New Testament Significance
Mikva’ot are intrinsic to Jewish purity laws, providing a means for individuals to regain a state of ritual purity having been made impure through various potential means, such as coming into contact with corpses or certain bodily fluids. Purity was especially important in relation to the Temple, with respect to it being the holy resting place of the presence of God for the Jewish people.
Purity and impurity are key concerns throughout the New Testament, recurring frequently in Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels and examined extensively by Paul in the epistles, as the interpretation of the Jewish Law was extremely important for both Jewish and Christian self-understanding.
Mark 7:14-22 is pivotal in this discussion, as Jesus here transfers the source and significance of impurity from an external to an internal locus: “‘There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.’” (Mark 7:15). Whilst this point is made in the context of food laws, the same sentiment is reflected by Jesus in Luke 11:37-41, part of a passage particular to Luke, in which a Pharisee is “astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner”. Jesus replies, “‘Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness ... give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you’” (Luke 11: 39, 41). Here especially, the antithesis between Jesus’ ethical reference for purity and the Pharisees’ legal purity is stark, reflecting deep tensions between Church and Synagogue which perhaps suggests that this discussion was directed by the evangelists towards the internal difficulties faced by individual Jewish converts to Christianity. Certainly in matters concerning “that which is clean and that which is unclean, one can see how difficult it was for Jewish and gentile Christians to grow together into one Church”, and the evangelists may be seen to address this issue specifically through the Gospels. The Gospels therefore make it clear that provisions for legal impurity, such as mikva’ot, are no longer sufficient, if not redundant, for becoming acceptable to God’s holy presence, formerly constituted in the Temple.
This is even more relevant considering the fall of the Temple in 70CE, which is commonly understood to provide the socio-historical context for the emergence of the Gospels. Seen in the accusations brought before Jesus, “‘This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days’’” (Matt. 26:21), and ,“‘We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands’’” (Mark 14:58), there is an understanding that not only ideas surrounding the Temple (which underpinned notions of purity) are being re-evaluated. The holiness of the Temple is implicitly transferred onto Jesus himself, and the fall of the physical Temple in 70CE would inevitably have consolidated much Christian thought around this transition.
Nevertheless, much of Paul’s writing on Christian purity and the Temple is understood to precede the Gospels chronologically. For instance, there is a broad consensus that Paul wrote his first apostolic letter to the church at Corinth between 53CE and 57CE whilst he was in Ephesus, even before the first Jewish war (66CE-70CE).
Yet, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, “Do you not know that you are God’s Temple, and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s Temple, God will destroy him. For God’s Temple is holy, and you are that Temple” (3:16, 17). Here, it is evident that Paul considers the Church to be the new Temple where God’s holy presence now rests, and, as Michael Newton has further suggested, Paul applies the purity regulations of the former Temple to the Church in conjunction with the Gospels. Paul’s theology goes even further than the Gospels in fact, since whereas in the synoptic Gospels Jesus is presented as himself becoming the Temple in his resurrection, Paul applies this to the Church as being coextensive with the body of Christ in constituting the Temple (Rom. 12:4-6). Therefore, Christian thought was already highly developed with regard to the supersession of the Temple at least a decade prior to the 1st Jewish-Roman War, which led to the fall of the Jerusalem Temple.
Through the antithesis Paul draws between the Spirit and the world (1 Cor. 1:18; 2:3-7, 14-16), believers are seen to be set apart by their salvation and membership of the Church. As such, purity is required of each member to enter the Church through “a cleansing from past transgressions”, which Paul is thought to have understood as “one dimension of baptism”. Thus, Paul associates this washing with the justification and sanctification of the believer, which is further supported by the fact that each occurs only once. Therefore, the concept of restoring purity which underlies mikva’ot was not lost but reinterpreted by the Church, and incorporated into the older meaning of baptism proclaimed by John the Baptist, “for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark, 1:4).
This definitive washing for the sake of purity ties into another of Paul’s great emphases: the sufficiency of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the reconciliation of unholy people to a holy God. Just as repeated ritual bathing in mikva’ot and the upkeep of other purity laws are understood as insufficient for removing impurity in Jesus’ teaching, Paul sees a final and definitive cleansing in salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Perhaps from his Jewish heritage, Paul recognised the sense in which ‘atonement’ occurs in the context of both sin and impurity throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. As Jay Sklar suggests, “both endanger (requiring ransom) and both pollute (requiring purification)”, so for Paul both atonement for sin and cleansing of impurity are implicated in the salvation of the believer. Whilst the believer is thus counted as pure, purity must be maintained in the Church in consistency with Temple purity. However, the New Testament puts forward a purity of the heart motivated by having been drawn into God’s holy dwelling place and made part of the Church-Temple rather than a ritual purity maintained in order to approach God’s holiness in the Jerusalem Temple.
Therefore, since mikva’ot are essentially ancillary to Jewish purity laws and the Temple, the significance of mikva’ot in the New Testament must be understood in conjunction with ideas surrounding these, with each believed to have been superseded functionally and existentially by a changed relationship between God and humanity effected through the death and resurrection of Jesus. With the transfer of purity from an external locus to an internal locus, the transfer of God’s holy presence from the Temple to the Church and the transfer of ritual bathing into an element of baptism, mikva’ot themselves have no place in New Testament thought.
Hübner, H. (1992), ‘Unclean and Clean (NT)’, trans. R.B. Thomas Jr.; The Anchor Bible Dictionary vol. III. Doubleday: New York
Newton, M. (1985), The Concept of Purity at Qumran and in the Letters of Paul. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Shaw, R.D. (2014), ‘Corinthians, the First Epistle to the’. International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia Online. Accessed 28/03/14: http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/C/corinthians-first-epistle-to-the.html
Sklar, J. (2008), ‘Sin and Impurity: Atoned or Purified? Yes!’ from B.J. Schwartz, D.P Wright & J. Stackert (eds.), Perspectives on Purity and Purification in the Bible. T&T Clark International: London