Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Jesus and purity

I was sent home by the campus nurse late this morning with symptoms that might be early signs of swine flu. Though I have been washing my hands more frequently and taking advantage of the myriad hand sanitizer dispensers that have suddenly and magically appeared all over campus (and throughout the rest of the city!) like acne on a twelve-year-old, I do not truly believe, apparently, that nothing outside the body that goes into my body can defile me.

During my self-inflicted semi-quarantine this afternoon, I began reading from Mark's gospel. Perhaps in the throes of my current state purity is especially on my mind. Perhaps I haven't been drinking enough fluids. But the end of Mark 9, which bears some thematic resemblance to Matt 5.29–30 (remember that Matt 5–7 is typically attributed to Matthew's reworking of Q material), suddenly struck me as a passage on purity:
43 If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off! It is better for you to enter into life maimed than to be sent away into hell—into unquenchable fire—with two hands. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off! It is better for you to enter into life lame than to be cast into hell with two feet. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, cast it away from you! It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to be cast into hell with two eyes, 48 where their worm never dies and their fire is never put out. (Mark 9.43–48; vv 44, 46 were likely later additions on the influence of v 48)

I have always read this passage (and its Matthean parallel) in terms of the radical undesirability of sin. Of course, only an idiot would lop off his hand or foot or pluck out his eye, as if the impulse to sin weren't more closely rooted in the major organs. But Jesus, I've always thought, is speaking hyperbolically. "Avoid sin so radically, so passionately, so consequentially," Jesus is saying, "that you would remove your own self rather than lust after that woman or steal that loaf of bread or do harm against your neighbor." This reading will preach, but is it the best reading of this passage?

Everyone recognizes that purity issues appear from time to time in various NT texts; Acts 3.1–10 and 8.26–40 are the first two that come to my mind. Both texts center on a man (a crippled Jew in Acts 3; a [probably] gentile eunuch in Acts 8) prevented from worshiping YHWH because of a physical deformity. Both texts emphasize the power of Jesus' name to bring these types of men directly into God's presence. And both texts, I think, implicitly contrast their disabled protagonists with the able-bodied Jewish hierocratic leadership that has unrestricted access to the Temple but nevertheless fails to come into God's presence as mediated through Jesus.

Perhaps because I've just finished reading Richard Horsley's recent book, Jesus in Context, I wonder if the Markan passage (and even the Lukan passages referred to, above) provides a glimpse into the distinctive forms that Hebrew biblical traditions could take among the non- or (sometimes) semi-literate, non-elite populace outside the Temple, especially in Galilee and beyond the immediate reach of Judean power structures. In other words, if the "great tradition" embodying the Hebrew Bible among the urban elite, especially in Jerusalem, emphasized physical unblemished-ness as requisite for coming into God's presence, how significant is it that Jesus espouses intentionally (if symbolically) becoming physically blemished precisely in order to enter into God's presence? The priestly expressions of Judaism went to great lengths to protect the people from the dangerous holiness of God, and there were highly stylized, ritualized, and scripted procedures for coming into God's presence. Jesus, if I'm reading Mark 9 rightly, isn't suggesting that Israel's God is actually much safer than the Temple system, with all its buffers against defilement, portrays. Rather, Jesus is suggesting that rather different purity prescriptions grant a person access to God. Not physical wholeness but child-like innocence (see Mark 9.42). Not ritual precision but care for the poor, the powerless, the widow, orphaned, and sojourner.

I'm not sure where this type of reading would lead me. I have a few hunches, though. Rather than simply christocentric (or, following Richard B. Hays, ecclesiocentric), Mark and people with whom he was associated experienced Hebrew biblical traditions as little tradition (rather than great tradition). And they preserved the memory that Jesus did likewise. Torah, the prophets, and the writings weren't simply "about" Jesus; Jesus established [at least some of] the principles according to which the Tanakh functioned in the community. Christocentric/Ecclesiocentric, yes. But not merely so. I also suspect that a number of other pericopae receive brighter illumination by being read in terms of purity and other peculiarly Jewish theologoumena. Here Serge Ruzer's book, Mapping the New Testament, is helpful (even if some of his interpretations are unconvincing).

You Markan scholars out there, Am I way off base? Or has this been the standard interpretation of 9.43–48 for some time now?

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