Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism – Matthew Thiessen

Lately I am finding myself more directed to the Gospels and the life of Jesus than other portions of the Bible. As a result, I’m realizing how much I do not know about Jesus and the infinitely deep well that is his life and ministry, especially within the specific historical and cultural context of that day. Thiessen has written a great book to help familiarize ourselves with Jesus within first-century Judaism, especially in regards to ritual impurity and how Jesus interacted with these “forces of death.”

The main argument is that Jesus did not come to oppose Jewish purity laws when he confronted the diseased and ritually impure, but that he rather came to destroy the forces of death that lie behind. Thiessen shows how Jesus acted within his historical and religious context and in accordance with Jewish purity laws. But Jesus’ focus and intention is much greater with his goal of defeating the forces of death and even death itself in the end.

When Jesus meets someone having a ritual impurity, he removes the source of that impurity from that person’s body. In other words, Jesus does not abolish the ritual impurity system; rather, he abolishes the force that creates the ritual impurity in the person he meets.

Thiessen, pg. 6

He maps Jesus’ world by placing him in his proper context of first-century Judaism and defines and describes ritual impurity in the Jewish system. Most of the book is taken up with different sources of ritual impurity found in the Gospels, such as lepra, genital discharges, and corpses (death). Thiessen walks through in detail Jesus’ efforts to confront and destroy the source of these ritual impurities, even including demonic impurity. The book wraps up with how all of this connects with Jesus’ own death and resurrection.

This was a new study for me. There were details in this book that I had never considered before and it strongly spoke into the importance of the Old Testament when it comes to understanding the New Testament. I strongly believe that the Old Testament is crucial as the first part of the whole Bible story, and that a lot of the New Testament is clarified in light of the truths found there. Thiessen shows this to be true for the Gospels and Jesus’ interaction with those around him. Jesus was a Jew and knew and followed the Jewish system of his day. Understanding this brings light to the more difficult, hard to interpret passages we come across in the Gospels and rest of the New Testament. Thiessen has provided a great resource for more study and conversation in regards to ritual impurity in relation to Jesus’ life and ministry.

Though this area of study may be fresh for you and disagreements may arise, this book is worth reading to better understand Jesus in his first-century context.

*This book was graciously provided by Baker Academic in exchange for an honest review.

Read & Repeat

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