,

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