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Biblical Archaeology Review 47:3, Fall 2021

Epistles: Jesus and Ritual Impurity

By Matthew Thiessen

Biblical Archaeology Review

Readers of the Gospels have frequently concluded that Jesus was opposed to the Jewish ritual purity system. But this was not the case.

Since Yigael Yadin first identified an ancient ritual bath, frequently referred to as a mikveh, at Masada in 1963, archaeologists have discovered more than 850 such baths throughout Judea and Galilee, most of which date from the first century B.C.E. to the midsecond century C.E. These miqva’ot are unique to Jewish settlements and show that many elite and non-elite Jews in Jesus’s day were concerned about ritual impurity and invested in purifying their bodies from these impurities.a Within this context, it is noteworthy that the canonical gospels contain no story wherein people criticize Jesus for not using miqva’ot.

In fact, the Gospel of John may even imply Jesus’s use of ritual baths. John, after all, depicts Jesus entering the precincts of the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem, where he heals a paralyzed man (John 5:1-9). John does not tell readers why Jesus entered into the pool complex, but early readers may have naturally assumed that he entered to immerse himself prior to the festival mentioned in John 5:1.

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