BMCR 2006.03.28

Jesus and Purity Halakhah: Was Jesus Indifferent to Impurity? Coniectanea Biblica New Testament Series 38

, Jesus and purity Halakhah : was Jesus indifferent to impurity?. Coniectanea biblica. New Testament series ; 38. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2002. xii, 402 pages : some illustrations ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9122019642 SEK182.00.

In this published version of his 2002 Uppsala dissertation, Thomas Kazen attempts an historical reconstruction of how Jesus, a first-century Galilean Jew, related to contemporary purity law. In doing so, Kazen engages in an inter-disciplinary study which draws on expertise from two areas of scholarship: the study of Jewish purity law and historical Jesus research. In his introduction (part 1), Kazen outlines the aims of his study and establishes the points of departure for his analysis. He begins with an introduction to Israel’s cultic impurity system, as defined by the legal material of Leviticus and Numbers, placing particular emphasis on the three types of impurity bearers: the corpse-impure person, the “leper” and the discharger. Kazen indicates that it is not possible to determine to what extent the biblical purity regulations were kept during the Second Temple period. Nevertheless, he contends that purity was an important issue for most or all of the religious groups in first-century Palestine, and that the purity rules influenced the lives of ordinary people. He finds support for this view in a variety of sources: the Mishnah, Philo, Josephus, the gospels and the legal texts from Qumran. Through a careful comparison of these texts Kazen proposes to glean enough information about contemporary purity practices to evaluate Jesus’ attitude towards purity within his social-cultural context.

Kazen also places his work within the framework of historical Jesus research, locating it firmly within the context of the “third phase” (not “quest”) of enquiry, with its focus on the Jewishness of Jesus. After tracing the development of historical Jesus research and its methods, he establishes his own methodology for examining Jesus’ attitude toward contemporary purity halakhah. He asserts that various criteria can be used, not for the purpose of establishing a database of “authentic” traditions, but in order to “provide material for an ongoing dialogue between singular traditions and a Gesamtbild of Jesus” (40). Kazen makes it clear that he is not interested in using redaction-critical tools to identify “original” sayings or narratives, nor does he wish to find out what “really happened.” Rather, his intent is to trace early interpretations and memories of Jesus. Thus, Kazen argues for giving more emphasis to traditions about Jesus’ deeds than has been done in the past.

In the second part of his book, Kazen analyzes the much debated conflict story found in Mark 7:1-23 (cf. Matt 15:1-20), which deals with issues of hand-washing and defilement through food. He notes that this text has been regarded in the past as exemplifying Jesus’ radical anti-legal attitude, but that more recent studies have tended to mitigate the conflict. For Kazen, the very fact that the narrative has been polemically shaped as a conflict story minimizes its value for ascertaining the attitude of Jesus toward the purity laws. In his view, the polemical function of the narrative in its current form blurs the historical issues at hand. Nonetheless, Kazen does not dismiss the narrative of Mark 7 completely, for he recognizes that there is a fundamental issue of bodily impurity at the core of its tradition.

Kazen pursues the discussion of Jesus and impurity by turning to the Markan non-conflict traditions containing implicit purity problems. His analysis of these texts reveals that there were several instances in which Jesus was exposed to bodily impurity. First, Jesus was remembered in the Markan tradition as well as in Q as having come into close contact with “lepers” (Mark 1:40-45; cf. Matt 8:2-4; Luke 5:12-16). Jesus included “lepers” in his healing ministry, visited with them and even touched them, despite the fact that during the Second Temple period these individuals were apparently excluded from ordinary towns and isolated from their communities. Second, the story of the haemorrhaging woman (Mark 5:24-35) indicates that within the early tradition there is a recollection of Jesus coming into contact with people who were impure from bodily discharges. Indeed, such interactions took place despite the fact that the “permanent” discharger and the menstruant were subject to some type of isolation. Third, the narrative concerning Jairus and his daughter (Mark 5:21-24, 35-43) retains a memory of Jesus coming into contact with a corpse. In a socio-cultural milieu in which corpse-impurity was presumably avoided, Jesus purposely exposed himself to such impurity, without any hint of his subsequent purification. Taken together, these texts provide evidence pertaining to Jesus’ lax attitude toward the purity laws. It is not that he was generally opposed to this legislation, but his behaviour would have easily been understood as being in tension with the expansionist view of purity ideals current at the time.

The third part of Kazen’s book is comprised of three interpretive models for explaining Jesus’ apparent indifference to impurity. The models are not intended to give a complete picture, nor are they to be considered mutually exclusive. Rather, they are put forward as partial and possible explanations. Kazen’s first model is concerned with the relationship between purity and morality. He correctly points out that while purity is basically a cultic concept, there are many occasions in the Hebrew Bible in which purity language is used in contexts of moral evil and social injustice. This raises many questions: How is this association of impurity and sin to be interpreted? To what extent was there a moral aspect to purity in Second Temple Judaism? Did Jesus view impurity primarily from a moral perspective? In an attempt to grapple with these issues, Kazen addresses the recent scholarship on the relationship between impurity and sin. He rejects Jacob Neusner’s distinction between literal and metaphorical impurity as well as Jonathan Klawans’ anachronistic dichotomy between ritual and moral impurity. Instead, he proposes a moral trajectory within the idea of purity, which can be traced throughout the Jewish texts. That is, there was ” some sort of interaction or link between sin and bodily impurity” (219) that by the Second Temple period could be found not only among the Essenes and the Pharisees, but also in popular belief. In describing this interaction, Kazen employs the categories of “inner” and “outer” impurity. It is his contention that Jesus emphasized inner purity (i.e. justice) over outer purification (i.e. bodily purifications) to the extent that he was perceived as downplaying the latter. In fact, according to Kazen, Jesus did not practice purification regularly after being in contact with impurity bearers, nor did he immerse prior to every visit to the Temple.

Kazen’s second explanatory model is concerned with purity and diversity. It is his contention that Jesus’ attitude toward impurity did not represent that of any of the major Jewish groups of the Second Temple period. Furthermore, he does not find sufficient evidence for identifying Jesus’ attitude with the common people. Rather, Kazen views Jesus’ position on purity against the background of a Galilean dilemma. On the one hand, the Hellenistic influence of heterogeneous cities presented a threat to ancient values, while, on the other hand, the Pharisaic retainers of the Jerusalem tradition represented a common myth and ethnic identity. The rural population of Galilee was caught between these two forces. While they did not want to give up their ancient traditions, they were not entirely happy with the expansionist perspective of the Pharisees. As Kazen writes: “In spite of their ambitions, the Pharisees’ halakhic development, with increasing demands in areas such as tithing and purity, did not provide a satisfactory solution for many who wished to remain faithful to ancestral religion, but complicated social interaction and economic relationships further” (298). For Kazen, Jesus’ apparent indifference to the expansionist view of purity can be understood against the backdrop of this predicament. He suggests that Jesus’ attitude provided a “way out” for segments of the Galilean population, who wanted to regard themselves as remaining faithful to ancestral religion without compromising table fellowship or other types of social interaction.

In his third model, Kazen argues for a clear connection between Jesus’ attitude toward impurity and his exorcisms. In his view, Jesus’ exorcisms can be best understood within an eschatological context, as paving the way for or signalling the coming of the kingdom of God. In the Jesus tradition, the relationship between impurity and demonology is found in the use of terminology (impure spirits), as well as in the association between demons, certain diseases and impurity. The primary examples are those of “leprosy” and corpse impurity, both of which were related to the activity of demons. For Kazen, Jesus’ attitude to bodily impurity “should be seen within the context of a power struggle, in which the force of bodily impurity was overruled by the power of the kingdom in a similar way to unclean spirits being overcome by exorcism” (339).

Kazen concludes his book by summarizing his findings as they pertain to the ongoing quest for the historical Jesus. His reconstruction reveals a Jesus whose attitude towards impurity was non-conformist and whose behaviour was in tension with the contemporary aspirations and expectations that marked the influential expansionist trend pertaining to the purity halakhah. He suggests that “Jesus was part of a moral trajectory which placed relative importance on ethics, that he had a pragmatic, rural or locally based attitude, which did not allow purity rules to intervene with social network, table fellowship and community, and that his eschatological outlook made impurity subordinate to the kingdom” (347). Inevitably, Kazen locates his Jesus squarely within first-century Jewish society.

This book brilliantly succeeds in bringing the discussion of Jewish purity law into the realm of historical Jesus research. Unlike other New Testament scholars, Kazen is not prone to quoting levitical laws out of context, nor does he assume the authority of rabbinic law in the first century. Rather, he presents the Jewish purity law in the context of an evolving system, and asks the all-important question: “to what extent were the purity regulations developed and adhered to among Jews at the time of Jesus?” In grappling with this question, Kazen becomes thoroughly engaged in the relevant primary sources, as well as the contemporary scholarly debate on Jewish purity law. In this respect, Kazen’s contribution is without parallel. He not only masters the material, but opens the door for further discussion on Jesus and Jewish purity law among New Testament scholars.

The strength of Kazen’s analysis is his claim that Jesus’ attitude to the purity laws must be understood in its socio-cultural context. The difficulty of this approach, however, is in acquiring sufficient knowledge of the specific social situation that governed life in first-century Galilee. To be sure, Kazen recognizes the limitations of historical enquiry and acknowledges that his reconstruction belongs to the sphere of “possibility” or “plausibility,” and not in the realm of “certainty.” Even so, there are some aspects of his interpretation that are problematic. For example, Kazen’s reconstruction of Jesus’ seemingly indifferent attitude to the purity laws is based on arguments that (1) he interacted with impure individuals — “lepers” and discharges — who were presumably isolated from the community and that (2) he willingly exposed himself to corpse-impurity, even though the social dictates of the time required that he avoid such contact. Yet, as I have argued elsewhere,1 it is not clear that the isolation of impure individuals was a common practice in first-century Galilee. Nor does it seem reasonable to assume that Galilean Jews actively avoided corpse impurity. Bodily impurity was not considered sinful, and the consequence — a temporary restriction with respect to contact with the sacred — does not seem particularly onerous.2

Related to the issue of Jesus’ attitude is the question of whether or not he immersed after contact with an impurity bearer or before visiting the temple. Kazen assumes that because the gospels do not report Jesus’ immersion, he did not immerse. Yet, one could just as easily posit that Jesus did, in fact, immerse on these occasions, but that it is not mentioned in the narrative because the author did not regard it as an important detail. Jesus’ immersion may have been assumed by the hearers of the gospels, be they Jewish Christ-believers or Gentiles associated with the diaspora community through the synagogue. In this instance, the burden of proof lies with Kazen. Given that Jesus lived in a socio-cultural milieu in which purity practises were the norm, it is reasonable to assume that he observed the purity laws, unless there is strong evidence to the contrary.

Another concern is related to the relative authority Kazen assigns to the legal traditions and practices of various Jewish groups. In particular, his heavy reliance on sectarian texts from Qumran is at times problematic. For example, the laws of ritual impurity elucidated in 11QT are regarded by most scholars as reflecting a utopian view on the part of the author. To suggest that these same texts lend any substantial weight to our understanding of first-century Jewish practice is somewhat precarious. Similarly, Kazen’s argument for Pharisaic influence over the common people is not convincing. Certainly, there are instances in which the convergence of evidence implies a connection between pre-rabbinic Judaism and common Judaism. Yet, we must be cautious about making generalizations, especially since there is no clear evidence that the Pharisees had significant influence in first century Jewish society.3

Perhaps the most speculative aspect of Kazen’s thesis relates to his understanding of Jesus’ attitude toward purity against the background of a “Galilean dilemma.” Rural Galilee is depicted as being caught between the Hellenistic influence of heterogeneous cities and the expansionist retainers of the great tradition. In this explanatory model, Jesus is portrayed as offering a “way out” for the segments of the population who wanted to remain faithful to their ancestral traditions, but were no longer willing to compromise social interactions and economic relationships for the sake of the law. Even if we allow for this oversimplified version of what must have been an extremely complex cultural interaction, the model is problematic. Its underlying assumption is that the purity laws were oppressive to the rural population of Galilee, who purportedly suffered economic loss and social isolation as a result of their observances. While Kazen stops short of characterizing Jesus as a social reformist who liberates the Jews from their oppressive law, there are echoes of this all-too-familiar scenario within his interpretive framework.

Despite these difficulties, this book constitutes an important contribution to the study of Jesus and purity. Indeed, it is destined to be an essential resource for all future work on the topic. Not all will be convinced by Kazen’s thesis, but no one can ignore the thoroughness of his research and the complexity of his argumentation.


1. Susan Haber, “A Woman’s Touch: Feminist Encounters with the Hemorrhaging Woman in Mark 5:24-34,” JSNT 26.3 (2003): 171-192.

2. Paula Fredriksen, “Did Jesus Oppose the Purity Laws,” BR 11/3 (1990): 20-25, 42-47.

3. E. P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE – 66 CE (London: SCM Press, 1992), 380-412.