Mary & Jesus: Ritual impurity did not equal sin in the O.T.

Why did Mary offer a sacrifice in the temple? Contrary to Catholic claims, does not that mean that she did sin? What are the fundamental differences between ritual impurity and actual sin in the Old Testament, and how are those distinctions made in Judaism – but more importantly – in light of our Christian faith and the New Testament? All of these things will be explored in a few moments.


Leviticus 4:2 starts: “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If anyone sins unintentionally in any of the Lord’s commandments about things not to be done, and does any one of them […]”. No one disputes that the Bible uses the term ‘unintentional sins’, the dispute is whether or not such sins were really considered punishable moral transgressions before God. Protestants are put in a very similar position when they encounter the use of the word ‘works’ in the NT and their contextualization of justification (e.g. Revelation 20:12 & Romans 2:6). They argue negatively whether works really count for our salvation. The purpose of this article is to do something similar when it comes to the Jewish concept of ‘ritual impurity’ and to analyze its relationship with Jesus and Mary’s sinlessness.


Judaism in general identifies three levels of sin (Hebrew: 𝘢𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘢):  𝘱𝘦𝘴𝘩𝘢, an act of defiance towards God; 𝘢𝘷𝘰𝘯, a very hard to control evil act with no specific intentions to defy God; and 𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘪𝘵, an unintentional sin or fault. (Wikipedia)


An almost unanimous Jewish modern explanation is offered for this third category, where sin does not carry eternal consequences – but it is more commonly referred to as ‘someone missing the target’. Among the subsets of 𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘪𝘵, we find many errors and conditions that can render humans ‘sinful’ in this sense, but I would like to single in on the state of uncleanliness. 𝘛𝘶𝘮𝘢𝘩 was the state of being considered ritually impure. The term was used to describe two conditions:

  • Ritual impurity – the opposite of taharah (“purity”), also known as “impurity of the body”.
  • Moral impurity – the opposite of kedushah (“sanctity”), also known as “impurity of the soul”; this category also includes activities which are disgusting or abominable. (Wikipedia)


Clearly, ritual impurity did not carry a ‘sinful’ meaning and was more of an unfortunate condition that rendered people unable to fulfill or participate in the Jewish life. Whereas moral impurity did relate to sinful behaviors, regardless of their level of gravity.


It is extremely important to learn and acknowledge that ritual purity laws and their consequences CEASED when the Second Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed. This is imperative to understand in our Christian teaching, because the destruction of the temple was the culmination of God’s judgement upon Jerusalem. Jesus unarguably challenged these purity laws. It was clear that such laws were not going to be the core of the Christian message; in fact sometimes they acted as roadblocks to a fulfilling Christian life.


The accusation has been raised that Mary did sin because she had to offer a sin offering for her period of impurity. In fact the whole family had to do it, not just Mary. If Mary had had a normal birth, then her blood at birth and after birth would have polluted anyone who was in contact with her blood, including Joseph and Jesus. For that culture, the blood of a woman was considered impure, whereas the blood of men were seen as a sign to seal the pact under God’s covenant in circumcision. But overall, the Jewish sense offered a profound respect for blood in general, for they believed that the life force of creatures was in the blood (Leviticus 17:11). Touching any type of blood was considered impure because you were participating in the foreign and fallen life of another creature.


Catholic theology claims that Mary did not have a normal birth. She remained a virgin and Sacred Tradition teaches that Jesus’ birth was perfect in the sense that He did not cause any harm to His mother’s bodily integrity. Nonetheless, she was legally considered impure because it was assumed by many that she had a normal birth; just as Jesus was considered legally guilty by the High Priest, though there was no fault in Him.


Protestants love to claim that Mary was not sinless because she had to offer a sacrifice in the temple (Lk 2:24) according to Leviticus 12. However, this is a rushed conclusion. If it were to mean that Mary was considered sinful because of her 7-day period of impurity, then look at what this forces them to say about Jesus. Luke 2:22 is better rendered by the ESV when it reads: “And when the time came for 𝙩𝙝𝙚𝙞𝙧 purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem […]”. Let us remember, Hebrew children were not considered fit or fully pure until they became circumcised on the eight day, the day after the mother would become pure again. Does this mean that Jesus was impure, or ‘sinful’ as well?


More so, how about passages in which Jesus directly performs actions that would render him impure, and therefore ‘sinful’ in the eyes of Protestants? Let us look at Mark 5, Matthew 9 and Luke 8; where Jesus resurrected Jairus’ daughter from the dead 𝙞𝙣 𝙝𝙚𝙧 𝙝𝙤𝙪𝙨𝙚 and 𝙗𝙮 𝙝𝙤𝙡𝙙𝙞𝙣𝙜 𝙝𝙚𝙧 𝙝𝙖𝙣𝙙 once she was dead.


Numbers 19:11 and 19:16 is clear in stating that a person becomes impure when they touch a corpse. Numbers 19:14 states that a house and the people in it become impure when a corpse is present. So when Jesus is at Jairus’ home raising his daughter, he is engaging in two behaviors that would render him impure, thus ‘sinful’ according to Protestants. The same case may have occurred when He resurrected Lazarus.


We also know from Leviticus 15:25-27 that anyone who is in contact with a woman with an irregular discharge of blood becomes ceremonially impure. So we see that in the same above mentioned passages of Mk 5, Mt 9 & Lk 8, when the woman with the bleeding touches Jesus, that would have rendered Him ritually unclean – and thus sinful? But we know that Jesus remained sinless from other places in Scripture (2 Cor 5:21, Hebrews 4:15, 1 Peter 1:18-19 & 2:22, 1 Jn 3:5, John 8:29).


What is the answer then? The answer is found in the emphasis and intent of those texts (Mk 5, Mt 9 & Lk 8). Three times we find the story of Jairus’ daughter and the healing of the woman with the hemorrhage in the Gospels. Here we have Jesus and the NT writers explicitly emphasizing that those things that were considered unholy or unclean were mere disciplinary measurements to educate Israel; with the coming of the Messiah such things are passing away. This idea is reinforced by the many times that Jesus rebuked the Jews for focusing on the external purity laws alone, as they failed to internalize the Law in their hearts and acknowledge Him as Lord in their minds.


When Jesus challenged these practices it did not mean that God 𝘤𝘩𝘢𝘯𝘨𝘦𝘥, for neither He nor the Jews ever regarded such actions as morally sinful, except when done with the intent of disobedience. The transition to a better Law is the message that Jesus is bringing – discarding the traditions of men, abrogating aspects of the Leviticus Law and fulfilling the Mosaic Law. 


We have proved that impurity/uncleanliness was never a moral charge against the person in and of itself unless the person negated the purification rituals that needed to be done afterwards. Mary, like Jesus, obediently submitted herself to the Law even though she did not need to. Jesus did not need to be baptized, but let us remember His words: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness”. Mary, in perfect obedience to the Word of God at that time and by the grace of her son Jesus, did exactly the same to fulfill all righteousness.