After a brief survey of historical reconstructions that pit Jesus against the Jewish purity rites in order to capitalize on a politically relevant Messiah, Paula Fredriksen writes this:
[Certain] reconstructions have argued that, as part of his mission to Israel, Jesus took his stand precisely against the biblical laws of purity. Whatever moral content these scholars ascribe to Jesus’ mission—an ethos and politics of compassion; a commitment to radical social egalitarianism; a repudiation of violent Jewish nationalism—the purity laws function to represent its opposite… The more facile the ethical or political relevance that a particular construct of Jesus presents, the more suspect its worth as history. Only ancient evidence, not modern agendas, can reveal what might have mattered to ancient people. Whatever Jesus taught, however, he lived, the fact that his mission gave rise to a movement means that he had to make sense first of all to his own contemporaries. We have to understand them to understand him. And while class struggle or sexism or an intense and immediate association of religion and “nationalism” may weigh heavily on the minds of twentieth-century First World liberals, we gain little insight into ancient societies by projecting our political sensibilities onto and into them. And finally, though we may have difficulty—unlike ancient people—in finding religious or spiritual meaning in the concept of purity, or in ritual generally, our difficulties tell us nothing about theirs (Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews, 198-199, 202).
Fredriksen goes on to argue that excepting strong evidence to the contrary, we must take for granted that Jesus was a Jew of his day; a Jew who was intelligible and appealing to other Jews, some of whom were purity-focused Pharisees (cf. Luke 7:36, 11:37, 14:1, John 3:1-2). As such, when we see Jesus celebrate Israel’s holy days in Jerusalem, we should assume he did so as would his peers, purifying himself in preparation (cf. Luke 2:22, 22:15, John 2:13, 7:14). Likewise, when we see Jesus come into defiling contact with the dead, the leper, and the hemorrhaging, we should assume he underwent the prescribed procedures; the same procedures he advised others to undergo (cf. Mark 1:44, Matthew 5:23-24, John 4:1-2). That Jesus operated within the bounds of the Torah and mainstream interpretations of it should therefore be our starting point. After all, a purification ritual stands at the foundation of Jesus’ ministry. John’s baptism of repentance and renewal washed away the impurity accrued to the body through sin (Jesus 197-198, Matthew 3:8). Or as Josephus explains, John’s immersion was “for the purification of the flesh once the soul had previously been cleansed by right conduct” (Antiquities XVIII 5.2). Jesus’ disciples, and perhaps Jesus himself, administered this baptism after John was executed (John 3:22-26, 4:1-2).
So despite the distaste for systems of purity that we might have, and regardless of all that we believe such systems stand for (sexism, inequality, nationalism, etc.), according to Fredriksen there is little evidence to suggest that the historical Jesus “flagrantly violated” or “radically disregarded” the rules of purity (Jesus 200). The anti-purity Jesus just doesn’t make historical sense.
Fredriksen’s point is not only a necessary reaction against motivated historiography, it is a historically ironclad fact.
So in Fredriksen’s spirit I want to submit a few more pieces of evidence that I believe support her conclusion: that Jesus obeyed Moses’ rules of purity.
- Jesus commands his disciples to observe the teachings of the Pharisees because they sit in the seat of Moses (Matthew 23:2-3). Jesus thus endorses Pharisaic interpretations of the Torah, in all their puritanical emphasis.
- Jesus wishes the Pharisees practiced the “weightier matters of the Law: justice and mercy and faith… without neglecting the other matters” (Matthew 23:23). Jesus implicitly affirms their diligence when it comes to ritual purity.
- Jesus claims the Pharisees “wash the outside of the cup” but not the inside. They ought to clean the inside so that the outside may also be clean (Matthew 23:25-26). Jesus here continues his criticism of the Pharisees’ internal moral impurity while at the same time acknowledging their outer ritual purity. Jesus concludes that Jews should seek purity on both counts.
- Jesus says the Pharisees are whitewashed tombs, “beautiful” on the outside but full of impurity on the inside (Matthew 23:27-28). The metaphor again serves to demonstrate the Pharisees’ hypocrisy: they are meticulous about outer ritual purity (which is beautiful and pure) but are wholly compromised by inner moral “lawlessness.”
The critique of the Pharisees that we find in Matthew 23 could not have originated with an anti-purity iconoclast. Quite the opposite. At every layer Jesus’ criticism assumes the importance of the purity regulations.