Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Mikveh, or ritual pool, in Qumran. Wikimedia
There is a very interesting Moment Magazine article on Amy Jill Levine and her lifetime of interest in Christianity and the New Testament, even though she is Jewish. It is describes her childhood experiences of interreligious dialogue (if children picking on each other could be called that) to the resistance she received while applying for NT positions at schools of divinity. All of that is gone now, as Levine has written or edited some very important texts, including The Misunderstood Jew and The Jewish Annotated New Testament, with Marc Brettler.  The Annotated New Testament, in particular, demonstrates the strength of Jewish scholarship of the NT, with dozens of contributors, including well-known scholars such as Geza VermesShaye Cohen and Adele Reinhartz.  

While Lawrence Schiffman is most known for his work on DSS, he is very at home dealing with the NT as well.  I have really enjoyed a series of posts on Schiffman's website, and it is a good example of the type of work I am referring to here.  In these posts, he is addressing the tendency for scholars to present simplistic comparisons between the early Christians and the Qumran community. He uses purity as an example in which there is radical difference between the groups.  I want to briefly summarize the four posts, entitled 'Purity as Separation' but I strongly recommend reading them for yourself.  

In the introduction, he notes that there have been many who have made comparisons between the Qumran community and John the Baptist and the early Christians. Here, highlighting divergent approaches to issues of purity to make his point, Schiffman argues these comparisons are simplistic.  


In the second and longest post, he surveys the initiation rites of the Qumran community to evaluate their conception of purity.  The initiate is separated, but from the holy food and drink, not the ritual bath.

After one year, the initiate is still impure, regardless of the many ritual baths undergone.  But, at this point, he is permitted to partake of the holy food (it seems solids are less likely to contract or convey impurity than liquids).  After one year, he can partake of the drink as well.  

In the third post, Schiffman looks at an example of the early Christian view with regard to purity, as found in Mark 7:1-5.  Jesus and his followers transgress the 'tradition of the elders' by violating purity rules of eating without washing their hands and, presumably, ritual washing after being in public, and immersing certain vessels. Additionally, Jesus asserts that impurity can come from what comes out of the mouth, not what enters it.  In short, the purity laws bring about separation, rather than nearness, to God.  With regard to purity, both Christians and the Qumran community view purity as a method of separation; the Qumran community viewed that separation positively, while the Christian community saw it as a barrier  to inclusiveness 

In the fourth and final post, Schiffman notes that the gospels have an emphasis on Jesus' rejection of issues of purity particularly with regard to food.  Jesus, as presented in the Gospels, saw that the role of leadership was to be willing to transgress the conventions regarding purity, such as eating with sinners, if that is what was needed to bring people to God.  The conclusion is that while both the Qumran community and the Jesus movement had a concern for purity laws, their understanding of purity as functioning to separate led them to opposite approaches


Isaac M. Alderman
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