In his best-selling book, The Year of Living Biblically, secular Jew A. J. Jacobs endeavors to follow biblical laws literally for a year. His escapades with mixed fabrics, stoning Sabbath-breakers, handling serpents, and honoring widows are enthralling and often sidesplitting, and they led to a CBS sitcom spinoff.
In one entry, he explains his attempt to avoid the ritual impurity associated with genital discharges while his wife is menstruating (Lev. 15:19–23). Unamused, she makes it a point to sit in every chair in the house before he returns home. Ultimately, he opts for a portable Handy Seat, because really, who can be sure who might have just sat in any particular subway seat or restaurant booth? (Rachel Held Evans completed a similar tongue-in-cheek challenge in her 2012 book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood.)
Part of the reason this story is so humorous is its utter absurdity, especially as seen through our modern Western lens, which unwittingly informs our interpretation of Scripture. We find it awkward or wildly inappropriate to act differently—let alone to ask—if a woman is menstruating, and therefore the notion of a biblical regulation or restriction over a woman’s time of the month seems preposterous.
It is easy to overlook or disregard that, in the Bible, issues of ritual purity matter. Far from being some legalistic and archaic Old Testament oddity, engaging impurity deeply mattered to Jesus as well.
The ritual purity system is a cornerstone of second-temple Jewish life, and Jesus’ actions reveal that he embodies a kind of contagious holiness, which overcomes the sources of impurity that contaminate God’s people. Without understanding how the ritual purity system works, and how Jesus’ actions evidence the inbreaking of God’s holiness into the world, we miss part of the New Testament’s remarkable witness.
In Matthew 9:18–26, for example, we read the account of a synagogue leader whose daughter has died, which is abruptly interrupted by another story about a woman who has been “subject to bleeding” for 12 years. The language of our English translations obscures key aspects of this passage that connect it to a first-century Jewish context. The stories seem to have nothing to do with each other, making the composition of the passage appear odd and haphazard. It is precisely an understanding of the ritual purity system, and Jesus’ disposition toward it, that unlocks the meaning of this curious passage.
New Testament scholar Matthew Thiessen explains in Jesus and the Forces of Death that ancient Israel’s corporate life was structured around two binaries: holy vs. profaneorordinary, and pure vs. impure. The primary loci of holiness are the Sabbath (Ex. 20:8–11), the tabernacle or temple (Ex. 40:34–38), and the people of Israel themselves (Lev. 11:44–45). Because God literally dwells in these entities, they must be guarded and stewarded with particular care.
Scholars loosely divide biblical impurity into ritual and moral. Ritual impurity is unavoidable, natural, communicable, not sinful, and generally dealt with by “washing and waiting” (undergoing ritual bathing and a certain period of isolation from sacred spaces).
Ritual impurity falls into three main categories: skin diseases (tsara’at in Hebrew, lepra in Greek, often mistranslated as “leprosy”), genital discharges, and corpses. As Thiessen explains, each of these in its own way represents the forces of death—powers that work against human life and flourishing. Someone in a state of ritual impurity could not come into contact with God’s holiness, since God flees from impurity (Ezek. 10–11). So, while ritual impurity was not in itself sinful, if the Israelites did not deal with it properly, it could lead one into unholiness and drive away God’s presence.
Moral impurity, by contrast, refers to sinful behavior (idolatry, incest, murder), which results in defilement of the people, the sanctuary, and the land. Moral impurity is avoidable, willful, noncommunicable, incites divine chastisement, requires atonement, and (unabated) leads to exile.
Jesus confronts all three sources of ritual impurity in the Gospels’ unfolding story of his extraordinary ministry. By understanding ritual purity laws, we realize that Matthew 9:18–26 (and its parallel passages, Luke 8:41–56 and Mark 5:22–43) are focused on issues of ritual purity.
What English translations subtly conceal is that the woman’s “bleeding” is an issue of abnormal genital discharge, which has rendered her impure and thus unable to enter the temple courts, and possibly the city of Jerusalem, for the 12-year duration of the bleeding (Lev. 15:25). This is a massive loss for her socially and spiritually, given that the Jerusalem temple was the center of worship and religious life.
There’s a clue in Matthew 9 that indicates Jesus’ seriousness toward Old Testament commandments. In most English translations of Matthew 9, the woman reaches out to Jesus and touches “the edge of his cloak” (v. 20), a strange and outdated translation for modern readers. What the Greek actually says is that she reaches out and touches the kraspedon (tassel) of his garment. In Numbers 15, God commands the Israelites to wear tassels in order to remind his people of their pursuit of holiness, a commandment that is observed by many Jews today.
Notably, when the same Greek word (kraspedon) appears in Matthew 23:5—where Jesus censures the Pharisees for their showiness—English versions translate the word to “tassel.” The contrast in the two chapters veils Jesus’ connection to Jewish practices and distances Jesus from the customs of the Pharisees. In reality, Jesus and the Pharisees both wore tassels. As Thiessen writes, Jesus was indeed “that Jewish.” It is precisely Jesus’ Jewishness that reveals to us what his mission was all about, and in turn, what our commission as his disciples is to look like.
The synagogue leader’s daughter, similarly, represents corpse impurity and thus another force opposing Israel’s life and welfare. Corpses were the most powerful source of ritual impurity in the priestly purity system; while the other two sources were transmitted by touch, even proximity to a dead body would render one ritually impure (Num. 19:14–16). And in a symbolic trilogy, the story of Jesus healing a man with lepra precedes this passage in all three synoptic gospels.
According to the laws of ritual purity, Jesus should have entered into a state of ritual impurity when the bleeding woman touched his garment, and when Jesus touched the dead girl to raise her to life. In reality, the exact opposite happens. Rather than their impurities transferring to him, his contagious holiness transfers to them.
Throughout the Old Testament, there are two overarching strands of Israel’s narrative. On one hand, Israel must carefully guard, preserve, and steward God’s presence in their midst. As God tells Moses and Aaron in Leviticus 15:31: “You must keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean, so they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling my dwelling place, which is among them.”
God’s holiness dwelled in the midst of Israel, the Sabbath, and the tabernacle and temple, pointing forward to the ultimate consummation of creation—God’s unrestricted presence and the removal of the barrier between secular and holy. Jewish tradition describes the world to come as “a day that will be entirely Shabbat” (Mishnah Tamid 7:4; Genesis Rabbah 17:5), and Scripture offers an eschatological vision in which God’s holiness ultimately blankets all of space and time (Zech. 14; Rev. 21).
Herein lies the second strand of the narrative: The holiness of God that dwells within Israel will expand outward to the ordinary world beyond. This trajectory is present from the very beginning, originating in God’s call of Abram in Genesis 12:3 (“all peoples on earth will be blessed through you”) and echoed throughout the prophetic literature.
Isaiah imagines a day when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9) and declares that “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (49:6). Zechariah 14 envisions a day on which the most mundane objects will be just as holy as the temple instruments in Jerusalem.
In the narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures, Israel’s guarded holiness coexists with the vision that one day, God’s presence will flow far beyond these prescribed boundaries and parameters.
The tension between Israel’s divinely commanded separation from the world and Israel’s vocation to bring God’s holiness to the ends of the earth finds its resolution in the life and work of Jesus. In Christ, holiness overpowers the sources of impurity; abundant life overpowers the forces of death.
The kingdom of God breaks in through the holy and healing touch of Christ.
When asked to authenticate his ministry and messiahship in Matthew 11, Jesus points to what can be seen and heard as a result of his work. Echoing Isaiah 61, Jesus declares that “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy (lepra) are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor” (Matt. 11:5). The tangible, physical restoration that is spreading outward to the world through Christ confirms his divine identity.
While Western Christians often live out our faith in a way that bifurcates our bodies and our spirits, this division is completely foreign to a Hebraic worldview. Christianity has all too often fallen prey to the philosophical framework of Platonic dualism, where two separate worlds—one physical and temporal, the other invisible and eternal—oppose each other.
This worldview teaches that our bodies belong to the material world and are thus chained to the physical processes of change, decline, and ultimately death. Our souls, however, originate in the unseen spirit world and after death return to it for reward or punishment.
By contrast, Judaism has always held to an embodied spirituality, where people live out their faith through their bodies, not in some kind of war against them. Indeed, faith is what Jews see and hear (and also eat, wear, recite, and declare). Torah teaches Jews how to order their lives, which necessarily means what they do with their bodies.
As Jewish historian of religion Daniel Boyarin explains, Christianity has generally conceived of human beings as embodied souls, while Judaism has conceived of human beings as ensouled bodies. According to the Jewish definition, the body is not an accidental feature of our humanity; rather, our bodies fundamentally constitute what it means to be human.
In this regard, Judaism has much to teach us about embodiment and what it looks like to engage our bodies in worship and discipleship. In fact, it has much to teach us about how to read the New Testament, such as the Lord’s Prayer. For some, the words are so familiar that we can easily bypass the process of actually entering into and meditating upon their meaning.
Take “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). The text does not say, “Swoop us up to heaven, so that we can be in the place where your will is done.” The imagery is of the downward movement of God’s kingdom, its presence and reality breaking into this world, not of us transcending this physical, material world. This world is where God’s kingdom is coming, and we are commissioned to be ambassadors of that kingdom—here and now, in these bodies.
The gospel of Jesus is about God’s kingdom and its power and presence in and among us. It is about God’s final and definitive no to all of the forces that work against human life and flourishing. For us, it is about living into this kingdom, shaping our lives around it, and pointing others toward it. It is about the outward expansion of holiness that Jesus embodied.
This vision is reflected in Jesus’ charge to his disciples in Matthew 10. What exactly does Jesus send out his first followers to do? “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy [lepra], drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give” (vv. 7–8). This commission understandably makes many of us uncomfortable. After all, when have we raised someone from the dead?
Even for the large majority of us who aren’t performing resurrections, we, like Jesus, are still called to fight against the tangible forces of death in our culture. What exactly are these forces? They are anything oppressing God’s people and working against the inbreaking of God’s glorious kingdom in our lives and communities.
To be ambassadors of this kingdom means to care deeply about bodies and the forces of death that oppose them. If God is actively working to redeem this world, then the way we understand our mission and service to the kingdom may be vastly more expansive than we have imagined.
Jennifer M. Rosner is affiliate assistant professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary and author of Finding Messiah: A Journey Into the Jewishness of the Gospel (IVP, 2022).
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