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Did Jesus Violate the Purity Laws in the OT?

Philip Pang
Introduction

Various positions can be adopted with regard to the attitude of Jesus towards to the OT
regulations of ritual purity. Did Jesus conform to the purity codes in the OT? Or was he a
reformer who added new meanings and reinterpreted the OT Leviticus laws? Or did he radically
reject the purity codes altogether? The objective of this paper is to find the answer primarily
from the Gospel but with the aids of the OT, Qumran, Philo, Josephus and the Mishnah. There
are two major sections to this paper. The first part studies Lev 11-16 aiming at getting a proper
understanding of the meanings behind these purity codes. The various understandings to the
basic concept of purity from Qumran, Philo, Josephus and the Mishnah are also studied making
reference to the OT understanding. The second part examines various NT passages in relation to
the issue of Jesus’ apparent violation of the purity laws. The goal is to understand from these
passages Jesus’ view to the purity laws (which he seems to have violated) as well as to find the
answer to our question, namely, whether Jesus violated the Purity Laws in the OT or not?

Overview of Purity Concept from OT to Qumran

The OT Concept of Ritual Purity

Ritual unclean in the OT is not a hygienic issue. Hauek defines it as, “anything associated
with a foreign cult, or hostile to Yahweh, is unclean. This is the primary origin of the OT law of
meats. Animals are disqualified which were once totem animals or animals dedicated to a god. In
only a few cases do aesthetic and hygienic considerations underlie the declarations of
uncleanness.”1 Nor should ritual impurity be confused with moral impurity. This paper is
primarily concerned with the ritual purity and detail discussion on moral impurity is beyond the
scope of this paper, the relationship between Impurity and sin is fundamental to a proper
understanding of OT concept of ritual purity. Moral impurity basically originates from the
violation of the moral character and is considered an act against God. Ritual impurity may be
understood as a state of uncleanness described primarily in Lev 11-15.

Concept and Relationship between Impurity and Sin in the Hebrew Bible

There is definitely a distinction between moral and ritual impurities. Moral impurities are
caused by violation of moral laws but ritual impurities are often incurred through contraction by
contacts with unclean objects.2 Both consequences and penalties differ drastically. For instance,
offenders of sexual laws (Lev 18) are considered willful sins abominable to the Lord. There is no

2
Neusner claims that no contrast is made between cultic and ethical impurities but makes distinction
between ritual impurities and sin.
2

provision but to be cut off.3 Ritual impurities, on the other hand, are never considered as sin.4
They are often results of uncontrollable life circumstances such as birth, death, menstruation or
diseases. With the exception of the cases of various diseases, there are always prescribed
cleansing period and rituals for their removal.5 The importance of distinguishing between moral
and ritual impurities6 has largely been neglected until Klawans advances his arguments on a clear
distinction.7 Such distinction is best seen from their cause and effect.8

Causes for Ritual and Moral Impurities

There are a few major sources of ritual impurities. The contact of the corpse of the
prescribed list of unclean animals in Lev 11 constitutes uncleanness for a day. Israel is forbidden
to consume any unclean animals. Irregular discharges from genital areas for man and woman are
considered unclean (Lev 15). Childbirth (Lev 12) and menstruation (Lev 15:19-23) are unclean
for a prescribed period of time. Leprosy is unclean and can afflict a house (Lev 13-14). Physical
contact with animal corpse is unclean (Lev 11) and uncleanness of human corpse (Num 5:2; 19)
can be transmitted without direct contact (Num 19:14-16).

In the process of producing the ritual detergent in Num 19:7-13, the priest is rendered
unclean by physical contact with the red heifer’s ashes. Since he is mandated to burn the red
heifer, essentially he is required by the Mosaic Law to make himself unclean. This is important
because impurity is incurred as a process of fulfilling the divine commandment for the removal
of corpse impurity. This is a case where obedience incurs uncleanness.

From the above list, it seems that impurities contraction is a part of daily life.9 It is not
something prohibited and there is no moral censure against it. The best example is the
uncleanness due to marital intercourse (Lev 15:18). Both the husband and the wife are
considered unclean because of their contact with the semen. The same applies to childbirth and
menstruation. Moral defilement is caused by intentional or unintentional violation of moral
3
The term “cut off” is primarily used in connection with purity and sacrifice (7:20, 21, 24, 27; 17:4, 9, 14;
18:29; 19:8; 20:17, 18; 22:3; 23:29). For the meaning of cut off, please refer to Levine’s excursus in his Leviticus
commentary.
4
The exception is when one fails to observe the purity rule. In Lev 18:19, the offender of having sexual
intercourse with the woman during her period is classified among other sexual sins with the same penalty. .
5

6
Klawans points out the pitfalls of these terms. First, they do not appear in the text. Second, distinction
between ritual and moral purity naturally leads one to elevate moral impurity over ritual impurity. Third, the
juxtaposition of these terms may convey the false notion that they are opposing and mutually exclusive to each
other. However, the term “ritual” communicates well the idea that violation of ritual purity results in exclusion of
certain ritual acts or privileges.
7
Unfortunately, Klawans did not include food laws in his discussion.
8
Klawans identifies five major differences between ritual and moral purities: 1) Ritual impurity is not
sinful. 2) Ritual impurity is contagious but moral impurity is not. 3) Ritual impurity is not permanent but moral
impurity is long lasting. 4) Ritual impurity can be emeliorated by purification rite but moral impurity by atonement
5) there is a terminological distinction between the two.
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Laws. Animal sacrifices are required for the atonement of transgressions. Penalties range from
various forms of compensations to the offended party from damages to persons to properties.

Consequence of Ritual Impurities

With various causes for ritual impurities, it is not surprising to find various degrees of
defilement and various demands for purification. Harrington suggests that corpse defilement is
the “most potent of all impurities” and fire is the “most intense purifier.”10

When a person contracts any impurity, he may not eat of any sacrificial meat (Lev 7:19-
20) and violation results in being cut off (Lev 7:21). In Lev 7:19-21, the specifics of uncleanness
are not given and there is no mention of prohibition to sacrifice. From the context, if partaking of
sacrificial meat is part of the sacrificial process, it is implied that he is not allowed to offer any
sacrifice at all. In Num 9:7-11, the men with corpse impurity are forbidden to offer any sacrifice
(v. 7), and upon inquiry to Yahweh Moses confirms such prohibition and demands them to delay
the Passover for one month. This practice is confirmed in 2 Chr 30:3 where Passover was
postponed due to the impurities of the priests. Without giving details of the cause of impurity
(Lev 7:19-20; 2 Chr 30:3), it is quite possible that the restrictions is generic and not dependent
upon particular type of impurities.11 Another measure against corpse impurity is the prevention of
entry into the camp until after ritual purification (Num 31:24). It is quite clear that none of these
restrictions are considered as sins. Only disobedience to the purification rituals is considered a
serious capital offence (Lev 7:21; 15:31; Num 19:13). Corpse impurity seems to be of special
concern to the priests but it should not be regarded as exclusively for priests.

Moral impurities are caused by violation of moral laws but ritual impurities are often
incurred through contacts with unclean objects.12 The consequent and penalty differ drastically.
For instance, offenders of sexual laws (Lev 18) are considered willful sins abominable to the
Lord. There is no provision but to be cut off.13 Ritual purities, on the other hand, are never
considered as sin14 and often results out of uncontrollable life circumstances such as birth and
death. They are mostly temporary and there are prescribed rituals for their removal.15 An impure
person is not a sinner or a ritually approved person necessarily righteous. This is clearly seen
from the two drastically different prescribed remedies. Ritual impurities are typically removed by
a specified period of separation, lustrations and offerings and the primary restriction is the ability

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11

12
Neusner claims that no contrast is made between cultic and ethical impurities but makes distinction
between ritual impurities and sin.
13
The term “cut off” is primarily used in connection with purity and sacrifice (7:20, 21, 24, 27; 17:4, 9, 14;
18:29; 19:8; 20:17, 18; 22:3; 23:29). For the meaning of cut off, please refer to Levine’s excursus in his Leviticus
commentary.
14
The exception is when one fails to observe the purity rule. In Lev 18:19, the offender of having sexual
intercourse with the woman during her period is classified among other sexual sins with the same penalty. .
15
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to approach the tent of meeting (i.e. to enter the holiness zone surrounding the altar) during the
unclean period. The remedy is not forgiveness but cleansing rituals.

Corpse Impurity (Num 19:14-22)

The transmission force of corpse impurity is given in Num 19:14-22. Anyone who enters
into the tent with a corpse is susceptible and becomes unclean regardless of any direct contact or
not (v. 14). He is unclean for seven days, the degree of his uncleanness is as serious as he is in
direct contact with the corpse (Num 19:11). Without direct contact, the only possible means of
transmission is air. This is evident in the subsequent statement (v. 15) regarding the susceptibility
of vessels without lid (i.e. exposed to open air). When the corpse is inside the tent, it is possible
that corpse pollution is some kind of miasma that exudes from the corpse.16 The regulation given
in v. 16 is in direct contrast with vv. 14-15, which deals with the case of a corpse inside the tent
in a confined space. The point here is that the rules in vv. 14-15 is applicable only in the confined
space. When the corpse is in open space, direct contact is needed to contract impurity.

Harrington follows the Rabbis and sees the sword (v. 16) as having the same degree of
impurity as the slain person. The mention of the sword would otherwise be superfluous.17 This is
a misunderstanding of the highly repetitive nature of the Hebrew language.18 If the sword is
equally defiling, why is it not listed along with the grave? It seems that the contrast between vv.
14-15 with v. 16 suggests that the open air contamination requires direct contact and the issue
with the contamination of the sanctuary in v. 20 is caused by the disobedience to the ritual
cleansing rather than because of distant effect of impurity. It is also possible that the defilement
is incurred by his entering into the sanctuary.

Leprosy Impurity (Lev 13:45-46; 14)

The word ‫ צָרַעַת‬usually translated as “leprosy” is a generic term for skin disease.19 It
usually refers to disease that is not infectious. Maccoby clarifies well the common
misunderstanding,

the symptoms described [in Lev 13] belong not to one, but to many, skin affections, all of
which were lumped together under the Hebrew term tzara‘at: psoriasis, favus, vitiligo
and others. The only reason why the term ‘leprosy’ was used to describe these ailments is
a confusion about Greek word lepra, which is used both in Septuagint and NT. Lepra
does not mean ‘leprosy’, for which the Greek term is elephas or elephantiasis, but skin
diseases of various kinds. It is probable that leprosy proper did not exist in the Middle

16

17

18
There are numerous examples of similar redundant descriptions. The exact same expression (slain +
sword) is used in Num 31:8; Josh 13:22. In 1 Chron 5:22, “for there fell down many slain,” “fell down” is redundant
for those who were slain must necessarily fell down.
19
It explicitly states that it is not leprosy for it is curable.
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East at the time when Leviticus was composed… lepra of Leviticus… is not life
threatening. Nor is it infectious to any high degree.20

It is quite possible that a leper needs to cover his face and cry, “Unclean, Unclean”
because of the horrifying visual appearance of the disease (Lev 13:45).21 The leper is to adopt
posture of a mourner (Ezek 24:17, 21) to tear his clothes and allow his hair to be unkempt
because he has become a social outcast. This is definitely lamentable since his unclean status is
indefinite, with the exception of his recovery.

When one is declared clean by the priest, he is to offer two sacrifices before he is
received back to the community (Lev 14:1-32). The first is a local sacrifice (vv. 1-8) where the
priest is to bring two ritually clean birds. One is to be killed over fresh running water so that its
blood is mixed with the water. The other life bird is then dipped into the blood water with cedar
wood, red cord, and hyssop and then released. Then the blood is sprinkled seven times on the
person who has been declared clean. Verse 9 states clearly that, “then you will be ritually clean,”
this procedure is intended for ritual cleansing.22 On the eighth day, he is to offer the second
sacrifice, which consists of three lambs (two males and one female) and a meal offering and oil.
The priest is to take the first sacrifice (the trespass offering) and put its blood on the right ear,
thumb and big toe of the cured leper. Then he sprinkles oil seven times and put some oil on the
right ear, thumb and big toe and pours the rest on his head. The second sin-offering and the third
burnt-offering are then followed by the meal offering.

These sacrifices are considered “atonement” (vv. 18, 20, 29, 31) for the leper. These
required sacrifices have led some to argue that leprosy is a judgment for sinning against the
Lord.23 The fact that Leprosy has been used as a means for punishment (Num 12; 2 Kgs 5:20-27;
2 Chr 26:16-19) does not mean that all the bearer of the disease is a sinner.24 However, for those
who recovered, Miriam and Naaman, they are not required to offer any sacrifice to atone for their
sins.25 There are parallel requirements to bring a sin offering in the cases of childbirth (Lev 12:7),
discharge (Lev 15:15) and discharge of blood flow (Lev 15:30), where childbirth is clearly not

20
For more detail descriptions of various other medical illness that can be identified as the Levitical
leprosy see
21

22
Regarding the interpretation of the two birds, the symbolic idea of the freed live bird is generally agreed
to be the release of the disease. Milgrom points out the bird is not killed by wringing off its neck but by
slaughtering. This suggests that the bird is not viewed as a sacrifice. Milgrom suggests that the bird symbolically
absorbed the impurity of the victim. Rabbinic tradition of burying the bird on the spot is interpreted as an assurance
that impurities will not be spread. Maccoby sees the two birds as parallel to the two goats, which is to be understood
“as a late version of a rite in which humans, not animals, were involved.” Ross sees the two birds as two possible
fates – death or life. The slaughtered bird signifies the fate of the diseased person apart from God’s intervention.
Maccoby’s position is too speculative and lacks concrete evidence. Both Milgrom’s and Ross’ proposals are
possible.
23
Lloyd Davies sees the need for sacrifices because of the common notion that leprosy is a result of sin
punishment. Since anxiety is a major cause of dermatitis, she argues that a purification rite in which the disease is
transferred to a living bird would completely release the tension and make the cure permanent.
24
There is no mention of any sin of Naaman. The sins of Miriam, Uzziah and Gehezi are insubordination,
presumption and greed respective. If leprosy is a judgment for sin, it is unclear of what particular sin would deserve
such a severe penalty. Also, there is no direct Scriptural support to view leprosy as sin.
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sinful. The details for the sin offering given here are not exactly the same as that for offered in
regular routine.26

The traditional view sees these offerings as requirement to compensate for his sacrificial
duties during the whole period of his sickness. However, it is better to see these offerings as
celebratory providing restoration back into the community.27 Maccoby’s comment is helpful here,
“The fact is that the ‘sin-offering’ (hatta’t)is more correctly translated ‘purification offering’, as
Milgrom proves abundantly. It is therefore suitable for inclusion in a in a purification ceremony
for a severe impurity. Even when brought to expiate a sin (transgression of a negative
commandment), it is required only when the transgression is unwitting. Its function, therefore, is
not to wipe away sin, but to effect reconciliation between the unwitting sinner and God.”28

In contrast to the elaborate description of how objects become unclean when they come
into contact with the disease, nothing is said about treatment of a person who touches a leper or
objects touched by the leper. What is more interesting is the twofold quarantine periods of the
potentially contaminated objects is done in the same manner as the leper himself. This suggests
that only objects (or certain materials) are susceptible to leprosy. Human seems to be immune.
Harrington points out that the priest, who both pronounces the disease and its cure, seems to be
immune to its power of contamination for there is no mention of any required purification for the
priest.29

The severity of impurity in leprosy is second only to corpse impurity and they should be
grouped together. They are the only cleansing rites that involve cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet,
and sprinkling (Lev 14:6-7; Num 19:6, 18). There is no explicit scriptural description regarding
the leper’s ability to spread uncleanness to anybody in the room.30 In contrast, the corpse
impurity is seven days and no touching is needed. On the other hand, the leper is banished from
the community altogether yet the one who contracts corpse impurity is excluded only from the
holy areas.

Impurities from Bodily Discharge (‫( )זָב מִ‍בְשָרו‬Zab) and Childbirth

The widespread fear and disgust of genital discharges, menstrual blood in particular, is
widely attested in Antiquity.31 In In Lev 15:1-15, for the first time in Leviticus, we have the
transmission force of impurity. Impurity can not only affect person, but also be transmitted to

25
Naaman’s vow to offer a burnt offering (2 Kgs 5:17) was a voluntary act, not a requirement.
26
Ross points out that a lamb is brought instead of a full grown ram, and the one-fifth offering is not
required.
27

28

29

30
The Talmud suggests that a person who touches a leper is unclean until evening. (M. Kel 1:4).
31
Milgrom gives numerous examples from all major ancient countries.
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objects. Here, the genital discharges32 contaminate objects (such as beddings, seats, and saddles)
underneath the person. This is easily understandable for they are in immediate contact with the
flow. In light of the fact that underpants were not worn except for priests while officiating (Exod
28:43), there is nothing to stop the flow onto the furniture underneath.33 This explains why
anyone who is in contact with these objects becomes unclean for the person can indirectly be in
contact with the discharged fluid. The issue in v. 11 clearly assumes that the hand was in contact
with his genitals.

The discharge of blood during menstruation makes a woman unclean for seven days (Lev
15:19-24). The principle of transmission is similar to the genital discharge of man. Anyone who
touches her bed or things she sit on may have indirect contact with the menstrual blood and
therefore must wash his clothes and bath and becomes unclean for one day (“until evening”).34
Since the objects (e.g. bed, seat …etc.) that are in contact with her become unclean, it is implied
that these objects also have to go through the same period of seven days purification with her.35
When compared with the seven day uncleanness for corpse impurity (Num 19:14), this is much
less severe. Also, direct physical contact is needed to incur menstrual impurity in contrast to the
distant contamination for corpse impurity. Unlike the case for leper impurity, the menstruating
woman is not to be isolated from the community during her unclean period. The person who has
intercourse with her suffers seven days of uncleanness and anything that he lies on will become
unclean (15:24). There is no mention of any period of the uncleanness of these objects but the
default assumption would be the minimum one day uncleanness. The silent about the
transmission power implies that they have no ability to further incur uncleanness.
At the end of her unclean period, she is to bath but there is no mandate for any sacrifices to be
offered.

Kazen points out a distinction regarding the different consequences of a person who
touches the discharge (zab) (Lev 15:7) and the menstruant (Lev 15:19).36 The person who is in
contact with the discharge must launder, wash his clothes, and is unclean till evening. But the
person who touches the menstruant is unclean till evening. Scripture seems to be silent regarding
the case for touching of the woman with discharge (zabah). By analogy with the man with
discharge (Lev 15:7), that person would become unclean and must bathe and wash his clothes.
But by analogy with the menstruant, he only needs to bathe.

The case for abnormal discharge beyond her menstrual period is handled slightly
differently. Her transmission power is exactly the same as a menstruant but the period of her
uncleanness last as long as her discharge continues. From the day she stops her discharge, she

32
The term ‫( זָב‬discharge) does not refer to seminal emission. First, the imperfect ‫ היה‬+ participle (‫)זָב‬
indicates action continuing in the future. Also, this verb is never used with ‫( זָרַע‬seed/semen) and the issue of
seminal emission is addressed later in vv. 16-18. The best option is a reference to a gonorrhea like disease.
33

34
Milgrom points out that the term “unclean until evening” always implies ablutions but never includes
washing clothes.
35

36
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has to count off seven days and on the eighth day she is to offer two young pigeons one for burnt
and one for sin offerings.

The impurity of childbirth (Lev 12) is greater than that of menstruation. This is clear from
the supplementary unclean period of 33 days (for the birth of a son) and 66 days (for the birth of
a daughter) in addition to the one week (for a son) or two weeks (for a daughter) period of
uncleanness. However, one must take into consideration the rather different nature of the
supplementary period, during which the only prohibitions are her contact with holy things or
enter the Temple (v. 4). Unlike the menstruation uncleanness, this supplementary period has no
restriction regarding sexual relationship with her husband. And her “uncleanness” is entirely
non-transmissible. In contrast to the menstrual uncleanness, at the end of her uncleanness, she is
to offer a one year old lamb for burnt offering and a young pigeon or dove for a sin offering
(v.6).

Physical Defects in Lev 21:16-21

It has often been pointed out that those who are with Physical defects such as “maimed,
lame and blind” are disqualified for certain religious ceremonies. But the context of the
discussion of the physical defects in Lev 21:16-24 refers to the qualification of priesthood. The
parallel rejection of defective sacrificial animals is seen from Lev 22:17-25 and Deut 15:21. The
unusually high standard demanded here is best understood as the special roles the priests and the
sacrificial animals are playing. The high standard is needed for the priest because of his
mediating role standing between the human and the divine. The sacrificial animal demands
higher standard because of its sacrificial function – to be a representation and substitution for the
sinner.

The Impurity Concept in Qumran

The 11Q Temple Scroll reveals a high standard of purity for residence in ordinary cities
and even higher standard for the Temple City. From the Rule of the Community in 1QS 3:4-9, it
states, “[the sinner] will not become clean by the acts of atonement, nor shall he be purified by
the cleansing waters, nor shall he be made holy by seas or rivers, nor shall he be purified by all
the water of ablution. Defiled, defiled shall he be all the days he spurns the decrees of God… it is
by the holy spirit of the community, in its truth, that he is cleansed of all his iniquities. And by
the spirit of uprightness and of humility his sin is atoned. And by the compliance of his soul with
all the laws of God his flesh is cleansed by being sprinkled with cleansing with the waters and
being made holy with the waters of repentance.” It seems that moral impurity defiles the physical
body which demands both external purification as well as internal repentance by means of the
holy spirit. The Qumran community does not make a sharp distinction between ritual and moral
impurities. Sin is a source of ritual defilement and therefore both need be cleansed by atonement
as well as repentance.37 In Qumran, those who are maimed, halt, and blind are not qualified to

37
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participate in the eschatological battle against evil (1 QM 7:4; 1QSa 2:3-7). It seems that Qumran
has extended the priestly restriction in Lev 21:16-21 to a much broader application.38

With regard to corpse impurity, there was a first day ablution (in addition to the third and
seventh day sprinklings prescribed in Num 19) where a person who enters the house with a
corpse is to bathe in water and launder his clothes on the first day (11QT 49:16-21; 1QM 14:2-3).
After this initial bathing, the person could remain in the city and finish remaining requirement of
the week.39

The Qumran interprets Lev 13:45-46 as that lepers should not only be set apart from their
community, they should also be set apart from other impurity bearers (i.e. lepers) as well (4Q274
1 1:1-4; 11Q19 [11QT] 46:16-18; 48:14-17). According to 11QT 46:16-18, lepers and
dischargers are expelled from Jerusalem. This may suggest that they are expelled from ordinary
cities too.40

There seems to be an equalizing tendency in Qumran where the differences between the
contamination effects of various genital discharges are minimized. This means that different
types of discharges are put on the same level.41 The same principle for the lepers applies to those
with bodily discharges or menstruants. Their contact with others with similar discharge problems
can further contaminate them (4Q274).

Implications on Attitudes Towards Impurity from Philo and Josephus

Büchler points out that levitical purity laws does not apply to Gentile until about 65 that
the schools of Hillelites and Shammaites declared that the Gentile was affected by the grave
levitical impurity42 as a precautionary measure against the Romans.43 Since the levitical impurity
of the Gentile was not due to himself but was communicated to him through his wife on account
of her permanent state of menstruous unclean, he can only defile the priest and not an ordinary
man.44

According to Philo, for a person who enters a house which someone died, he is not
allowed to touch anything until he has washed his clothes and bathed. He is not allowed to enter
the Temple for seven days and everything inside the house is unclean (Special Law III:206-7).
This is a clear expansion since Num 19:15 restrict the unclean objects to those without a cover
on it.

38

39

40
There is no mention of any need to expel a corpse impure person outside of the city despite its seemingly
more serious defilement.
41

42
The Mishnah does not explain why Gentile levitical impurities was compared with that of a grave.
43

44
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With regard to the contamination of a leper, Josephus writes, “But now that he [Moses]
was not subject in his body to any such calamity, is evident from what he himself tells us; for he
forbade those that had the leprosy either to continue in a city, or to inhabit a village, but
commanded that they should go about by themselves with their clothes rent; and declares that
such as either touch them, or live under the same roof with them, should be esteemed
unclean.”(Against Apion 1:281)45

Josephus seems to tie ritual and moral impurities – in a way that ritual impurity of the
body was a sign of moral impurity of the soul. He mentions sprinklings done for purification
after a funeral or after sexual relations, or before entering a synagogue or before praying. He
often explains the motivation by appealing to symbolism or allegory.46

Concept of Ritual Purity from the Mishnah47

All twelve tractates in the sixth section of the Mishnah are devoted to the issues of
levitical purity and impurity. In addition, many tractates of the Tosefta, both the pre-Mishnaic
and post-Mishnaic Baraitas are also devoted to the same subject. In light of the enormous corpus
of Mishnah on this topic and the rather limited scope of this paper, only a few selected issues
regarding the concept of impurities are discussed below.

Corpse Impurity in Mishnah

In the Mishnah, there seems to be an expansion of the corpse impurity defined in the
Hebrew Bible. Sanders identifies four Mishnaic additions to corpse impurity. 48 1) It could escape
through a hole opening from one room to another room (Oholoth 13:1,4; 15:8; T. Ahilot 14:4). 2)
Impurity is sometimes dependent upon intention. All the doors or doorways are unclean except
there was intention to take the corpse out through one of them, and in that case, all entrances are
pure except the one which the corpse actually went through. (Oholoth 7:3; T. Ahilot 8:7). 3)
Grounds of improper burial by the Gentiles are defiling (Oholoth 18:8; T. Ahilot 16:6). 4)
Objects that overshadow49 a corpse or anything which a corpse overshadows becomes unclean.
(Oholoth 5:1; 11:4; 11:3,5,6).50

45

46

47
All the quotations of the Mishnah are taken from the Neusner.
48

49
Maccoby suggests that the term “overshadow” is a reference to the position either vertically above or
below the corpse.
50
Harrington’s attempt to argue for consistence of Mishnah with the Hebrew Bible is not convincing.
Regarding the ability of corpse impurity to travel through air, he cites Milgrom’s view of sanctuary pollution from
afar. However, Milgrom’s position has been refuted by Maccoby. As discussed earlier, Num 19:14-15 is concerned
with objects confined within the tent. Regarding the matter of intention, the problem is not the absent of intention in
biblical laws, rather it is the addition of intention by the Mishnah for the definition of corpse impurity.
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Basically, the rabbinic theory of impurity transmission through a hole connecting one
space with another arises from the attempt to interpret “tent” in Num 19:14. The issue is whether
a “tent” refers to the entire house including all the rooms or whether it refers to a single room.
Logically, when there is a hole of certain size between two rooms, they can be counted as a
single “tent” connected by the hole.51 Maccoby points out that their concept of “overshadow” is
an addition rather than a logical derivative of the biblical concept of a “tent.” The rabbinic
concept of a tent is a device preventing impurity52 because Num 19:14ff is the only situation
where impurity acts at a distance. Then the question becomes what direction does impurity
travel? Apparently, their answer is that impurity can travel vertically up or down with unlimited
distance until it reaches the “deep” below or the ceiling of the tent. This explains why everything
under the ceiling becomes unclean. If we suppose the absence of the tent, impurity can travel
upward unbound until it hits an object (or a person) and therefore anything that overshadows a
corpse is considered unclean. Likewise, impurity can travel downward until it hits an object and
defiles it.53 If impurity only travels vertically, why would objects or people in the tent be defiled?
The reflection of the upward impurity of the corpse by the ceiling of the tent distributes impurity
throughout the tent and makes everything inside unclean. So, horizontal pollution is a side effect
of vertical defilement.

Further extension of this concept explains the concern for proper burial. In Num 19:16,
grave is listed as a source of defilement alongside corpse. If a corpse lies in a tomb with space
more than a handbreadth, the tomb acts as a tent and defilement is confined within the tomb.
However, a coffin does not have the same protection as a tomb because its lit is considered as a
doorway, not a ceiling. So, the polluting effect of a grave is essentially the same as a corpse lying
in the open. This explains why proper burial is crucial to corpse defilement.54

Leprosy in Mishnah

Since the details of leprosy uncleanness in Lev 13-14 mainly focus on the objects, the
Mishnah fills in the regulations application to human. Maccoby summarizes the rabbinic ritual
purity regarding leprosy as follows:

The leper himself is a Father of Uncleanness. He must withdraw from the camp (city),
and live and eat alone, or with other ‘lepers’. He must undergo periodic examination by a
priest, who pronounces his impurity, or (if he is cured) his resumption of purity.
Persons or vessels which touch him suffer a one-day uncleanness. Anyone who carries
him or moves him (even without touching him) also suffers a one-day uncleanness.

51

52
Since the contamination happens to objects “in” the tent, the tent itself is not contaminated. Instead, the
ceiling of the tent becomes a resisting agent preventing contamination from traveling further. This is essentially a
reversal of the biblical picture.
53

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A habitation in which the ‘leper’ lives, or into which he enters becomes unclean. All
persons or vessels within it suffer a one-day uncleanness.
A house or garment that becomes affected by ‘leprosy’ may be pronounced only partly
affected. In the case of a house the unclean part is removed outside the camp to an
‘unclean place’. In the case of a garment, the unclean part is removed and burnt. If
wholly affected, the house must be wholly removed, or the garment burnt.
Persons and vessels within a ‘leprous’ house suffer a one-day uncleanness, and wash their
clothes. However, vessel may be removed before the priest’s inspection.55

The inclusion of person with the vessel becoming unclean upon contact with the leper is
probably the filling in of the gap for situation not addressed in Scripture. Both Neusner and
Harrington see nothing new introduced by the Mishnah.56 The Mishnah regards leper impurity
less severe than corpse impurity for it does not have “a universal-wide up-and-down thrust (or
‘cleaving’) of corpse impurity. (T. Neg 7:3)

Discharge, Menstruant and Childbirth

Maccoby points out that according to the Baraita di-masseket Niddah there is a minority
of rabbinic circles around the ninth or tenth century who treat the menstruants as a kind of social
outcast. The menstruant is forbidden to even perform the usual household tasks or even to light
the Sabbath lights.57 This illiberal tract is believed to have caused the debate whether a
menstruant should be isolated and eventually led to the rejection of menstruant isolation by the
Maimonides.

The rabbinic system for menstrual impurity follows closely the biblical mandate at the
beginning making distinction between the seven days of menstrual uncleanness (which begins at
the onset of menstruation) and the seven days of abnormal discharge uncleanness (which begins
at the cessation of blood flow). In light of the complexity of each woman working out her
menstrual cycle, the rabbis eventually merges the two and have the seven days begin from the
cessation of flow in both cases.58

The mode of transfer of uncleanness for both the menstrual woman and Zab is through
pressure sitting on the chair or bed. This is referred to as madras. The other mode is through
touching of other objects not used for sitting or lying.59 The rabbinic concept of maddaf
corresponds to the transfer of uncleanness from the flux-suffers to utensils (not used for sitting or
lying) situated above them or in their vicinity.60 This concept is analogous to the concept of
‘overshadowing’ in the case of corpse impurity for no physical contact is required in both cases.

55

56

57

58

59

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The Torah is silent about the contamination power of the parturient during her
supplementary unclean period. By the principle of qal va-homer, she is just as contaminative as a
menstruant during her supplementary period. Maccoby summarizes the rabbinic laws pertaining
to the parturient:

1. The parturient herself is unclean for 7+33 or 14_66 days; she causes uncleanness to
persons or vessels by:
Touching (one-day);
Sitting, lying or riding on (seven-day);
Being carried (or shifted) by (one-day);
Maddaf (one-day).
2. A couch or seat that has contacted uncleanness from a parturient causes a one-day
uncleanness to persons or vessels by:
Touching or carrying.61

The impurity of the flux, menstruant and parturient share the maddaf, yet the
contamination is less severe than that of the corpse’s overshadowing contamination for the
maddaf defilement only last for one day.

Exterior and Interior Cleanness

Regarding the issue of exterior and interior cleanness of a vessel, Kelim 25:6def, “D. A
utensil, the outer parts of which have been made unclean with liquids – the outer parts are
unclean. E. Its inside, its rims, hangers, and handles are clean. F. [If] its inside is made unclean,
the whole is unclean,” states clearly that a vessel can become unclean outside can still be clean
inside. From Berakhot 8:2ab, “A. The house of Shammai say, ‘They wash the hands and then
mix the cup [of wine].’ B. But the House of Hillel say, ‘they mix the cup and then wash the
hands,’” Neusner suggests that there are two Pharisaic schools of thought disagreeing with each
other regarding whether the inner part is determinative for uncleanness. The Palestinian Talmud
tradition denies the influence of the inside on the outside. However, the Hillelite Pharisees
reasons that the outer part is always unclean and therefore the inner part of a vessel is
determinative. Thus, he sees Jesus’ position in Matt 23:26 essentially Hillelite and originated
from the period of Shammaite predominance. Jesus only turned the debate into a moral issue. 62

Jesus’ Attitude of Impurity

Some Arguments for Jesus’ opposition to Purity Codes

For the readers who are familiar with the OT purity regulations, a causal reading of the
gospels inevitably raises the question whether Jesus really abided by the OT laws. In the context

61

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of a society that is preoccupied with ritual impurities contracted through physical contact, the
frequent mention of Jesus “touching” the sinners, lepers, the corpse and others in various ways in
the gospels becomes a subject of great importance. For example, Jesus healed a leper in Mark
1:40-44 (Matt 8:1-4; Luke 5:12-16) by touching him when he didn’t really need to. On his way
to heal Jairus’ daughter, he allowed the woman of hemorrhage to touch him (Matt 9:18-26; Mark
5:21-42; Luke 8:40-56). Subsequently, when he resurrected the daughter of Jairus by holding her
hand, he touched the corpse (Mark 5:35-42//Matt 9:18-26//Luke 8:40-56). In Mark 7:1-23, there
are a few issues regarding violations of purity rituals. His disciples ate before washing their
hands (v. 2) and subsequently, he declared all food clean (v. 19). In Mark 8:23, Jesus healed a
blind man by spitting on his eyes. He did likewise in Mark 7:33 when he spat and touched the
tongue of the dumb person.

Since the temple is the heart of the purification system. The priests (the authoritative
figures behind the Temple cult) have the monopoly on forgiveness and purification. When Jesus
challenged the priest, scribes and the Pharisees, he symbolically repudiated the purification
system behind the priest and the temple. His cleansing of the Temple (Mark 11:15ff; John 2:13-
17) presents a direct confrontation both to the priests and to the purification system lying behind
them. Jesus’ healing of the physically defects in the temple precincts (Matt 21:14-17) is another
way to challenge the chief priests, the scribes and their purification system.

Jesus’ eating with Levi, the tax collector (Mark 2:13-14) may be considered a violation of
their purity rules for a tax collector is considered a sinner. In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus allowed a
sinful woman to anoint his feet raises the concern of the Pharisee since physical contact with a
sinner is considered a violation of the current purity standard. Jesus’ association with sinners and
social outcast definitely creates a concern whether he violates the law of purity or not. He
disregarded taboo by approaching both women and Gentiles. This suggests contempt for purity
concern of the day.63

On the other hand, Jesus seems to oppose the current ritual or sacrificial system when the
priests and scribes do not have any problem with it. Jesus’ anger in his cleansing of the temple in
Mark 11:15-19 suggests either he opposes to the sacrificial system or that he sees a defilement of
the temple. There are other cases where Jesus seems to have violated the Mosaic Laws. Jesus
plucked grain on Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28; v.24) as well as his healing on Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6).
From these examples, evidence seems to be mounting regarding Jesus’ rejection of the OT Laws
and more specifically the concern of purity laws.

Mark’s purity concept

Mark seems to present Jesus as “out of place” and “time” challenging the current Jewish
purity system. And the majority of the passages that portrait Jesus this way comes from Mark. A
study on the concept of purity in Mark is helpful to the overall understand of Jesus’ position on
purity. Neyrey proposes four purity maps of places, persons, times and impurities. The map of

63
Jesus’ proclamation for the forgiveness of sin is a disregard of the sacrificial system of atoning sacrifices
through temple cult. Since this paper is primarily concerned with ritual purity. The issue of forgiveness of sin is
beyond the scope of this paper.
15

place consists of ten degrees of holiness beginning from the Land of Israel and ends in the center
of the Temple, the Holy of Holies (m. Kelim 1.6-9). Holiness of a place is defined in terms of
proximity to the center. The map of people replicates the map of places in the sense that only the
priests may enter the sanctuary and Holies of Holies. Taking holiness to mean wholeness, the
map of people moves from full Israelites (priests, Levites, Israelites) to blemished Israelites
(impaired priests, proselytes, freemen) and gravely blemished Israelites (bastards, foundlings,
fatherless) (T. Meg 2.7; m. kid. 4.1; m. Hor. 3.8; t. Rosh Has 4.1). The map of uncleanness has
the corpse being the most severe followed by leper, the uncleanness of a woman and the
uncleanness of a man. The map of times has the Sabbath as the most holy because of its link to
creation, followed by the Passover and the Day of Atonement and the other festivals.64

Neyrey defines purity in terms of external and internal boundaries. External boundaries
are diet, circumcision and observation of Sabbath, which distinguish Jews from non-Jews.
Internal boundaries are Jewish social classes and structures. He defines holiness as, “separateness
from all things unclean, defective, or marginal, is indicated in behavior which keeps one separate
from uncleanness and which maintains the classification system.”65 According to Neyrey,
Gentiles are unclean because they were outside the boundary. Neyrey’s purity maps are certainly
helpful in identification of various degrees purities or holiness within the Jewish purity system.
However, to define purities through setting boundaries using these maps is problematic. His
solution seems to be an oversimplification because the Jewish concept of purity is more complex
than his theory can handle. Klawans points out that he fails to make distinction between status
and impurity. Status or class is permanent but ritual impurity is generally considered a non-
permanent condition. More importantly, the treatment of sin under the rubric of impurity
boundaries fails to account for the distinct nature of defilement because of ritual purity and moral
impurity.

Neyrey suggests that Jesus did not repudiate the purity system. Rather, he proposes a
reformed system by redrawing the boundaries.66 On the contrary, Jesus was a defender of the
purity laws. He appeals to Scripture in defense of the essence of these laws, especially when
what the Pharisees ‘claims’ to follow the law but in fact violates them. For example, the concept
of Korban in Mark 7:10, the temple cleansing in Mark 11:15-19 and the divorce issue in Mark
10:5. It seems that what Jesus was really against was not the purity system; rather it was the
legalism of the Pharisees.

Issue with the Washing of Cups (Matt 23:25-26; Luke 11:39-41)

Both Matthew and Luke present the washing of cups in the context of the woes to the
Pharisees. The issue with Matt 23:26 is the interpretation of inside and outside of the cup,
whether it should be taken literally as ritual cleansing or a metaphor for the human heart? Some
take the first statement of v. 25, “You clean the outside of the cup and dish” literally as reference
to the Pharisaic regulations of washing cups but the second statement, “but the inside they are

64

65

66
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full of greed and self-indulgence” as a metaphorical application to the first.67 Neusner argues
from Kelim 25:6 that it is the inside that is determinative for whether an object is clean or
unclean. Since this is essentially the same position Jesus is taking, the Pharisees must have a
different position. The problems with this proposal have been thoroughly refuted by Maccoby.68

It seems better to take both statements as metaphorical. The cleansing of cup and dish is
used metaphorically to point out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.69 The inside and outside refers to
morality and external observation of the law respectively. It has nothing to do with ritual purities
at all. Maccoby convincingly argues that, “It is unquestionable that there was only one way of
washing ritually-unclean vessels, whether wholly or partly unclean: to immerse them totally in
the water of the Miqveh (ritual immersion pool). Since there was no custom of washing cups on
the outside only, Jesus’ saying, ‘You cleanse the outside of the cup…’ must be taken
metaphorically.”70 He explains well that, “Jesus is not disputing with the Pharisees about which
is more important in ritual purity contexts, insides or outsides. He is attacking hypocrisy, which
may be defined as being different on the outside from what one is on the inside…. A cup that has
been washed on the outside but is still dirty on the inside is a vivid image of hypocrisy, and a
speaker who uses this image is not aiming at any programme for the reform of cup-washing in
the area of ritual purity.”71

Maccoby further points out the difficulties of taking v. 26, “first clean the inside, and then
the outside will be clean” as relevance to ritual cleansing at all for there is no purity-law analogy
for such formulation.72 Qumran’s concept of purity seems to be the flipped side of Matt 23:25-26.
For Qumran, inner impurities prevent the outside to be clean but for Jesus, inner purity leads to
outside purity.73

The Issue with the Cleansing Ritual of Washing Hands before Eating (Mark 7:1-23)

Regarding the similar saying in Luke 11:39-41,74 only the cup and the dish is mentioned
and food is not involved. The mention of the “maker” of both the inside and outside in v.40
suggests that one is not to make dissect the inside and the outside. Bock is certainly right in
asserting that one cannot divide life “into inner and outer selves, appearance and substance,

67

68

69
The primary issue that Jesus had with the Pharisees here is their hypocrisy, not their cleansing rituals.
Unlike Luke 11:39-41 or Mark 7:1-23, the accusation of the Pharisees is not associated with hands washing before
eating a meal (Mark 7:2; Luke 11:38).
70

71

72

73

74
Bock is probably correct in seeing this as a unique event rather than a parallel with either Mark 7:1-9 or
Matt 23. Whether Luke 11:39-41 is parallel does not impact our discussion on purity.
17

public and private.”75 The assertion that almsgiving makes the whole clean is not to be taken as a
rejection to the ritual practice, rather the intention is to place it in stark contrast to the Pharisaic
purity which lacks moral purity.76 Almsgiving is an act of mercy, kindness and love that comes
from a pure heart. Bock states well that, “If one gives sacrificial attention to inside things – those
things tied to character, caring, and spirituality – then cleanliness will be present and complete
(πάντα, panta, all, is in emphatic position).”77 If the Pharisees were to deal with moral purity in
the same manner they handle ritual purity, their cleanness would have been complete. The
following verse, “For you pay tithe of mint and rue and every kind of garden herb, and yet
disregard justice and the love of God; but these are the things you should have done without
neglecting the others,” (NASB) makes it clear that Jesus has no objection to their high standard
of ritual purity. The issue is their “neglecting” of the internal aspect.

Maccoby suggests that the issue of hand washing in this passage is a matter of hygiene
rather than ritual purity and Jesus’ objection was over concern for hygiene.78 If the issue is
hygiene, it is difficult to see why Jesus quoted Isa 29:13 to rebuke them? The issue with the
Pharisees is evidently not hygiene but ritual purity but the issue with Jesus is what goes beyond
and behind the ritual cleansing. Zaas argues a moralization of the purity laws in Mark 7:1-23. He
writes, “The dialogue lying behind Mark 7:1-23, in which Jesus takes a Sadducean position
about purity, shows another alternative.” He sees that Jesus declares all foods clean and
consistently behaves as if the biblical purity laws have no claim on what he touches.79 For Jesus’
violation of dietary laws (Mark 7:19) and not washing before eating (7:2), Neyrey suggests that
Jesus has a different purity system than that of the Pharisees. The Pharisees are concerned with
the externals, Jesus is concerned with the internal (Mark 7:15). 80

It is clear that the issue that the Pharisees have with Jesus is about “washing of hands,”
not about food law.81 The accusation against Jesus is his violation of the “tradition of elders” (v.
5), not eating unclean food. Basically, Jesus has not violated any Mosaic Law at all. In addition,
Mark provides the list of various traditions of the elders such as their bathing after they went to
the market place and their washing of cups, pots and brazen vessels (v. 4). This suggests that
Jesus is having problems with the numerous man made traditions of the Pharisees. Jesus’
response in quoting Isa 29:13 and claiming fulfillment on the Pharisees is significant. With this
quotation, Jesus points out two major problems of the Pharisaic tradition of the elders. First, their
meticulous observation of external purity ritual is contradictory to their internal motive. Jesus is
not taking issue with their external purity ritual; rather it is the contradiction between their
external ritual purity and their internal moral purity. Interestingly, Jesus ties the ritual purity
(external) with moral impurity (internal). Essentially, Jesus is taking the occasion of their
insistent on external rituals to reveal their hypocrisy. Second, Jesus is against their placing their

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made tradition above God’s commandment. Not only that, they were using their man made rule
to nullify God’s rule. Jesus quotes their use of Corban to violate God’s commandment to honor
the parents. From the elaborations of various rules in v. 5, there are probably many other similar
violations.

What Jesus opposes to is not the tradition itself, but the use of tradition to violate God’s
law. It is uncertain whether Jesus actually opposes to human traditions even when they are not in
conflict with God’s commandments. It is certain that Jesus does not oppose to the biblical purity
law.

It has often been pointed out that Jesus abrogates the Mosaic food law in v. 15, “There is
nothing outside of a person that can defile him by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of
a person that defiles him.” (NET). The case seems to be strengthened along with the
parenthetical comment on v. 19, “thus he declared all foods clean.” 82 Chilton argues that Jesus is
redefining purity in the idiom of righteousness within the context of a dispute over hand-
washing.83 The views of Jesus either abrogates or redefines food law is a result of failure to
distinguish between ritual and moral impurities and confusion of the shared terminology used for
both ritual and moral uncleanness. Various arguments are presented below to argue that Jesus
does not reject OT food laws.

The context is quite clear that the “defiled” (κοινῶσαι) in v.15a does not refer to ritual
defilement caused by unclean food. Rather, it refers to moral uncleanness. Therefore v. 15
essentially means, “One cannot be made morally unclean regardless of what food he consumes
because moral impurities come from within the person.” Moral impurity is a matter of the purity
of the heart, and has nothing to do with ritual purity. The more detail and private explanation in
vv.18-20 clarifies that the referent of “what goes in” (v.15a) is all kind of food. The referent of
“those that defile the man” in v.15b is listed in details in v.21-22. The explanation in v.19 that,
“because it does not goes into his heart” is important because it informs us that the uncleanness
that Jesus is referring to in v.15a is not ritual impurities because of food but moral impurities
because of the heart. Therefore, the entire discussion here has nothing to do with food law at all,
much less Jesus’ intention to reform OT food law! However, this explanation does not seem to fit
the parenthetical explanation in v. 19. There are three possible ways to deal with this. First, this
explanation means nothing other than the disciples understanding (actually misunderstanding) of
Jesus’ words. Second, it may reflect a retrospective understanding of Jesus’ word in light of
subsequent revelation regarding the change in food law and therefore it is inserted as a
parenthetical comment. Third, this merely states the fact that all food is clean with respect to its
ability to make a person morally unclean.

Salyer’s rhetorical analysis of this passage is helpful in understanding the essence of


Jesus’ main points. He points out that Jesus uses two enthymemes to explain Mark 7:15.84

82
The parallel passage in Matt 15:1-20 does not have this remark regarding declaring of all food clean.
83

84
A enthymemes is a truncated syllogism with either the major of minor syllogism suppressed. The
conclusion is usually stated at the beginning of the enthymeme.
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Enthymemes 1 Enthymemes 2
Conclusion Whatever goes into a person from What comes out of a person defiles
outside cannot defile him (v. 18b) him (v. 20)
Premise 1 It (food) does not enter his heart but Evil ideas, sexual immorality, theft,
his stomach, and then to the sewer murder from within, out of the
(v. 19) Human heart (v. 21)
Premise 2 Anything that does not enter into Evil thinking defiles
the heart (i.e. food) does not defile

This passage can be outlined according to the public and private discourse. Jesus
responds to his opponents publicly in vv. 14-15. Typically, upon the failure of the disciples to
understand, Jesus elaborates its meaning in a private setting (vv. 17-23). It is clear that the
original statement in v. 15 is broken up and repeated in v. 18b and v. 20 as shown in the table
above. Each saying is explained in the form of an enthymemes with the conclusion stated at the
beginning. In Enthymemes 1, the first premise for “whatever goes into a person from outside
cannot defile him” is given as, “It does not enter his heart but his stomach, and then to the
sewer.” The omitted premise that the readers are supposed to fill in is then, “Anything that does
not enter into the heart does not defile.” The same rhetorical style is shown in the second column
in the above table. Premises 1 for both enthymemes provides the answers to “what goes in” and
“what comes out” – food and evil thoughts respectively. Premises 2 provides the answers to
“what does not defiles” and “what does defile” – food and evil thoughts respectively.
Apparently, Jesus cannot be talking about two types of different defilements (ritual and moral) in
the two enthymemes. The entire discussion is on the moral defilement. The physical, external
and visible features of food are used merely to contrast the internal and invisible features of evil
thoughts. This analysis affirms the earlier arguments that the defilement refers to moral
defilement, not ritual defilement.

Even when granted that the “defilement in v.15 is ritual, it can still be shown that v. 15 is
not a rejection of food law. Dunn points out that, “the ‘not…but’ antithesis need not be
understood as ‘either…or,’ but rather with the force of ‘more important than’”85 An excellent
example is seen in Mark 2:17, “Οὐ χρείαν ἔχουσιν οἱ ἰσχύοντες ἰατροῦ ἀλλ᾽ οἱ κακῶς ἔχοντες”
(Those who are healthy do not need a doctor, but those who are sick do). If this principle is
applies here, Jesus is arguing that the internal moral purity is more important than external ritual
purity provided by the food law. 86

There are other arguments from outside of Mark that also suggest that Jesus did not
redefine the food law. If Jesus had already abrogated the food law during his ministry it would
be difficult to explain Peter’s reaction in his trance when asked to eat the unclean food in Acts
10:9-16. Also, when Peter and Paul argued for whether Christians should eat kosher food, none
invoked Jesus’ teaching regarding the “reformed food law” in Mark 7:19 to settle the dispute.87

85

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The Issues with Jesus Touching the Unclean

Both the story of the hemorrhage woman (Matt 9:20-22; Mark 5:24b-34; Luke 8:42b-48)
and the many healings performed through touching by Jesus (Matt 14:36; Mark 6:56; Luke 6:19)
suggests that touching is the primary means for Jesus to bring healing. On the other hand, from
the many healings that does not involve touching, it informs us that touching is really not
necessarily to bring upon healing. In light of this, the healing of the leper by touching and the
resurrection of the Jairus’ daughter raises a legitimate question of whether Jesus’ touch is a
deliberate act to communicate his rejection to ritual purity prescribed in the OT. It is clear that
touching must have been a rather frequent means that Jesus uses to bring healing (Mark 3:12).
Evans is probably correct that, “the [hemorrhage] woman’s action may reflect the popular belief
that the fringe of a holy man’s coat possessed magical powers (cf. b. Ta‘an. 23b).”88

Jesus Healing a Leper by Touching (Mark 1:40-44; Matt 8:1-4; Luke 5:12-14)

In Mark 1:40-44, Jesus cures a leper by touching him. This incident has often used to
argue for Jesus’ intentional violation of ritual purity. The difficulty of this argument is that Jesus
asked the leper to show himself to the priest after the healing. Not only that, Jesus also
commands him to offer the sacrifices required by the Mosaic Law.89 Through this, Jesus
indirectly affirms that the Leviticus regulations (Lev 14:1-32) demanded of a cured leper. Either
Jesus is inconsistent in his rejection of OT ritual purity or he fully complies with the OT purity
rules. In the forthcoming discussion and arguments, it is argued that Jesus is in full observance to
the OT demands of ritual purity.

Cleansing of the Ten Lepers (Luke 17:11-19)

Matthew and Luke seem to portray the cleansing of leprosy as a characteristic and
paradigmatic feature of Jesus’ ministry (Matt 10:8; 11:5; Luke 7:22).90 Betz points out that the
typical Lucan notion of forgiveness of sin (such as used in Luke 7:48) is absent in the cleansing
of the ten lepers.91 The most likely explanation seems to be the cleansing here is limit to ritual
cleansing. Forgiveness comes into play only when moral cleansing is involved. The Samaritan
leper returns to Jesus once he sees that he is healed. This suggests that he does not go to see the
priests as the others do. (Since he is a Samaritan, he would not be seeing the Jewish priests but
would see the Samaritan priest at Mount Gerizim).92

Jesus’ instruction for the lepers to see the priest assumes that the healing would take place
before they present themselves before the priest. Apparently, all ten lepers are healed on their
way to see the priest. Moreover, out of the many leprosy healings (Matt 11:5), touching is
88

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90

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explicitly mentioned in the only other instance where details are given (Mark 1:40-45=Matt 8:1-
4=Luke 5:12-16). Perhaps a touch from Jesus is expected both by the lepers and the readers for
the popular belief that the healing is effected by means of touching. Without touching, this
healing becomes another distance healing miracle similar to that in Luke 7:1-10. Another
possible reason for the distance healing is perhaps this is a group healing. If not by distance
healing, Jesus would have to touch each one of them.

However, the focus of the story is not healing but thankfulness. Bock points out that this
periscope is part of the five miracles in the journey section where the point here is not healing
but the teaching following it.93 Betz points out that this is the only case in the NT where someone
thanks Jesus for elsewhere thanks are given to God.94 With a thanksgiving focus, the demand of
Jesus for these lepers to present them to the priest is significant to our understanding of Jesus’
attitude towards ritual purity. Jesus could have pronounced them clean as in Mark 1:41 before
sending them off. Asking them to present themselves before the priest suggests full respect not
only to the purity system but to the priestly authority behind the system. If Jesus were against
ritual purity, it is unlikely that Jesus would have asked them to see the priests.

Issue with the Hemorrhage Woman and the Daughter of Jairus (Matt 9:18-26; Mark 5:21-
43; Luke 8:40-56)

In this pericope, the healing of the hemorrhage woman is sandwiched between the raising
of Jairus’ daughter. Suggestions regarding the rationale behind the juxtaposition of the two
stories includes the number twelve (duration of hemorrhage and age of the daughter), the
designation “daughter,” the issue of faith or purity. Lane rightly observes that Jesus was being
touched by the woman with hemorrhage in the first story but he touched the hand of Jairus’
daughter in the second.95 The contrast of the two stories lies in both the touching and the healing.
The healing is performed unconsciously when the touching is passive and the healing is
conscious when the touching is active. Apparently, purity is the primary issue here.

From the earlier discussion, anyone who touches a woman with discharge becomes
unclean by analogy either with the menstruant or with the man with discharge. The case for
Jesus, however, is slightly different for the contact was initiated by the woman, not Jesus. With
the understanding of the equalization tendency of the Second Temple period, who initiates the
contact is irrelevant in terms of the resulting defilement.96 So, it seems that her touching Jesus in
her state of impurity would render Jesus unclean and potentially quite offensive. Since the
touching here is involuntary on Jesus’ part, this occasion cannot be used against Jesus violation
of ritual purity. The touching of the hand of Jairus’ daughter is clearly intentional. Since no
touching is involved in the resurrection of Lazarus (John 11), it is clear that touching is not
necessary for a resurrection miracle. This argues strongly for the intentional violation of corpse
impurity.

93

94

95

96
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Jesus as the Cleansing Agent

Neyrey’s proposal that Jesus was the cleansing agent who provides holiness, wholeness,
forgiveness of sins and life is probably correct. This explains why Jesus does not incur
uncleanness through contact with the unclean – he makes them clean.97 (Mark 1:41, 2:17 – but
this does not explain the violation of Sabbath Law). With regard to Jesus’ violation of the
Sabbath Law, he argues that Jesus has the authority to break it.98 But this provides little help in
identifying whether Jesus reject the idea of purity. Apparently, in Jesus’ purity system the real
source of impurity does not reside on the lips or hands but lies in the heart. Therefore, rituals for
external cleansing fail to remove internal impurity. Evans refers to this type of healing as “purity
miracle” as he writes, “The healing of the woman with the hemorrhage is as much a purity
miracle as it is anything else. Instead of conveying uncleanness to Jesus, whom she touches,
cleanness is conveyed to her.”99

From the various examples discussed above, Evans is certainly correct as he writes, “His
[Jesus’] willingness to touch the unclean and make it clean appears to have been a major element
in his ministry.” 100 The significant of Jesus’ touching not only lies in conveying his personal care
and love for the unclean but also his risking to be defiled by the touch. Theologically, the touch
is important because it is the prescribed means for contraction of uncleanness. Jesus’ touching of
the ritually unclean is intentional because Jesus is using the very same means that one contracts
uncleanness to convey “cleanness,” i.e. to remove uncleanness. Being a cleansing agent, the
holiness of Jesus is being “contract” to the unclean by means of touching. Defilement is spread
through contact with the source of defilement, whether it is the unclean person, object or a
corpse. The concept of Jesus’ healing through touching is essentially the same. Jesus is the
source of holiness or “cleanness,” and through contact with him, “cleanness” is conveyed to the
unclean. The defilement is reverse by touching – the exact same means for contraction of
defilement. Because of this, Jesus’ touching of the unclean is not a violation of to the purity
ritual.

The crucifixion of Christ on the cross seems to be an excellent analogy to this concept of
reversing impurity through touching. In Num 19, the ashes of the red heifer is used as the
cleansing agent for the removal of corpse impurity. The ashes itself is unclean as the priest who
touches it becomes unclean till evening (19:10). The paradox here is that the very unclean ashes
becomes the cleansing agent. Similarly, what is normally considered a punishment, the death on
the cross, when belonged to Christ, not only does it not make anything unclean it provides the
only means for salvation and reconciliation with God.

Issue with Jesus Allowing a Sinful Woman to Anoint his Feet (Luke 7:36-50, v.39)

97

98

99

100
23

The primary focus of the story is not the sinful woman. There is no specific details with
regard to her sins. It is possible that her sins are sexual.101 Chilton is right in seeing that, “the
narrative specifies the concern of the Pharisee as the woman’s physical contact with Jesus (7:37-
39). Fundamentally, therefore, the question of purity is the concern of the story, and Jesus
proceeds not only to justify the woman’s contact with him, but to cite it in detail (vv. 44-46).
Those who dine with Jesus rightly conclude that his endorsement of contact amounts to the
forgiveness of sin (v. 49): that is what saves her (v. 50).”102 Evans suggests that contact with
“sinful” woman could have been viewed as risking contraction with uncleanness.103 The fact that
the sinful woman somehow makes her way to enter into the Pharisee’s house suggests that
contact with her probably would not have led to a violation of the purity laws. Otherwise,
measures would have been taken to prevent her entry. As Evans points out that, “it is likely that
the woman had experienced forgiveness prior to her coming to Simon’s house.”104 Thus,
regardless whether direct contact with a sinful woman is considered a violation of the purity
laws, Jesus was in no violation because the sins of the woman had already been forgiven.

Issues with Jesus’ Association with the Sinners and Social Outcast

Jesus was not regarded as a sinner when he ate with the sinners and the social outcast in
Mark 2:15-17. But when Jesus violates the Sabbath by healing the blind man in John 9:16, 24,
25, he is called a sinner by his opponents. On other occasions, he is accused of being a gluttony
and drunkard (Matt 11:19//Luke 7:34) as well as being “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”
This seems to suggest that association with sinners and social outcast does not violate the law of
purity; rather it endangers a person to become a sinner by committing the same sins because of
his association with the sinners.

Evans suggests that the issue of the Pharisees with Jesus’ association with the social
outcasts rests on the logic of the Jewish exegetical principle of qal wehomer (“light and heavy”).
That is, if something is true in a major case, it is also true in a lesser case. He cites Josephus’
negative depiction of John as a supporting example. If John shows such contempt for the deity
by eating impure food, he would have no regard towards men in the offices of gentleness and
charity. If Jesus receives sinners and eats with them and if his disciples eat without washing
hands, this indicates that Jesus violates the purity rules and has no regard to the tradition of the
elders. This implies that he has little regard for God, thus his teaching and character are called
into question. Evans writes, “The complaint is not that Jesus shows lack of respect for the
teaching of the elders; it is that he has no respect for God himself.”105 If this interpretation is
correct, the Pharisees are not taking issues with Jesus’ violation of their purity regulations but

101
Evans’ suggestion that it is unlikely for her sin to be an non-observant Jews and therefore it is more
likely that she is either a prostitute or an adulterer.
102

103

104

105
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with his disrespect for God. Seeing the association of Jesus with the sinners and tax collectors as
a violation to ritual purity is another misinterpretation of the Scripture.

This is not to say that there is no conflict between Jesus and his opponent over the matter
of ritual purity. Evans rightly states, “the logic of the generative conflict between Jesus and his
contemporaries over understanding of purity, a conflict that was a very real and a very important
part of Jesus’ ministry and experience, and a conflict, it should be added, that continued to play a
role in the ever widening gap between church and synagogue.”106

Healing of the Physical Defects in the Temple Precincts (Matt 21:14-17)

The connection of blindness with sin is clearly made by the disciples in John 9:2,
assuming that they are rejected by God. Evans suggests, “In the Synoptic tradition the
assumption that those with physical defects are in some way impure or numbered among the
nonelect is also encountered.”107

In Matt 21:14-17, when Jesus heals the lame and the blind in the Temple area, the priest
and scribes are irritated not as much by his healing but by his allowing the children crying out in
the Temple, “Glory to the son of David” (v. 21). The primary concern of this passage is not Jesus’
violation of ritual purity, rather it is the praise coming out of the mouth of the children. A
physically defective is nowhere considered unclean in the OT.

Cleansing of the Temple (Mark 11:15ff; John 2:13-17)

Sanders proposes that Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple is a late interpretation where the
action is symbolic to its destruction.108 His thesis is difficult to maintain and has been thoroughly
refuted by Evans and Betz.109 Chilton argues that Jesus was not against sacrifice110 nor as a
prediction of the Temple’s destruction but was insistent on the purity in the sacrifice being
offered to God. He sees purity as a vital component for a sacrifice to be effect.111 His response to
Sanders’ proposal is probably correct as he writes, “[Jesus’] discourse concerning the destruction
of the Temple (Matt 26:61; Mark 14:58) was no mere symbol, but a focus of active, practical
concern within Jesus’ movement.”112

Chilton further suggests that, “what Jesus was doing in the Temple was preventing the
sacrifice of animals whose trade made them ritually impure in his eyes, and the focus of his

106

107

108

109

110
It is difficult to argue for Jesus’ opposition to sacrifice for elsewhere he suggests that sacrifices should be
offered (Matt 5:23-24; Mark 1:40-45). For other arguments, see Evans concurs in not seeing Jesus as against the
sacrificial system.
111

112
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action is marked by the φραγέλλιον ἐκ σχοινίων.”113 He sees it as “a programmatic intention to


assure fitness of sacrifice.”114 If the trade were to happen anyway for those who travel from afar,
it is difficult to see why the trade would make them impure. However, he rightly points out that
the sacrificial animals themselves are probably pure and unblemished according to the Mosaic
standard else they would not be qualified to be offered in the Temple.115 Without further
justification, it is difficult to see why the sacrificial animals (unblemished) would become
ritually impure just because they were acquired within the temple precinct.

It seems more likely that the issue in Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple has to do with the
purity of the Temple itself.116 John 2:16b, “Do not make my father’s house a house of trade,”
clearly states that the problem lies not in the purity of the sacrifices but in the trading. In Matt
23:16-17, the Temple is viewed as the source of sanctification. With the understanding of the
fundamental definition of holiness, the Temple is holy because it has been set apart for the
worshipping God. Any use other than the original intent is a violation and defilement. What is so
provoking to Jesus is that they have turned the holy place into a means for personal gains.117
That’s why Jer 7:11 and Isa 56:7 are quoted. The original intention is to make it a house of prayer
for all nations but they have made it a den of robbers.118

Jesus’ radical action for the ritual purity of the temple here is entirely consistent with his
emphasis on the purity. Only that this seems to argue against the view that Jesus replaces current
external ritual purity with internal piety. Fridreksen’s citation of Matt 5:23-24 as a ‘latent’
argument is really unnecessary. She argues for Jesus’ demand for a state of purity before
entering the temple.119 The difficulty with her argument is that the suggested reconciliation in
Matt 5:22-23 does not deal with ritual purity as such. Rather Jesus is teaching that holding
grudges against our fellow brothers jeopardizes our acceptance before God.

Miscellaneous Arguments for Jesus’ Acquiescent to Ritual Purity

Just in the Gospel of John, Jesus went to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festivals four times
(Jn 2:13; 5:1; 7:10; 11:55) for Passover and Tabernacle (John 7:10). It seems to be a fair
assumption that Jesus and his disciples were purified with the proper purification rituals before
they partake the Passover meals together.120 Also, from the Passion narrative, if Jesus had no

113

114

115

116
Evans writes, “in all probability what lay at the heart of Jesus’ concern with the Temple’s commercialism
had more to do with the essential function of the Temple, which entailed sacrifice as much as did prayer.”
117

118
The term λῃστής (robber) has the connotation of seizing by force. Evans points out that occasionally
the ruling priests sent servants to “take by force” more than their fair share of tithes and offerings. And this citation
is best seen as a rhetorical means to refer to corruptions in general.
119
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regard for the Jewish purity laws or anti-purity regulations, then the priest would not have had
such as difficult time to find fault to condemn Jesus.

From the brief survey through major passages that seems to portray Jesus as anti-purity,
the reverse seems to be true. The major problems that lead to misunderstanding of these
passages seem to be the censoring of evidence in these passages and misinterpretation of the
primary issues being discussed in them. There does not seem to be any formidable evidence
against the conclusion the Jesus did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (Matt 5:17).

Conclusions

Chilton writes, “Jesus, in other words, must be understood not over and against Judaism,
nor alongside it, but from within; necessarily, that implies he is to be apprehended as having a
positive definition of purity. That definition is cognate with an aspect of Jesus’ ministry which is
usually overlooked: his programmatic concern with the issues of who is fit to sacrifice, how a
person might be considered clean… purity is a systematic concern within early Judaism which
Jesus took up, and which has movement developed until it claimed that an alternative to purity
had been established.”121

What Jesus opposes was not rituals with regard to the Jewish purity system, rather is it
the human regulations that void of meaning or at times those regulations which defeated the
original intention of the laws. So, Jesus does not abrogate the rules of purity nor does he reforms
them and offered a new interpretation to it as Neyrey suggests.122 Qumran views sin as ritually
defiling but from the major passages discussed above, Jesus does not view sin as ritually
defiling. Rather, his concern is the morally defiling effect of sin on a person.123 The difference
between the Mishnah and the OT levitical laws seems to be a mixture of interpretation and
expansion. In so doing, additional requirements are introduced. The understanding of ritual
purity in the gospels is generally in agreement with the Mishnah.

From the above discussions, it seems that a distinction can always be made between the
ritual and moral impurities in the Gospels. The majority of passages that Jesus seems to have
violated ritual purity, the issue is almost always moral impurities. None of these passages suggest
that Jesus rejects any contemporary ritual impurity regulations, much less any intentional
violation. It is clear that Jesus does not mix up ritual and moral impurities as the Qumran
community does. Nor does he compartmentalize them as the later tannaim.124 At times, Jesus was
at pains correcting the misconceptions regarding their superficial understanding of the Mosaic
Law completely missing its essence.

120
Fredriksen writes, “at least one of them would have sacrificed a lamb at the Temple earlier that day, so
that they could eat the Paschal offering at the meal (Mark 14:12-16; I assume they did not violate Exodus 12:3 and
simply order the lamb from the holelier [see Mark 14:15]).” This is entirely possible.
121

122

123

124
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Bibliography