#184. Who can declare an individual “pure/clean”: the Aaronid priest OR Jesus? (Lev 12-15, 18-20 vs Mark 1:21-28; Luke 4:31-37; Mark 1:40-45; Matthew 8:1-4; Luke 5:12-16, etc.)


“And the priest shall identify him/her as pure.”

As previously noted (#183), the whole belief system, social organization, and worldview created by the Aaronid priests who wrote the scrolls that eventually became the book of Leviticus were intricately constructed upon categories of pure and impure, and these categories were woven into, according to this priestly guild and its god, the very fabric of the cosmos itself, of its metaphysics, at its creation (see #1).

The texts of Leviticus are in fact instructions (torahs) presented as from Yahweh to the Aaronid priesthood which exclusively assign the Aaronid priesthood with the function of: 1) identifying individuals, individual actions, foods, clothing, houses, etc. as either pure or impure, 2) prescribing the necessary procedures to regain one’s state of purity, and 3) performing sacrifices at Yahweh’s altar which atone such individuals of their sin/impurity.

This whole priestly and sacred view of the world and of society—sacred in the sense that everything is broken down into either pure/holy or impure/secular, particularly space—is largely negated by the New Testament writers. This is not because god Yahweh had changed his mind and done away with the sacrificial system or because god Yahweh had preordained a progressive “revelation” for mankind—these are later apologetic excuses whose purpose is to legitimate and justify a later culture’s/community’s belief system at the expense of understanding an earlier one, of understanding the biblical texts themselves and on their own terms, the world that produced them, and their authors and audiences.

No, rather New Testament authors negated this whole priestly conception of the world into pure and impure categories, and even presented Jesus as negating this sacred structure, because these authors lived in a radically different geopolitical and religious world which was informed by different beliefs, worldviews, and values. Human cultures change, and with them belief systems, values, and how one perceives themselves in the larger cosmic picture also change. To legitimate and justify these changing perspectives, belief systems, and values an elaborate process of reinterpreting earlier, now deemed authoritative, texts was practiced. The New Testament writers engaged in this re-interpretive process, this process of re-packaging and re-presenting the ideas and beliefs of these older authoritative texts in a new light, one that often functioned to claim that: back then this was divinely decreed, but now this is.

These are all literary and theological tricks and rhetorical devices to legitimate later belief systems while nevertheless authenticating them and presenting them as a continuation of the older system, which is viewed as authoritative by that particular culture. In fact, this is in large part what the Bible is. We will see our first specific example of a later writer rewriting and reinterpreting older belief systems while nevertheless packaging and presenting them as the same old belief system when we get to the book of Deuteronomy. Presently, however, we can see New Testament writers, particularly the gospel authors, using Jesus to accomplish this same feat.

First, in many of the healing stories throughout the gospels, it is Jesus who declares individuals “pure/clean.” This is in stark opposition to the whole Priestly legislation which is furthermore presented as the commandments of Yahweh. Only the Aaronid priest, Yahweh asserts, can label an individual as pure/impure, prescribe the necessary purification rites, and sacrificially atone for the individual. Yet in the gospel narratives, Jesus is presented as not only radically challenging this belief system but also the whole construct of space into pure and impure, which, we must stress, was ordained by Yahweh himself, and in many instances decreed as “eternal laws.” Obviously from the perspective of this culture writing some 6 centuries later (!) the worldview as depicted in Leviticus and legitimated through the mouthpiece of Yahweh no longer functioned to define the world, society, and peoples in which these later writers found themselves—as it no longer does for us today. The gospel writers, therefore, use the authority of Jesus to challenge and refute this very belief system by presenting him not only declaring individuals pure/clean but challenging the very system of labeling individuals as impure/unclean.

Again, as historians we must understand what is going on from an objective historical perspective. The 6th-5th century BCE texts that later became the book of Leviticus, written by Aaronid priests, divides the cosmos, society, and human actions into pure/impure or clean/unclean. Moreover, this whole belief system, this whole cosmic framework as seen by this priestly guild is legitimated, justified, and authenticated as True through the composition of a literary work which has this culture’s deity, Yahweh, declare this whole belief system as the foundation of the cosmos, society, and human interaction. This is powerful stuff. This piece of fiction then informs the world and truly does define what reality is!

I am intensely interested in this phenomenon—how narratives, take for example the Christian story—define reality, provide and assign meaning to that reality, and even become the bearer of Truth for that culture. It is narratives that shape and define our realities. So any philosophers among my readers might notice that I’m claiming that human interaction with an objective world happens (perhaps only ?) on a subjective plain—cultural narratives that function to organize under certain beliefs and structures, the perception of that very reality. This is where I think atheists largely go astray in trying to understand the Christian and his/her religious attachments. The attachment is to the narrative, and that narrative provides meaning, Truth, and definition to that individual’s world. The interesting thing about this phenomenon is that if we were living in a different world, culture, time period—say for instance under the system proposed in Leviticus—we would be living under and through a different narrative that functioned the same way—informing and defining our reality, bearing Truth, and providing meaning. As a human species I think we need, and we certainly create, narratives to shape and define our realities, cultures, and selves. But we are far afield now, and I have drifted quite some distance from the topic at hand… or have I? Someday I would like to work on a book projet about this.

Again, this is the purpose and function of ancient literature—to legitimate and promulgate the views of a particular elite guild, and to authenticate them by placing them on the lips of that culture’s god.

So the worldview and belief system outlined in the book of Leviticus, written by an elite priestly guild and legitimated through the mouthpiece of Yahweh are fundamentally questioned, challenged, and in the end negated by several of Jesus’ actions—at least how they are being portrayed in the gospel accounts. I’m not saying that Jesus actually did any of this; these are literary portraits created to serve a particular function and need. As historians our goal is to figure out what that need or function was.

The Jesus of the gospels was not the only figure challenging the Aaronid priestly conception of the world. We also hear through the historian Josephus that John the Baptizer was also challenging this priestly worldview by also declaring individuals “pure” through water immersions. Thus, like the portrait of Jesus in the gospels, John usurped the role of the priests. And indeed on a larger level we know through other literary works that the whole priesthood was coming under fire for their corruption. The Qumran community, John the Baptizer, and the first “Christian” communities all sought to challenge the priesthood, and usurp the role of the priests as Yahweh’s vehicle for atonement. Some of these communities, such as the earlier “Christians,” even questioned the demarcation of the world and society into pure and impure categories. Remember, for the Aaronids and their god, pure and impure were as much a part of the metaphysical world as the sun and the moon. One does not question the existence of the sun and the moon—unless on some powerful hallucinogenics! I use these analogies to drive home the very radical nature in questioning what was deemed as ontological categories by an earlier culture and legitimated through that culture’s god, in this case Yahweh!

We might further note, that if the gospel portraits contain some sort of historical or cultural verisimilitude, it is interesting to note that all of the “impure” individuals are marginalized by society and appear to live on the outskirts. Indeed this is exactly what Yahweh in the book of Leviticus ordains. The impure are to be set outside the camp/town. The fact that the gospel authors regularly depict Jesus as working in these marginalized areas and outskirts—impure spaces according to the Aaronids who wrote Leviticus and their Yahweh—is also an attempt to challenge or redefine this older worldview and belief system.

Luke’s story of the Good Samaritan is another classic example. Damn right, the Levite priest cannot, per the words of Yahweh himself, touch the “impure” half-dead, perhaps diseased, individual lying on the side of the road. We, as historians, must again try to understand the world promulgated by Leviticus and its god—not necessarily believe it or follow it (that would be absurd), but to understand it. These categories of pure/impure were not arbitrary or used to “control” the people or implement a reign of fear and terror as many modern people misjudge. Rather we need to grapple with the underlying beliefs and views that necessitated such a worldview. So for example, the Aaronid worldview and particularly their view of society was that Yahweh dwelt among them, in their midst, at the Temple (#151)! Damn right, in this social construct, no priest who ministered to Yahweh at his holy Temple can touch an impure individual, corpse, whatever. And damn right too, any individual of this society who contracts some sort of impurity must be first set apart from that society—for God’s sake literally since he dwelt in their midst!—and undergo a ritual of purification, have the priest deem him purified and able to reenter society, and finally perform an atonement sacrifice for him in front of Yahweh! The authors of the New Testament, in all honestly, fail to understand or even acknowledge such a worldview. They cannot; they have no idea about it. Of course ancient historians today, such as myself, attempt to objectively reconstruct that world and to understand it. But this was never the sort of intellectual endeavor or pursuit of the ancients, whether the Qumran community who reinterpreted these earlier texts to justify their own beliefs or the early “Christian” community that did likewise.

So, the gospel writers, living in and being informed by a worldview utterly at odds with the one promulgated by Yahweh in the book of Leviticus were faced with none other than to eradicate that system from within, i.e., from within the tradition itself, by now proposing a series of divine revelations and ideas of old covenant and new covenant. This is a subversive re-interpretive process. Subversive because this new worldview and “covenant” subverts the older, divinely-ordained worldview and covenant by claiming that it is a re-presentation of that very same worldview and covenant. Again, the Bible is a collection of texts that do just this, over and over, and over again. Wait to we get to Deuteronomy! This will be made explicitly clear.

So the Jesus of the gospels is challenging, from within, that whole system by not only placing himself in the role of the priests who are only allowed to declare individuals pure, but by eradicating the whole pure/impure divide. What is also fascinating here is that many moderners do not realize that the majority of the occurrences of the word messiah in the Hebrew Bible is found in the book of Leviticus. Not only was messiah used as a term to denote a king that was consecrated by Yahweh—remember this is none other than a literary creation—but more so it was used to speak of the priests, the messiahs of Yahweh. In fact, the latest example of the word messiah in the Hebrew Bible comes from a passage in Daniel written circa 165 BCE, and it is used to speak of the high priest! So if the gospel writers present Jesus as usurping the priest’s role, messiah would have been the term most appropriate to represent this! It’s a term that casts Jesus in a priestly role, not necessarily in a kingly role! I have a suspicion that that identifier actually comes later in the tradition. But this too has to be a topic for a later discussion.

Lastly, in the Aaronid texts of Leviticus the process of reinstating a formerly impure individual back into society is two-fold. First the individual is set apart for 7 days outside the community and washes himself in live water, and “the priests then identify him as pure.” Second, he then presents a sin offering to the priests and the priest administers a sacrifice before Yahweh to atone for the individual. When the gospels were written, the Temple no longer existed. It had been obliterated by the Romans in 70 CE. So the gospel writers are also presenting a Jesus who responds to, and fills the necessity of, the lack of there being no Temple, no atoning system! In other words, along with the obliteration of the whole sacrificial edifice was also the obliteration of its underlying world of pure and impure. Welcome to the dawn of secularization! Paul is the only New Testament writer, not incoincidentally the earliest too, that attempts to preserve the idea of holiness, ritual purity, and certainly sacrificial atonement in his ethics. Once ethics becomes completely divorced from all of this, from the ideas of sacred space, sacred time, pure and impure… then we have secular “religion,” a breed of feign lip-servers, where anything goes! But that too is a topic for a later discussion.

8 thoughts on “#184. Who can declare an individual “pure/clean”: the Aaronid priest OR Jesus? (Lev 12-15, 18-20 vs Mark 1:21-28; Luke 4:31-37; Mark 1:40-45; Matthew 8:1-4; Luke 5:12-16, etc.)

  1. Thanks for the elaboration. I do think that everyone likely creates some narrative for themselves to give their lives order and meaning, if they don’t take on a narrative by a religion or other authority. Many atheists have a science-driven narrative like “It’s man’s destiny to explore the cosmos and drink in the wonders of the universe”, and they replace the hope in an after-life with the belief that “The circle of life is a beautiful thing in and of itself”, but it’s just as likely that our species will die out before exploring the cosmos very much, and there’s nothing beautiful about what happens to someone’s body when they die, nor about much of life in general. I say this not to deprecate their viewpoints, but just to point out that perhaps everyone tells themselves lies — or, if not lies, then at least tenuous hopes without much basis in likelihood.

    Frankly, I find myself in want of a good narrative these days and envy those who have one. As you indicated, it may be hardest for those who spend long years following a belief system and then realizing as an adult that it doesn’t hold up. It’s difficult to construct a new meaning to life ex nihilo, and those who abandon religions like the one I left are often unwilling to commit to any existing ideology for fear of being misled again.

    But yes, it is difficult to look at the universe on an honest level and not want to pull the blankets over one’s head. There’s no question that religion has brought comfort to a lot of people with its message of promised future justice and peace, and I wonder if science alone can properly replace it. My, we’ve gone far afield from the topic of your post. Sorry for the digression!

  2. Interesting thoughts here! It sadly never occurred to me in my life as a fundamentalist to notice that there is no mention of demon possession and activity in the old Law.

    Rhetorical tangential addition to your tangent on how narratives define reality: Who is telling today’s narratives? Seeing as religion today has a weakening hold and influence on people in the first world… who is now telling the stories that define people’s morality and perspectives? Something to think about.

    1. KW,

      This idea of narratives, fictions, that inform and create our realities and indeed become our reality came upon me when I was teaching the great books at Houston University—a real joy!!

      We were reading Herodotus’ Histories at the time, and it dawned on me that Herodotus, like many other authors, creates—well it is actually created by the larger Greek culture—an overarching narrative within which all history operates, and for Herodotus explains why the Greeks defeated the Persians (yea the 300!). Those of you familiar with Greek literature will recognize this. The narrative at play in the world is, basically: the hubristic individual and rulers will be and are struck down by the gods. His Histories is full of examples of this. But what fascinated me, and my students, was that from our modern vantage point we could see that this understanding of the world was culturally conditioned; yet this fictional narrative also functioned to define the world itself, to give the world meaning, and to act as the world’s divine system of justice. It seemed to me at that time that this text, as well as numerous other great books, responded to the two greatest fears that humans, or nascent humanity faced: a cosmos that isn’t just, that has no principle of divine justice controlling it, and a cosmos that had no meaning in the ontological world. I think texts respond to these “fears” by creating narratives that more or less affirm that on the contrary there is a divine principle of justice and meaning working in the cosmos. For Herodotus and the Greeks, this took the form of the gods striking down the hubristic. This was their Reality, capital R. Obviously there is a moral element to this narrative as well. It’d be nice if this narrative still informed our world!!

      Jumping to another culture and another narrative, indeed a fiction as well, that informed reality, defined an individual in that reality, and provided meaning—that is these narrative fictions are Real in every (?) sense of the word; that’s the phenomenon I find so intriguing—is the one created, yes created, in the book of Revelation. This is mint too. Here, the author, faced with the empirical reality that his fellow believers were being persecuted and butchered unjustly by the Romans, creates a narrative that reaffirms against the empirical evidence that the world is ruled unjustly, a narrative which mainly states that underneath these empirical injustices there is a divinely ordained just cosmos working itself out. My students and I deliberated much on these two texts—vastly different cultures and belief systems, yet the two narratives, taken as Truth and Reality for each culture—functioned the exact same way, and fulfilled if you might concede the exact same need and purpose. I then saw this in countless other narratives.

      I think, and I’m not speaking from my own experience here, that the most difficult thing for an atheist or an ex-believer is leaving that narrative. I must drill home the point—leaving that which provided meaning to one’s life (and afterlife, or alas that was part of this narrative, this fiction [I use this word to bring home the paradox here]), that which reaffirmed a divinely-just cosmos, and that which was indeed the bearer of Truth for that culture, community, or individual. This is really powerful stuff. How fiction informs our realities and in turn creates our realities!! No one that I am aware of addresses religion from this angle, this paradox. Of course, the ideas are out there, à la the Matrix for example!

      At present I grapple with whether narratives as these, that is creating narratives, are necessary, if they are part of what it means to be human. I’m of the belief that the ontological objective world is only (?) accessible through these narratives through which means man imposes meaning, justice, and ideas of Truth on to the world. That behind these narratives that we create, the world is meaningless, unjust, etc.—to bring in a bit of Nietzsche. In this case, one readily sees the necessity let me say of these narratives. In this light, a new dialogue emerges I believe between atheists and theists, indeed perhaps a new understanding. Don’t atheists also construct narratives that inform their realities, provide meaning, carry Truth?, whether we construct them individually or culturally. I’m not all that sure. Maybe the Nietzschean hero is just able to embrace the ontological world’s inherent meaningless and injustice with steadfast resolution !!??

  3. Does anyone have information on when the concept of demons became part of Jewish belief or where it originated? Persian influence?

  4. I like your thoughts that they have historical perspective and not just philosophical blah. I have often wondered about the nature of the policies of the old testament Jews. Everyone is well aware of the problem of the priest’s/religious/Abrahamic policy of ethnic cleansing is a big issue as well. I’m still seeking answers. I’m still not satisfied with the answers that I have read so far because of the lack of historical and cultural context. The lack of knowledge itself is my biggest issue of belief.

  5. What’s interesting, too, is the new category of uncleanness that we find in the New Testament: the “unclean spirit” or demon. One would think that this condition of uncleanness and its cure would have been addressed in the book of Leviticus–but that concept had not yet evolved.

    1. Spot on John, exactly. As many critics have noted, there seems to be no recognition of demonic forces or demonology in the religious system advocated in Leviticus. Impurity is best thought of as a contagion. Indeed one can sin by inadvertently doing one of Yahweh’s prohibitions, for example inadvertently touching a corpse and thus contracting impurity upon oneself that furthermore risks being spread to the rest of the community, but demonic forces are completely absent, and as you correctly point out would have been unthinkable to these priests. I have written elsewhere (#6), that this is really to understand what was meant by the theological premise “Yahweh is sovereign.” There is Yahweh and that is it! No demons, no Satan. In one passage of Leviticus Yahweh even states: “When you will come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving you as a possession, and I shall put an affliction of leprosy in a house…” (Lev 14:13). This should be read in tandem with Ex 4:11: “Who makes a person dumb or deaf, gives sight or makes blind? Is it not I, Yahweh!”

      The demonization of impurities and diseases that occurs in the gospel healing narratives also displays another cultural or psychological feature. Obviously the demonization of diseases, etc. happens much earlier than the 1st c. CE, but the gospel stories, at least one of them, takes this to… well, its natural cultural conclusion. In Mark 5, the impurity which is demonized is/are the Romans… The famous “I am Legion” is a reference to the gentile occupation, here seen as a demonic impurity which Jesus casts out. Funny, this actually coincides with the Priestly idea that the land too needed to be purified, and this was often seen as purging it of its gentiles!

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