BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Jewish Purification or Gentile Bathing?

Stone vessels and immersion pools reconsidered

When scholars talk about Jewish ritual purity practices in Roman period Judea and Galilee, they most readily associate them with the Jerusalem Temple. Any participant at the Temple cult was required to be ritually pure, after all. But to what extent were the purity concerns of ancient Jewry limited to the Temple? Were the stringent regulations really centered on the sanctuary—presumably to protect the sacred? Didn’t purity matter everywhere by the turn of the Common Era?

stepped pool

Credit: Photo by Cecilia Wassén
Excavated at Qumran, this stepped pool may have been a mikveh, or an immersion pool for ritual purification. The Jewish sect at Qumran is known to have observed strict purity laws at the turn of the Common Era.

To argue that Jews around the country—far from the Yahweh cult in Jerusalem—observed purity laws, we can point to the numerous ritual baths (mikva’ot) and stone vessels that both seem to appear in larger numbers just around the turn of the Common Era. “As it turns out, however, the evidence is not as clear-cut as we would like,” cautions Cecilia Wassén of Uppsala University in the July–October 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

The Great Bath

Credit: Diego Delso/CC BY-SA 4.0
Ancient Romans perfected the art of constructing baths and water supply systems. The spread of their empire and culture brought their cultural habits to diverse parts of the Mediterranean, regions so disparate as Judea and Britain. These iconic Roman thermae (the Great Bath) can be admired to this day in Bath, England.

What some scholars see as growing archaeological evidence of purity practices in the first centuries B.C.E. and C.E., Wassén interprets as coincidental effects of Romanization: the boom in construction of stepped pools simply reflected the adopted Greco-Roman culture of bathing. Wassén points out that the early stepped pools appear in various styles and sizes and that the religious prescriptions of ritual purity do not necessarily imply immersion in water. She writes: “It was a long process before ritual purification in a mikveh evolved into a formal institution. Originally the stepped pools may have served various purposes. Hints of ‘profane’ uses of mikva’ot, such as cooling off and laundering, even appear in rabbinic literature.” Even in the second century C.E., when a standard evolved for constructing stepped pools for ritual purification, stepped pools continued to be used for diverse purposes, argues Wassén.

As for the simultaneously increased popularity of stone vessels, Wassén asserts that “there is no literary support for the popular view that stone vessels had the unique quality of being impervious to impurity.” While stone as a raw material is said in the Damascus Document to be impervious to impurity, manmade items of this material are still susceptible to impurity, explains Wassén. “In sum, early textual evidence supporting the theory that stone vessels would have been unsusceptible to ritual impurity is absent.”

Surely not everyone will agree with these reassessments of the archaeological and literary evidence for ritual purification practices and their theological underpinnings.

For the full argument, read the article “Stepped Pools and Stone Vessels: Rethinking Jewish Purity Practices in Palestine” by Cecilia Wassén in the July–October 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


Subscribers: Read the full article “Stepped Pools and Stone Vessels: Rethinking Jewish Purity Practices in Palestine” by Cecilia Wassén in the July–October 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Related reading in Bible History Daily:

King Herod’s Ritual Bath at Machaerus
Ancient Jewish Mikvah Found Outside Jerusalem
Mikveh Discovery Highlights Ritual Bathing in Second Temple Period Jerusalem
Secret Mikveh Discovered Under a Living Room Floor

 

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