Ritual Purity and Jewish Identity
Second Temple Judaism has become almost synonymous with the idea of ritual purity. From various sources, including Rabbinic writings, the works of Josephus, and the biblical texts themselves, we learn that ideas concerning the clean and unclean were constantly in the minds of the Jewish people of the first century. This had as much to do with the geo-political situation of the era as it do the interpretation of scripture.
Since the time of the Babylonian Exile, Jews had lived outside of Israel. While the Jewish remnant was allowed to return home and rebuild their temple following the edict of Cyrus, many Jews chose to stay in Persia and make a new life. This situation is illustrated beautifully in the Book of Esther. Nehemiah was even able to obtain the prestigious position of the King’s Cupbearer. Following Alexander and the rise of the Hellenistic empires of his successors, Jews spread out all over the known world during the Diaspora. With that, naturally, came a growing sense of identity as a people group. No matter where they lived, the Jews were God’s covenant people and would remain so. By adhering to the purity laws of the Torah, the Jewish people were able to strengthen their cultural identity as a separate people living amid other nations. The Book of Daniel, which is commonly believed to have been written in the early second century B.C.E., conveys this idea well, with Daniel’s refusal to eat unclean food and engage in unclean practices within the court of Babylon.
By the first century, however, these notions took on a much more political role within the lives of the people of Judea. God had yet to fulfill his promise to the prophets and restore the Kingdom of Israel. In place of the promised Davidic king, a pagan governor ruled the land on behalf of an emperor across the Mediterranean. The “unclean” was constantly in their midst, exercising power and control. In effect, ritual purity became an act of defiance that separated the Jewish people from their gentile overlords. As an example, Josephus relates how hard it was for Herod Antipas to find Jews that would live on the defiled soil of Tiberius, a town the client king had built in honor of the Roman Emperor (Antiquities 18.36–38).
The main religious factions of the day each had their views concerning ritual purity. For the Sadducees, who were mainly comprised of a familial priesthood concerned with attending to the Temple and all that entailed, purity was crucial for their identity as priests. In order to do their jobs they had to keep to all of the various ritual purity laws written in the Torah, particularly those that concerned the priesthood in the Book of Leviticus.
The Pharisees and the Essenes, however, believed the Levitical purity laws of the Torah should be practiced by all the Jewish people. This belief was likely influenced by the text of Exodus 19:6, in which all of Israel is called be a “kingdom of priests and a holy people.” For the Essenes, who viewed themselves as spiritual successors to the corrupt priests of Jerusalem, ritual purity was a constant effort. As described by Josephus, they always ate their meals in a state of purity, immersing themselves before every meal and only eating food prepared by priests. Members of the community also swore to never eat the food of the non-initiated. These same concerns seem evident at Qumran as well, as the Dead Sea Scrolls describe similar practices among that community.
According to Josephus, the Pharisees were among the most scrupulous in their observance of ancestral purity laws. Perhaps this was due to the fact that the Pharisees did not seclude themselves in an extreme effort to avoid the unclean. As such, the rabbis and the people who adhered to their teachings did what they could to remain a ritually pure people living alongside unclean pagans.
Within the Gospels, this underlying agenda is prevalent within the episodes dealing with notions of purity. At times the apparent lack of concern shown by Jesus and his followers provokes the Pharisees, who seemed genuinely puzzled by it. Jesus, in turn, questions the Pharisees about their great concern for ritual purity while neglecting the more fundamental demands of ethical holiness and social justice.
Regardless of religious party, however, a vision of a people set apart by God and fit to dwell in the midst of his holiness was central to the piety of Second Temple Judaism.
To learn more about ritual purity and its role in Jesus’ ministry, read “Jesus and Ritual Impurity” by Matthew Thiessen, published in the Fall 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
Purity and Impurity in Iron Age Israel by Avraham Faust
Did Jesus Oppose the Purity Laws?
by Paula Fredriksen
Ancient Israel’s Stone Age: Purity in Second Temple times by Yitzhak Magen
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