In his final post of this series (the first three may be viewed here, here, and here) we will look at the category of clean versus unclean in the Christian Faith, and its difference from the use of that category in religion. The category of “clean versus unclean” is basic to religion. St. Paul refers to such a category as one of the stoicheia, the basic building blocks of religion (Galatians 4:3, Colossians 2:8, 2:20). The category had varied applications, for it attached itself to various things. Food could be clean or unclean (Leviticus 11), garments could be clean or unclean (Leviticus 13:47), a house or its vessels could be clean or unclean (Leviticus 14:33f). A person might be unclean through “leprosy” (meaning not just what we refer to as leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, but any infectious skin disease; Leviticus 13). A man could become unclean through seminal emission (Leviticus 15:16f); a woman through her monthly menstrual period or through childbirth (Leviticus 15:19f, 12:1f).
Since these categories were parts of religion and since Christianity transcends religion, it is not surprising to find Christ and His apostles paying them little heed. Christ refused to worry about the ceremonial washing of hands to eliminate possibility of ritual impurity before meals, and so (in the interpretive words of St. Mark) “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19). St. Peter was shown a vision of clean and unclean animals all mixed together and was told to arise, slaughter, and eat them, and when he protested that as a good Jew he had never eaten any unclean animals, the heavenly voice responded, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common [i.e. unclean]”. The point of the vision was that Peter must not regard Gentiles as unclean, but that point had relevance to food also, since it was eating with Gentiles that made one unclean (Acts 10:9f). Peter later stumbled a bit on this very point, withdrawing from Gentile table company after more strict Jews had arrived from Jerusalem, and he was rebuked openly by Paul, who reminded him that the categories and practices of the Jewish Law no longer applied to Christians (Galatians 2:11f). Paul himself was emphatic that no food was unclean in itself (Romans 14:14, 1 Corinthians 10:25-27, 1 Timothy 4:1-5).
During the days of His ministry, Christ made it clear that His conformity to Jewish ritual practices and obligations was not because He Himself was subject to the Law, but simply not to give offense. He was not a subject to the Law, but was the Lawgiver Himself; not a child of the Sabbath, but the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28). When He healed a leper, He told him to go and show himself to the priests so that they could certify that he had indeed become clean. But He stressed that this was not because He was subordinate to the Law or the priests, but rather simply “for a proof to the people” (Mark 1:44). When someone asked if Jesus paid the Temple tax (which all Jews paid as a sign of their subordination to the Temple), Christ miraculously paid the tax by taking a coin from the mouth of a fish. His answer to Peter when He did so is significant: He asked, “Simon, from whom do the kings of the earth take toll? From their sons or from others?” When Simon gave the obvious answer that kings did not tax their own sons, Christ replied, “Then the sons are free. However, so not to give offense to them” they should pay the tax. This was an important point to any Jewish Christian. Christ was saying that He and His disciples were no more bound by the obligations of the Jewish Law than sons were to be taxed by their royal fathers. Christ and His followers would pay the tax and keep the Jewish Law only so as “not to give offense” to other Jews. Matthew recorded this miracle and teaching because it applied not just to paying the Temple tax, but to all the obligations of the Jewish Law. The Christians were God’s sons; as far as the Law’s categories and obligations were concerned, they were “free”.
The upshot of Christ’s words and the apostles’ application of them is that the categories of clean and unclean belong to the Jewish Law and to religion generally. They are valid for religious people, but do not apply to Christians. We are not bound by Jewish food laws, nor by categories of ritual impurity. This same insight is found in the Didascalia, a document dated around the late third century. It deals specifically with the question of whether or not a woman may receive the Eucharist while menstruating. The response? “Think about it and recognize that prayer is heard through the Holy Spirit and the Eucharist is received and consecrated through the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures are words of the Holy Spirit. Therefore if the Holy Spirit is within you, why do you isolate your souls and not approach the works of the Holy Spirit?…Beloved, flee and avoid such [legalistic] observances; for you have received release that you should no more bind yourselves; and do not load yourselves again with that [yoke of Jewish Law] which our Lord and Saviour has lifted from you. Do not observe these things, nor think them uncleaness, and do not refrain yourselves on their account, nor seek purification for these things”. In other words, the author of the Didascalia considered that Christ lifted the yoke of the Law with all its stoicheia from us, so that its categories no longer applied to Christians.
The discussion of the category of clean versus unclean, sometimes discussed today, cannot be separated from the larger discussion of the abiding relevance of the Jewish Law. The Mother of God, her Son, and His apostles, conformed to the Law and its Temple practices during their sojourn among their fellow Jews (Luke 2:21-24, Acts 21:20-24). But the Saviour promised that a new day was coming. On that day, the old ancestral worship in the Temple would no longer be needed. They would worship in the Spirit, and in the truth (John 4:21-24). As far as the Law’s provisions were concerned (including its categories of “clean versus unclean” and its recourse to the Temple) they would be free. Our freedom from the Law’s restrictions therefore is rooted in the transcendence Christ bestows through the Spirit. Faith in Him does not involve us in another religion. Rather it roots us in the powers of the age to come.