“Three Days of Pure Joy”: Nordic Workshop on Jewish and Christian Purity Rituals

by Rick Bonnie

Over the last decades purity rituals among Jews and Christians in antiquity have received considerable scholarly interest — not the least in the Nordic countries. To celebrate this common Nordic interest a workshop was held at Uppsala University from October 21 to 23, 2015, entitled “Jewish and Christian Rituals of Purification in Antiquity”. The workshop brought together scholars from Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland, as well as from the United Kingdom, Malta and Israel (see here for the full program of the workshop). The workshop was organized by Cecilia Wassén (Uppsala University), Rikard Roitto (Stockholm School of Theology) and Risto Uro (University of Helsinki), and received generous support from the Helge Ax:son Johnsons sitftelse, Olaus Petri-stiftelsen and the Finnish Academy Research Project ‘Ritual and Early Christian Religion’.

Among the group of participants were specialists in Ritual studies, Early Christianity, Late Second Temple Judaism, Dead Sea Scrolls, Gender studies, and Archaeology. The combination of the workshop format (papers were pre-circulated and the 45 min. time slots for each participant were only spent on discussion) and the small group of specialists from different fields provided a perfect opportunity for vibrant but friendly discussions and interaction among the participants.

While the workshop touched upon many aspects and issues in the research on purity rituals, some aspects were more often and more thoroughly discussed than others. One particular aspect that turned up continuously in discussions was that between the division of ‘ritual’ and ‘moral’ impurity and what that would precisely entail (e.g. Thomas Kazen, Anders Runesson, Cecilia Wassén). Another theme touched upon in the discussions was the role of purity concerns in the narrative of different Gospels, such as Mark and Matthew (Morten Jensen, Anders Runesson). With regard to seeking new methods and theories to engage with the concept of ‘purity’, several participants looked into the application of ritual and cognitive theory in studies of purification rites (e.g. Jutta Jokiranta, Rikard Roitto, Thomas Kazen). Finally, as for the archaeological phenomena found in Israel/Palestine related to purity rituals (e.g. miqva’ot, chalkstone vessels), scholars discussed the when, how and why of the decline of purity rituals in Jewish society (Yonatan Adler, Rick Bonnie).

As special guest to this workshop, the organizers invited Yonatan Adler from Ariel University, Israel. He not only participated in the workshop, but also presented an open lecture “Purity in Judea and Galilee in the Late Second Temple Period: The Archaeological Evidence” to faculty and students in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament research seminar.

A note written and signed by Martin Luther (photo: Rick Bonnie)

The workshop included also marvelous and highly interesting tours through the University Main Building, as well as the Carolina Rediviva Library of Uppsala University. During the tour of the library, we were even given a glimpse of some of the most valuable manuscripts in possession by the university, including a 13th century Hebrew Torah and a 16th century German Old Testament translation by Martin Luther, signed in 1542 by both Luther and Melanchton (see photo).

Overall, our magnificent time in Uppsala is best captured by the words of Yonatan Adler to the other participants at the start of the workshop: “We will have three days of pure joy” — and how true he was!