Matthew Thiessen. Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020. 254 pages. $35.00 (paperback).
While theological currents are always at work, biblical scholars are recalibrating their views of Jesus and Paul by placing them squarely within Judaism. Matthew Thiessen—associate professor of religious studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario—is part of this distinctive movement and has written several publications to this end. His recent volume, Jesus and the Forces of Death, fits within this stream of scholarship and will no doubt spur on more conversation about Jesus the Jew.
Thiessen begins by clearly stating his aim: “to provide … a foundation for Christians seeking to retain their theological conviction in the importance of the Old Testament, including texts that deal with laws related to ritual impurity” (8). His thesis is that the “Jesus of the Gospels only makes sense in light of, in the context of, and in agreement with priestly concerns about purity and impurity documented in Leviticus and other Old Testament texts” (8). After an initial chapter on Jesus’s world regarding purity/impurity and holy/profane things, Thiessen begins to clear some rubble for his exegetical discussions with a deep dive into Luke 2:22 concerning Jesus’s childhood purification (ch. 2). In this section, as he does throughout the book, Thiessen redirects the reader back to the book of Leviticus and then to Jesus’s obedience to this precedent. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 examine stories of Jesus’s interaction with the sources of ritual impurity. In these chapters, Thiessen argues that Jesus does not abolish the ritual purity system but rather the forces that create the impurity. Chapter 6 represents a slight departure from the bodily forms of impurity, as it deals with demonic and pneumatic impurity and several of Jesus’s healing narratives. Chapter 7 examines Jesus’s understanding and observance of the Jewish custom of Sabbath.
The volume is equal parts study of Mark and Leviticus. There are references to other parts of the Torah and the Synoptic Gospels (e.g., the above-mentioned examination of Luke 2:22), but most of the conversation revolves around these two poles. Thiessen has provided a dense treatment of a seminal issue. The argument is well articulated and simplifies difficult topics. Many will walk away, as I did, with a desire to understand the book of Leviticus better.
The stated methodology is a literary study of the Gospels, but the interlocutors are almost exclusively historical Jesus scholars; in addition, the focus is primarily on Mark’s portrait of Jesus with only small treatments of the other Gospels. However, these decisions are part of the editorial process and may be inevitable given the subject matter.
Thiessen’s book is an important step in the direction of correcting anti-Semitic views and showing Jesus’s reverence for his Bible. I would commend this study to those interested in the continued observance of Jewish law, the intersection of the two Testaments, and Jesus’s Jewishness.
Charles Nathan Ridlehoover, Ph.D., is a secondary teacher at North Raleigh Christian Academy, Raleigh, NC, and teaches New Testament and Greek courses at Columbia Biblical Seminary, Columbia, SC.