Dangerous Bodies and Scandalous Touch: Reading Gospel Impurity Stories in the Time of Pandemic

The ancient world of the Gospels was filled with anxiety about ‘ritual’ impurity. That fear was deeply rooted in a belief that miasma is contagious, detrimental to personal and communal well-being, and able to compromise divine presence. Often emerging out of the natural processes of human life and death, uncleanliness was transmitted by touch. The ancients employed a variety of strategies to contain the spread of impurity in an attempt – ultimately – to prevent it from reaching sacred spaces. Driven by a sense of danger, fear, disgust and respect for numen, they separated, isolated, abstained from, warned about, scapegoated, and purified unclean bodies. Purity concerns permeated almost every aspect of public and private lives. These were negotiated through superstitious practices, acts of religious worship, medicine, and even state legislation. In that world obsessed with purity and uncleanliness, Jesus’ attitudes and practices might appear scandalous and outright dangerous. The gospels report that he intentionally crossed invisible purity boundaries and touched unclean bodies. 

Some striking similarities to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak and emerged practices, discourses and attitudes can’t escape an attentive modern reader of the Gospels. However, engagement with the ancient texts in current circumstances invites caution and resistance to be seduced by primitive ‘parallelomania’ and settling for obvious and simplistic interpretations. Can we even draw on those similarities in a theological reflection? How can we navigate gospel purity/impurity discourse in today’s context? How do we read stories of touch, inclusion and restoration of unclean people? Should we reassess Pharisaic purity practices in the time of ‘social distancing’? What can we learn from Jesus’ attitude towards impurity in the time of pandemic? This presentation will carefully consider these and other questions by engaging with key impurity texts from the Synoptic gospels.