Jerome H. Neyrey

 University of Notre Dame




Mary Douglas' "idea of purity" refers to the systematic structures, classifications and evaluations which shape social groups. "There is a place for everything and everything in its place"-a saying applicable to people, places, times, things, etc. What is "in place" is pure, what is not is a pollution. In Mark, Jesus appears to be out of place most of the time, dealing with people he should avoid, doing unconventional things and not observing customs about places and times. While Mark presents Jesus challenging the Jewish purity system, he also describes him as reforming it in favor of other core values. He is "the Holy One of God" and agent of God's reform: he is authorized to cross lines and to blur classifications as a strategy for a reformed covenant community which is more inclusive than the sectarian synagogue. As God's agent of holiness, Jesus makes sinners holy and the sick whole. Yet he draws clear lines between those in his group and those outside, setting up distinguishing criteria for membership and for exclusion in the reformed covenant community.




This essay takes its inspiration from a series of studies which are becoming increasingly influential in New Testament research. In 1966 British anthropologist Mary Douglas published her groundbreaking book, Purity and Danger. This and her subsequent work, Natural Symbols (1973), formulated anthropological concepts which would have important implications for students of the Bible. In these two works, Douglas spoke as a cultural anthropologist on how societies classified and arranged their worlds. The process of ordering a sociocultural system was called "purity," in contrast to "pollution," which stands for the violation of the classification system, its lines and boundaries. The term "purity" became a jargon word for the general principle that all peoples tend to structure their worlds according to some system of order and classification. The study of "purity," then, is the study of symbolic systems (Douglas, 1966:34). This concept was employed with considerable success by Jacob Neusner first in The Idea of Purity in Ancient Judaism (1973) and then in a series of articles (1975, 1978, 1979). Among New Testament writers, Bruce Malina applied Douglas' model of purity in ch. 6 of his New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (1981).[1]


While "purity" refers to the general principle of classifying and structuring a society, it has another meaning. One may speak of the specific purity rules and norms of a given group. Ancient Jews, for example, had specific purity rules which classified foods as clean or unclean, which ranked objects according to degrees of uncleanness, which identified people as fit or unfit to enter Israel's temple, etc. As well as one might ask to what degree a group has a general system of purity, it is also fair to inquire into .the more immediate norms whereby specific persons, objects, etc. are declared sacred/profane, clean/unclean or pure/polluted. "Purity," then, is used in two senses in this essay:


1. the general, abstract system of ordering and classifying;

2. the specific purity rules whereby persons, objects, places etc. are labelled pure or polluted in a given social group.







What is meant by "purity"? It is an abstract way of interpreting data. Purity is best understood in terms of its binary opposite, "dirt." When something is out of place or when it violates the classification system in which it is set (Douglas, 1966:35), it is "dirt." A farmer working in his field is covered with dust and chaff, his shoes caked with mud and dung. this is appropriate to the outdoors work of farming during the day; it is what is expected of fields and barns. But should that farmer come inside after the day's work, wearing those same dirt-covered overalls and those same dung-covered shoes, and sit in his wife's living room, his farm dirtiness, so appropriate outside, is impurity inside. The wrong thing appears in the wrong place at the wrong time. Smoking is socially permitted in most places at most time; but it is thoroughly inappropriate to light up in a church pew during the sermon on Sunday morning. Children go to movies; but a child at an adult film at midnight is out of place.


The idea of "dirt" is pivotal to Douglas' exposition of "purity" for two reasons:


It (dirt) implies two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order. Dirt, then, is never a unique isolated event. Where there is dirt there is a system. Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classifica­tion of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements (Douglas, 1966;35).


Let us speak more about the system of ordering and classifying, the system of purity. We all draw lines in our world relative to things, persons, places, activities and times. These lines tell us what and who belong when and where, The old saw summed it up: “A place for everything and everything in its place." Because these lines help us to classify and arrange our world according to some dominant principle, they convey through their structural arrangement the abstract values of the social world of which we are a part (Malina, 1981:25-27, 124-26). Our culture is intelligible to us in virtue of our classification system, the lines we draw, and the boundaries we erect.


Purity refers to the cultural system and to the organizing principle of a group. Douglas notes that "culture, in the sense of public standardized values of a community, mediates the experience of individuals. It provides in advance some basic categories, a positive pattern in which ideas and values are tidily ordered" (1966:38-39). "Purity," then, is an abstract way of dealing with the values, maps and structures of a given social group (1966:34-35). It provides a map or series of maps which diagram the group's cultural system and locate "a place for everything and everything in its place."



The Principle of Purity and its Rules in Judaism


In the Old Testament, we regularly come across statements such as "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy" (Lev 19:2) and "Their flesh you shall not eat, their carcasses you shall not touch; they are unclean to you" (Lev 11:8). There is no doubt that ancient Israel had a keen sense of purity and pollution. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to present a detailed investigation of the genesis and development of Jewish notions of "holy" and "unclean," Mary Douglas makes several general suggestions (1966:48-57) apropos of the idea of purity in the Old Testament.


"Be ye holy, as I am holy." Holiness, an attribute of God, resides in God's power to bless and to curse. "God's work through the blessing is essentially to create order, through which men's affairs prosper" (Douglas, 1966:50), When the blessing is withdrawn, confusion occurs, with barrenness and pestilence (Deut 28:15-24), God's premier blessing act was the ordering of creation, when time was structured into work and rest days, when creatures were created in their pure forms (no hybrids, no unclean animals), when all creatures were assigned their proper foods, as well as their proper place in creation, Creation, the ultimate act of ordering and classifying the world, was the original map. Holiness in turn involves "keeping distinct the categories of creation"; it involves correct definition, discrimination, and order (Soler, 1976:24-30).


Creation's expression of ordering the world is an abstract concept, buried in the cultural history of Israel. But it was mediated to the Jews of the post-biblical period through the specific rules surrounding Israel's temple (Neusner, 1979:103-127). The abstract order of creation determined specific purity rules for the temple system:


1. what animals may be offered:

only "holy" animals, viz., those which accord with the definition of a clean animal and which are physically perfect;

2. who may offer them:

a "holy" priest, who has perfect blood lines, who is in perfect physical condition, and who is in a state of purity;

3. who may participate in the sacrifice:

only Israelites, and only those with whole bodies (Lev 21:16-20);

4. where the offering is to be made: in Jerusalem's temple, which is a microcosm of creation

5. when the offerings are to be made and what offering is appropriate on which occasion.


The temple system, then, is a major mediation or replication of the idea of order and purity established in creation.


Although only priests need observe the specific rules of purity, there were Jews in Jesus' time who would extend them to the people of Israel at large, so that all people may be holy, even as temple and priests are holy (Neusner, 1973a:82--83; Fennelly, 1983:277-283). We turn now to investigate some of the concrete examples of how all persons, places, things, activities, and times were ordered and set apart. For as these are mapped, they embody and express the idea of purity.



Specific Jewish Purity Maps


I said above that "purity" is a map of a social system which coordinates and classifies things according to their appropriate place. In the Judaism of Jesus' time, there were many such maps; for things, places, persons, and times can all be mapped. We began with a map of places.  M. Kelim provides an example of how places, i.e. the Land of Israel, are mapped according to a purity system.

There are ten degrees of holiness:


1.      The Land of Israel is holier than any other land...

2.      the walled cities (of the land of Israel) are still more holy...

3.      Within the walls (of Jerusalem) is still more holy...

4.      The Temple Mount is still more holy...

5.      The Rampart is still more holy...

6.      The Court of the Women is still more holy...

7.      The Court of the Israelites is still more holy...

8.      The Court of the Priests is still more holy. ..

9.      Between the Porch and the Altar is still more holy...

10.  The sanctuary is still more holy...The Holy of Holies is still more holy…(m. Kelim 1.6-9).


The list is very informative. It indicates direction: one moves from the outside toward the center. Gentile territory is outside of Israel and is not holy at all; it is off the map entirely. But all of Israel is holy; it is on the map. As though one were ascending a series of concentric circles, one travels upward and inward toward the center of holiness, the Temple. The center of the Temple is the Holy of Holies, God's altar and throne, wherein God is "enthroned above the cherubim." It is, then, the center of the universe, the navel of the world. The direction of the map suggests the principle of classification: holiness (or "purity") is measured in terms of proximity to the Temple, the center of the map. Everything else is classified and rated as "holy" in proximity to that center.


The Mishnah and Tosefta offer a map of persons which classifies and ranks the people of Israel according to a purity system. T. Megillah gives the following map of the people of Israel:


  1. Priests
  2. Levites
  3. Israelites
  4. Converts
  5. Freed slaves
  6. Disqualified priests (illegitimate children of priests)
  7. Netins (temple slaves)
  8. Mamzers (bastards)
  9. Eunuchs
  10. Those with damaged testicles
  11. Those without a penis (t. Meg 2.7).


The clue to this map of people lies in what holiness (or "purity") means. First, holiness means wholeness. And so people with damaged bodies are ranked last; their lack of wholeness signals a corresponding lack of holiness. People with damaged family lines are ranked second-to-last, for their wholeness is also defective. Second, the ranking according to holi­ness also has to do with one's standing vis-a-vis the Temple. People defec­tive either in body or family lines are on the perimeter of the Temple; converts may stand closer; still closer to the center are full Israelites, and closest of all are Levites and priests. This map of people, then, replicates the map of places which we just observed. This classification list, while most complete in t. Meg, is found in a number of other places (m.Kid. 4.1; m.Hor. 3.8; t.Rosh Has 4.1) (Jeremias, 1969: 271-212).


The map of persons classified them in a very practical way, for it determines who may marry whom. Marriage within one's own rank was very important. One's social position is determined by it, and hence, one's place on the map of Israel. It is not surprising, then, that we have marriage maps which indicate ranking and permissible/impermissible unions (Malina, 1981:110-113, 131-133).


Ten family stocks came up from Babylon: the priestly, levitic, and Israelitish stocks, the impaired priestly stocks, the proselyte, freedman, bastard and Nathin stocks, and the shetuki and asufi stocks. The priestly, levitic and Israelitish stocks may intermarry; impaired priestly stocks, proselyte and freedman stocks may intermarry; the proselyte, freeman, bastard, Nathin, shetuki, and asufi stocks may intermarry (m. Kid. 41 emphasis added).


There are three main circles of society mapped out here: a) full Israelites (priests, Levites, Israelites), b) slightly blemished Israelites (impaired priestly stock, proselytes and freedmen), and c) gravely blemished Is­raelites (bastards, Nathin, shetuki, asufi).


One's social status in Israel was ascribed through birth and blood. And so one married within one's rank and above, if possible. But one never married below. The priests must marry priestly stock: a completely closed system. Levites may marry full Israelites and maintain full status. But their marriage to proselytes, freeman or priestly bastards was a lowering of pedigree and social status. Below even these folk are the temple slaves (Nathin), the fatherless (shetuki) and the foundlings (asufi) (Malina, 1981:131-35).


While intermarriage is the reason for classification, the operative principle is the degree of purity or holiness attributed to these specific families and groups. Without great violence to the marriage maps above, one may put them alongside the maps of places and persons and note the following correlations. Only priests may enter the sanctuary and the Holy of Holies; they are a people set apart for a space set apart. They may marry only within a clan which is set apart. Levites attend the outer parts of the sanctuary area; they too are a group set apart for a space set apart. As a spatially restricted people, they have restricted marriage opportunities. Full Israelites may stand in the general Court of the Israelites; their marriage partners are less restricted. But those of genealogical deficiency (Gentiles, foundlings, bastards, fatherless) are situated still further away from the holy place. Eunuchs, hermaphrodites, and sexually deformed people are still further away from the center of the temple. Marriage for enuchs and sexually deformed people is impossible; and with this impotency goes restricted membership in the clan. And so the marriage map replicates the maps of place and people in Israel. According to a purity system, it ascribes them their appropriate social status in proximity to the Temple, the yardstick of purity. Geography replicates social structure.


Although the lists in the Mishnah and Tosefta indicate that "Israelites" constitute an undifferentiated block of people in Israel, that block may be further broken down and classified. A more detailed map of persons can be drawn of Jewish society. After all, "a place for everything and everything in its place." First, we know of a basic distinction made in the first century between observant or non-observant Jews. In Acts 4:13, Peter and John are classified by the observant elite as "uneducated, common men," that is amme haretz (Oppenheimer) who neither knew the Law and its purity concerns nor cared about them. Acts 22:3 and 26:5-6, on the other hand, insist that Paul be understood as an urban, knowledgeable and serious observer of the Law: "I was brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated according to the strict manner of law of our fathers, being zealous for God" (22:3) ...'According to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee" (26:5). The same distinction between observant and non-observant Jews is found in John 7. The chief priests and Pharisees distinguish themselves from the officers and crowds who are impressed by Jesus. "Are you led astray, you also? Have any of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, who does not know the law, are accursed" (7:47-48). The distinction between observant and non-observant Israelites is conceived geographically. Those in Jerusalem (i.e. those close to the temple) are perceived as concerned with Jerusalem's temple and with purity. The "people of the land" (am haaretz) are just that, people who live apart from the city and its temple; they live in the countryside, in villages, even in Galilee of the Gentiles, which is far removed from the temple and its purity concerns (Meyers 1981:31-47).


Second, even among observant Israelites further classification was possible. 1. We know of Qumran covenanters who considered the present priesthood of the temple to be impure and invalid, Their sense of the lines and boundaries of purity was very strict; they could not abide living in a polluted city, worshipping in a polluted temple, which was administered by unclean priests. They moved out of this polluted space to a new place where purity concerns could be strictly observed. They were positively revered by many in Israel Gosephus, War 2, 119-161). 2. Pharisees also were concerned with purity lines and boundaries. While not part of the priestly urban elite, they kept the same purity codes as the priests and so would rank, at least in their own eyes, as above the masses and in some way equal to the priests in purity, if not in blood. As their name signifies, they "set themselves apart" from the masses of Israel (Safrai/Stern: 11.612). 3. Notice should also be given to the scribes or sages of Israel at this time. These non-priestly people were charged with the promotion of the Torah and its dominance in all aspects of life. Although some sages were Pharisees (Gamaliel the Elder, Simeon ben Gamaliel, Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai), not all were nor need be. They founded houses of study in Israel and so developed into a special class which was passionately concerned with purity.


Third, full Israelites who are non-observant may be further distinguished. Public sinners, such as tax collectors and prostitutes, can be distinguished from the masses. They are, at best, on the margins of the covenant map. Also on the margins are physically unclean folk such as lepers, menstruating women, the blind, and the lame. According to the Law, these last people are unclean and may "not approach to offer the bread of his God": "For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or a man with an injured foot or an injured hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a defect in his sight or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles" (Lev 21:16-20). There are, then, those who have put themselves on the perimeter of the purity map (sinners) and those who find themselves put there because of their physical lack of wholeness (sick, deformed).


Fourth, even observant Israelites may pass through stages of purity and uncleanness. One can and should know one's place in the purity system at all times, but for this one needs a specific map of impurities. M. Kelim 1.5 lists "ten degrees of uncleanness in men," which classifies the contaminant, how long he is contaminated, and what must be done to remove the respective degree of contamination. In that same tractate, a formal hierarchy of uncleanness is mapped:


  1. There are things which convey uncleanness by contact (e.g. a dead creeping thing, male semen)...
  2. They are exceeded by carrion...
  3. They are exceeded by him that has connexion with a menstruant...
  4. They are exceeded by the issue of him that has a flux, by his spittle, his semen, and his urine…
  5. They are exceeded by (the uncleanness of) what is ridden upon (by him that has a flux)...
  6. (The uncleanness of) that is ridden upon (by him that has a flux) is exceeded by what he lies upon...
  7. (The uncleanness of) what he lies upon is exceeded by the uncleanness of him that has a flux…(m. Kelim 1.3).


The uncleanness of a man is exceeded by the uncleanness of a woman, whose uncleanness is exceeded by that of a leper, then by that of a corpse (m. Kelim 1.4). It is safe to say that Israel was both intensely concerned with purity and with the appropriate lines and boundaries which classified everything in its proper place--even uncleanness.


Times may be mapped as well. The second division of the Mishnah, Moed, contains a list of sacred times, a list which suggests a hierarchy of those times:


1. Shabbath & Erubin             (Sabbath)

2. Pesahim                              (Feast of Passover)

3. Yoma                                   (Day of Atonement)

4. Sukkoth                               (Feast of Tabernacles)

5. YomTob                               (Festival Days)

6. Rosh ha-Shana                    (Feast of New Years)

7. Taanith                                (Days of Fasting)

8. Megillah                              (Feast of Purim)

9. Moed Katan.                       (Mid-Festival Days)


Sabbath goes back to creation, when God himself rested; it is the most holy of times. Passover is the feast commemorating the creation of Israel, when God led them out of Egypt; it ranks next in sacredness. Then follow other major holy days, Yom Kippur and Sukkoth and Rosh ha-Shana. These are followed in turn by lesser holy days and festivals (Yom Tob, Purim, etc.). The Mishnah gives specific rules governing these times, when they begin, what one mayor must do, what one may not do, etc. Times, then, may be classified and mapped.



Purity Means Boundaries


If purity means maps and classification systems which locate things where they ought to be, it follows that considerable attention will be given to the lines and boundaries of these maps. The prime activity of a group with a strong purity system will be the making and maintenance of these lines and boundaries (Douglas, 1966:chs 7-8). "The image of society," says Douglas, "has form; it has external boundaries, margins, internal structure" (Douglas 1966:114).


The external boundaries which distinguish the Jews of Jesus' time from other peoples can be clearly identified. We are all familiar with the Jewish insistence on 1) kosher diet, 2) circumcision, and 3) observance of the Sabbath. Jews could be identified by special times (Sabbath), special things (diet) and special bodily marks (circumcision). These three observances serve as lines, for they distinguish Jews from non-Jews. They indicate who is "in" the covenant group and who is "out." By making such things important, Jews reinforced their own group identity and built the boundaries which distinguished them from non-Jews (see Lev 20:24-26). Outsiders regularly regarded Jews as unsociable and anti-social because of these customs, for they recognized them for what they are, the boundaries of a map (Smallwood: 123).


Students of biblical literature are well aware of the particularistic character of Judaism. Acts 10:28 makes it clear: "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation." Jubilees confirms this: "Separate yourselves from the nations, and eat not with them. And do not according to their works, and become not their associate. For all their works are unclean, and all their ways are a pollution and an abomination and uncleanness" (22:16).


Jews are also concerned with things on the margins of lines and boundaries. Because of lack of bodily wholeness, lepers, the blind, the lame, eunuchs, etc., are not whole or holy Israelites (see Lev 21:16-20). They are marginal to the covenant people, residing on the fringes or borders of Jewish society. According to Douglas, this concern with mar­gins is replicated in the Jewish classification of certain animals and foods as unclean. The world map is clearly composed of air, earth and water. To be clean (i.e. within one's proper boundary), an animal must fit completely within the concept of what it means to be an air or sea or earth animal. On earth, for example, four-legged creatures hop, jump or walk. Any creature which is not so equipped for the right kind of locomotion violates the classification system; it is out of place, marginal, and so unclean (Douglas 1966:55). Earth animals which may be eaten are those which have a cloven hoof and which chew the cud; they satisfy the definition of what constitutes a genuine earth creature. But the camel, the pig, the hare and the hyrax either do not chew the cud or do not have cloven hooves; they are defective, marginal, hence unclean (Douglas 1966:39). Sea creatures are fish which have scales. But sea creatures which do not have scales (shell fish) are defective, marginal, hence unclean. According to Douglas, "to be holy is to be whole, to be one; holiness is unity, integrity, perfection of the individual and of the kind" (1966:54). And so, what does not fully fit a determined definition is not within its proper lines; it is a hybrid, an ambiguous thing and ambiguity is dangerous and polluting. (1966:94-98)


This fear of margins is replicated in concern over the margins of the physical body (Douglas 1966:115, 120-121). What seeps out of the body passes over its boundaries, whether urine, faeces, semen or menses. According to m. Kelim uncleanness extends to "the issue of him that has a flux, by his spittle, his semen, and his urine" (1.3). Such marginal substances are unclean. Flaking skin indicates a marginal disorder,

whether it be "leprosy," scabs or a skin disease (Pilch 1981:111). The person who suffers an involuntary "marginal emission" (i.e. nocturnal emission for men, menstruation for women) is unclean. Marginal effluviae are themselves unclean and contaminating; they render the person with the flux unclean as well as people who come in contact with that person or his/her effluviae.


We mentioned above the strong sense of internal lines and boundaries, which describe the social structure of Jewish society at this time. I offer the following map from the New Testament as an illustration of how Israelites are internally ranked according to a purity system. This map should be seen as supplementing the map of persons discussed above. Of course, Gentiles are not on the map of God's covenant people (see Acts 10:28; 11:3), nor are Samaritans (John 4:9).


1. Dead Israelites:

concern over Jesus' dead body (John 19:31);

2. Morally unclean Israelites:

tax collectors & sinners (Luke 15:1-2; Matt 9:10-13);

3. Bodily unclean Israelites:

lepers (Mark 1:400-45; Luke 17:11-14),

poor, lame, maimed, blind (Luke 14:13; see Lev 21:18-21),

menstruants (Mark 5:24-34);

4. Unobservant Israelites:

Peter and John (Acts 4:13),

Jesus (John 7:15, 49);

5. Observant Israelites:

the rich young man (Mark 23:50-51),

Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 2:25-38);

6. Pharisees (Mark 7:3-5; Luke 18:11-12);

7. Scribes and Priests (Luke 10:31-32);

8. Chief Priests (John 18:28; Heb 7:18-28).


This map is very important. Since one can and should know one's purity rating at all times (see maps of impurities, m. Kelim 1.3-5, above), one needs a code for classifying people to know where they stand in the system.


Observant Jews will be concerned that the proper lines and boundaries be maintained. Marginal objects as well as people are to be shunned and kept away from the space of full and holy Israelites. Persons of lesser purity rank should not intrude on the space of those of higher purity status; this would apply in the case of intermarriage and other forms of social intercourse. It is not surprising, then, that a group like the Pharisees built a "fence" around its life. To keep the core clean and pure, one extended the boundary around that core, put a fence on the perimeter, and guarded that outer "fence." Hence the chief rule was "Make a fence around the Law" (m. Aboth 1.1). And if a fence was appropriate around the Law as a whole, it was appropriate around individual aspects of the Law. Hence a proliferation of fences might be expected:


"The tradition is a fence around the Law;

tithes are a fence around riches;

vows are a fence around abstinence;

a fence around wisdom is silence" (m. Aboth 3.14).



Body and Boundaries


We have seen how purity boundaries are fixed on the map of places (see the "10 degree of holiness," m. Kelim 1.6-9), which locates in ever-narrowing, concentric circles the geographical degrees of purity in Israel. That map was followed by a map of people which classified Israelites according to purity ranking (t. Meg. 2.7). There is still another map where lines and boundaries are drawn, viz., the personal human body.[2]  According to Douglas, the human body is a replica of the social body, a symbol of society:


The body is a model which can stand for any bounded system.

Its boundaries can represent any boundaries which are threatened or precarious (Douglas, 1966:115).


The map of the body, then, replicates the map of the social body. A principle can be drawn from this insight: as the social body draws lines, restricts admission, expels undesirables and guards its entrances and exits, so this tends to be replicated in the control of the physical body. "Body control," says Douglas, "is an expression of social control"; and conversely, "abandonment of bodily control in ritual responds to the requirements of a social experience which is being expressed" (Douglas 1973:98-100). "The physical experience of the body...sustains a particular view of society" (Douglas 1973:93). We must be prepared to see in the human body a map of society.


This means that in a culture where there are strong purity concerns and clear lines and boundaries, we should be sensitive to the map of the body, especially how certain following bodily features are treated: 1) nudity & clothing; 2) orifices of the body (genitals, anus, mouth, nose, eyes); 3) the surfaces of the body and the head.


1. Before the first sin, nudity was not unclean or shameful (Gen 2:25). But after that sin, it was equated with shame (Gen 3:10-11; see also Isa 20:4; 47:3; Rev 3:18 & 16:15). Nudity is cited by Adam as the reason why he hid from God. Nudity, then, means uncleanness and separation from God; to be naked is in some way to be apart from God's covenant, favor, and protection (Lam 4:21; Ezek 16:39; 23:29; Hos 2:3; Nah 3:5). Nudity, then, means impurity.[3]  This is reflected in Ex 20:26: "You shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it." Nudity violates that place's sacredness (see Luke 10:30; John 21:7). Alternately, a clothed body is presumed holy. God drew near to the naked maiden, Israel, and clothed her (Ezek 16:7-8), thus making her God's holy and chosen one. The principle is clear: clothing replicates the boundaries or fences defining what is holy. A body without boundaries or fences is a body with no clear place on the map and a body open to penetration by one and all.


These cultural values were quite alive and well in the first century. For example, according to Josephus the Essenes, whose purity concerns were very strict, wore clothing when taking their baths (War 2,161). Even when going to the privy, they never exposed their nakedness (War 2,148; lQS 7:13). Concern for purity lines, then, is replicated in the demand for a clothed body.


2. It is expected that when purity concerns are very strong, this will be evident in the care given to the entrances and exits of the social body. Who is an Israelite? how does one become such? who is an apostate? are all important questions. This is replicated in concern for who may enter what court or room in the temple (2 Chron 23:19). Entrances, gates, and doors become significant places. This in turn is replicated in the concern given to the orifices of the body. The genitals, anus, ears, and the mouth are all carefully guarded and great attention is paid to what passes in or out of them.


For example, a) the genital orifices are of great concern. Semen and menses are unclean (Lev 15:16,19). A priest must abstain from sexual intercourse the night before he offers sacrifice (Lev 22:4). A male nocturnal emission will render the emitter unclean; a menstruating woman is very unclean. Also in this line, we noticed earlier the great concern for rules for intermarriage (m. Kid. 4.1), which are rules governing the valid and invalid crossing of the genital orifice. Circumcision should be understood in this framework; it is a way of denoting a male genital orifice as one which is set apart, and therefore holy. b) Excretory orifices are also carefully guarded, and what crosses them (urine and faeces) is unclean and polluting. c) The orifice of the mouth is also carefully regulated. The dietary laws make quite explicit what mayor may not pass through the orifice. In line with this, it matters who eats with whom; holy people eat holy food together, but an unclean person at such a table is unclean and polluting (Neusner, 1973a:86).


3. The surface of the body is also a focus of purity concerns. As regards the head, loose and dishevelled hair is not permitted; rather, braided hair, which is carefully wrapped around the head, is the rule (Murphy-O'Connor: 484). The head must have a clear and tidy surface, viz., fixed boundaries. What is loose is unclean (see Luke 7:38). Concern for the surface is shown in the horror displayed toward skin diseases and leprosy in the Bible. Flaking skin, scabs, eruptions on the skin, and "leprosy" are all unclean and render the sufferer unclean. Smooth, whole skin is considered pure and clean.



Purity, Boundaries and Pollution


If purity means clear lines and firm borders, then pollution refers to what crosses those boundaries or what resides in the margins and has no clear place in the system. In previous discussions we identified unclean persons and things as:


a) people who are not physically whole in body or family lines,

b) people who either experience emissions from bodily margins or who come in contact with these emissions or with the emitter,

c) foods and animals which do not fit clearly within definition boundaries.


A person, then, begins in a given state of purity, but that can be lost either because s/he crossed a boundary and entered space more holy than s/he is permitted to enter (Frymer-Kensky, 1983:405) or because something else less holy crossed over and entered his/her space (Douglas, 1966:122). Crossing of boundaries, then, means pollution. The maps of places, persons, things, and times are important for knowing just where the boundary lines are.


The appropriate strategy in this type of world is defensive. What is called for is: a) avoidance of contact with what is either too holy or marginal or unclean (see Luke 10:31-32; Acts 10:14 & 28) or b) reinforcement of boundaries and purity concerns (see Mark 7:1-4 and the rabbis' "fences"). People who continually have even passing contact with sinners, lepers, blind, lame, menstruants, corpses and the like are perceived as spurning the map of persons. People who show no respect for holy places such as the temple (see Mark 11:15-17) are crossing dangerous lines on the map of places. People who "do what is not lawful on the Sabbath" disregard the map of times, and would be judged in some way as rejecting the system. Such people would be rated as unclean. Not only are they themselves polluted, they become a source of pollution to others.




According to Jewish religion and culture, Jesus would be expected to be a defensive person and avoid all contact with uncleanness. He would be expected to respect the lines and boundaries of Jewish observance, which are indicated in the maps of places, persons, things, and times. "Holiness," defined as separateness from all things unclean, defective, or marginal, is indicated in behavior which keeps one separate from uncleanness and which maintains the classification system. Yet in Mark's gospel, we find a description of Jesus who seems to trample on all the lines and boundaries of the culture of his day. It would be erroneous to assert that Mark portrays Jesus as abrogating the general purity system or that Mark was himself unconcerned with purity issues. The situation is far more complicated than that. It is incumbent on us to make a careful presentation of all Mark's texts which deal with purity concerns and then to see what Mark's Jesus says about purity as a structuring value in Christian life.



Mark 1:21-28


During Jesus' first miracle in 1:21-28, a demon which possessed a man in the local synagogue was confronted by Jesus. He acknowledged Jesus as his mortal enemy: "Have you come to destroy us?" and he attested to Jesus' purity: "I know who you are, the Holy One of God" (1:24). Jesus' exorcism and the special title given him, "the Holy One of God," are important aspects of Mark's Christology. At a minimum, Jesus is linked with other holy figures close to God, such as the priest Aaron ("Aaron, the holy one of the Lord," Ps 106:16) and the prophet Elisha ("this is a holy man of God," 2 Kgs 4:9). Functionally the exorcism and the title of Jesus serve several purposes: 1) they associate Jesus with the holy God, not Satan; 2) they underscore Jesus' authorization by God (1:22,27); 3) they emphasize that Jesus was himself uniquely' holy and pure; and 4) they indicate that Jesus engages in mortal conflict with "unclean spirits." The exorcism is Jesus' first public action, and so can be considered programmatic for Mark's presentation of him. In the exorcism, Mark establishes a fundamental set of contrasts which suggest Jesus' purity rating:


JESUS                                                               THE DEMON

1. God's Servant                                               1. Servant of Satan

2. Agent of God's kingdom.                               2. Agent of Satan's kingdom

3. Jesus: holy & pure                                         3. The Demon: unclean


What does it mean to emphasize Jesus' purity? Why is it important that this be done in Jesus' first public act? From the first half of this study we know that purity is the premier structuring value of Jewish religion and culture: "Be ye holy as I am holy" (Lev 11:44). If this is the structuring value, Jesus is proclaimed from the very beginning of his career as fully within the religious matrices of the Jewish system. It is not accidental that this narrative situates Jesus in the right place (synagogue), at the right time (on the Sabbath), and with the right people (observant Jews). Jesus, then, is holy, close to God, and enemy of uncleanness. He was no maverick, no am haaretz, no heterodox figure.



Mark 1:1-13


If purity is the structuring value of Jewish social experience, it is extremely important for Mark to announce Jesus' purity rating from the very beginning of his gospel. Mark's prologue intentionally contains multiple attestations of Jesus' purity from witnesses whose testimony must be taken seriously.


1. John the Baptizer testifies to Jesus' purity. John, although a holy prophet himself, is not worthy to touch Jesus' feet, implying Jesus' special status as a holy figure (1:7). John testifies that Jesus will baptize (make pure) with a baptism of the Holy Spirit, thus making Jesus' purificatory actions better than John's own water washings (1:8). Jesus, then, is ranked holier than the holy prophet John.


2. The Holiest of Beings, God, testifies to Jesus' purity. Jesus receives a theophany in the Jordan, as the Holy God draws near to Jesus and reveals himself to him (1:9-10). This same God, who is pleased to have Jesus in his holy presence, delights in him and calls him: "Thou art my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased" (1:11). Jesus is thoroughly known by the all-seeing God and God sees no uncleanness in him. And God sends upon Jesus Holiness par excellence, the Holy Spirit (1:10). Jesus, then, is an intimate of God, fully within God's circle, even if this center is not in the Temple.


3. Another figure appears in 1:12-13 who indirectly testifies to Jesus' radical holiness. Satan, enemy of God and Uncleanness itself, attacks Jesus and tries to make him unclean; he fails. 'Angels came and ministered to him" (1:13), thus showing that Jesus did not lose God's holiness or favor through satan's temptations.


Jesus, therefore, is shown in the company of the holy God, a holy prophet, and holy angels. Mark is not unconcerned with Jesus' purity rating, but affirms at the very beginning of the gospel that Jesus is radically pure and close to God. Jesus's first words, "The kingdom of God is at hand; repent..."(1:15), are a call to purity; for he demands that sinner turn from the realm of sin and seek the circle of God's favor and holiness. But this is all happening in Galilee, far from the Temple and its system.



Conflict over Jesus' Purity


As we noted above, pure and holy Jews would maintain a defensive posture regarding their purity. Concern for purity translated into distancing oneself from all that is unclean, viz., maintenance of proper boundaries and lines. In Mark's gospel, people with ostensibly excellent purity ratings are Jesus' most dogged critics. Mark may maintain that Jesus is God's "Holy One," but not so Jesus' critics who observe him crossing lines he ought not to cross and allowing people to cross into his space who ought to be kept at a distance. What would purity-minded people object to about Jesus in Mark's gospel? Just about everything Jesus did! Jesus did not observe any of the maps so important to the Judaism of his day.


A. As regards the map of people to be avoided and shunned,

1) Jesus came in contact with unclean people: he voluntarily touched a leper ("and he touched him" 1:41); he took a corpse by the hand (5:41).

2) He was touched by a menstruating woman, a traditionally unclean person (5:24-28).

3) Jesus called a public sinner to be an intimate: to Levi, sitting in his tax booth, he said "Follow me!" (2:13-14).

4) Jesus travelled extensively in Gentile territory, thus crossing boundaries he ought not to cross and exposing himself to pollution on every side. He regularly crossed the Sea of Galilee into non-kosher territory (4:35-42); he toured the "region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, through the region of the Decapolis" (7:31).

5) While on this journey, Jesus had commerce with unclean people such as the Syro-phoenician woman (7:24-30).

6) Jesus regularly was in contact with the possessed, the blind, the lame, and the deaf-all figures who are unclean in some way according to Lev 21:16--24.


B. As regards the map of the body, Jesus seems not to have guarded his bodily orifices or their emissions in ways that befit purity-minded people.

7) He broke one of the strictest purity laws in Israel as he disregarded all dietary restrictions: "Thus he declared all foods clean" (7:19).

8) Contrary to all purity rules, Jesus shared meals with unclean sinners: "He sat at table in Levi's house and many tax collectors and sinners were sitting with Jesus" (2:15).

9) Nor did Jesus' disciples have regard for the surface of the body; they did not wash their hands before eating, showing unconcern for what passed through their mouths: "The Pharisees saw that some of his disciples ate with hands defiled, that is, unwashed" (7:2).

10) In what must have been shocking to Mark's ancient audience, Jesus applied his own spittle to the eyes of a blind man (8:23) and to the tongue of a dumb person (7:33), showing disregard for bodily orifices and bodily emissions.[4]

11) In the mass feedings in 6:37-44 and 8:1-10, Jesus apparently showed no concern for the purity of the folk with whom he ate or for any of the rituals to be practiced prior to eating. Common food was shared with common folk on common ground.


C. Nor did Jesus observe the maps of time which structured Jewish life.

12) His disciples plucked grain on the Sabbath, "doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath" (2:24). Jesus himself healed on the Sabbath (3:1-6).


D. Nor did Jesus respect the maps of places which classified Jewish space.

13) Jesus thoroughly disrupted the temple system. He halted worshippers from their holy rites by chasing away those who facilitated the payment of temple tithes and the offering of gifts (11:15). It is even said that he "would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple" (11:16), which may refer to Jesus' supposed interruption of the carrying of sacrificial vessels and offerings from the people's court into the altar area.

14) Jesus' negative attitude to temple space is clarified when it is linked with a later statement that love of God and neighbor is "worth more than all whole burnt offerings" (12:33).

15) Jesus' enemies, at least, perceive him as speaking against the holy place (14:58; 15:29), a perception with which Mark apparently agreed (see 13:2). Since the temple is the chief expression of the purity system of first-century Judaism, Jesus' "pollution" of the temple (11:15-19) and his prediction of its destruction (13:1-2) should surface as the major charges against him by the temple elite in Jerusalem (14:58; 15:29). From their perspective, in showing such contempt for its chief symbol, Jesus was rejecting the whole system.


In Galilee, moreover, Jesus' critics noted how often he transgressed all the purity maps of his culture regarding persons, things, places, and times. They saw how often he had commerce with unclean spirits and unclean persons. And they concluded that Jesus could not be "the Holy one of God." Since he showed such flagrant disregard for pu­rity rules, he did not merit a high purity rating. On the contrary, he must be of Satan's camp. Jesus' fundamental authority as prophet and leader of God's covenant people was called into question by critics "who came down from Jerusalem and said, 'He is possessed by Beelzebul and by the prince of demons he casts out demons'" (3:22). The text also indicates that Jesus' own family thought that "he is beside himself" (3:21), that is, out of line and dangerous. The initial claims of Mark (1:1-13, 21-28) are thus disputed by Jesus' very behavior. An apology is called for.



Mark 3:23-27


In response to the attack on Jesus' purity rating in 3:21-22, Mark summarizes the significance of Jesus' exorcisms. The exorcisms in particular prove that Jesus is indeed pure, "the Holy One of God." First, Jesus makes an incontrovertible statement: "How can Satan cast out Satan?" (3:23). Where war exists, the warring partners are not allies, but mortal enemies. This self-evident statement, then, is supported by three parallel analogies which draw out the conclusion of 3:23.

If a kingdom is divided against itself,

                        that kingdom cannot stand.

If a house is divided against itself,

                        that house cannot stand.

If Satan is risen up against himself and is divided,

                        he cannot stand, but is coming to an end (3:24-26).


The exorcisms, then, prove that Jesus is the enemy of Satan, not his servant or ally. And so the testimony of the demon was correct: "Have you come to destroy us? I know that you are the Holy One of God" (1:24).


Mark climaxes the apology in 3:27 with a parabolic statement about how it takes a "stronger one" to bind up a "strong" man to despoil his possessions. When the hearer of 3:27 gets the insight that Jesus is the "stronger one" and that Satan is only the "strong man," then one remem­bers that John the Baptizer spoke earlier of Jesus as "the Stronger One" (1:7). The hearer then realizes that Jesus, the Stronger One, has in fact "bound the strong man" in his victory over Satan in the temptations in the desert (1:12-13). With Satan thus bound, Jesus can then "plunder his house" through successive exorcisms (1:21-18, 34, 39; 3:11-12, 15). Jesus' purity rating is defended:


1. He is God's ally and Satan's mortal enemy;

2. He belongs to God's kingdom and liberates those imprisoned in Satan's realm.

3. He has total power over Satan; he is not subject to him in any way.


And so Jesus is completely in God's camp, fully within the circle of God's associates, and therefore holy.


Mark's readers understandably see striking similarities between 1:1-15 and 3:22-31. A careful re-reading of both passages indicates the extent of these parallels and how they function in the argument of the gospel.


Prologue (1:1-15)                                                       Apology (3:22-31)


            The Stronger One

"The Stronger One is coming"             "No one enters a strong man's

            (1:7)                                                     house (except a stronger man) ...




"Jesus was tempted by Satan...             "How can Satan cast out Satan"

            (1:13)                                                               (3:23-26)


Jesus' Spirit

holy or unclean?

"He will baptize with the Holy                Whoever blasphemes against the

            Spirit" (1:8)                                         Holy Spirit never has forgiveness



Whose Kingdom:

God’s or Satan’s?

 "The kingdom of God is at hand"                "If a kingdom is divided against

            (1:15)                                                   itself, that kingdom cannot stand"



Against the claims that Jesus is unclean and so cannot function as God's agent, Mark mounts a spirited defense of Jesus' purity rating by showing that the very evidence against Jesus is precisely the positive proof that Jesus must be God's "Holy One" and not Satan's servant.


It is important to note that while the normal term for the Satanic powers which possess humans is "demons," Mark insists on calling them "unclean spirits" (1:23,26-27; 3:11; 5:2, 8, 13; 6:7; 7:25; 9:25). Thus Mark sharpens the distinction between Jesus, the Holy One of God who had the Holy Spirit, and Satan and demons who are "unclean spirits." The distinction is based on purity concerns.



Jesus: Agent of Purity & Cleanness


Jesus is further vindicated as a holy figure when Mark shows that in all of his contacts with unclean people, Jesus does not incur pollution but imparts cleanness or wholeness to them instead. Recall that holiness is replicated in bodily wholeness.


1. In touching the leper, Jesus is not made unclean; rather he proclaims cleanness: "'Be clean.' And immediately the leprosy left him and he was made clean" (1:41).

2. In dealing with the paralytic, Jesus cleansed the man of his sins ("Your sins are forgiven," 2:5), as well as his paralysis (2:11). Jesus made him both whole and holy.

3. In calling Levi as a disciple and in eating with sinners, Jesus acts precisely as one who restores wholeness and cleanness to God's people, viz. "a physician": "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners" (2:17).

4. In transgressing Sabbath laws, he provided food for the hungry (2:23-28) and wholeness for a man with a withered limb (3:1-6).

5, His exorcisms liberate people bound in slavery to Satan. For example, one naked, violent, and solitary possessed man lived in a most unclean place, a graveyard (5:5). Jesus' exorcism rehabilitated him so that, when exorcised, he is found "clothed, in his right mind" and seated comfortably in a social group once more (5:15).

6. The menstruating woman who touched Jesus is healed of her hemorrhage (5:28-29).

7. The corpse which Jesus touched is made alive again (5:41-42).

8. The blind man and the dumb man upon whom Jesus put his spittle are restored to sight and speech respectively (8:25; 7:35).


The Markan response to the charge that Jesus violated all of the maps of purity is very complex. First, on the level of the narrative, Jesus extends bodily wholeness, forgiveness of sins, and even life by his contact with the unclean, sinners, and the dead. He is a giver of wholeness and holiness, but is never rendered unholy himself. Second, a warrant is given in Mark for this activity. Full treatment of this would engage us in a discussion of "limit breakers," people who are authorized to break taboos and cross prohibited boundaries.[5]  In his own way, Mark indicates that Jesus was so authorized as a "limit breaker":


1. God gave Jesus the Holy Spirit (1:10), which led him into the desert to be tempted by Satan (1:12-13). Jesus' subsequent conflict with unclean spirits" is authorized here (see "teaching with authority," 1:22, 27).

2. Jesus argued that he "has authority on earth to forgive sins" (2:10), which legitimates his dealings with sinners (2:1-17). He is God's "physician" to them (2:17).

3. Jesus has authority over the Sabbath, because "the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath" (2:8).


Third, according to Mark, Jesus was perceived by others as totally rejecting the idea of purity by his repeated and widespread violations of the maps of purity. In Mark 7, however, the evangelist indicates that, while Jesus does not wash before eating (7:2) or keep dietary laws (7:19), he has a purity system which is expressed in rules of purity which differ from those of the Pharisees.


Whereas the Pharisees' concern is with externals and surfaces (washings of hands, pot, cups, and vessels, 7:2-4), Jesus' concern is with the interior and the heart:


There is nothing which by going into a man can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him (7:15).


The Pharisees guarded the external fences which had been made around the Torah, that is, "the tradition of the elders," which extended the concerns of purity to outer or external things. In Mark, Jesus was concerned with the core or heart of the Law, the Ten Commandments (see 7:10; 10:19). Jesus, moreover, declares that their purity system is wrong and his is right:


This people (the Pharisees, in particular) honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men (7:6-7).


According to Jesus, purity does not reside on the lips or hands, but in the heart; purity is measured by the keeping of the core law of God, not the traditional "fences" of men. Alternately, pollution comes not by violation of washing or dietary rules (7:18-19), which deal only with surfaces, but with sin and vice which come from within, from the heart (7:21-22). "All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man" (7:23).


No, according to Mark, Jesus is not abrogating the idea of purity when he violates the rules of purity. On the contrary, Jesus is reforming the rules of purity current in his day, offering his interpretation of what God wants and what makes one whole, clean, and holy.



God's Verdict on Jesus' Purity


Mark's basic concern to affirm the purity of Jesus affects other aspects of his presentation of Jesus. For a Jew of Jesus' time, purity would be intimately bound up with obedience. Since the laws of Israel comprehensively order one's life according to that particular system, obedience to them would indicate one's standing before God, one's holiness.  Such is the import of Paul's boast: "As to the law, a to righteousness under the law, blameless" (Phil 3:5-6). Although Jesus is portrayed as not obeying some of the traditional purity laws, he is presented, as we shall see, as a figure who is fundamentally obedient to God.


Since God is ultimately the final reference point and arbiter of purity, it matters greatly how God evaluates Jesus. If, as Mark states, Jesus is fundamentally obedient to God, this holiness should be expressed by God's judgment about Jesus.


1. In the baptismal theophany (1:10-11), God declared Jesus uniquely holy and pure. God, moreover, gave Jesus' his own purity, the Holy Spirit. 2. In the transfiguration theophany (9:2-8), not only do the holiest figures of Israel's past, Moses and Elijah, appear to Jesus and share his company, but God once more affirms Jesus' holiness: "This is my beloved Son, listen to him" (9:7). Far from separating Himself from what is unclean, God repeatedly draws near to Jesus. 3. Jesus figures as the Beloved Son in the parable of the vineyard, the Son whom the owner of the vineyard sent (12:6), thus signaling once more Jesus' intimacy with the holy God. 4. Jesus is the person whom God will bring into God's own presence: "The Lord said to my Lord: 'Sit at my right hand'" (12:36). For Jesus is indeed the person whom God will vindicate and bring to himself. Jesus is no sinner, no unclean corpse, no impure figure; for God will make him holy and make him alive when he is "seated at the right hand of the Power" (14:62). 5. There God will make the holy angels his servants (8:38; 13:27). Through Jesus' resurrection and enthronement, then, God makes clear his verdict of Jesus' purity rating, viz., that Jesus was and is "the Holy One of God."


Death is the ultimate sign of the power of sin and Satan. It means irrevocable uncleanness (Frymer-Kensky 1983:400). But death does not affect Jesus. Jesus undeniably dies, not because he sinned or because Satan proved to have power over him, but because of his holiness, i.e. his obedience to God. When Mark says "The Son of Man must suffer and die..." (8:31), he is saying that Jesus is called in obedience, hence in holiness, to undergo death's uncleanness. And Jesus is obedient, as the prayer in the Garden shows: "Not what I will, but what you will" (14:36). Knowing God's plan through the Scriptures, Jesus obediently submits: "The Son of Man goes as it is written" (14:21)..."but let the Scriptures be fulfilled" (14:49). Jesus' death is not polluting for it comes from obedience to God, not from the power of sin. By raising Jesus from the dead, God vindicates him, testifying that he is indeed "Son of God" (see 15:39) and proving that he fully deserved his high purity rating. Jesus then enters the very circle of God's presence and sits on God's throne, a thing unthinkable for a corpse.


The crucified Jesus was not unclean (despite Deut 21:23; see Gal 3:13). Death did not pollute him because God rescued him from death and brought him into God's own presence. Jesus, therefore, can speak of death to his followers as non-polluting. He can tell them to "take up the cross and follow me" (8:34) and to "lose one's life for my sake and so save it" (8:35). Far from Jesus' death being a pollution or his crucified body being impure, it is a source of purity. The Son of Man "gives his life as ransom for many" (10:45). His blood is "covenant blood" which binds God and the covenant people; it does not pollute them and separate them from God. His blood is atonement blood which is "poured out for many" (14:24); it takes away uncleanness. The final irony is that death, the ultimate pollution, serves as the very source of purity for Jesus' followers.


The gospel claims, moreover, that with Jesus as the cornerstone, a new and holy temple will be built where members of the true covenant can come into contact with the holy God. Not like the old, material temple, made by human hands! Not like the old temple with its inadequate cultic sacrifices (11:16; 12:33)! The new temple will be made by God, "a temple not made by human hands" (14:58) Juel 1977:144-153). It will be a different kind of temple entirely, for it will be Jesus' risen body. And so holiness and purity can only be had by being in contact with Jesus ("This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes," 12:11).[6]  As the Jews measured holiness in terms of proximity to the temple, so Christians now measure it in terms of proximity to Jesus. For it is in Jesus that one finds genuine covenant and atonement sacrifices (14:24) which bind to God and makes pure. To be in contact with Jesus is to be in contact with the Holy God of Israel. Yet this new holy space is not fixed on a mountain in Jerusalem, but is a fluid space as yet without a map.




The idea of purity is an important anthropological concept for understanding Mark's gospel. It facilitates a sympathetic appreciation of the criticism of Jesus by the Pharisees and other purity-conscious Jews. According to the cultural and religious norms of the times, Jesus was crossing forbidden boundaries and coming into contact with unclean people. Although Jesus disregarded the maps of Judaism, Mark does not state that Jesus abrogated the idea of purity as the structuring value of his world. On the contrary, Mark portrays him as revising the maps according to a new principle. Let us review the ways in which Jesus reforms the system of purity according to new rules. This in turn will assist us in understanding the purpose and strategy of the new purity rules according to Mark.



Jesus' Reform of the Purity Rules


We recall that, according to Mark 7, Jesus offered a reform of the purity rules of his culture. While critizing existing maps of purity, Mark's Jesus offered other maps and rules.[7]  From the gospel we can summarize the disagreements between the Pharisees and Jesus over the classifications, definitions and evaluations that make up the purity system of Israel.


Pharisees et aI.                                                        Jesus & His Followers

1. Purity rules are extended to 613                             1. Purity rules are concentrated in the

laws, the tradition of "fence" around the Law.                core law, the Ten Commandments.


2. Purity concerns focus on the washing                      2. Purity concerns are focussed on

of hands, cups, pots, vessels-                                        the heart- interior & core areas.

external & surface areas.


3. Purity rules prevent uncleanness                              3. Purity rules guard against un-

from entering.                                                               cleanness which is within from coming out.


4. Purity resides in specific external                             4. Purity resides in a persons

actions relating to hands and                                         interior, in faith & right

mouths.                                                                        confession of Jesus.


5. Purity rules are particularistic,                                 5. Purity rules are inclusive,

separating Israel from its unclean                                  allowing Gentiles and the

neighbor.                                                                      unclean to enter God's kingdom.


This chart shows how completely Jesus and the Pharisees differ, not over whether there should be purity rules and a purity system, but on what the rules are and what areas of life are affected.


Douglas offers further suggestions on how to assess the differences between Jesus and the mainstream system which structured Jewish life in the first century through the plotting out of two variables for locating and explaining diverse groups. In her jargon she calls these two variables group and grid (1973:77-92). Group refers to the degree of soci­etal pressure exerted upon individuals or subgroups to conform to the purity system, its symbols and rules. This pressure to conform may be strong (as was the case with first-century Judaism) or weak (as in contemporary USA). Sadducees, Pharisees, even Jesus and his followers experienced strong pressure to accept and conform to the central values of Judaism as outlined in Gen 1-3 and replicated in the Temple.


Douglas' second variable, grid, refers to the degree of assent that people give to the symbol system which is enjoined on them, its classifications, definitions and evaluations. People may experience a fit between their personal experience and the stated aims and values of the system, which is called high grid. Or they may feel a discrepancy between the aims of the system and their experience, and to give diminished assent to it, which is low grid. The Sadducees, as guardians and exponents of the mainstream Jewish purity system, experienced a strong fit between the system's aims and their life: they are described as high grid. But other Jews seem not to have accepted so fully the articulation of Israel's religion as handed down by the priestly Sadducees. The Pharisees, for example, contested many aspects of the system, especially the claim that purity is the concern of priests only; and so, they attempted to extend the system to non-priests as well, with themselves as its definers and spokesmen. In this conflict with the system, they represent a lower grid than the Sadducees. Mark, however, portrays Jesus as a reforming figure who saw the system in need of considerable repairs, as he contests many of the basic classifications, definitions and evaluations of the system. Since Jesus' degree of dissent from the main aspects of the system is greater than that of the Pharisees, his grid is correspondingly lower.


GRID VARIABLE: degree of assent to the purity system








Jesus & his followers




Jesus, then, stands within the system of Israel's faith (strong group). He confesses faith in Israel's one, true God (12:29-33) and accepts the Scriptures as God's authoritative word. Yet he does not seem to agree with the way the Pharisees, for example, would describe God or with their reading of the Scriptures (low grid).


The differences between mainstream Jewish system and Jesus can be briefly sketched. (1) The core value of the Jewish system is God's "holiness": "Be ye holy as I am holy" (Lev 11:44). But Jesus points to God's "mercy" as the core value: "The Lord, the Lord, merciful and kind..." (Exod 34:6-7). (2) For the mainstream, God's holiness is sym­bolized in God's act of creation, especially as this is perceived as a fundamental act of ordering. For Jesus, however, God's mercy is symbolized in God's free election and God's unpredictable gift of covenant grace ((see Deut 7:7-8; Exod 33:19). (3) The structural implications of God's holiness-as-ordering lead the Sadducees et al. to a strong purity system with a particularistic tendency, whereas God's mercy-as-election leads to a weaker purity system with an inclusive tendency. (4) A defensive strategy flows from holiness-as-order, whereas a strategy of mission, hospitality and inclusiveness represent the appropriate strategy where mercy-as-election constitutes the core value. (5) Finally, the Scriptural legitimation for holiness-as-order is found primarily in the Pentateuch, whereas election and covenant (as in the case of Abraham) is found both in pre-Mosaic traditions as well as in prophetic criticisms of Israel's cult.


PHARISEES                                                 JESUS & FOLLOWERS


core value                   God's holiness (Lev 11;44)              God's mercy (Exod 33:19)


symbolized in               creation-as-ordering                        election and grace


structural                    strong purity system, with                 weaker purity system,

implications                 particularistic tendency                    with inclusive tendency


strategy                       defense                                            mission, hospitality


legitimation                 Pentateuch                                       pre-Mosaic as well as

in Scripture                                                                         prophetic criticisms



Jesus would seem to be trying to reform the Judaism of his time, suggesting as his controlling value God's free and unpredictable act of covenant election. He still worships Israel's God and accepts God's word in the Scriptures (strong group), but he strongly contests the classifications, definitions and evaluations of the mainstream articulation of the system (low grid). In this Jesus claims to have the true notion of God and the correct expression of that in the symbols of mercy, inclusiveness and election. To the Sadducees and Pharisees, Jesus appears as a maverick who is stepping outside the system entirely. But Jesus and his followers would claim to be reformers of the system. Sadducees and Pharisees would conclude that Jesus had no purity system, because he did not completely share theirs; but Jesus and followers would emphatically claim to have a genuine system which is the reformed, authentic system truly given in the Scriptures. But the two conflicting views of Judaism will clash in terms of the degree of particularity or inclusiveness. According to Douglas' model, these are differences of grid, not group.



Jesus: Defender of the Idea of Purity


Mark's Jesus criticizes Pharisaic purity rules-laws based on Israel's Scriptures. But according to Mark, Jesus bases his own reform on those same Scriptures, but viewed from a different perspective. Nevertheless, Jesus' reformed rules are grounded on Cod's word (strong group). For example,


1. In justifying the breaking of the Sabbath for food-consumption purposes, Jesus appealed to the example of David in 1 Sam 21:7.

2. In criticizing Pharisaic divorce laws, Jesus appealed to God's original law in Gen 1-2, not to what "Moses wrote because of the hardness of your hearts" (10:5; see Deut 24:1-4).

3. In reforming the temple system, Jesus appealed to traditional prophetic criticisms of Israel's system in Isa 56:7 and Jer 7:11.

4. In commenting on the Pharisees' tradition of korban, he insisted on the primacy of one of the Ten Commandments, "Honor your father and mother" (7:10), as well as Isaiah's critical remarks (Isa 29:13 LXX).


According to Mark, moreover, Jesus knows the Law. In 12:29-31, he proclaims as the core of the Law both the Shema (Deut 6:4-5) and love of neighbor (Lev 19:18). He enjoins the Ten Commandments on the man who asked what was necessary to "inherit eternal life" (10:19). Jesus, then, is neither ignorant of the Law nor disrespectful of it. He bases his reform of the purity rules precisely on the Scriptures, but on aspects of it different from those celebrated by the Pharisees.


Besides defending the essential Law of God as the substance of his reform of purity, Jesus is portrayed as setting down purity rules to cover many of the same items which were the object of Pharisaic purity rules: entrance requirements, sin, and judgment. As regards entrance requirements, Jesus demands "repentance" to enter the kingdom of God which is at hand (1:14-15). Acceptance of Jesus as God's agent becomes a prime requirement (8:38). Obedience to the basic covenant law is the way to inherit eternal life (10:19). In short, acceptance of Jesus and his version of what God requires is the basic boundary between insiders and outsiders (see Mk 4:10-12).


As regards sin, Jesus deals vigorously with sinners who may not otherwise come into God's holy presence. "Sin" is redefined by Jesus. First, inasmuch as obedience to God's law is the way to eternal life, conversely sin is disobedience to these laws, which alone renders a person "unclean". The list of vices which "defile a man" (7:21-22) are formally based on the Ten Commandments:


The Ten Commandments                     Vices in Mk 7:21-22

1. Do not kill                                      1. murder,

2. Do not commit adultery.                  2. fornication, adultery, licentiousness,

3. Do not steal                                    3. theft,

4. Do not bear false witness.               4. envy, slander,

5. Do not defraud.                              5. covetousness,

6. Honor your father & mother...         6. see Mk 7:9-13


These sins are "impurity" in Jesus' system, for they are what "defile a man." A premier sin is identified by Jesus: those who "blaspheme against the Holy Spirit" never have forgiveness (3:29). That sin is to call Jesus "unclean": "for they said, 'He has an unclean spirit'" (3:30). Jesus, of course, has God's "authority on earth to forgive sins" (2:10), an authority which directly challenges the temple system for dealing with sins (12:33). He is God's designated "physician" to sinners (2:17).


As regards judgment, Mark portrays Jesus as the judge who erects boundaries around God's kingdom and firmly defends them. Jesus as judge guards the gates and admits or excludes; he will strictly determine who gets in and who stays out. When he comes with his angels, he will render judgment: 1) against unbelievers who reject him ("Whoever is ashamed of me and my words...of him will the Son of Man be ashamed," 8:38) and b) on behalf of believers ("He will gather his elect from the four winds," 13:27). Jesus, then, can be said to accept the same concerns and issues as observant Jews of his day (strong group). It is not true, as his opponents claim, that he has no purity concerns and no system.



Jesus and Covenant Boundaries: New Rules


It hardly went unnoticed that Jesus constantly crossed lines and boundaries. But as we noted above, Mark portrays him as an authorized "limit breaker." To what purpose, however, did Jesus violate the maps of persons and places? I suggest that according to Mark, a Christian missionary strategy is validated by Jesus' activity; for Mark is intent on showing that Jesus' mission was an inclusive one to preach to all peoples, Gentiles included, and to offer full membership in God's kingdom to all peoples, Gentiles included.


For example, in following the geographical references in the gospel, one gets a clear view of the audiences to whom Jesus preached, which is a view of the world, and not just of the Holy Land. A new map is being drawn.


1. The crowds which followed Jesus came from "Galilee, also from Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from about Tyre and Sidon" (3:7-8).

2. Jesus himself crossed over into Gentile territory (4:35).

3. The dispossessed man preached Jesus "in the Decapolis" (5:20).

4. Jesus "went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon" (7:24), where he granted covenant blessings to a Syrophoenician woman (7:25-30).

5. He "returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon, to the Sea of Galilee, through the region of the Decapolis" (7:31).

6. Peter's great confession was made in the non-Jewish town with the Hellenistic name of Caesarea Philippi (8:27).

7. Jesus said that "the gospel must be preached to all the nations" (13:10).


Ethnic boundaries are being crossed; or to put it more clearly, the boundaries of Jesus' covenant people are more porous than those of the parent synagogue covenant. But this is an intentional strategy appropriate to the missionary effort of Jesus' followers and consonant with Jesus' image of God as a merciful God of gracious election. According to Mark, it does not mean a rejection of purity concerns, but a conscious relaxation of purity rules during a missionary phase of the community's formation.


Besides Gentiles, the marginal and unclean people in the villages of Israel are also ministered to by Jesus. This replicates the lowering of purity boundaries and speaks again to the inclusive membership of Mark's community. This inclusiveness is evident in the parable of the sower in 4:3-9, where the prodigal sower throws seed in the most improbable places: on the path, on the rocks, and among thornbrakes. No pre-judgment is made on potential membership in God's covenant community on the basis of ethnic status or purity rating. Thus one important function of the change of purity rules in Mark is the issue of inclusive membership in God's covenant. Jesus' crossing of the purity boundaries of his day is a functional statement in Mark of the inclusiveness of the membership of the Markan community.



Purity Lines and Self-Definition


As we saw in the case of Jewish customs such as circumcision, dietary laws and Sabbath observance, temporal and spatial maps pertain to self-identity and to self-definition. For example, Josephus describes the particularistic purpose of a custom like circumcision: "To the intent that his posterity should be kept from mixing with others, God charged Abraham to have them circumcised and to perform the rite on the eighth day after birth" (Ant. 1,192; see Philo, Moses 1,278). If Jesus is said, for instance, to abolish Jewish dietary rules, this serves as a way of defining the Christian covenant group as a group which does not keep those rules, viz. a less particularistic and more inclusive group. So by redrawing lines or by erasing them, Mark and his group are engaged in the process of self definition.


Each of Jesus' critiques of the Pharisees or Jewish purity customs enables the new Christian group to know precisely where it stands in relation to the parent synagogue. They do X and we don't do X; they don't do Y but we do Y. In the controversy stories of Mark's Gospel, we find the Christian non-keeping of certain purity customs functioning as boundary lines defining the Christian group and distinguishing it from the synagogue. And so a new map is drawn. For example:


Synagogue                                          Church

Dietary Laws.                                       no dietary laws

Wash Hands Before Meals.                  no washing of hands before meals

Strict Sabbath observance.                   no strict Sabbath observance

Temple & Sacrifices.                            no sacrifice in the old temple.


If these Jewish customs served a particularistic function to separate Israel from the nations, then the systematic abrogation of them should also be seen vis-a-vis Mark's sense of an inclusive or open covenant community.  The church is not only not the synagogue; its reform of the particularistic purity rules suggests a more open group than the synagogue.


Although in one sense Jesus abrogates purity rules which "set apart" God's people in a particularistic way, Mark still portrays Jesus as setting his group apart from all others.[8]  Jesus establishes clear lines and boundaries for his group, which unmistakably separate insiders from out­siders. Faith in Jesus is the chief distinguishing criterion. Confession of Jesus, acceptance of him as God's Holy One, acclamation of him as Son of David, Christ, or any other symbol of God's agency means that one is an insider. Objection to his teaching (2:7), to his practice (3:2), or to his customs (7:1-4) denotes an outsider. For example, the "unbelief" of the people in Jesus' own country means that these people are clearly outsiders (6:3-6). This is repeated in 3:31-35 where the biological family of Jesus is "standing outside" and calling him to come out to them (3:32). They are in contrast to the group which is inside listening to Jesus' teaching. They are Jesus' real family: "Here are my mother and my brothers!" (3:34). The criteria for status as an insider differ from those of the synagogue where blood, physical or genealogical concerns determine membership in God's "chosen people." In keeping with Jesus' new purity rules in Mark 7, the criterion for membership is a matter of the interior, the heart-faith in Jesus.


Similarly, it would be expected that Jesus would give special private instruction to his disciples when they are "inside," for they are "insiders" (4:10-13; 34; 7:17-23; 9:28-29; 10:10-12). It is possible and necessary, then, to tell insiders from outsiders. Jesus' followers positively need these boundaries and lines in their endeavor to define themselves over against the parent synagogue.




We have seen that understanding the idea of purity is important for understanding Mark's presentation of Jesus and the Christian community. To repeat a third time, it would be simply erroneous to say that Mark repudiates the system of purity, just because he presents Jesus disregarding or contesting certain purity rules. Rather Mark portrays Jesus according to a reformed idea of purity, in which lines are being redrawn and boundaries loosened. Douglas' model of group/grid allows us to locate Jesus' basic allegiance to Israel's God and his Scriptures (strong group), while accounting for Jesus' reforming suggestions about God's mercy and how this structures a more inclusive group with a weaker purity system less particularistic than that of mainstream first-century Judaism (weak grid). Mark, a gentile writing for a gentile church, portrays Jesus as the legitimate, reforming prophet who disputes the classifications, definitions and evaluations of a system in dire need of correction. Jesus' reforms in turn legitimate Mark and his community as authentic worshipers of the one, true God, but according to a system, structure, and strategy different from the mainstream of Judaism.


The functions of the idea of purity in Mark may be summarized.


1. The basic presentation of Jesus in Mark's gospel is done in terms of purity. It matters whether Jesus has the Holy Spirit or an unclean spirity, whether his closest company is holy (John the Baptizer, God, angels, Moses and Elijah), and whether his death is polluting. Jesus' purity rating is always of great importance in the gospel, for his legitimation rests on a high rating.

2. Jesus is constantly presented as the physician who brings cleanness, forgiveness of sins, and wholeness to God's covenant people. Even though Jesus may be in contact with unclean people, he gives wholeness and purity to them; he never loses it as a result of that contact. In fact, he is the one who gives them the Holy Spirit (1:8).

3. When Jesus crosses boundaries and when he allows unclean people to contact him, this "polluting" activity functions in Mark vis-a-vis the inclusive membership of Mark's church. Marginal and unclean Israelites as well as Gentiles are welcome in God's new covenant group. Inclusive membership, then, will initially mean that certain purity lines be crossed and that boundaries be made porous. And so, the new posture of Jesus to social boundaries is coherent with the view of the covenant community proposed by Mark.

4. The crossing of boundaries and lines also serves to define the Christian group vis-a-vis the synagogue. Self-identity is found in the redrawing of these lines.

5. Although boundaries may be porous in terms of mission and membership, they become quite firm and clear in terms of Mark's perception of who is in/out of the group. Believers are in and unbelievers are out.

6. While Jesus breaks certain boundaries, he erects and guards other lines and boundaries. For Jesus can forgive sins or retain them. He can admit or dismiss people from God's presence.





Achtemeier, Paul

            1970 "Toward the Isolation of Pre-Markan Miracle Catenae." ]BL 89:265-91.


Alexander, Philip S.

            1982 "Notes on the 'Imago Mundi' of the Book of Jubilees." JJS 33:197-213.


Alter, R.

            1979 "A New Theory of Kashrut." Commentary 68:46-52.


Baumgarten, Joseph M.

            1982 "Exclusions from the Temple: Proselytes and Agrippa I." JJS 33:215-25.


Best, Ernest

1965 The Temptation and the Passion: the Markan Soteriology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


Buchanan, George W.

            1963 "The Role of Purity in the Structure of the Essene Sect." RQ 4:397-406.


Carlston, Charles

1968 "Things that Defile (Mark VII.14) and the Law in Matthew and Mark." NTS 15:75-96.


Cohn, Robert L.

            1980 The Shape of Sacred Space. Chico, CA: Scholars Press.


Daube, David

            1938 "Exousia in Mk 1.22 & 27," ]TS 39:45-59.


Donahue, John

            1982 "A Neglected Factor in the Theology of Mark." ]BL 101:563-94.


Douglas, Mary

            1966 Purity and Danger. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

            1968 "Pollution," International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences 12:336-42.

            1973 Natural Symbols. New York: Vintage Books.

            1982 In the Active Voice. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.


Elliott, John H.

            1981 A Home for the Homeless. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.


Fennelly, James M.

1938 "The Jerusalem Community and Kashrut Shatnes." Pp. 273-88 in SBL 1983 Seminar Papers. Chico, CA: Scholars Press.


Frymer-Kensky, Tikva

1983 "Pollution, Purification, and Purgation in Biblical Israel." Pp. 399-414 in The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth. Carol L. Meyers and M. O'Connor, eds. Published for the American Schools of Oriental Research by Eisenbrauns: Winona Lake, IN.


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Neusner, Jacob

1973a From Politics to Piety. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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Nineham, D. E.

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Pilch, John

1981 "Biblical Leprosy and Body Symbolism." BTB 11:108-13.


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1975 "North and South in the Book of Genesis." Pp. 273-84 in Studies in Social Anthropology: Essays in Memory of E. E. Evans-Pritchard. J. H. M. Beatie and R. G. Lienhardt (eds.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.


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[1] See also Isenberg and Owens, 1977; Feeley-Hamik, 1981; and Pilch, 1981.

[2] My next essay, "Body Language in 1 Corinthians... will more fully develop the symbolism of the physical body and how it is guarded with purity concerns.

[3] Richard Horsley (" 'How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?' Spiritual Elitism in Corinth," NTS 20 [1978J 224) indicates that even the dead must "put on immortality," for they may not come "naked" into God's presence.

[4] In general, spittle is linked by Douglas (1966:121) with other bodily exuviae as dangerous. although she admits of instances where "the spittle of persons in key positions is thought effective to bless" (1966:120). Yet see b. Eru. 99a; Hag. 23a; Yoma 47a; Yeb. 104b-105a 'and l06b.

[5] In private conversations, Bruce Malina communicated to me his important ideas on figures who are regularly permitted to cross forbidden lines, which figures he calls "limit breakers." See his forthcoming Christian Origins and Cultural Anthropology: Practical Models for Biblical Interpretation.

[6] Jesus as the new Temple becomes a common theme in the New Testament, explaining how Christians are holy in proportion to their closeness to Jesus, as the Jews estimated holiness by proximity to Jerusalem's temple; for examples of this, see 1 Cor 3:18; Eph 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:4-9.

[7] This material may be found more completely argued in my essay "Symbolism in Mark Seven," presented at the 1984 SBL convention,

[8] Similar observations on the role of purity as boundary-making mechanism can be found apropos of (1) 1 Peter (Elliott, 1981:118-148) and (2) 1 Corinthians (Meeks, 1983:97, 105).



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