Purity Culture, Jesus, and the Markan Narrative

The evangelical obsession with purity.

Reminds me of ritual purity law.

Especially when it determines who is inside the circle.

And who is not.


The Gospel of Mark is full of little devices I like to call “Markan sandwiches,” though more reasonable people use the term interpolations. The author of Mark creates these textual sandwiches by starting a story, inserting a second, then finishing the first.

If the sandwich in Mark 5 were real, the text would be grilled cheese and the author Alton Brown.

The first narrative of the Mark 5 interpolation introduces us to Jarius, a man with a dying daughter come to see Jesus. And just as Jesus agrees to visit his daughter, the author inserts the healing of a hemorrhaging woman who is healed after touching Jesus’ cloak without permission.

Jesus eventually makes it to the abode of Jarius after the interrupting scene, but his daughter has already died. The great healer takes her dead body by the hand, commands it to stand up, and she does.

Interestingly enough, the older woman had been hemorrhaging for twelve years and the age of the deceased girl was… twelve years. These two stories have been interpolated to illustrate a common point.

Understanding this textual sandwich, however, requires a slight garnish:  both bleeding women and dead bodies were explicit agents of impurity according to Torah.

“When a woman has a discharge of blood for many days at a time other than her monthly period or has a discharge that continues beyond her period, she will be unclean as long as she has the discharge… any bed she lies on while her discharge continues will be unclean… anyone who touches them will be unclean…” (Lev 15:25).

“[The high priest]  must not enter a place where there is a dead body. He must not make himself unclean, even for his father or mother…” (Lev 21:11).

Dead bodies and bleeding women impurified the things they touched.

When Jesus was grasped by one and took the hand of the other, however, something different happened; their exchanges did not conform to the normal rules of defilement. Instead of the impure defiling the pure, Jesus’ power and status healed the woman and raised the girl, purifying both and restoring them to their communities.

And it is within the narrative of Mark as a whole that connection with Jesus, instead of purity status, becomes the sole determining factor of those deemed “within” the family of God.

Do we have it backwards?

Allen Marshall O'Brien

Allen Marshall O’Brien is the pastor of a UCC church in Northern California and co-host of the Irenicast. He believes in the importance of education, peace, and ecology, throws things to his border collie Sonata, and writes for multiple platforms.

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