Synoptic Gospels

Was Mary Ritually Impure After Jesus’s Birth?

I’ve just read Matthew Thiessen’s new book Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism (Baker Academic, 2020). Michael Barber will be posting a review of this important and thought-provoking volume soon here on The Sacred Page, but I couldn’t resist writing up a couple of thoughts…and more may be on the way. (I’ll try to avoid too many spoilers, Michael.)

One of the book’s many gems is its discussion of Luke 2:22 and Leviticus 12 (pp. 27–39), which reprises arguments Thiessen first published several years ago.[1] Since Leviticus only explicitly speaks of the post-partum mother’s ritual impurity and “her purification” (12:4), Luke’s reference to “their purification” in 2:22 has been routinely taken by scholars as a more or less blatant gaffe that shows up the Third Evangelist as incompetent or simply ignorant when it comes to the Law of Moses. Thiessen, however, contends that the text of Leviticus is in fact ambiguous and leaves plenty of interpretive room for the newborn to be impure as well. Extrapolation from the logic that apparently underlies a different case of impurity in Leviticus 15 might even tip the scales toward the infant’s impurity, and Thiessen goes on to adduce Second Temple texts that suggest that at least some Jews in the first century did in fact read Leviticus 12 as including the baby in the mother’s ritual impurity. Luke’s “their” thus reflects a perfectly intelligent reading of Leviticus.

Thiessen’s argument is brilliant, and I think it’s probably right. It also led me to some further reflections. Leviticus 12:4 stipulates that a new mother

shall not touch anything holy [kol-qōdeš / pantos hagiou], nor come into the sanctuary [hammiqdāš / to hagiastērion], until the days of her purifying are completed.

ESV-CE

This is the law that Luke says is fulfilled in Luke 2:22. The implication is that, during the forty days between Christmas and Candlemas, Mary and Jesus were ritually impure and could not touch a holy thing or enter the holy place. It’s worth underscoring here that some forms of impurity were normal and not sinful. Certainly it is not sinful to have a baby! Sometimes righteous deeds demanded voluntarily contracting ritual impurity, as when one carried out the “noble and compassionate action” of burying the dead (p. 107; see Tobit 1:17–19; 2:7–9). To suggest that Jesus and Mary were ritually impure is not to suggest that they were sinful.

But does Luke in fact think it’s the case that Jesus and Mary were ritually impure? He does speak, of course, of “their purification,” which seems to imply that they needed it. And yet Luke’s text also introduces some tensions that are worth exploring.

In the previous chapter of the Gospel, we hear the angel Gabriel telling Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow [episkiasei] you, therefore the holy thing to be born [to gennōmenon hagion] will be called the Son of God” (1:35; ESV-CE, modified).

As many commentators have observed, the “overshadowing” of Mary is reminiscent of the “overshadowing” (epeskiazen) of the tabernacle when the glory of the LORD fills it, preventing even Moses from entering (Exod. 40:34–35). At Jesus’s conception, then, Gabriel speaks of Mary herself as becoming a sanctuary, a holy place, containing a “holy thing to be born.”

This recognition produces a certain irony. In Luke 2:22, Mary and Jesus will appear at the temple as if subject to ritual impurity, unable until the fortieth day to enter the holy place or touch a holy thing. But the reader has it on angelic authority in 1:35 that Mary herself has become a sanctuary, bearing first in her womb and now in her arms a “holy thing.”

What’s more, Luke sees this “holy thing”—Jesus—as the ultimate Holy Thing. Later in his book, Thiessen points out that Luke presents “Jesus’s body as unconsciously and naturally discharging a holy power to those who touch him” (p. 95). He refers in particular to the healing of the hemorrhaging woman, who touches the fringe of Jesus’s garment without his knowledge (8:43–48), and to the summary statement in 6:19: “And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all” (ESV-CE). Normally, contact with an impure person or object would render the one touching him/her/it impure as well. With Jesus, it’s the opposite: “Instead of a defiling force moving from one body to another, Mark [along with Matthew and Luke] portrays a force or power moving from Jesus to the woman, healing her of this long-suffered, impurity-inducing condition” (p. 91).

Jacques Daret, “The Visitation,” c. 1434

Turning back to Luke 1, we can see indications that this “contagious holiness,” as Thiessen calls it (p. 92), was already operative in Jesus in utero. Gabriel promises Zechariah that his son John “will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (1:15, ESV-CE), a promise that is fulfilled upon the arrival of Jesus in the womb of Mary (1:41–44).

But if the still-embryonic Jesus is already a powerful source of contagious holiness, and Mary is a sanctuary overshadowed by the divine Presence, is it really plausible that Jesus’s birth rendered his mother or himself ritually unclean? And, if not, what are we to make of Luke 2:22?

There is much to ponder here, but one possibility we might want to consider is a very old one. Appealing to a close reading of Leviticus 12:2, Aquinas held that Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus exempted her from becoming ritually impure at Jesus’s birth. Yet, just as her Son would freely take on himself the death that results from our sin, Mary freely took on herself the stipulations of the Law for post-partum women, for “it was becoming that the mother should be like her Son in humility” (ST III, q. 37, a. 4). The arguments St Thomas adduces in the rest of Question 37 are fascinating, and many involve close reading of the relevant biblical texts, but that’s a discussion for another time.

For now, I’m grateful to Matthew Thiessen for one of the most stimulating books on the Gospels I’ve read in recent years.


[1] “Luke 2:22, Leviticus 12, and Parturient Impurity,” Novum Testamentum 54 (2012): 16–29.

12 comments

  1. I love the picture at the top of the article. Where does it come from? Does it have a name? Thank you

  2. I wonder if the original Greek text of Luke 2:22 would support the following meaning for “their purification”: the purification of the Jerusalem temple by Jesus and Mary? This would then fit in very nicely with the “contagious holiness” found elsewhere in Luke.

    1. Hi Roberto,
      Thanks for this comment. In this case I don’t think the Greek offers any extra insight that isn’t visible in English. The verse is explicit in referring to “their purification according to the Law of Moses.” So I think the main meaning of the verse clearly pertains to Mary and Jesus. I have wondered, though, whether something along the lines of what you’ve suggested could be operative as a subtle hint. Luke 2.23 goes on to quote from Exodus 13, which says that firstborn sons are to be redeemed (Gk: lytroo). But a little later we read that the prophetess Anna speaks of Jesus “to all who were waiting for the redemption (lytrosin) of Jerusalem.” This implied reversal (along of course with Simeon’s identification of the child as God’s “salvation”) could point to the kind of dynamic you’ve proposed in 2.22, but, again, I think it’s at most a very subtle hint.
      Thanks again!
      js

  3. It’s worth pointing out that the virtue which traditionally goes with the 4th Joyful Mystery is “obedience”, and specifically refers to Mary and Jesus’ obedience to the Law of Moses even though the purpose for the law does not apply to them.

  4. This is one of the most helpful blog entries I’ve read in a long time. As a Catholic, it truly significantly helps me with my own struggles with Mariology. Thank you.

  5. Thanks very much for this post, it’s really helpful. That Mary took on the regulations of the law freely was the pretty much assumed, even if a somewhat naive reading of the purification in the Temple all this while. I’ve just been reading Thiessen’s same book. I find it fascinating in his location of ritual purity laws in Jesus’ own life and ministry, but I find his discussion leaves one with more questions rather than answers. The first on my mind was this troubling aspect of Jesus and Mary’s own ‘impurity’ at birth. Particularly Thiessen’s comment that the baby Jesus would have contaminated the Temple opens up quite unorthodox implications for theology.

    The background for much of this of course, is Milgrom’s assertion of the need for purity regulations in comparison with ANE religions – that the deity had to be protected from contamination from other sources, lest it be harmed. Thiessen has pretty much used this with very slight modification, in that he leaves out the fact of the deity needing protection. But the issue of ‘contamination’ begs the question. Why and how does ritual impurity contaminate? And does YHWH really need protection from human contamination? This is even more problematic, with regards Thiessen’s understanding of an ‘ontological’ or ‘essentialist’ impurity, which he argues was Jesus’ view.

    Most places he seems to assume rather than argue for it, but even where he does (woman with haemorrhage) his argument seems quite weak. What would that even mean, even if that were granted? Such a reading would throw out the prophetic/allegorical reading of much of the OT to say that giving birth made you ontologically unclean in some sense (even if not sinful).

    Apologies for these somewhat random thoughts. But I found this book as frustrating as it was interesting with its perspectives. I found it even more difficult to answer a ‘so what?’ for today’s Christian living with all this new information! Would be interested to hear your thoughts! Thanks.

    1. Dear Father,
      Thanks very much for your comment. In the broadest terms, theologically, it seems to me that ritual purity should be viewed, like animal sacrifice, as part of the divine pedagogy, and as an instance of divine accommodation. The whys and hows of it, to my thinking, are not reducible to some sort of physical mechanics, but they are not less “real” for all that.
      As far as the “so what?” question goes, I think there are many possibilities for particular answers, but the most important general answer is the one Thiessen himself gives at the beginning of the book, which is to combat one of the more persistent strains of Marcionism.
      in Christ,
      John

      1. Yes, I understand the divine pedagogy which serves a prophetic function. But if you argue (as Thiessen does) for an ‘essentialist’ idea of purity, as opposed to a nominalist view (his categories), where something really happens to someone in touching a dead body, it becomes a bit more difficult to defend and fit into this view.
        Bless!

      2. Thanks, Father.
        Yes, I’m not sure I think “essentialist” and “nominalist” are the best way to get at what is going on (in my view, anyway). We’re not talking (again, in my view, I suspect Thiessen wouldn’t agree) about a substance but about accidents, even if it can be described metaphorically in language that makes it sound like a substance. So I’d prefer “objective” to “essentialist.” Something *does* happen (contact with a corpse, an emission, etc.). The *significance* of what has happened and what to do about it is specified by divine law, presumably for a variety of reasons, some of which are easier to discern than others (I’m rather sympathetic to much of what Aquinas says on this at ST I-II.102.5 ad 4), but that significance is indeed real.
        in Christ,
        John

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