Purity, Community, and Ritual in Early Christian Literature

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Moshe Blidstein
Oxford Studies in the Abrahamic Religions
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     2017.
     368 pages.
     $100.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198791959.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Purity, Community, and Ritual in Early Christian Literature, Moshe Blidstein sets out to examine “the meanings of purification practices and purity concepts in early Christian culture, as they were articulated and formed by Christian authors of the first three centuries” (1). Sometimes he passes by the more exciting methodological opportunities that his sources enable. Nevertheless, his exposition of a wide range of texts from those three centuries, as well as attention to the lexicon of purity discourse, points the way to a more robust theorization and discussion of ritual, purity, and late antique religiosity.

Part I introduces Blidstein’s project with preliminary theorization and context. In chapter 1, Mary Douglas appears, followed by more recent theories of biological programs of action connecting ritual to “disgust towards certain actions and substances” (7). Blidstein also introduces Greek purity discourse and explains how he focuses not on the practices of communities—what they actually did—but rather on the meaning of purity language—what purity meant (8). Finally, he suggests an outsider’s heuristic for the changes in early Christian purity discourse: “battle”-purity, which understands purity mapped onto cosmological evil versus good, and “truce”-purity, which models purity as a part of the created order to be regulated. Chapter 2 helpfully summarizes Greco-Roman and Jewish purity discourses. The section on cultic regulations at temple entrances is handled well (20-26). Similarly, the overview of Jewish purity from biblical to rabbinic material (38-58), while too general for specialists, will be useful for many historians of early Christianity, to whom Jewish material outside of Greek remains terra incognita.

The remaining three sections comprise thematic modules on key topics: food, sex, and baptism. Part II focuses on how preoccupation with difference from Judaism shaped Christian purity discourses. Chapter 3 examines how later Christian sources dealt with biblical dietary laws to fashion a distinctive Christian identity. This contrasted with the lack of such an approach in first-century texts (the Gospels, Acts, or the Pauline tradition.) Chapter 4 contrasts this polemical reframing with the lack of Christian interest in death defilement. Since no coherent ritual system around death defilement characterized Judaism, Blidstein argues, death impurity did not remain important in earliest Christianity.

Part III explores how new rituals and social practices formed and shaped Christian purity discourse, and how that discourse was articulated in practice. Chapter 5 tracks the multiple attitudes to baptism as a purification. Some earlier texts largely focused on the idea of washing, and the removal of sin, though underplayed the actual washing in water. Other texts emphasized that baptism removed demonic obstacles to cognition of the divine. Chapter 6 examines how developing theories of the Eucharist aimed at “the maintenance of a pure community, composed of pure individuals” (135), but only emphasized purification after the third century. In Chapter 7, Blidstein tangles with what he argues is the most unusual characteristic of early Christian purity discourse: an intense emphasis on sexual purity. He argues that in Christian texts sin and impurity became associated with the body itself, not the action, and thus could become “a permanent obstacle before the close association with God that humans are called to achieve” (181).

Finally, Part IV approaches two textual corpora set aside by Blidstein as unusual. Chapter 8 explores “Jewish-Christian” texts: the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, sources on the Elchasaites, and the Didascalia Apostolorum, texts in which “the purity discourses on baptism and sexuality…are unusual enough to justify discussing them under a separate heading” (186). Blidstein briefly departs from his focus on discursive meaning, to conclude that there were some Syrian Christian communities that continued a variety of purification customs shared in the region (202). Chapter 9 deals with Origen, who Blidstein represents as the “culmination” of trends in the second-century authors, and the first Christian writer to systematically theorize baptism, sin, and especially sexual defilement (225). At this point, he argues, we see the effects of a “growing institutionalization of Christianity,” and the rituals required to maintain that institution’s borders (227).

Blidstein hits the nail on the head with the insight that drives the book. While scholars have often associated purity discourses only with either pre-Christian Jewish legal practices or pagan externalist lip-service, “purity was open for negotiation at a later period as well” (5). The evidence arrayed in this volume demonstrates the need to discuss Christian purity discourses as in some way continuous with their Greco-Roman and Jewish context. Blidstein also correctly points out that numerous texts shaped by a powerful purity discourse have been treated without any attention to this important dynamic. The volume is also characterised by a striking attention to detail. It deals not only with Greek and Latin material, but also with Syriac texts when an earlier text survives only in a later Syriac version.

Occasionally, Blidstein’s choice of theorization does raise more questions than answers. For example, the “battle”/“truce” heuristic with which he closes each of his chapters causes some problems. On the one hand, he maintains that “battle”-type purity comes to dominate by the third century. But on the other hand, many of his texts provide exceptions: Origen, Clement of Alexandria, the Pseudo-Clementines, or the Tannaitic rabbinic traditions. Moreover, Blidstein’s textual analysis demonstrates his primary claim: how far purity discourse continued to be up for debate. But he reintroduces, with his assertion of the stark insularity of Christian communities, precisely the model of group identity –well-defined “Jewish,” “pagan,” and “Christian” groups – that his approach to purity discourse helps make unsustainable. Fortunately, his claim is too well-grounded in the texts to be tamed by the metric of “battle” versus “truce” models of purity discourse.

In short, the texts discussed in this volume, along with careful commentary and analysis, are a terrific assist to scholars reconsidering the relationship between Jewish and Christian ritual practices. Although in its relative methodological simplicity, Blidstein’s book does not grapple as much as it could with the possibilities and risks of its sources, it lays out a detailed schematic with which other scholars can engage, collaborate, and explore.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Chalmers is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the Univeristy of Pennsylvania.

Date of Review: 
March 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Moshe Blidstein is postdoctoral fellow at the Martin Buber Society of Fellows at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

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