Was Jesus Ceremonially Unclean?
From Scribe’s Square, SVM Summer 2010
By E. J. Malone, JD.
One day as a large crowd pressed and followed Jesus, a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years touched the hem of Jesus’ garment reasoning that she would be healed of her condition if she could but touch His garment. Upon touching Jesus’ garment, the woman’s issue of blood stopped. She was healed. But Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had proceeded from him, immediately inquired as to who touched him. After a few words between Jesus and his disciples, the woman, in fear and trembling, finally confessed what she had done. Jesus replied, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”
Aside from the obvious demonstration of Jesus’ healing powers, this occurrence begs a few important questions of law. Was the woman with the issue of blood ceremonially unclean when she came among the crowd and made her way toward Jesus? And if so, did she, in touching Jesus’ garment, make Jesus ceremonially unclean?
According to the law of Moses as written in Leviticus 15, a woman with a discharge of blood is considered unclean. She must be quarantined for as long as the discharge flows from her body; and even upon being healed of the discharge, she must remain isolated for another seven days. Any person who comes into contact with such a woman in the state of her uncleanness is immediately rendered unclean.
Under a strict interpretation of these laws of uncleanness, often called the Holiness Code, it would appear that this woman with a discharge of blood was breaking the law by coming among a large group of people. After all, she was ceremonially unclean. How then was she allowed to work her way through a large crowd and touch Jesus’ garment without making Jesus unclean and being called out on her own uncleanness?
The answer lies in determining the purpose of and premise behind the ceremonial laws. Galatians 3:19 states that the law was added because of transgression. The law was given under the premise that the people were sinners. I Timothy 1:19 states that the law was given not for the just but for the ungodly and sinful.
A person’s ceremonial uncleanness was therefore really a function of that person’s spiritual uncleanness. They were unclean because they had sinned against God. The physical uncleanness was really just an analogy to teach the people about spiritual uncleanness.
Jesus Christ, in contrast to sinful people, never sinned. Because he was morally flawless and filled with the Holy Spirit, no amount of physical filth could render Jesus unclean. Because he was just, these ceremonial hygiene laws, given for the ungodly and sinful, had no effect upon him.
But what about the woman? This unclean woman’s desperate negotiation through a large crowd and grasp at Jesus’ garment was not only contrary to the letter of ceremonial holiness laws, but it could arguably be regarded as selfish this woman – like most followers, supporters and curious watchers of Jesus at that time – probably regarded Jesus as a mere prophet and not yet as the Son of God. Therefore, she either knowingly touched Jesus believing that she could defile him by doing so, or she was so desperate that she temporarily forgot about this law of Moses and the consequences of touching another person. When Jesus demanded to know who had touched him, this woman was probably fully reminded of what she had done. Why then was she not rebuked by Jesus and sent back into isolation?
The answer lies in the fact that Jesus had power to forgive sins and present her faultless before God. (Marks 2:10; Exodus 20:20-22; Jude 1:24). The same Jesus of Nazareth who could heal and do good works on the Sabbath because he was “Lord of the Sabbath” also could forgive and heal this woman because he was Lord over matters of ceremonial cleanliness. Jesus saw faith I the woman’s desperation. To Jesus, this faith – however imperfect or however desperate – overrode the proscriptions of the ceremonial law on this occasion. This faith not only protected her from condemnation, but it moved Christ to permanently heal her of her disease. Indeed, her faith had healed her and she could confidently go in peace.
Thanks be to God that Jesus Christ is able to forgive our sins upon repentance and confession of our faith in Him and to present us faultless before God the Father, regardless of what formerly might have rendered us ceremonially unclean and sentenced us to a life of isolation.