Biblical Archaeology Review 45:4, July/August September/October 2019

Stepped Pools and Stone Vessels

Rethinking Jewish Purity Practices in Palestine

By Cecilia Wassén

To what extent were Jewish purity practices around the turn of the Common Era related to the Jerusalem Temple?

Scholars often associate purity concerns primarily with the Temple cult, since ritual purity was required of the participants. Both the priests serving in the Temple and the laypeople who ventured into the women’s court and beyond had to be ritually pure. Ritual purity was also necessary for eating sacred food, which applied to priestly families and laypeople eating portions of the offerings (Leviticus 7:20-21; Numbers 9:1-12).

Because of the stringent purity regulations concerning the sanctuary, many scholars assume that purity practices from an early time centered on the sanctuary. Basically, according to this view, purity regulations served to protect the sacred. Therefore, indications of purity practices far from the Jerusalem Temple at the end of the Second Temple period (516 B.C.E.–70 C.E.) are a new development. In addition, the strict purity praxis of the Pharisees (a group of lay teachers of Jewish law) and the members of the Qumran movement (a Jewish sect whose library was discovered in caves at Qumran next to the Dead Sea)a is also commonly understood as being motivated by priestly models. This reasoning similarly associates purity practices closely with the cultic sphere.

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