The thesis of Matthew Thiessen’s latest book, Jesus and the Forces of Death, is simple and compelling: Jesus did not oppose the Judaic system of ritual purity but sought to overcome the deadly powers associated with impurity. As I read Thiessen’s work, I thought to myself, “How come no one has made this point before?” To be sure, in the last few decades scholars of the New Testament and early Judaism alike have reclaimed the Jewishness of Jesus, affirming that he remained committed to the Torah. But these affirmations have often been accompanied by qualifications that seemingly relativize Jesus’s fidelity to Jewish practice. Consider, for example, how the late Jewish scholar Geza Vermes affirmed the Jewishness of Jesus, as suggested by the title of his seminal book, Jesus the Jew, but nevertheless held that Jesus “showed a complete lack of interest in legal and ritual affairs and a corresponding exclusive concentration on moral questions,” this, supposedly because of Jesus’s Galilean origins and charismatic piety.1 Such reasoning is still very much in vogue in academic and confessional settings. Last year, during a shared meal (held outdoors and through social distancing in order to avoid the impurities of Covid), some Christian friends contended that Jesus only upheld the Ten Commandments, God’s “moral” law, but had abrogated the “ceremonial laws,” which include the commandments governing ritual purity. Needless to say, this dichotomy is artificial from a Jewish standpoint as ritual stipulations are embedded within the Decalogue while moral concerns are interspersed with ritual regulations throughout the Pentateuch.
Herein lies one of several major contributions of Thiessen’s research. He affirms Jesus’s fidelity to the Torah without relativizing or dismissing Jewish concerns to maintain ritual purity. What is more, he situates Jewish purity matters within a broader ancient Mediterranean framework, showing that Jews in antiquity were by no means alone in following and honoring purity codes. Purity concerns, rather, were cross-cultural, common currency in the ancient world. Indeed, Thiessen highlights a compassionate dimension guiding the regulations of the Jewish purity system: they safeguarded humans from wrongly approaching Israel’s God whose sanctity remained opposed to impurity because of the latter’s association with death. If a person disregarded the purity regulations that prevented the pollution of God’s holiness, the consequences could be lethal (Thiessen cites several biblical examples). Worse yet, the divine presence could withdraw from among the people. From a modern standpoint, these measures may seem severe, but at least a positive rationale for the Jewish observance of purity laws has been posited for once in the context of New Testament studies.
It is this critical connection between mortality and impurity that Hannah Harrington singles out in her response to Thiessen’s analysis of Jesus’s approach to purity. According to Thiessen, the Synoptic Gospels portray Jesus as the holy one who can destroy the very sources of impurity and overcome death itself. Like the holy temple, Jesus harbors the divine presence, the holy pneuma, in an especially concentrated way, enabling him to overcome the deadly forces of impurity. This implies that Jesus was divine in the eyes of the gospel writers. However, Harrington contends that Jews did not expect for a human agent to eradicate death, sin, and impurity. Only God could do so. A key question then that probably divided Jews and Jesus’s followers (be they Jews or non-Jews) early on concerned Jesus’s identity. Thiessen raises this issue at the end of his book as he asks whether the Synoptic writers are right or wrong in their depictions of Jesus as the divine holy one who had overcome death: “If they are right, if Jesus is the holy one of God, a force of holiness who destroys the forces of death that give rise to ritual impurity, then to follow him would be to follow in the ways of holiness and life” (185).
Death, however, remains very much alive in our world, and this may explain why many Jews from the first century onwards were not convinced by Jesus’s messianic identity. Even if he didn’t come to abrogate the Torah, he didn’t put an end to death. The first Christians were, of course, aware of this problem but affirmed nonetheless that Jesus’s ministry had marked a decisive victory in history on behalf of life. In his response, Darrell Bock wonders about the ramifications of this conviction with respect to the observance of ritual purity. If Jesus overcame the deadly powers associated with impurity, what did this imply for the maintenance of purity laws within a Christian context, especially if Jesus’s cleaning was seen as permanent? Bock reasons that Jesus’s first followers soon began viewing the observance of purity laws and other Jewish practices (e.g., the food laws) as optional, citing passages such as 1 Cor 7:19 and Peter’s vision in Acts 10 to support his point.
The meaning of these passages and others, however, are debated by scholars today. At issue is not only how Jesus’s first followers related to Jewish practice but how Christians today should perceive the role of a Torah-observant Judaism after centuries of Christian supersessionism proclaiming the end of the Torah, at least its ritual stipulations. In his response to Bock, Thiessen points to passages within the Synoptics that suggest that purity practices retained their relevance. Indeed, many Christians continued to attend to purity matters throughout Late Antiquity as Holger Zellentin notes in his response. Besides promoting the moral purity required by the Apostolic Decree (Acts 15), Christians debated, for example, whether they should wash after sexual intercourse or whether women could receive the Eucharist during their menses. Interestingly, as Zellentin notes, these debates carried on in the Qur’an, which affirms that moral and ritual purity apply to non-Jews.
In the final response of this symposium, Malka Simkovich builds on Thiessen’s effective demonstration that Jesus and the Synoptic Gospels make perfect sense within their original Jewish environment. Not only was Jesus a Jew but quite possibly all of the Synoptic writers were Jewish, including Luke, as Thiessen proposes. There is more therefore than just Jewish “background” or “context” to the New Testament. This leads Simkovich to consider how the Gospels might be viewed as Jewish sources that can inform us about developments in Jewish history, including rabbinic Judaism, seeing that they participated in intra-Jewish debates. Previous New Testament scholarship, especially prior to the mid-twentieth century, tended to interact with rabbinic sources in a unidirectional way (often with anti-Jewish prejudice), indiscriminately drawing from a vast array of rabbinic materials dating centuries after Jesus in order to shed light on the New Testament. Today, scholarship is aware of the methodological and historical problems involved in using rabbinic sources in this way. Still, as Simkovich notes, Jesus’s world was in some sense rabbinic insofar as later rabbinic literature cites rabbinic authorities who would have been Jesus’s near-contemporaries. So methodological questions remain concerning the consultation of rabbinic sources for investigating the New Testament (and Second Temple Judaism as a whole). Completely ignoring this rich corpus of materials might narrow and impoverish our scope of investigation, given the limited number of Second Temple Jewish sources at our disposal. At the same time, if the promising prospect of deploying the New Testament writings to shed light on the development of later forms of Jewish expression can now be seriously entertained, it is thanks to the type of research pursued by Thiessen, who has convincingly shown how Jesus and his first followers remained invested in all aspects of Jewish life, ritual purity included.
Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 77.↩