Jesus and the Forces of Death
The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism
- ISBN: 9781540961945
- Published By: Baker Academic
- Published: June 2020
Death, demons, and diseases—oh my! In America, these are certainly not average dinner-table conversation topics. Some are too taboo to even discuss, such as genital discharges. However, each of these subjects plays a vital role for the gospel writers in showcasing who Jesus is. The inclination to avoid such topics, combined with growing biblical illiteracy, has severe consequences for understanding the Gospels. Thankfully, Matthew Thiessen’s new book Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism seeks to alleviate this lacuna. Drawing on the work of Jacob Milgrom, Thiessen demonstrates that the Gospels must be interpreted in light of the Jewish purity system. Indeed, without this background knowledge, interpreters will misconstrue Jesus’ actions and sayings.
Chapter 1 introduces readers to what will be to most a strange idea, that the terms holy and pure are not speaking of the same things. However, according to Thiessen, this idea that the concepts are synonymous seriously misrepresents the world Jesus knew and the scriptures themselves. Instead, each idea has its binary: holy and profane, pure and impure. Specifically, there are two forms of impurity: moral and ritual. The first is sinful, while the second is not inherently so. The three main categories of ritual impurity are genital discharges, lepra (a white flaky skin condition), and corpses. While God represents life, what is ritually impure represents death.
In chapter 2, Thiessen analyzes the proliferation of ideas concerning ritual purity in the infancy narratives of Christ. These passages reveal that the authors (specifically Luke) strove to depict Joseph and Mary (and subsequently Jesus) as profoundly concerned with observing the Torah, drawing on Leviticus 12. Contrary to what many modern academics have argued, Theissen shows how Luke was specifically concerned with how these ideas developed in the Second Temple period (516 BCE–70 CE).
In chapter 3, Thiessen discusses lepra and its colored history of interpretation. Contrary to popular thought, lepra is not leprosy (also known as Hansen’s disease). Misunderstandings aside, the more significant issue is how the gospel writers depict Jesus in his healing of lepers. Once again, Jesus is operating within a Jewish understanding of ritual impurity, not against it. He commands the healed lepers to offer sacrifices and see the temple priests in all of his accounts. Far from subverting any ritual system, Jesus upholds it.
Chapter 4 examines the ritual impurity of genital discharges through the story of the woman who had a twelve-year discharge of blood. What this story reveals is that while temple objects (such as the altar) had already been able to make other things holy, Jesus’ body displays a contagious holiness of its own that destroys the sources of ritual impurity themselves. As Theissen writes, “Jesus’s body is ontologically holy, oozing holiness even apart from any effort or intention on his part and destroying a real force or power in the woman’s body—the disease that makes her ritually impure” (93).
In chapter 5, Theissen analyzes Jesus’ relation to and teaching concerning corpse impurity. Corpse impurity was unique in that it could render someone impure without touching it. Simply being in the same room as a corpse could render them unclean. Coming in contact with such a potent form of impurity rendered a person impure and made them contagious to other people. It was a different level of impurity, with unique ritual cleansing. Theissen uses this lens to interpret Jesus’ death. Theissen writes that, “Jesus’s death, the moment when the forces of impurity appeared to overwhelm Jesus himself, results in the holy ones undergoing the first step toward purification while in their tombs and then coming out of these places of impurity in order to enter into the holy city of Jerusalem” (110). In a grand reversal, in the moment when Christ’s body would have become an impure corpse, power emanated out of him, awakening dead bodies and healing them of their source of impurity.
Chapter 6 will especially be of interest to those who have often wondered where all the demons in the New Testament come from. Theissen gives a concise summary of demonology from previous and surrounding cultures. This chapter is particularly insightful for its analysis of these impure spirits in Mark. Here, Theissen connects Jesus’ explanation of how demons can be cast out in Mark 3 with Mark’s depiction of Jesus doing just that in Mark 5, fulfilling his own words. Here Jesus binds up the strong man and plunders his house, referring to the demon-possessed man wandering the graveyard, near the pig farm, ground zero of ritual impurity.
Fittingly, the last and seventh chapter discusses Jesus and ritual impurity as it relates to the Sabbath. The Sabbath features prominently in Matthew and Mark, as Jesus and the Pharisees debate the legal positions within Judaism at that time. The narrative effect portrays who the real Sabbath breakers are and thus who is indeed causing ritual impurity. For, “if holiness represents life, and impurity represents death … then when Jesus removes illnesses … he is involved in transferring people from the realm of death to the realm of life” (173). On the other hand, the Pharisees work by plotting death on the Sabbath, a doubling effect of ritual impurity.
Throughout each chapter, the reader understands more of how the notions of the purity system are crucial for understanding the background of the Gospels, Jesus himself, and his work. He operates within and according to all the distinct layers of the Torah and enters into preexisting legal debates concerning Torah observance. Yet, according to the Gospels, Jesus is not simply a Torah-following rabbi but someone who has the power to cleanse people of their impurities, ritual and moral.
Each chapter follows a general pattern of introduction to the topic, to the priestly background, to the ancient background, and to the Second Temple period background, and then examines the Gospels in light of all of these. Summaries of the chapters provided here do not do justice to the depth with which Thiessen engages and analyzes these ideas. He blends readability and sharp academic research. This book would be an excellent addition to any New Testament class on the Gospels.
Such an insightful book leaves the reader only hungry for more but with certain questions. Where exactly did the ideas of purity and impurity leave the early church? How does the Holy Spirit change the way one views categories of ritual impurity? While beyond the scope of this book, it would have been nice to see Thiessen discuss Acts 15 and Richard Bauckham’s proposal that the early church references Leviticus 17–19 to settle disputes over Jewish and gentile table fellowship.
Seth Pryor is a graduate student at Liberty University.Seth PryorDate Of Review:January 29, 2022