Who was the “historical” Jesus? For some recent New Testament scholars, he was a reformer who, in mingling with the poor, healing lepers and preaching to the outcast, deliberately flouted Jewish purity laws—and the Temple system associated with them—attacking these laws as perpetuating social, economic and gender distinctions. Instead of a “politics of purity,” Jesus brought a “politics of compassion.” But that argument is flawed, according to Paula Fredriksen in “Did Jesus Oppose the Purity Laws?” The scholars who subscribe to this theory completely fail to understand the Jewish purity system, she points out, for neither sin nor social stigma attached to “impurity.” Indeed, Jesus may have ritually cleansed himself before entering the Temple, thus paying respect to ancient Judaism’s most sacred site—radically changing our understanding of the historical Jesus.
Fredriksen is Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture at Boston University and a 1994–1995 Lady Davis Visiting Professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A specialist on the early Church, she is author of From Jesus to Christ (Yale Univ. Press, 1988) and numerous articles on Augustine, Paul, Christian observance of Torah and early Christian beliefs.