By John Clabeaux
Paul often uses the language of ''purity'' from the religion of ancient Judaism. Three examples occur in Philippians alone:
Phil 1:10 ''. . .that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.''
Phil 2:15 ''. . .that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a perverse and crooked generation. . .''
Phil 4:18 . . . ''afragrant offering, a sacrifice pleasing and acceptable to God.''
This sort of talk occurs frequently elsewhere in Paul's writings. When you encounter these references in homily preparation it is likely that your mind is directed to possible remarks you might make about ethics, especially sexual ethics -- as that is often the context of the term purity in virtue ethics.
In this essay, I do not wish to discourage the application of such passages to the discussion of virtue, but I hope to enable you to see a context, from which this language has emerged, that is underappreciated by most interpreters of Paul. That context will be important not only for the general picture you have of Paul, but even for how you understand the thought of first- and second-generation Christians.
The context for much of the language of purity in the letters of Paul, and in fact throughout the Bible, is the Temple System of ancient Israel, which was an effective means for people encumbered by sin and death to encounter a holy, intangible, yet present God. By Temple SystemImean the full span of regulations for marking and arranging the place of the divine presence, and for living life as a chosen people, holy to the Lord who lives in the midst of this people. The Israelites were aware that God could not actually be contained in a house, as Solomon prayed while dedicating the temple: ''But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built.'' (1 Kings 8:27) Yet with this in mind, there was believed to be a special manifestation (such as the name of God, 1 Kings 8:29) of that presence experienced at Sinai, and it was concretized or ''signalized'' by the regulations that follow the Sinai manifestation of God in Exodus 19. Those regulations cover nearly 58 chapters at the very center of the Pentateuch. Not only purification and atonement but even the regulations of corpse contact, the effects of body fluids, kosher food, how to deal with leprosy (of person or house), licit sexual relations and sexual taboos are to be understood in relation to the presence of God in the midst of Israel.1 God is holy, and that is signalized by regulated approach to the sacred space and a system of requirements for being in an appropriate ritual state to approach the Temple.
It is generally assumed that Paul could not possibly have intended to apply the purity regulations of ancient Judaism to the Christian communities. They seem to modern people to be the very stuff of obsession with dirt and sin, and as something that was used to distance a more perfect or ruling elite from the unwashed commoners.2
That usually leads to the conclusion that all such language when used by Paul is metaphorical, with only distant relationship to the issues involved in the Temple requirements of ancient Judaism. The problem with understanding such language as entirely metaphorical is that the entire system is metaphorical in a certain sense. The rituals and taboos were meant to focus attention on the implications of the presence of a holy God, yet there was also a serious belief in the reality of the divine forces involved in the system.3
A stronger objection to the influence of the purity system by Paul would be the popular understanding, which has lately come under serious challenge, that Paul was quite opposed to the law. A glaring problem for this assumption is 1 Cor 7:19 ''For neither circumcision counts for anything nor un-circumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.'' What exactly he means by ''the commandments of God'' is under debate, and I will not engage that question here, since I am not suggesting that Paul wished to enforce purity regulations in Christian communities. The members of the churches he founded were predominantly Gentiles who had no access to the Jerusalem temple. But what I wish to suggest is that Paul makes many an argument based on the logic of the Temple system.
Paul's tendency to use the language of purity so frequently is not unique. We see it in other New Testament writings. But it is especially important in Jewish writings of the 200s C.E., even though the Temple had been destroyed for nearly 200 years. The rabbis reinterpreted the way the purity system of the Temple was to be applied by directing it to matters of daily living in the home, especially, marriage, life and death. But the logic of it all was based on an appreciation of the issue of the holiness (otherness) yet nearness of God among the people of Israel. The locus of that sacred presence had to be redefined as residing in the people of Israel, or specially present in the Torah itself. Yet they continued to work out their arguments as if the Temple were still standing. I wish to suggest that the early Christians did something similar and that Paul stands at a critical point in the Christian appropriation of holiness and purity systems related to the divine presence in the Temple.
First, let me distinguish purity from holiness. Purity is not the same thing as holiness, and, incidentally, neither one connotes moral perfection. But purity is what is required in the presence of the holy. Holinessconnotes contact with or ordering to that which is holy. Yet there is a certain overlap in the usage of the terms, as is seen in Paul's discussion of mixed marriages in 1 Corinthians 7. In 1 Cor 7:14, Paul, asserting that ''the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife by the brother,'' adduces the argument ''otherwise your children would be unclean (or impure), but as it is they are holy.''By presenting holy as the opposite of impure or unclean he implies an overlap in the meanings of the terms holy and pure.But let me stress one last time that purity is only meaningful in relation to the holy.And the Temple System of ancient Israel -- the elaborate system of requirements, taboos, cleansings, and separations -- was intended to concretize the fact of a holy God's presence in the midst of Israel.
No one would argue that Paul does not see the Christian communities as holy. Several of his letters begin with addresses to ''the saints,'' whether in Rome, Corinth or Philippi. But does Paul see this holiness within the context of purity as carried out in the Temple System?A good argument can be made from 1 Cor 3:15-17 that he does. In most translations this reads: ''Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? Ifanyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and that is what you are.'' The word in italics (destroys), as it appear in the RSV and NAB translations also means ''corrupts.'' Paul uses a related word in 15:53-54, where it is translated as ''corruptible.'' More importantly, only two chapters later, in dealing with the problem ofa man sleeping with his father's wife and yet remaining in the Christian community, Paul argues, ''Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old, that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened.'' (1 Cor 5:6-7). His argument seems to be that the continued presence of the man in the community has a power to corrupt, or to render unclean. But is this not all metaphorical? I am reluctant to conclude that it is, since in 1 Cor 5:7b-8 Paul says:
Christ, our Pasch, has been sacrificed, therefore let us celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
While this is certainly metaphorical to some degree, I am reluctant to conclude that, for Paul, Christ is only metaphorically our Pasch. It is a re-interpretation ofpurity regulations, but an application nonetheless. The re-interpretation involves a change in the locus of holiness. The temple in 1 Cor 3:15-17 and the People of God who keep the Passover in 1 Cor 5:8 are the Christian community.
Ritual language appears again in the very next chapter that deals with the relations of the Corinthian Christians with the outside world. After listing the practices that render one unfit to inherit the Kingdom -- including idolaters, adulterers and robbers (several of whom would qualify as morally impure not only according to Lev 18:24-30 but also in later rabbinic discussion), Paul adds, ''And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus.''(1 Cor 6:11) Again, the orientation of the cleansing is not the Temple but Christian baptism. There has been a reinterpretation of the Temple System, but an application nonetheless.
A final example from 1 Corinthians will complete this selection of examples of application of the regulations of the Temple in the Christian communities. In the difficult passage in 1 Cor 11:2-26 on why women who prophesy must do so with their heads covered, Paul adduces the puzzling argument that they must do so ''because of the angels.'' Nearly all commentaries on 1 Corinthians written since the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls see in this a reference to the angels which, at Qumran, were understood to enforce the sacral order in the worshipping congregation.4 While this is not a purity requirement, it is an application of a requirement drawn from a system based on the Temple System of ancient Israel.5
I have already mentioned Paul's use of language from the sacrificial cult in Phil 4:18 (''a fragrant offering, a sacrifice pleasing and acceptable to God.''). This is how he speaks about a gift from the Philippians that was brought to him by Epaphroditus. It is certainly metaphorical. But, in the case of certain other uses of this language, it is not so clear that Paul is simply employing a metaphor. In speaking about his mission in Rom 15:15b-16, Paul says:
. . . because of the grace given me by God, to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, in the priestly service of the Gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
It is language he used elsewhere in that letter in (12:1)
. . . present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, your spiritual worship.
Once again, one can argue that this is mere metaphor. But in Phil 2:17 Paul describes his impending death with the words: ''Even if I am to be poured out as a libation upon the sacrificial offering of your faith.'' We might add 1 Cor 9:13-14:
Do you not know that those who are employed at the Temple service get their food from the Temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings. In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the Gospel should get their living by the Gospel.
This too is metaphorical, but why does Paul keep reaching for this metaphor, unless his thinking is steeped in the logic of the Temple System?
Paul's opposition to observance of the Torah is overstated by many interpreters. In 1 Cor 16:8 we learn that he continues to observe Pentecost. In Acts 21:17-36 we see him going to Jerusalem and getting involved in an elaborate ritual of purification, which actually leads to his being arrested, and as far as we can tell, eventually killed. Many have suggested that this is Luke speaking and not Paul, yet does it make sense that Luke should assert such things about Paul if they were completely out of touch with the real Paul?
The implications of this discussion of the effect of the Temple System on Paul are important for a proper appreciation, not only of the relationship of Christianity to Judaism, but also for the relationship of Christianity with a strong liturgical orientation to Christian origins. The Judaism from which Christianity emerged was Second Temple Judaism. The most important institution in that religion was the Temple. On the whole, Christianity did not continue to observe all the rituals of the Temple System, but then neither did the rabbinical Jews who were to take Judaism into the future after the destruction of the Temple. Both reinterpreted the Temple System. But that does not mean they simply turned it into a metaphor. When Christians were finally able to organize their worship in fixed places, in large measure they did so informed by the Temple System of ancient Israel. I am simply suggesting that the development of liturgy, with attention to sacred space and holy order, was not a betrayal of emerging Christianity, but was a further development of a means of adapting to the expression of relationship to God, without the Jerusalem Temple, in Christ. Paul was an important link in that chain of tradition.
2This is essentially the argument in Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994), 46-68, and in greater detail in Conflict Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus (2nded.; Harrisburg, Penn.: Trinity Press 1998), 88-133. A far better informed view can be found in Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, (2ndimpression with corrections, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969) and Jonathan Klawans, Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism, (New York: Oxford 2000).
3An excellent discussion of the entire question of ''metaphor'' in the purity system can be found in Klawans, Impurity and Sin, 32-36.Klawans successfully demonstrates that a distinct set of rules regarding moral impurity, which is seen in Lev 18:24-30and Ezek 36:16-36. The concept is that certain serious sins (idolatry, bloodshed and sexual sins) render the very Temple in Jerusalem impure, and these must be attended to by the rituals of atonement. This is thoroughly worked out by Jacob Milgrom in, ''Israel's Sanctuary: The Priestly Picture of Dorian Gray.'' Revue Biblique 83 (1976) 390-99.For a concise summary see Milgrom's ''Excursus 49:The Effect of the Sinner on the Sanctuary,'' in Numbers, The JPS Torah Commentary,(Philadelphia and New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1990) 444-47.
4 Raymond F. Collins, First Corinthians Sacra Pagina 7 (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1999) p. 412 cites four passages from the Qumran literature 4QDe 10:11, 1QM 7:4-6, 1 QSa 2:3-11, and 4QMa.
5It may seem odd that the Qumran community, which did not make use of the Temple in Jerusalem, should be used as an example of the Temple System. The Essenes, like the later rabbis, were fully immersed in the Temple System, despite the fact that there was no Temple for them. As with the Christian community, the Sacred presence had been reinterpreted as being in the community itself. TP
By John Clabeaux
DR. CLABEAUX is a member of the faculty of the School of Theology of the Pontifical College Josephinum at Columbus, Ohio.