See Kenneth V. Mull and Carolyn Sandquist Mull, “Biblical Leprosy—Is It Really?” BR 08:02


The Mishnah is the earliest rabbinic work; compiled in about 200 C.E., it forms the core of the Talmud.


Hillel and Shammai lived in the first century B.C.E. and represented rival schools of biblical interpretation and moral reflection; the Talmud frequently refers to their disputes.


Second tithes represent the portion of a family’s produce put aside to be spent specifically in Jerusalem; see E. P. Sanders, Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah (Philadelphia: Trinity Press, 1990), pp. 45–48.


The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (but not John) are often referred to as the Synoptic Gospels because of similarities in their presentation of the life and teachings of Jesus.



Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994), p. 49. The opposition between compassion (Jesus) and purity (first-century Judaism, especially as associated with Jerusalem) is a leitmotif of Borg’s scholarship; see also his Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press, 1994).


Jesus, Crossan argues, presented himself as the Temple’s “functional opponent, alternative, and substitute” (The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993], p. 355); Jesus’ touching the sick and eating with sinners was intended to “shatter” boundaries erected by purity regulations, (p. 323). Crossan extends this argument in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994).


N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992). Wright’s Jesus, unlike Borg’s and Crossan’s, is an apocalyptic figure; nevertheless, Wright’s Jesus, like theirs, articulates his fundamental convictions through a principled opposition to purity rules.


For food prohibitions, see Leviticus 7:19–27 (contact-impurity, carrion, fat and blood); for permitted and prohibited foods, see Leviticus 11:1–47 and Deuteronomy 14:3–21. Anthropologist Mary Douglas has analyzed these narratives in Purity and Danger (London: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1966) and In the Wilderness: The Doctrine of Defilement in the Book of Numbers (London: Sheffield, 1993); see also Jacob Milgrom’s authoritative commentary on Leviticus in the Anchor Bible Series (New York: Doubleday, 1991).


For childbirth, see Leviticus 12:1–8 (note the graduated scale of purification offerings: “if she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves,” a detail nicely caught in Luke 2:24); for menstruation and other vaginal discharges, Leviticus 15:19–30; for various genital discharges and seminal emissions, Leviticus 15:1–18; for corpse impurity, Leviticus 21:1–3; for the red heifer, Numbers 19.


For human leprosy and other skin ailments, see Leviticus 13:1–46; for purification rituals, Leviticus 14:2–32 (note again the graduated payment scale, “But if he is poor and cannot afford so much…” [verse 21]); for affected clothes, Leviticus 14:47–59; for leprous houses, Leviticus 14:34–53.


See the Table of Biblical Impurities, presented with a list of the means of purification and the zone of activity affected, in E.P. Sanders, Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah (Philadelphia: Trinity Press, 1990), p. 151. Sanders notes that the only two specifically prohibited impurities are contact with the carcass of an impure creature and eating what dies of itself.


Assuming this results in ejaculation, thus impurity from contact with semen, Leviticus 15:18.


E.P. Sanders has written two major studies of this material: one from the perspective of Jewish law as it appears in New Testament sources, Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah, esp. pp. 29–57 (purity, tithes, and temple tax) and pp. 258–271 (purity); the other using early Christian materials to supplement his discussion of Law and practice in Jewish sources, Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 B.C.E.-66 C.E. (Philadelphia: Trinity Press, 1992). For an earlier reconstruction from the Jewish material itself, see Jacob Neusner, The Idea of Purity in Ancient Judaism (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1973), with a response by Mary Douglas.


The purifying mix of red heifer ashes and water, for example, serves to remind the worshiper of the two components of human being, (Dreams 1.209–212); for a discussion with references, see Sanders, Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah, pp. 263–271. Sanders notes, “By biblical law, all Diaspora Jews were impure all of the time: everyone had to be assumed to have corpse-impurity, which could be removed only at the Temple. Childbirth-impurity also required sacrifices (Leviticus 12:6–8), as did leprosy and discharge…Nevertheless, Philo…thought that people who carried out a non-biblical domestic rite after corpse-impurity were really pure, in spite of not being allowed to enter the temple,” p. 270.


For shunning idols, see 1 Corinthians 5:11; for shunning porneia, see 1 Corinthians 5:1–2, 11; 6:15–20 and 7:2; for separate law courts, see 1 Corinthians 6:1–6, cf. 2 Corinthians 13:1; for responsibility for the poor, both at home and in Jerusalem, see 1 Corinthians 11:17–22, 16:1–3; Galatians 2:10 and Romans 16:1–3. For fulfilling the Law even without circumcision, see Romans 2:14–16, 26–29. I analyze how Jesus’ exhortations articulate his apocalyptic convictions in “From Jesus to Christ: The Contribution of the Apostle Paul,” Jews and Christians Speak of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), pp. 77–91.


See 2 Corinthians 11:22, Philippians 3:6 and, though admittedly an idiosyncratic example, 1 Corinthians 9:20–22.


In Greek, doxa; in NRSV, “glory”: Romans 9:4.


Josephus discusses the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and insurrectionists (the “school of Judah”) in Book 18 of Antiquities; Philo discusses the Essenes in That Every Virtuous Man is Free, and the Therapeutae, a mysterious sect of celibate men and women, in On the Contemplative Life. With less enthusiasm, Philo speaks of “some Jews” who understand the true, allegorical meanings of the Laws and thus cease to observe them literally: “We shall be ignoring the sanctity of the Temple and of a thousand other things if we pay heed to nothing except what is shown us by the inner meaning of things”—a reference to the importance of keeping the purity laws (On the Migration of Abraham 16:89–93). According to Josephus, John the Baptist immersed Jews “for the purification of the body once the soul had been previously cleansed by righteous conduct,” (Antiquities 18:5). Two later texts, one Jewish (Tosefta Yada’im 2:20), one Christian (Eusebius, drawing on a late second-century writer Hegesippus, in his Ecclesiastical History 4:22), name another late Second Temple purity-group “the immersers.” I thank Dr. Oded Irshai of Hebrew University for this reference, and for his guidance through the Talmudic material on purity.


For the economics of the Second Temple, see, most recently, Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 B.C.E.-66 C.E., pp. 146–169; for attendance at festivals, see Sanders, pp. 125–145. Josephus mentions the extra troops in Jewish War 2:12, 1. For Caligula, see Philo, Legation to Gaius 30:203–42:337; cf. Josephus, Antiquities 18:8, 2 and Jewish War 2:10, 2–5.


Forgiveness in any case was not “dispensed” at the Temple. Diaspora Jews, and even Jews living in Judea and Galilee who could not make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, were not thereby cut off from repentance for sin and, thus, forgiveness. On the connection between disease and sin, and healing and forgiveness, see Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), pp. 66–67. On the misunderstandings occasioned by the common translation “sin offering” for the purification offerings of Leviticus 5, see Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 B.C.E.-66 C.E., pp. 108ff., and his discussion of sacrifices, pp. 103–118. Some impurities required atonement sacrifices, but these were specific cases; most did not.


For a fascinating review of the whole legal tangle, see G. Alon, “The Levitical Uncleanness of Gentiles,” Jews and Judaism in the Classical World (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1977), pp. 146–189; his discussion of Niddah and Gentile blood is found on p. 154f. For more information on the same issue and tractate, see Sanders, Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah, p. 156.


Borg, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship, pp. 102, 110.


Borg, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship, p. 109.


Borg, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship, p. 109.


Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, p. 64, n. 20.


Douglas, In the Wilderness, p. 25.


See Romans 1:8–31, referring specifically to Gentile culture; compare the similar list in Galatians 5:19–21 and 1 Corinthians 6:9–11.


See Sanders’s lucid discussion, Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 B.C.E.-66 C.E., pp.72–76. He writes: “Whatever it was about Gentiles that had to be kept away from the holier areas, it threatened the temple’s sanctity, and the purity of worshippers, less than did Jewish menstrual blood” (p. 75).


See, for example, 2 Corinthians 6:14ff., in which Paul associates and condemns illicit sexual activity and idolatry, concluding, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). The believers, significantly, are addressed as “the Temple of the living God” (2 Corinthians 6:16). See also 1 Corinthians 6:9–19.


The Greek reads, literally, “cleansing all foods” (katharizon panta ta bromata).


Paul thinks so; Peter thinks not; and Barnabas and “the other Jews” (that is, Jewish Christians) side with Peter.


Compare a dialogue between Jesus and a Levite given in a late-fourth-century papyrus from Oxyrynchus (5, No. 840): Challenged by the Levite, Jesus insists that he has prepared properly to enter the Temple area, having immersed in “the pool of David.”


Again, the issues and evidence are complicated. Philo states that all pilgrims underwent this ritual (those from overseas could certainly be assumed to be corpse-impure); Mishnaic sources state that those Jews living in Judea or the Galilee might have gone to stations set up around the country for the rite of the red heifer, and so could theoretically enter the city already prepared. See S. Safrai, Pilgrimage at the Time of the Second Temple (Tel Aviv, 1965), pp. 123–124. Hillel and Shammai disputed whether conversion required a seven-day “in between” period, on the analogy of corpse-impurity, or whether a Gentile, converting the eve of Pesach, could eat the meal that holiday (Shammai takes the liberal view, Mishnah Pesachim 8, 8).


Complications remain. The Gospels depict Jesus going straight to the Temple area before the period of purification would have been completed, and they have him teaching, in the days before Passover, from—that is, within—the Temple. The (much later) Babylonian Talmud, on the basis of Exodus 13:19 (“and Moses took the bones of Joseph with him”), held that one could be corpse-impure and even carry a corpse onto the Temple Mount (Sotah 20B and parallels), but that the Temple area itself would still be out of bounds. Sanders seems aware of a problem, too, and he alters the evangelists’ language in his description: “[D]uring the days between the eighth and the fourteenth, Jesus is depicted as teaching near the Temple,” The Historical Figure of Jesus (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993), p. 251 (my emphasis); for his whole discussion of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem, pp. 249–252.


According to Borg, by overturning the tables, Jesus symbolically repudiated what the Temple had become: “the center of a purity system that was also a system of economic and political oppression,” (Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship, p. 115). For Crossan, “The spiritual and economic egalitarianism [Jesus] preached in Galilee exploded with indignation at the Temple as the seat and symbol of everything that was nonegalitarian, patronal, and even oppressive on both the religious and the political level” (A Revolutionary Biography, p. 133).


Sanders, Borg, Crossan and Wright all assume the historicity of the Temple incident; Sanders interprets it as prophecy (as I did above); the others, as symbolic protest. I have in the past considered this incident as historical; recently, however, I have come to question whether it in fact originates in evangelical tradition; see Paula Fredriksen, “What You See Is What You Get: Context and Content in Current Research on the Historical Jesus,” Theology Today, April 1995.


The anti-purity Jesus tends, not surprisingly, to be also a non-apocalyptic Jesus, thereby free of another embarrassing feature of ancient Jewish religion (the vivid conviction that God would overcome evil and establish his dominion soon), and of a big miscalculation (normal history has continued; the first-century apocalyptic time-table was wrong). Many authors reconstruct Jesus’ mission and message to cohere with the eschatological expectations of his day. My own interpretation may be found in From Jesus to Christ. The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1988) and, specifically refuting these anti-purity arguments (“What You See Is What You Get”).


Other strains of Jewish apocalyptic thought entertained less wholesome fantasies: Some speak of the destruction or subjugation of Gentile nations. But the inclusive strain is the one that matters most both for later rabbinic tradition and, obviously, for those Jews who shaped the beliefs of the first generation of the Church. For the full argument, and the ways in which this interpretation ties Jesus’ mission in with subsequent Christianity, see Paula Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ, pp. 133–176.


Douglas, In the Wilderness, p. 24.