Holiness was equated with purity in 1st Century Jewish society

In the 1st Century BCE, holiness in Jewish society was equated with cleanliness and governed by the Purity Laws. They dated back to the Torah written hundreds of years before. These are the basis of Christian morality because they were the basis of Yeshua’s morality.

Among the 613 strictures of the Torah were:

  • To circumcise all males on the eight day after birth.
  • Not to withhold food, clothing, and sexual relations from your wife.
  • Not to have sexual relations with an animal.
  • Not to have homosexual relations.
  • To ritually slaughter an animal before eating it.
  • Not to work the land during the seventh year.
  • Not to tear priestly garments.
  • Not to appear at the temple without offerings.
  • Not to wear clothing of the opposite sex.
  • Not to listen to a false prophet.
  • Not to possess inaccurate scales or weights even if not for use.
  • To fear and respect your father and mother, and not to curse or strike them.
  • Not to panic or retreat during battle.

Purity depended on:

  • Birth. The priests and Levites (which were hereditary positions) were the most pure, followed by the rest of the Jewish born population, then converts. Near the bottom were those born out of wedlock, homosexuals and, right at the bottom, those without a penis (yes, really!). All non-Jews were considered impure.
  • Women were thought to be less pure than men due to childbirth and menstruation, but being male did not automatically make you pure.
  • The unclean included criminals, outcasts and untouchables. Jews often used the word ‘sinner’ to denote impure.
  • Physical wellness. The chronically ill and maimed were impure; so were people lacking in personal hygiene and those with damaged testicles.
  • Wealth: being rich did not automatically make you pure, but poverty made you impure. Since the poor could not afford to observe the purity laws, it indicated unrighteous living.

No wonder the New Testament is so hard on women. By definition purity was beyond them!


The Purity System created a society with sharp social boundaries. The priesthood relied on it to maintain their high social, economic and religious status. Everything was classified according to its degree of purity. Agricultural produce, for instance, could not be pronounced clean until a tithe had been paid to the priests – for them, a nice little earner!

The gospels tell us that Yeshua had an alternative social vision in which love, compassion and humility replaced purity as the guiding principles. Yet it is still with us, but in a different form. How you speak, your taste in clothes, music, art, food, hairstyle, perfume, youthfulness and fashionable appearance are all signs of ‘purity’ of a sort. People still judge by wealth and status and there’s as much prejudice as ever there was, except it’s more subtle.


©David Lawrence Preston 30.8.2016

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Balboa Press/Hay House, 2015




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