Jesus and Ritual Purity


by Doug Ward

Jesus was born into a Jewish world where life centered around the teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures. Not surprisingly, then, the Gospel writers often reference those Scriptures as they chronicle the events of Jesus' life.


For instance, Luke relates that when Jesus was an infant, his mother Mary and her husband Joseph "brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord" (Lk 2:22). Luke explains that the family carried out two Torah commandments during their visit to the Temple. First, since Jesus was Mary's firstborn son, they paid the redemption price of five shekels for him (Lk 2:23; Nu 18:15-16). The practice of redeeming the firstborn was a reminder that God had spared the firstborn of the Israelites on the first Passover when he brought them out of Egypt. The redemption price satisfied God's claim upon the life of a firstborn male Israelite.


Second, they brought the sacrifice required to conclude the forty-day period of ritual impurity that Mary entered when she gave birth to Jesus (Lk 2:24; Lev 12). During a time of ritual impurity, one was not allowed to worship at the Temple. One became ritually impure through contact with a corpse, contracting certain types of skin diseases, or having a genital discharge of blood, semen, or pus (Lev 11-15).


Understanding Ritual Impurity

The Bible's ritual purity rules were not mainly matter of hygiene or public health. They were also not a matter of sin. Activities that led to ritual impurity-things like attending a funeral, having sexual intercourse, or giving birth-were normal activities in which people should engage at appropriate times. Occasionally being ritually impure was simply a part of life and did not need to be avoided. One just had to take the proper steps to remove the impurity before worshiping at the Temple.


Biblical scholars explain that the various kinds of ritual impurity all have a connection to death or human mortality. In the case of contact with a corpse or animal carcass, this is obvious. A skin disease gave the appearance of death and decay. During childbirth the lives of both mother and child hung in the balance. One message of the ritual purity rules is that death and decay were to have no contact with the God of life who was present at the Temple. Coming into the presence of the holy God was a privilege not to be taken lightly.


Luke states that the visit of Jesus' family to Jerusalem occurred "when the time came for their purification" (Lk 2;22). The fact that Luke refers to "their purification" rather than "her purification" raises questions, since Leviticus 12 only mentions a mother's ritual impurity after childbirth. Was the baby also ritually impure? We can understand why the text does not address this question directly, since infants would not be attempting to travel to the Temple to worship.


We might infer from Leviticus that a baby would pick up ritual impurity by coming into contact with blood during the birth process. (This assumes, of course, that the baby is already a separate individual-and not just an extension of the mother-before the birth.) There is evidence that at least some Jews in Jesus' day believed that a newborn infant was ritually impure.1


In Luke 2:22, then, Luke may be implying that Jesus was ritually impure during the initial weeks of his life. Such a conclusion is consistent with the doctrine that Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine, and that he voluntarily humbled himself when he came as a human being (Php 2:5-8).The early church father Origen of Alexandria interpreted Luke 2:22 this way, pointing to this verse as evidence that Jesus had a real human body.2


Defeating the Forces of Death

The topic of ritual impurity arises frequently in the Gospels, which describe Jesus' encounters with people who had skin diseases (Lk 5:12-16; 17:11-19), a woman who had been bleeding for many years (Lk 8:43-48), and people who had recently died (Lk 7:11-17; 8:49-56; Jn 11). In each case Jesus healed the afflicted person, completely removing the source of ritual impurity.


These great miracles testified to the messianic identity of Jesus. In removing a serious skin disease, he followed in the footsteps of Moses (Nu 12:13) and Elisha (2 Ki 5). In raising the dead, he was like Elijah (1 Ki 17:17-22) and Elisha (2 Ki 4:18-37). Based on passages like Ezekiel 36:25 ("I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses"), people anticipated that ritual impurity would be removed in the messianic age. With his healings, Jesus was ushering in the messianic age (Lk 7:18-23).


As noted above, ritual impurity symbolized death and human mortality. Jesus' removal of the causes of ritual impurity shows that he came to solve the problem of human mortality by conquering death and all the forces of death. When the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years touched the fringes of Jesus' tallit, a power was triggered that immediately stopped the flow of blood (Lk 8:43-48). This was "a force of holiness that opposes the forces of impurity."3


Matthew reports that when Jesus died on the cross, "the tombs were also opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many" (Mt 27:52-53). Normally a death was a major source of ritual impurity, but Jesus' death produced life and resurrection instead.


As a human being, Jesus occasionally entered a state of ritual impurity along with other first-century Jews. But as the divine Messiah he solved the problem of human mortality, defeating all sources of impurity, including death itself.


1See Chapter 2 of Matthew Thiessen's Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels' Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism, Baker Academic, 2020.

2See Homily 14 of his Homilies on Luke.

3Jesus and the Forces of Death, p. 92.

Issue 36


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.66.
On 18 Nov 2022, 10:23.