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
Stepped Pools and Stone Vessels: Rethinking Jewish Purity Practices in Palestine by Cecilia Wassén
The world of the Bible is knowable. We can learn about the society where the ancient Israelites, and later Jesus and the Apostles, lived through the modern discoveries that provide us clues.
Biblical Archaeology Review is the guide on that fascinating journey. Here is your ticket to join us as we discover more and more about the biblical world and its people.
Each issue of Biblical Archaeology Review features lavishly illustrated and easy-to-understand articles such as:
• Fascinating finds from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament periods
• The latest scholarship by the world's greatest archaeologists and distinguished scholars
• Stunning color photographs, informative maps, and diagrams
• BAR's unique departments
• Reviews of the latest books on biblical archaeology
The BAS Digital Library includes:
• 45+ years of Biblical Archaeology Review
• 20+ years of Bible Review online, providing critical interpretations of biblical texts
• 8 years of Archaeology Odyssey online, exploring the ancient roots of the Western world in a scholarly and entertaining way,
• The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land
• Video lectures from world-renowned experts.
• Access to 50+ curated Special Collections,
• Four highly acclaimed books, published in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution: Aspects of Monotheism, Feminist Approaches to the Bible, The Rise of Ancient Israel and The Search for Jesus.
The All-Access membership pass is the way to get to know the Bible through biblical archaeology.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.
Dig into the illuminating world of the Bible with a BAS All-Access membership. Combine a one-year tablet and print subscription to BAR with membership in the BAS Library to start your journey into the ancient past today!Subscribe Today
Clean or unclean to ancient man probably meant exactly that………no more. no less. Our first fathers predated Mosaic laws!