DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


search engine by freefind

hit counter
 
The Historical Jesus
Ritual Contamination

The detail which I have excluded from the healing story in Mark 5.25-34 (see also Matthew 9.20-22 and Luke 8.43-48)  may be good history. But it's more likely to be editorial addition by the author of Mark's Gospel.

If some protest about this, my point is that the detail which the author of Mark has put in, probably to make a theological point, makes little or no difference to the history, to "what really happened."

Traditionally, we are supposed to regard this as yet another earthy miracle performed by Jesus. According to this line of thought, Jesus healed the woman using extra-mortal powers because of his great compassion and because she showed "faith" by touching his clothes and trusting him to heal her.

The details added by the author indicate to me that the above interpretation could well have been early. That is, when people first heard the oral version of the event, they sought to give it meaning in their own way.

But what makes more sense to me is in the light of the kind of thinking and religion which prevailed in Judaism in Jesus' time. Today we often don't realise how important was the concept of ritual cleanliness to a Jew. It could take extreme form. 

For example, the Qumran community (which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls) set aside special areas for menstruating women. They placed great emphasis on ritual cleanliness. A nearby dam collected and stored water and fed in through a complicated system of channels and pipes cut in the limestone into the community buildings. About a dozen miqwaoth or ritual baths, including some of the largest ever found in Palestinian excavations, ensured that the Essenes could purify themselves adequately. A massive pool on the southern side of the complex had two low partitions to separate the impure descent from the pure ascent.

Amongst ordinary Jews this degree of ritual contamination was not as strongly stressed. Nevertheless, a bed or chair used by a menstruating women was considered unclean. Anyone she touched would be unclean for the rest of the day (Leviticus 15.9).

The main theological point of cleanliness laws related to the presence of Yahweh in his people. Leviticus 18 forbids a man to have sexual intercourse with a woman while she was menstruating. The laws also applied to food. Blood could not be eaten, nor could certain kinds of unclean meat such as pork. Procedures for cleansing a defiled person were laid down. 

The various rites and lengths of impurity were linked to the supposed severity of defilement. Impurity from contact with an animal carcass lasted only until the same evening. A woman who gave birth to a girl remained impure for eighty days. A Jew could not eat with a Gentile without being contaminated.

The laws of cleanliness are laid down without explanation. Holiness (the opposite of impurity for the Jews) implied wholeness, freedom from deformity (Leviticus 21.17-21). Perhaps the laws had something to do with this aspect of life. But the point is that Jewish people followed the Law because it was there, not because it made rational sense.

Let's now come back to the woman Jesus healed. Because of her chronic illness she would have been permanently excluded from worship and from touching anyone else. She would have been an outcast from society, almost a non-person.

She could have suspected that her touch might contaminate Jesus. But perhaps because he taught that we can't be contaminated in that way, she hoped something would happen. The author stresses that the act nevertheless needed considerable trust on her part.

Perhaps Jesus performed some sort of miracle, as traditional teaching would have it. Perhaps the bleeding was psychosomatic and her trust somehow cured her at a deep level. Who knows for sure? What we can be reasonably certain about, however, is that one who had been excluded was now included.

Many of the first Christians were probably marginalised in society - slaves, the poor, prostitutes, tax collectors and the like. Perhaps this accounts for the survival of this account in the years between the event and the writing of the Gospels.

My impression is that as the Christian faith moved from Jewish Christians into the Roman and Persian worlds the issue of ritual cleanliness became less and less important. The controversy between Paul of Tarsus and the Jewish Christians over the matter of eating unclean food illustrates what happened in the early days. But by the time the Gospels were written down, the emphasis on contamination was much reduced. None of the Gospel authors makes a great deal out of it - although it remains something worth reporting on.

I have often wondered why so much emphasis was placed in the early Jewish-Christian communities on what is now called the Eucharist. In the early days of Christianity the elaborate rituals the Churches now usually attach to the Eucharist did not exist. It was a simple meal, no doubt with theological meaning harking back to the last supper and the death of Jesus. 

But the meals almost certainly also made the point that just as Jesus ate with "tax collectors and sinners," so also the Christian fellowship could bar nobody from the community meal on the grounds of ritual uncleanness.

[Home] [Back]