Photo by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929

“Great crowds came to Jesus, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others” (Matthew 15:30). In this etching, Rembrandt (1606–1669) depicts Jesus mingling with and healing society’s outcasts. Several New Testament scholars have portrayed Jesus as a radical social reformer who preached a gospel of compassion in opposition to the Jewish purity laws—which, these scholars claim, preserved unjust social distinctions.

Such a view, Paula Fredriksen observes, rests on a misunderstanding of purity. She notes that the purity laws are not concerned with who you are but with sacral contamination (resulting from eating some foods, certain bodily discharges, or contact with a corpse, for example) and prescribe ritual means for removing such contamination. Those who are impure cannot approach the Temple altar, or enter the Temple or its compound—depending on the kind of impurity contracted. Being pure enables one to approach holy places, but impurity is not in itself sinful, and it does not imply any social stigma. Nor are femaleness or poverty signs of impurity: A priest who just buried his father is impure, whereas a poor destitute woman may be completely pure.

For Fredriksen, Jesus, like his fellow Jews, obeyed the purity rules—forcing us to look elsewhere for the source of his message.