JJesus of Nazareth is the most famous carpenter in history, but he is also, according to a survey Most famous Jew in history. He was born to Jewish parents, was circumcised, went to the Temple, went to the synagogue, and read the Torah. See, he’s a first century Middle Eastern Jew. Nearly two thousand years of Christianity, however, presented Jesus as something else: as a religious innovator who was not only in conflict with Jewish authorities, but actively trying to overthrow and replace Judaism. A new book seeks to challenge this misunderstanding and argues that Jesus was not only ethnically Jewish, he was an active supporter of Jewish religious laws.
In his recently published book Jesus and the forces of death, Dr. Matthieu Thiessen, associate professor of religious studies at McMaster University, takes a fresh look at Jesus. “It is so easy for most Christians to think of Jesus as the first Christian. What for many Christians today means not Jew, ”Thiessen told the Daily Beast,“ but when Jesus is understood as a Christian, the Gospel accounts read as if Jesus rejected Judaism and condemned the Jews. Jesus becomes anti-Jewish. The legacy of an anti-Jewish Jesus has been felt throughout history and continues today, but that could change. “When we realize that Jesus was a Jew,” Thiessen told me, “and the gospel writers wanted to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus, then we read the stories of Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees or the Sadducees as inner Jewish conversations, not some sort of Christian rejection or condemnation of Judaism and Jewish law.
Thiessen is not the first to make this point. It draws here on the important work of scholars like Geza Vermes, Paula Fredriksen, Amy-Jill Levine, and Joel Marcus, all of whom describe Jesus as deeply rooted in ancient Judaism. What is distinctive about Thiessen’s argument is the way he reconsiders the debates and interactions between Jesus and other Jewish religious leaders in the Gospels. In particular, Thiessen focuses on the rules of ritual purity or what he calls the “forces of death”. In Jewish law, rules of ritual purity govern certain bodily processes (childbirth, menstruation, abnormal genital discharge, skin abnormalities, and death) that make you both unclean and contagious. To modern Christians, he writes, these seem alien and obscure, but if you want to understand Jesus, you have to get in the saddle because we cannot understand Jesus unless we understand how “the Jews of the first century builds their world ”.
This is of particular importance because, whatever else Jesus says about his religious rivals or Jewish laws, he meets and interacts with people who were ritually unclean in the gospels. A die first miracles in the Gospel of Mark, for example, involves a person who has a skin disease (it is called Meadow in Greek but it is not leprosy). The condition makes man ritually unclean. Jesus touches him and him Meadow left. Some scholars argue that the very fact that Jesus touched man and risked himself becoming unclean is a sign that he does not care about uncleanness. Thiessen disagrees. The whole story, he says, concerns the ritual cleansing: “the man begs Jesus to purify he and Jesus said to him ‘Be pure. ‘ He even then tells man to follow the laws required in Leviticus 13-14 to eliminate the residual ritual impurity.
We see exactly the same dynamic at work in other stories, for example in Mark 5 when Jesus raises the daughter of a man called Jairus. Once again, Jesus touches a ritually unclean body – in this case a corpse – and, of course, the girl comes to life. Thiessen maintains that by resuscitating the young girl, Jesus “removes the source of her ritual impurity.” In fact, in any case, when Jesus meets someone who is ritually unclean, that person comes out cleansed. Christians generally read these stories as concerning the forgiveness of sins, but Thiessen argues that Jesus’ ministry is in fact a “purifying mission: to remove moral impurities or sins, ritual impurities and unclean spirits – an apocalyptic battle between the forces of holiness and the forces of impurity, in which holiness destroys impurity and death. The problem lies squarely in the enemy camp rather than in the conscience of the individual: impurity and holiness fight for supremacy.
Since impurity is related to death, Thiessen told me, Jesus’ constant battle with the forces of death anticipates his own resurrection at the end of the gospels. These “first skirmishes with the forces of death predict his subsequent encounter with death itself on the cross”. It’s like an action movie or a video game in which the hero takes out the goons early on, only to take on the villain for a final showdown at the end. And like any modern action movie, there has to be a point where it looks like the hero isn’t going to do it.
Thiessen’s reading is compelling and does a lot to position Jesus as a genuinely Jewish interpreter of the rules of ritual purity. The fact that Jesus conflicts and disagrees with the scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees does not make him a Jew. Disagreement was incredibly common among ancient Jewish ritual experts and almost seems to be the hallmark of rabbinical literature. It is later Christians, rather than first-century Jews, who seek to exclude others on the basis of interpretive disagreements.
Its interpretation raises questions for modern Christians about the role of Jewish purity laws in their lives. If Jesus reinforces the idea that impurity existed and should be avoided, you might ask, then should Christians take these practices more seriously? This would have troubling consequences for women, whose bodies are usually associated with impurity (although, spoiler, Christianity does the same and associates women’s bodies with sin). Thiessen told me that he does not claim to be a theologian or an ethicist but that it is clear in Luke’s Gospel that these laws are not meant to apply to non-Jews anyway. “Since almost all Christians today are not Jews, it has become a moot point, but it is not because Jesus rejected these laws himself!
Reading a book on contagious religious filth during a pandemic is revealing. Perhaps the real takeaway here is that Jesus, like any ancient Jew, took the purity laws regulating contagion seriously and treated them with respect. Maybe Christians should too.