I rarely recommend books on here; which is a bit odd, as I do read a lot of them. This will be the first of several coming, so as to give something new for people as I work on numerous projects (which I’m not really close to finishing any of them!).
This book came to my notice as I was watching the Zoom Conferences as part of the Enoch Seminar’s July programme, The Next Quest for the Historical Jesus. All of the papers read by the speakers were excellent and insightful, but one in particular caught my eye: Matthew Thiessen’s paper on Purity as it corresponded to Yahushua’s (M.T of course used Jesus) mission (go and see Dr. Thiessen reading his paper out on the Enoch Seminar’s Facebook page here; he starts at 1:43:21). Accordingly afterwards, I had to purchase his book, Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism.
For those of us who have read the eye-witness accounts of the Messiah’s life (MattithYah through Yahuchanon) without the lens of Christendom, we will already know that not once does Yahushua repudiate any of the Torah’s commands, and in fact states that not even the smallest stroke of a letter would pass away (Matt. 5:17-20). Whilst He contended with Pharisees, Scribes, Herodians, Sadducees and others concerning the Torah, it was with regards to their misuse of it, as opposed to their usage of its correct application, plus not to mention all their pointless additions to it. Nevertheless, Christians and Christendom for many centuries (around 18+) have neglected most of the Torah (apart from when it suits their purposes), have taught it’s not necessary to follow (except for the 10 commandments, plus any one which fits an agenda, be it ancient or modern), and have even taught that the Messiah Himself didn’t follow all of it, and in several places superseded certain instructions – such as observing the seventh day Sabbath rest, eating “clean” or “unclean” animals – and, the one to which Dr. Thiessen has devoted the book, the ones pertaining to ritual purity.
Mainly in Leviticus (chapters 13-15), there are some instructions concerning what makes a person, male or female, ritually impure or “unclean” (Hebrew tame’ / טָמֵא). Contrary to popular opinion, being “ritually unclean” is not sinful; it only becomes sinful if one attempts to enter the “inner sanctuary” (of the Tabernacle in the wilderness; Temple in Jerusalem), or another Holy place, without waiting to become clean, and to have followed the instructions concerning what to do once you’ve become clean again.
Dr. Thiessen’s book is about this very thing, and how the Messiah is depicted in the eye-witnesses accounts when it comes to certain people who are in a state of perpetual ritual impurity: the leper (though more on this word shortly) as seen in Mark 1:40-45 (Matt. 8:2–4; Luke 5:12–14); the woman suffering the 12-year long bodily discharge of blood in Mark 5:24-34 (Matt. 9:20–22; Luke 8:43–48); the synagogue ruler’s dead daughter in Mark 5:21-23, 35-43 (Matt. 9:18–19, 23-26; Luke 8:41–42, 49-56); and the demon-possessed man in Mark 5:1-20 (Matt. 8:28–34; Luke 8:26–39). He also touches on related depictions of raising the dead and healing the demon possessed, but mainly focuses on these four.
Dr. Thiessen does a masterful job of highlighting how each of these pericopes have nothing to do with the Messiah’s supposed rejection of ritual impurity and the instructions pertaining to them, but are in fact His concord with them, and how the Messiah combats the source of the uncleanness (the skin diseases; discharge of blood; demon-possession; and death), curing each person in the pericope of what is making them ritually impure, and in the case of the leper in Mark 1:40-45, telling the man to go and follow the instructions in accord with what is required in Leviticus when becoming clean again.
One thing which struck me immediately in the book is Dr. Thiessen’s referral to Yahuchanon the Immerser not as the traditional “John the Baptist”, but rather as “John the Immerser” (emphasis mine – see pages 21-24, 64). Outside of certain Hebraic-roots (of which I’m not, before someone reading this accuses me!) or other non-mainstream authors, I can’t recall any other book which refers to Yahuchanon the Immerser as such. Throughout the book, Dr. Thiessen does in fact appear to be completely avoiding any mention of “Baptist” or “baptism”, which I was quite glad to see. Whilst I haven’t confirmed it, it would appear Dr. Thiessen is doing so in order to not confuse the modern reader with what modern baptism is usually perceived to be: something done to children with a brief splash of water on their face, followed by the sign of the cross. Dr. Thiessen more or less states this as such on page 22: “John’s immersive practices may remind modern readers of the later Christian rite of baptism (the common moniker “John the Baptsist” no doubt contributes to this understanding)”.
The immersion of which Yahuchanon, and following him Yahushua and His followers, performed, was the full submersion of an adult in water, something seen in the ritual washing basins found throughout Israel by archaeologists. As noted by Dr. Thiessen, Yahuchanon’s immersion is a direct mimicking of contemporary bathing rituals in Judaism as it corresponded to ritual impurity/uncleanness, though for Yahuchanon and Yahushua, not to mention their followers, it was also symbolic for the removal of sin – an inner cleansing rather than just an outward one.
The second, and most important in my opinion, thing of which I was mostly unaware was the Greek word λέπρα / lepra, usually translated as leprosy, didn’t actually mean leprosy as we understand it today (medical term is Hansen’s disease), but in fact was used to any group of skin diseases which caused scabs, scales, or whiteness of skin and hair. The whitening of skin is something particularly mentioned in Leviticus 13 as a consequence of contracting צָרַ֫עַת / tsara’at, the word usually (and incorrectly) translated as leprosy; problem is Hansen’s disease does not result in the skin or hair turning white! According to Leviticus 13, צָרַ֫עַת / tsara’at can also infect houses and clothing; this, again, not being something leprosy actually does. To spoil all of this slightly: neither צָרַ֫עַת nor λέπρα were Hebrew or Greek words for Hansen’s disease/leprosy, as both were being used before leprosy was even known in the Middle-East or the Mediterranean. When they were finally seen in either place (around 2nd-3rd century BCE, long after Leviticus was originally written), the Greeks referred to it as elephas/ἐλέφας or elephantiasis/ἐλεφαντίᾱσις (yes, from whence we get the English elephant), due to the belief it was brought to the Mediterranean and Middle-East from India by Alexander’s army (again, something Dr. Thiessen notes is also mistaken – it was likely the slave trade which brought it from India to the west; see p. 46). Hence Leviticus 13 can’t be referring to Hansen’s disease, as it was something likely not even in existence when Leviticus was written, and when MattithYah, Marcus, or Lucus use λέπρα (Yahuchanon interestingly doesn’t mention anything of λέπρα), this was not yet a word used to refer to the more modern commonly known disease (this wouldn’t happen until the 9th century CE, never mind BCE). As to what disease they were referring, no one seems to know exactly which one, and a multitude could be indicated, as they appear to affect more people than would be expected.
Anyway, I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s well written, scholarly, and does actually have something that speaks against ancient and contemporary Christian (mis)understanding of the purity instructions, and the Messiah’s response to such things, that shouldn’t turn off most Christians from reading it.
Jesus and the Forces of Death on Amazon (USA)
Enoch Seminar: First Zoom Session
Enoch Seminar: Second Zoom Session
Enoch Seminar Webpage
Centre for the Critical Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements Webpage