Friday, February 10, 2012


This is the fourth installment, comprising Act 1. Scene 5, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I will blog on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the third installment here  which contains links to the previous installments.



At the end of Act 1. Scene 4, we see that Jesus’ fame has started to spread, at least through the north in Galilee and his attempt to create a time of prayer alone has been ended quickly when his disciples track him down in the wilderness. Jesus does not complain, but insists that this is the reason he has come. After summary statements of his mission and activities at the end of  both Scene 3 (1:34) and Scene 4 (1:39), Scene 5 shines a spotlight on an individual character once again, a man with leprosy who has come to Jesus to be healed.
40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, "If you choose, you can make me clean." 41 Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!" 42 Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43 After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44 saying to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them." 45 But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter. (NRSV)

The leper’s initial actions, begging Jesus, falling on his knees, alert us to the severity of his situation, but as we will see the severity of his situation is not simply at a physical level, but even more significantly at social and spiritual levels. As Leviticus 13:45-46 describes,
The leper shows his faith in Jesus, and his willingness to take a chance, by stating that his wellbeing is dependent upon Jesus’ will: “If you choose, you can make me clean” (v.40). Jesus’ response is one of pity or compassion for the man and Jesus reaches out to touch him, an action which Jesus immediately interprets as a healing action, “I do choose. Be made clean!”
The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, "Unclean, unclean." He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (NRSV)

Mark’s rapid fire storytelling in describing the approach of the leper and Jesus’ immediate healing action can allow the shock of the action to dissipate. But the shock would have reverberated for the initial audience:  A person with leprosy could not be touched, “He is unclean. He shall live alone,” as that would render the person who touched him unclean or impure for a certain period of time. While many scholars have noted, properly, that leprosy in the ancient world is not necessarily the same disease that we know today as Hansen’s disease, but might denote a whole complex series of skin diseases, it could certainly have included Hansen’s disease. It is insignificant, though, which skin disease he had, as the bottom line for sufferers in the 1st century is that apart from degrees of physical suffering, all those suffering from significant skin diseases of any sort would have found themselves outcast from the community of Israel. This had to do with notions of clean and unclean, or purity and impurity, in ancient Judaism and not with the severity of the medical diagnosis (please see the end of this post for a short essay on the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible understanding of clean and unclean).

Jesus has made himself, technically, unclean by touching the man, but we know that “the leprosy left” the man who approached Jesus and “he was made clean” (v.43). There can be no focus on Jesus’ supposed impurity or uncleanness, because the leper has lost his much hated identity: he is clean! This should be a time of rejoicing, but Mark has Jesus almost turn on the man next, “sternly warning him” – of what? – and sending him away.  Why does Jesus’ compassion not spill over into a joyous hug, welcoming the leper back into community? Why send the (healed) leper away before he could even thank Jesus or share his new life with the one who created it? Jesus’ explanation follows, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them” (v.44).

Mark has Jesus basically sent the healed man on his own mission, that is, to fulfill the dictates of the Law of Moses, as described at length in Leviticus 14:1-32. The man by having his leprosy healed is only part way to reinstatement in the community. The priest will examine him, and this process, as described in Leviticus, has numerous aspects, including bathing, shaving, and offering sacrifices, which took over a week to complete. He is on his way to full reintegration in the community, but he is not there yet. Is this Jesus’ reason for sending him away so quickly? Does Jesus want to hasten his full reintegration and to acknowledge the necessity of fulfilling the law?  There is no reason to dismiss these explanations, but the inclusion of the phrase, “see that you say nothing to anyone,” seems to take us beyond the mere desire to get the healed man to the Priest.

Why does Jesus wish him to “say nothing to anyone,” when we learned in Scene 4 that “that is what I came out to do?” Could he not get to the Priest as quickly as possible and say something to someone? Does Jesus truly expect this man, joyously made whole at a physical, religious and social level “to say nothing to anyone”? Perhaps Mark expect us to smile here or nod our heads in disbelief or laugh out loud. Could anyone keep quiet in this situation?

The healed leper cannot keep his mouth shut, and who can blame him? The man made whole “went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word,” precisely the task Jesus set for himself as well, which only increased the number of people coming to see him: “Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter” (v.45). It could not be Jesus’ desire to keep people from coming to meet him, that is his self-defined purpose, so even if the healed leper shouts his new found wholeness from the rooftops, Jesus’ mission is being fulfilled as a Kingdom needs to be filled with people.

There is dramatic tension, though, between Jesus’ desire that the leper say nothing and Jesus' self-declared mission. There are a number of statements similar to this in the Gospel of Mark which scholars, since Wilhelm Wrede in 1901, have called as a whole “the Messianic Secret.” As Mark’s story unfolds, we will need to pay attention to the dramatic questions which these statements create: What is Jesus’ purpose in saying these things? What is Mark’s purpose? And how do these two purposes align? Why does Jesus want everyone to know who he is, to publicly call people to follow him, and then tell his best witness yet to say nothing to anyone? Is this some sort of psychological ploy or is something deeper at play in the Gospel of Mark?

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

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Essay on Clean/Unclean, Purity/Impurity:

The terms clean/unclean, purity/impurity are being used interchangeably here. The idea of purity/impurity is not the same concept as hygienic/unhygienic; it is rather a combination of ideas related to what is set apart to be holy, and what things obscure holiness, the concept of taboo - and the concepts of power associated with what is taboo - and the mystery of God's ways.

The concept of taboos, found by anthropologists and sociologists in every culture, is that of the sacred and profane.  Some acts or things cause profaneness, and steps must be taken to place a person or thing in its proper order, to remove that which creates the disorder. Other acts or things cause holiness, and those which cause holiness must also be feared, and sometimes they too cause impurity. (See Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concept of Pollution and Taboo. London; New York: Routledge, 2002; Leviticus as Literature. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.)

The idea behind purity is to maintain proper order and this is related to the Israelite call to be sacred, to be set apart (Exodus 19:3-6), so that one can approach God, who is Holy, in purity. Any number of passages in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible speak of this sense of separation between the sacred and the profane: Lev. 11:44-47 (to be holy as God is holy is to make a distinction between what is clean and unclean); 15:31 (Israel must be holy/pure so as not to defile God's tabernacle/dwelling); 18:1-5 (to keep God's ordinances is to have life); 20:22-26 (ordinances have been given to Israel by God to separate them as God's people); 26:11-12 (God will make his abode among the Israelites if they do his commands).

The dictates of what is unclean and clean in the Old Testament is found most prominently in Leviticus 11-15 (see also The Holiness Code: Lev.17-26).

1) What is Unclean?

There are 12 uncleannesses or forms of impurity in the Old Testament, though depending on how one counts these, and what one admits, omits, and - in some cases - ignores, there may be more or less; I am basing all of the following outlined material on the Old Testament; the secondary sources which I am relying on are Herbert Danby, The Mishnah (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987); and E.P. Sanders Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah (London: SCM, Press, 1990, 134-151):

a) 6 uncleannesses or impurities come from a person and make the person impure:

i)   A man with a bodily flow or discharge (Lev.15:2-27);
ii)  A woman with a bodily flow or discharge (Lev.15:2-27);
iii) A woman who is menstruating and anyone who has intercourse with her (Lev.15:19-24);
iv)  A woman after childbirth (Lev.12:2);
v)   A leper and garments and houses which the leper touches (Lev.13:1f; 14:33-53; Num.5:2);


vi)  Semen renders a person unclean (Lev.15:16-18);

b) 3 uncleannesses or impurities are contact uncleannesses:

i)   A corpse, and the furnishing in a room with a corpse, especially open vessels (Num.19:11-15,18);
ii)  Carrion, of a forbidden or permitted animal (Lev.5:2, 11:22-28,31,36,39,40; 17:15; Deut.14:21);
iii) Creeping things and the things they come in contact with {ovens, stoves, vessels, drink, wet food, wet seeds}(Lev.11:29-38);

c) 3 uncleannesses or impurities occur without contact (here we have uncleannesses due to the holiness of the object):

i)   Burning the Red Heifer (Num.19:7);
ii)  Burning of the bullocks and he-goats (Lev.4:12, 21, 26; 16:27-28);
iii) Leading away of the scapegoat (Lev.16:28).
Some impurities, as Sanders discusses, are omitted in this list, due to the punishment necessary for purification, which is death; such impurities which demand death according to the Old Testament are adultery; child sacrifice; homosexuality; bestiality (Lev.18:19-24) (Sanders, 139). Murder makes the land itself impure, and calls for the execution of the murderer (Num.36:33).  Eating the flesh of an unclean animal renders a person unclean (Lev.11:1-8), but what about touching unclean animals? Does touching them render a person unclean?  Sanders states that it does [Lev.11:26], but that this prohibition was ignored, given that hitching a donkey to a plough, a regular and daily activity, would render one unclean.

This is a significant point, whether one agrees with it or not, because it is important to realize that people or things which were unclean could make another person unclean for a certain period of time.

2) How is Impurity passed on?

The person who has the impurity is impure, but so are people and things with which they come into contact. Most forms of uncleanness are passed on by touching bare flesh, by all forms of liquid from the body and by what a person who is impure lies, sits, or rides on;

3) What is the length of time that one remains impure or unclean?

There are varying lengths of impurity which a person acquires by secondary contact, but they can generally be divided into two groups: a) 7 day uncleannesses; and b) those which make one impure until evening. Those who touch a man or woman with a flow, a woman who is menstruating, a woman after birth, a leper or a corpse are unclean for 7 days. All other uncleannesses make a person unclean until evening.

Lev.12:1-5 actually gives varying dates for uncleanness related to childbirth according to the gender of the infant: if a boy is born, the mother is unclean for 7 days and 1 for circumcision; if a girl is born, the mother is unclean  for 14 days; Leviticus also lists periods of purification following the period of uncleanness - this differs from uncleanness in that the woman is not to go into the Temple nor touch any holy thing but does not seem to render another person impure through touch any longer: boy, 33 days; girl, 66 days.

4) How is Impurity removed or managed?

What are the rites of purification? How does one remove impurities? This varies for the form of impurity, as you might imagine, but the actual time limit, as mentioned above, 7 days or 1 day, does remove the impurities. This is usually in conjunction with some other form of purification rite, which include bathing, washing or destroying of clothes, sometimes throwing away clothes or utensils, and the offering of sacrifices.

5) How does being "impure" affect one's life?

For the one who has an on-going impurity, such as a leper, the restrictions on one’s life could have been severe. If one touched a leper the restrictions lasted a week, which would have been trying, as one had to avoid inhabited areas, contact with other people and the Temple. To have to do this on a permanent basis, as someone with leprosy would have to do,  would have been extremely challenging. For most other states of uncleanness, one would have had to stay away from the Temple, avoid touching other people and things in some cases, and forego sexual relations. While being in a state of impurity was inevitable in some cases – when menstruating, after having sex, after childbirth – other forms of impurity, such as being a leper, did not simply pass with time and created a person on the edge of society, a liminal, boundary person. Such a person was not guilty of a sin, they were out of “order,” removed from the proper organization of society and things. To be a part of the society again, they had to be brought back to wholeness or completeness.