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Thus Spake Dustin

I love reading about Eastern Orthodoxy, scripture, and nonfiction works that challenge me to expand my view of the world.


Review of Purity, Sacrifice, and The Temple by Klawans

Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism - Jonathan Klawans

Jonathan Klawans, Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). Pp 372.

Klawans challenges long held notions concerning biblical notions of sacrifice and purity in modern scholarship. Any scholar who writes about these subjects without consulting Klawans’s work will be greatly outdated.

Until now, contemporary scholarship on purity and sacrifice has been influenced by several factors: 1) Christian and Jewish supersessionism, 2) evolutionary schemes, and 3) understanding sacrifice only as literal. Klawans shows that these understandings fail to account for how the ancient Israelites themselves understood the purity and sacrificial system.

Klawans first makes a distinction between ritual impurity, and moral impurity. Ritual impurity comes about though natural means, such as birth, death, bodily flows, etc. He remarks that purifying oneself of these sorts of impurities makes one more god-like, thus allowing one to enter the temple.

The other impurity is moral impurity, also known as abominations. These include transgressions such as idolatry, sexual transgression, bloodshed, and economic exploitation. The only resolution for these is atonement or punishment, and, ultimately, exile. These sorts of impurities do not ban someone from entering the temple, but they do defile the Temple, and the land.

Klawans argues that the ancient Israelites understood sacrifice as imitatio Dei; that is to say that they saw themselves as imitating God (tied to ritual impurity) within the Temple, which was a microcosm of the world. Just as God shepherds his people within the world, and has control over life and death, so the priests, in imitation of God, have control over life and death within the world of the temple. The purpose of sacrifice was to attract and maintain the presence of God for the community.

The impact of his scholarship is immediately seen when he states that it is sin that undoes sacrifices rather than sacrifices that undo sin.

In the remaining chapters, Klawans traces his line of thought through the biblical prophets, ancient Judaism (including Philo and Josephus), the Qumran community, the medieval rabbis, and the New Testament.


For me, as an Orthodox priest, I was most interested in his assessment of the New Testament. Since he is not a New Testament scholar, per se, he is very hesitant to firmly conclude anything. Instead, he states he is only introducing ideas for other scholars to think about.

He argues that the New Testament is not anti-Temple, and he gives several citations where the apostles continue to use the Temple after Christ’s resurrection.


Regarding the Last Supper, he concludes:

“…Jesus’ Eucharistic words and deeds find a likely context in the multifarious and well-attested ancient Jewish efforts to channel the temple’s sanctity into various other ritual activities, such as prayer and eating. …And thus the historical Last Supper was most likely not an antitemple symbolic action. ‘This too is divine service’ is probably what and all Jesus original intended to say.” (pg. 244)


Klawans also addresses the “cleansing” of the Temple. He notes that Jesus only expels the moneychangers and pigeon sellers, which, as he notes, are items that only the poor would use (richer people would have been buying different sacrificial animals). He writes,


“I am suggesting that Jesus felt the temple should pose no financial burden to the poor at all. Those with money should give, those without should be exempt. If anything, the system should provide for the poor. But this did not amount to a rejection of the temple by circumventing the ill effects from the traders.” (pg. 239)

He looks at Acts 2, and understands the redistribution of wealth among the early Christians as a way for all to be able to participate in the Temple system.


“By sharing wealth among themselves, they could provide the sacrificial needs for the poor among them (and perhaps other poor folk as well). Hence, I suggest the juxtaposition in the book of Acts of the community of goods with the continued Christian worship in the temple. The good of the sharing of goods trumps the bad from the exaction of fees form the poor” (pg. 239).


I found Klawans’s thesis intriguing, and I highly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to understand the Bible better. I look forward to more work from him.