Jesus & The Ancient Jewish Purity System
By David Sunfellow
In the time of Jesus, it was believed that you had to be pure to stay in God’s good graces. The Jewish purity system of first century Palestine was built around a system that elevated the most pure and reviled the most impure. One’s purity depended on one’s birth and lineage. Priests and Levites came first, and were followed by Israelites and then converts to the Jewish faith. Further down the road were bastards. Purity also depended on behavior. This who carefully obeyed purity codes were regarded as more pure than those who ignored them. People who ignored or downplayed these codes were regarded as outcasts, which typically included tax collectors and shepherds. Physical wholeness was also a purity issue. People who were not whole — who were maimed, chronically ill, lepers, eunuchs, and so on, were considered impure. People who were abjectly poor were also considered impure. Males, who did not menstruate or give birth like females, were considered more pure than women. Finally, Jews were considered more pure than Gentiles.
Jesus scholar Marcus Borg sums it up by saying:
“The effect of the purity system was to create a world with sharp social boundaries: between pure and impure, righteous and sinner, whole and not whole, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile.”
“One of his [Jesus’] most characteristic activities was an open and inclusive table. ‘Table fellowship’ — sharing a meal with somebody — had a significance in Jesus’ social world that is difficult for us to imagine. It was not a casual act, as it can be in the modern world. In a general way, sharing a meal represented mutual acceptance. More specifically, rules surrounding meals were deeply embedded in the purity system. Those rules governed not only what might be eaten and how it should be prepared, but also with whom one might eat. Refusing to share a meal was a form of social ostracism. Pharisees (and others) would not eat with somebody who was impure, and no decent person would share a meal with an outcast. The meal was a microcosm of the social system, table fellowship an embodiment of social vision…
“The inclusive vision incarnated in Jesus’s table fellowship is reflected in the shape of the Jesus movement itself. It was an inclusive movement, negating the boundaries of the purity system. It included women, untouchables, the poor, the maimed, and the marginalized, as well as some people of stature who found his vision attractive. It is difficult for us who live in a world in which we take for granted an attitude (at least as an ideal) of nondiscrimination to appreciate the radical character of this inclusiveness. It is only what we would expect from a reasonably decent person. But in a society ordered by a purity system, the inclusiveness of Jesus’ movement embodied a radically alternative vision…
“In short, there is something boundary shattering about… the center of Jesus’ message and activity: ‘Be compassionate as God is compassionate.’ Whereas purity divides and excludes, compassion unites and includes. For Jesus, compassion had a radical sociopolitical meaning. In his teaching and table fellowship, and in the shape of his movement, the purity system was subverted and an alternative social vision affirmed. The politics of purity was replaced by a politics of compassion.”
Bottom line: Jesus not only challenged the religious, social, and political order of his day, but he was viewed as a dangerous virus that was infecting others with similar ideas and practices.
To learn more this very important topic, read Chapter 3: Jesus Compassion, and Politics, in Marcus Borg’s book “Meeting Jesus AGAIN for the First Time.”
To learn how Jesus championed and embodied the core truths of near-death experiences more fully than any other historical figure, go here.
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