Ancient Judaism Gospel of John Synoptic Gospels

NEW BOOK: Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within Judaism (Matthew Thiessen)

Long blog posts render a person unclean–or at least they should. Nonetheless, I cannot restrain myself in this case. Matthew Thiessen’s new book, Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020), merits all the attention it has already received. You can read the impressive list of endorsements it has received on Baker Academic’s website here.

I read this book months ago and have been meaning to post on it. John Sehorn beat me to writing the first post on it. Unfortunately, other writing deadlines have kept me occupied. If it had not been for my busy schedule, I would have posted on this immediately. Put simply: this is one of the most important books on Jesus and the Gospels published in the past few years.

Volume 1 of Jacob Milgrom’s magisterial Leviticus commentary.

It begins with two short pieces: a Preface and a “Clarification.” In the Preface, Thiessen explains that this is a book he has wanted to write ever since he was doing doctoral work. In particular, he “blames” Jacob Milgrom for his fascination with ritual purity systems. This resonated with me. I too read Milgrom’s work when I was working on my own dissertation. Like Thiessen, I found his analysis mesmerizing and it has been a huge influence on own my thinking, writing, and teaching. Right off the bat, I knew I was going to like this book. (The fact that I have enjoyed Thiessen’s other books–here and here–had primed me to expect this would be no different.)

In a second short entry, entitled, “Clarification” (it is a good thing it is a separate entry or the Preface would have ballooned to an unwieldy 4 whole pages), Thiessen explains that this book is not a “historical Jesus” book. Actually, this was a very helpful note and–despite my parenthetical attempt at humor–it was rightly given its own heading. Historical Jesus studies has been one of my own primary areas of interest and so I was especially interested to read Thiessen’s comments about the field. In short, Thiessen has concerns about the methodology used by most Jesus scholars and, like others such as Chris Keith and Dale Allison, he is dubious about our ability to arrive at an “uninterpreted Jesus.” Much of what he says here aligns with my own thinking. I would love to dwell on the topic more but the key point Thiessen wants to get across is that this book focuses on the Gospel narratives as they stand; he does not attempt to “get behind them.”

A related point: one thing I especially like about this book is that Thiessen does not simply treat stories in one Gospel. If there are parallel accounts, he looks at them within the context of the larger narrative of the Gospels in which they appear.

In his Introduction, Thiessen begins to unpack in more detail what his book is about. He highlights a critical concern that all Bible readers should be concerned about: a tendency to “de-Judaize” Christianity. Jesus’ relationship to the purity laws is often presented as somewhere between disregard and contempt. Jesus, for example, touches lepers to show that. . . well, the purity laws don’t faze him or matter to him – or, at least, that is what standard presentations basically imply. Thiessen’s study shows how misguided these approaches are.

For one thing, lurking behind some of these portrayals are some rather disturbing tendencies. As Thiessen explains, oftentimes they essentially convey the impression that ancient Jews were consumed with ritual etiquette and were devoid of compassion and mercy. Jews, motivated by holiness concerns, set up boundaries, but Jesus, for whom mercy was more important, broke them down. This is a caricature and, frankly, a rather perverse one.

The material in Chapter 1, “Mapping Jesus’s World,” does an excellent job giving readers a necessary “crash course” in the logic of ritual impurity. I will spend a disproportionate amount of time discussing it here because it is simply so valuable and explains why a book like this was needed. I have long lamented the lack of resources for students of the Gospels that treat this matter. While there are some excellent resources out there, they usually are focused on Leviticus itself and do not apply the insights to Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels. Thiessen’s book finally offers a treatment that does precisely that.

He begins by offering a rich overview of how the holy/profane and pure/impure categories were understood. In the first chapter, Thiessen essentially focuses on the principles found in the Torah and their application in the first-century Jewish world. Thiessen breaks down some key mischaracterizations–e.g., the notion that impurity was synonymous with sin. As he shows, one who followed the law carefully would necessarily do things that would involve becoming unclean. For instance, if your parents died, you had to bury them. Yet in doing so you contracted impurity. True, impurity is associated with sin and sin causes impurity. But here is a crucial point: an impure person was not always unclean because of sin. As Thiessen goes on to show, a person who gave birth would have been impure. Yet it was certainly not sinful per se to have children. In fact, God had commanded it – “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28; 8:17; 9:1, 7; 35:11).

Moreover, what is “profane” is not necessarily “impure.” The profane is simply that which is “common” or that which is neither impure nor holy. Nevertheless, to bring the profane into the realm of the holy was to show a total lack of respect for God’s holiness. That would constitute sin and, as mentioned above, sin was a form of impurity.

Furthermore, building on Milgrom’s work, Thiessen highlights the inner logic that appears to inform the purity laws: “in Jewish thinking ritual impurities represent the forces of death” (p. 16). Corpses, disease, irregular flows of blood–these things involved contagious impurity. Touch them and you would be rendered “unclean.” While we cannot be sure that all Jews necessarily made the connection between death and impurity, there is plenty of evidence to suggest many did. Ritual impurity, then, is associated with death. (There have been some objections to this view, which Thiessen helpfully addresses.)

All of this has important implications for Israel. The God of Israel is the God of life. This God had decided to dwell among them. The symbolism of the purity laws communicates the idea that holiness must be preserved from the powers of death. If ritual impurity were to encroach on the Lord’s sanctuary, God would depart from it. As Thiessen puts it, “What is holy must be the antithesis of death and mortality: life” (p. 17). The forces of impurity in the world are precisely why a tabernacle and temple are needed–boundaries were necessary to maintain communion with God and to protect God’s people. Thiessen puts it this way:

All the regulations about ritual impurity and offerings, then, actually purport to maintain what modern religious people might call Israel’s ‘relationship with God.’ In other words, the ritual purity system was . . . foremost about life with God and was therefore a matter of life and death.

Matthew Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020), 18.

The primary task of the priests was to “police these boundaries” (p. 18), ensuring that God’s presence among Israel would be maintained and Israel could survive before him.

In the following chapters, Thiessen explains the Gospels portrait of Jesus in light of this background. Jesus does not dismiss the problem of impurity as if it is simply an antiquated idea, expressive of superstition. Hardly! Jesus comes to bring an end to the forces that cause impurity and death.

For example, in Chapter 2, “Jesus in a World of Ritual Impurity,” Thiessen looks at the way John the Baptist’s ministry was related to Jewish washings that directly related to purity concerns. In addition, he highlights Jesus’ family’s own concerns to follow the purity regulations following Jesus’ birth in Luke 2. His treatment–which repeats material he has published in article form–explains Luke 2:22: “And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.” Thiessen convincingly shows that, according to the logic of Leviticus as well as evidence from other texts, it seems likely that some viewed not only new mothers but also newly born infants as having contracted impurity during the birth process. (See John Sehorn’s thoughtful post on this.)

In Chapter 3, “Jesus and the Walking Dead,” Thiessen treats Zombies… er, um, the issue of those with lepra, what is typically translated, “leprosy.” (I was just making sure you were still reading). This chapter wonderfully summarizes recent work on the subject. Suffice it to say, contrary to widespread myth, the lepra issue the Bible talks about is not simply what people today identify as Hansen’s disease (Thiessen walks the reader through the evidence). It was often a far less serious health problem than people realize. Why was it such an issue? Because it was associated with impurity. Notably, Jesus heals the leper, but also instructs him to show himself to the priest offer the purification sacrifice required by the Law. In all of this, Jesus does not indicate that impurity is not a problem. Rather, in healing the man’s condition, Jesus removes the cause of his impurity, allowing him to return to the liturgical worship of Israel.

In Chapter 4, “Jesus and the Dead Womb,” Thiessen examines the story of Jesus’ healing of the woman with a flow of blood, an account that is couched within the context of Jesus’ healing of a dead child (corpse impurity). He challenges the notion–wildly popular–that Jesus would have necessarily been defiled by the woman’s touch. More interestingly, he shows that if the story presents the woman as having an “uncontrolled discharge,” “Mark portrays Jesus experiencing an uncontrolled discharge from his own body” (p. 91). In this, Jesus may be viewed as like the tabernacle:

Just as the tabernacle and its accoutrements exercise no will in sanctifying objects that come into contact with them, Mark portrays Jesus’s body as automatically and involuntarily purifying those who touch I’m in faith.

Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death, 92.

I must admit that the title of, Chapter 5, “Jesus and the Dead,” got my hopes up. Unfortunately, Jerry Garcia never makes an appearance. That is probably for the best though. What it does cover is fascinating. Here Thiessen focuses on Jesus’ dealings with corpses. Thiessen shows how the material concerning such situations highlights, once again, Jesus identity as a unique source of power. As Thiessen concludes, “the Gospel writers were convinced that Jesus was a source of holiness that was even more powerful than death itself” (p. 122).

I think Chapter 6, “Jesus and Demonic Impurity,” will be especially fascinating to readers who are new to the kind of thinking Thiessen offers. In short, Thiessen highlights the connection between the diabolical and impurity. The overview through the ancient literature illuminates various stories in the Gospel such as the one we find in Mark 1:23, which describes how Jesus cast out an “impure spirit” (Mark 1:23-28). Thiessen concludes the chapter this way:

Jesus’s presence on earth introduces a power of holiness within the terrestrial realm that is both radically opposed to and stronger than the demonic. If some contemporaries of the Gospel writers were ascribing this same function to Israel’s tabernacle (and by extension to the Jerusalem temple), since it housed the holy God of Israel, then the Gospel writers might have been implying that the holiness of Israel’s God was housed in the person of Jesus in a way that actualized God’s control over the demonic forces that plagued humanity.

Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death, p. 148.

The last chapter, Chapter 7, is entitled, “Jesus, Healing, and the Sabbath Life.” As Thiessen shows, Jesus’ attitude towards the Sabbath is perfectly coherent within the first-century Jewish world. As various Jewish texts show, mercy and compassion were seen as taking precedence over Sabbath observance. At the same time, there were debates about the limits of this. In fact, throughout the book, Thiessen emphasizes that first-century Jews were often embroiled in controversies about how to apply specific principles in the Torah. Jesus’ arguments, generally, are comprehensible within this context.

The Conclusion ties the argument of the book together. The Gospels, Thiessen maintains, are not unconcerned with ritual impurity. Thiessen writes:

The Synoptic Gospel writers. . . would have their readers believe that Israel’s God has unleashed a force of holiness in the world that goes on the offense against impurity–Jesus is the holy one of God. A holy power emanates out of Jesus’ body and can overcome all sources of impurity. He embodies God’s holiness let loose on earth. Whereas the temple apparatus removes the effects of sources of impurity, Jesus addresses the sources of impurity themselves: lepra is removed, irregular genital discharges are healed, corpses are revivified, and impure pneumata are exorcised and destroyed.

Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death, p. 180.

He goes on to address the concern that some might have that his approach might simply be supersessionist.

Some readers might be tempted to call such thinking supersessionism, but I think this word inadequately grapples with how widespread the hope was in early Judaism for some form of deathless life to come. . . If one insists upon using the term supersessionism, then we must be precise about what is being superseded. Early Christ followers believed that in Messiah Jesus, the old cosmos was being superseded by a new creation in which Satan and his demons, death and sin–that is, pneumatic, ritual, and moral impurity–would no longer exist.

Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death, p. 183.

The book ends with a fascinating Appendix: “Jesus and the Dietary Laws.” Here Thiessen, like others such as James Crossley, argues that passages that have typically been read as indicating that Jesus abolished the food laws have been misinterpreted. I do not have time to comment on it here. I will simply say that it merits a close read and contains important arguments.

All in all, Thiessen has made an extremely significant contribution. I do have some quibbles–what do you expect? For example, I fear that Thiessen sometimes throws ancient and medieval interpreters as a whole under the bus, ignoring certain important nuances and failing to consider where in fact they might be allies. For example, Aquinas is adamant that Jesus must have celebrated a Passover meal on Nisan 14 because if he did not, Jesus “would have acted against the law” (Commentary on the Gospel according to Matthew, C.26.L2.2151). Aquinas thought that possibility should be ruled out as inconceivable. His approach to Jesus’ relationship to the Torah is complex and cannot be treated fully here, but he clearly believed Jesus was Torah-Observant. This forms an essential aspect of Aquinas’ understanding of Jesus’ relationship to the Law. In the Summa Theologiae, he addresses the question: “Whether Christ conformed his conduct to the Law?” Quoting Matthew 5:17, he writes,

It is written (Matthew 5:17): “Do not think that I am come to destroy the Law or the Prophets.” Commenting on these words, Chrysostom says: ‘He fulfilled the Law. . . . in one way, by transgressing none of the precepts of the Law; secondly, by justifying us through faith, which the Law, in the letter, was unable to do.’ I answer that, Christ conformed his conduct in all things to the precepts of the Law.” 

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, q. 40, art. 4

While Aquinas does believe Jesus brought an end to the need to fulfill the Mosaic Law in all of its precepts–he follows Jesus’ explanation in Matthew 19 in arguing that some of its features were only added due to sin (cf. Matt 19:8)–one should be careful to note that he adds that “Christ wished to conform his conduct to the Law, first, to show his approval of the Old Law” (Summa Theologiae, III, q. 40, art. 4). (Although, I should add that Aquinas also thought that the apostles and other Jewish believers also followed Torah.) Again, Thomas’ treatment is complex. Nevertheless, it is worth highlighting that Thomas goes out of his way to emphasize Jesus’ obedience to the Law.

Likewise, while I find the arguments regarding Mark 7 and Matthew 15 in the Appendix compelling, I am not entirely convinced by the argument that Acts 10 is only about Gentile inclusion.

Yet our points of possible divergence (I am always open to being persuaded) are minor compared to our areas of agreement. More than anything else, I am grateful for this book. It is my favorite kind of work– a publication no scholar can ignore and a book that will also be immensely helpful for students.

I expect it to win many more accolades and become a staple of texts used in New Testament courses.

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