A Book Review
Jesus and the Forces of Death by Matthew Thiessen is unquestionably the most exciting book about skin disease and bodily discharge you will ever read. In this book, Thiessen addresses the popular misconception that Jesus opposed the observance of the Mosaic law. But if Jesus followed the law, did He touch unclean people, heal on the Sabbath, permit His disciples to collect grain on the Sabbath, and declare all food clean? Thiessen carefully explains that (a.) Jesus did observe the purity laws and that (b.) the holiness of Jesus destroyed the sources of impurity residing in the people He healed. In short, impurities are forces of death. Jesus—a force of holiness—is more powerful.
We must, as Thiessen and Jacob Milgrom before him urged, distinguish between moral impurity and ritual impurity. Moral impurity is sinful; ritual impurity is not. Maintaining both types of purity was necessary for Israel to maintain a relationship with God. Thiessen focuses on ritual impurity. He also frequently and admirably cites Ancient Near Eastern parallels, Second Temple Jewish literature, rabbinical writings, and texts from the Greco-Roman world to properly establish the first-century Palestinian context of Jesus and the Gospels.
This book does a remarkable job of correcting how we have misunderstood Scripture. The chapter on leprosy, or rather lepra, is insightful for reasons outside the scope of this book. This chapter opens with a correction to the widespread misunderstanding of the skin disease often translated as “leprosy” in English Bibles. The primary symptom of lepra was white, flaky skin as opposed to whatever conception of leprosy you might have.
Thiessen analyzes the pericope of Jesus healing a lepros found in Mark 1:40–45. Jesus destroyed the impurity of lepra but also endorsed the Mosaic law by sending the healed man to go to the temple in accordance with Leviticus 13–14. One potential weakness here is that Thiessen works from a text formed around three speculative decisions. First, as he admits, the choice between “angered” and “moved with pity” in Mark 1:41 is a significant textual issue. It’s also an issue that requires more than citing lectio difficilior potior to settle. Second, Jesus “growling” in Mark 1:43 seems to intensify what BDAG defines as “insist on something sternly” (s.v. ἐμβριμάομαι). And third, according to Thiessen’s translation, after Jesus heals the man, he “cast him away.” This worth is not always used to convey the sense of forcefully sending someone away. For example, in the Book of James, this same verb describes Rahab the prostitute sending the spies away (James 2:25). Thiessen could be right about these text-critical and lexical decisions, but I would have liked to also see how an explanation of the alternative reading would support his claims about Jesus and ritual impurity.
The chapter on the ritual impurity of genital discharges is also illuminating. With this event and others, Thiessen offers well-supported explanations to refute common misunderstandings of ritual impurity in the Gospels. The woman who suffered a flow of blood lasting 12 years likely did not need to quarantine, and physical contact with a ritually impure person was not sinful. Contracting ritual impurity was not a sin. The concluding sentence to this chapter offers a fitting summary for the book: “The story of the hemorrhaging woman gives readers the impression that Jesus is innately, one could say ontologically, opposed to ritual impurity and that his body, like a force of nature, inevitably will destroy ritual impurity’s sources” (96). Chapters on Jesus raising the dead and casting out demons also highlight his power.
The final chapter on the Sabbath and the appendix on dietary laws differ slightly from the rest of the book since Jesus isn’t overpowering impurities, but they do demonstrate the argument that Jesus observed the Mosaic law and was only opposed to unwarranted human traditions.
My only overall complaint is that, at times, Thiessen appears to give little weight to the accuracy of the Scripture that He so carefully unpacks. For example, he calls the beginning of Genesis 6 “myth” and identifies an “exaggerated claim” made by Mark in his Gospel (94, 136). Even when Thiessen brings the book to a conclusion by suggesting that Jesus could be the resurrected holy one of God, he prevaricates with a lot of “ifs” (184–185).
I would enthusiastically recommend this book to pastors, students, and scholars interested in ritual impurity. Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism is a carefully researched, thought-provoking work on Jesus and ritual impurity. Again and again, Thiessen explains the historical and religious context of the Gospels. This may not sound like a book you would choose to read, but it will certainly give you a more accurate and fulsome picture of Jesus—holy, compassionate, and powerful enough to defeat death.