3 questions on purity rules in religions

Almost every religion I have encountered has a concept of purity and cleanliness. There are rules about how impurity is contracted, how one can purify oneself, rules around purity, what one may not do while in an impure state, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, hereinafter “purity rules.”

Therefore, I have 3 questions:

  1. Why doesn’t Christianity have purity rules? (I believe the only exception is Orthodox Christianity and its rules on what women may not do during their period and for a certain period of time after giving birth.)

  2. Does Buddhism have purity rules?

  3. Are purity rules inspired by health concerns, or is the concept of purity as it existed in the youth of these religions unrelated to health but rather related to superstitious notions?


I think that Christianity does have purity rules. They’re in Leviticus, chapters 11 trough 15. Well, chapters 11 and 13 are arguable.

Buddhism doesn’t have purity rules. That’s because Buddhist rules are more concerned with what you should do instead of what you shouldn’t.

I have no ideas about your third question, but I would guess that people noticed that if you did unclean things you would probably get sick and then attributed this to demons or that “God doesn’t want you to do that and is punishing you.” So, restated, health concerns led to superstitions which led to purity rules.

The Ethiopian Christians (part of the Oriental Orthodox communion, separate from the Eastern Orthodox since the 400s) have kept many of the old Jewish purity laws that other Christians have not. They keep kosher, for example, and also follow the laws restricting activities during menstruation.

The Russian Old Believers also have introduced several rules of ritual purity. Like the Ethiopians, they will not eat non-kosher animals, but they also traditionally have not eaten from the same dishes as non-Old Believers. They will offer hospitality to any passer-by, and keep a separate set of dishes and utensils for the non-Old Believers to eat from. At times, their separation of food has gone to such an extreme that they have refused to eat any food grown or raised by non-Old Believers, or even to wear clothing made from material grown by outsiders – they would instead grow everything themselves.

I have attended the *Churching * ceremony in a Catholic church on several occasions. Nowadays the theme of thanksgiving for the safe delivery of a child is usually stressed, but the prayers make it clear that the origin of the ceremony lies in the need to purify a woman after the process of childbirth.

That reminds me of something I forgot to mention: Eastern Orthodoxy, and I believe Oriental Orthodoxy as well, has the custom of when a woman gives birth, she and the child refrain from attending church for 40 days, after which there is a churching ceremony, where prayers are read over the mother, and the child, if it be a male, is taken into the altar and lifted up over the Holy Table, to symbolize its potential to become a cleric; afterwards, children of both sexes are set down outside the altar by the priest and then picked up by the mother, to symbolize that she receives the child of her own free will.

Also among the Orthodox, there is a purity rule that applies to men: if a man has an emission of semen, he may not commune or serve a Liturgy until after the next sundown. The only exception is when a congregation is depending on a priest to serve the Liturgy, as when there is only one priest at a parish; in this case, the priest may perform a certain set of prayers, and then go on to serve the liturgy.

I can’t help on purity rules in Christianity or Buddhism, and no one (really) can help on the reasons for purity rules in older religions like Judaism or Islam.

I’ll focus on Judaism, the one I know. The basic rules date back directly to the Hebrew Bible, various portions dating roughly from 1200 to 500 BC. The rules of purity are part of the overall rules on holiness, and technically “purity” is a subset of the larger rules.

There are any number of ex post facto “explanations” that moderns have tried to read back into the rules, such as health, but none of them are consistent or hold up under serious scrutiny – at least, not for everything. The bottom line is that the rules appear, are believed to be divinely instructed, and reasons are not given.

Note that the term “clean” is often used to mean “pure”, but probably didn’t have the same sense of “cleanliness” that we have today.

Let me just take one example: forbidding the mixture of milk and meat (not to “boil a kid in the milk of its mother” is the biblical text.) You can argue that this was for health reasons – in olden days, you couldn’t clean the grease out of wooden bowls, and if you put milk in the bowl later, you’d run the risk of bacterial infections. OK, sure.

I’ve also heard (and I tend to sympathize more with) symbolism as a reason. Meat is red (symbolic of blood and death) and milk is white (symbolic of semen and life), and so the mixture of the two is inelegant. A similar reason applies to rules about not mixing fabrics in garments and not plowing with two different kinds of animals together. There seems to be a general tone in many of the rules towards keeping things simple, separated, as symbolically “pure.”

The part about keeping separate is a good point. So is the notion that much of the Jewish purity code is based on the idea that “the blood is the life”, and must therefore not be mixed with other fluids, like milk.

There is also a record of a very old religious practice in the Middle East in which a fertility sacrifice among one of the Asherothic religions was to boil a kid in its mother’s milk. It was sort of concentrated essence of fertility - blood, and milk. It was a form of sympathetic magic, so that the flocks would increase. Cite.

Happy New Year to all.


I’d like to start by pointing out that I’m not going to be able to back up my ideas with hard facts but I’ll throw them out as talking points. I’m also going to skip question 2 because I lack the knowledge to answer it.

Taking question 3 first, how did these rules come into being:

My take on this, and this fits in partially with Shodan’s evidence of pre-existing rites in the area in which these concepts arose is that they were primarily espoused as a means of generating and maintaining cultural seperation. Basically a religious edict not to be like those other guys. The old testement is full of such rules of which those portions that form today’s kosher laws lare the best known. In those days if you saw somebody engaging in the period equivalent action of munching a ham and cheese sandwich you could be fairly certain that they were not a member of your tribe and respond appropriately.

On to the first question now. My first thought on the subject is twofold. On the one hand you have an urgent need for those who accept Jesus as the messiah to seperate themselves from the main stream of Jewish culture or risk being just a flash in the pan. Rejecting the purity laws of their parent culture would serve the same purpose for them as was served by the parent culture adopting them in the first place, generating and maintaining cultural seperation. The other hand is pointed toward the evangelical nature of christianity, it’s far more difficult to convince somebody to follow what is a fairly onerous and seemingly illogical set of rules if you’re trying to get them to convert than it is to merely say that you have to accept the message of Jesus (and by the way if you’re Jewish you get to have a guilt free ham and cheese sandwich).

Again let me stress that these are presented as possibilities which are in line with what I understand of human nature rather than as the dogma of any particularly deeply held belief. It would be my hope that they would provide something to think about.

As I’ve studied the bible and the traditions of the cultures that the Jews encountered, I’ve found more and more evidence for this view. Although some are clearly intending for health (Leviticus 13 discusses Leprosy), I think that most dietary and living requirements developed as a way to set a tribe or group apart from ‘those guys.’

An example, Leviticus 18:3:

As for why Christians no longer follow the dietary requirements, shellfish was very popular among the non-Christian romans who the early Christians were trying to convert. They also found that the newcomers weren’t too keen on the idea of being circumsized. Paul was willing to allow people to convert without having to follow such measures while Peter and Barnabas wanted to continue in the old traditions. There was a Council of Jerusalmen in about AD 48 in which it was finally decided that converting Gentils only need to agree to

And thus, Christians no longer had to follow the old dietary laws.

Yes. This, and the idea that life and the substances that create and sustain life (blood, including menstruual blood, semen, seed grain, etc.) was dangerous, tricky stuff, and needed careful handling. Hence the prohibitions on eating blood, sex with menstruating women, and even prohibitions on sowing your field with two kinds of grain. But lots of it was to keep the ancient Hebrew tribes from assimilating with the indigenous people. The Old Testament is full of railings from the prophets against sacrificing in places other than the Temple, where the priests and Levites could keep control of the religion.

But most of the controversy over purity laws in the early Christian community was over whether or not Gentile Christians needed to keep kosher.

The book of Acts presents the story of the early church being spread first among Jews of the period, and only after it was largely rejected by the hierarchy of the “scribes and the Pharisees” being preached primarily to the Gentiles, where it had its greatest success. The ministry to Gentiles was largely the effort of Paul, and Peter was seen as the primary evangelist to the Jews. There is a record of Paul rebuking Peter for changing his mind and requiring Gentile converts to keep the Law. Paul’s repeated references to “circumcision” is mostly a shorthand for the Judaizers in the early church, who saw circumcision as the entry rite for converts, and a commitment to keep the Jewish law, rather than baptism.

But you are correct that an insistance on converts becoming Jews and keeping the purity laws was likely to limit the spread of the Gospel. Although early Judaism had its full and partial converts. There was a class of Gentiles known as “God-fearers”, who respected the moral aspects of the Jewish religion and its mono-theism, but who did not keep kosher or consider themselves full Jews. The centurion whose servant Jesus healed is thought to have been one of these - the Jewish elders in the Gospel story told how the centurion had “built them their synagogue”.


Leviticus pre-dates Christianity.

ava said:

How about a cite for this? I’ve never read in the scriptures that shellfish was very popular among non-Christian Romans…(That were presumably eager to convert once lobster and ribs were back on the menu…)

I’d also be interested in a biblical cite to support that “newcomers weren’t too keen on the idea of being circumsized.”

From my reading at Acts 15, it would appear that both Peter and Barnabas were in support of Paul. (verses 2, 5-10) It’s also clear that among those insisting on keeping the Mosaic law were some of the Pharisees that became believers. (verse 5) In verse 13, James clarifies what restrictions that believers would adhere to, namely “things polluted by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood.”

How about a cite that supprts that “Peter and Barnabas wanted to continue in the old traditions”?

As to circumcision/kosher laws they were ended as a result of the complete Mosaic Law being abrogated. Paul lists his rationale for this at least 4 times in the NT; Gal 3:10-14, Eph 2:13-16, Romans 7:6, Col 2:14.

Now there may be some dispute as to whether Paul was on firm scriptural ground, but that is not relevent to his rationale. Nor is it relevent as to whether he had the authority.

What is clear is that he stated his reasons, more than once. An interested person would be in good stead in not speculating that his motivation was otherwise, especially since he gave us his reason.

counsel wolf said:

Absolutely true. In many instances in the OT, none other than God Himself lets the Israelites know that they were His chosen people and that they were to keep separate from other nations/cultures. That included false worship for example. Foreign gods were not permitted and their altars etc were to pulled down. They weren’t tolerated, and when they were there was a stiff penalty. Things like inter-marriage was not tolerated. The society was insular by design.

There has been no shortage of speculation about the rationale behind the easing of dietary requirements/circumcision. I’ve never seen any of them hold up under any level of scrutiny.

Those easings were part of a bigger plan that involved the ending the Mosaic Law. Focusing narrowly on these two provisions of the Law (which numbered around 600) loses sight of the issue at hand. Paul, and the other apostles, saw christ as the Messiah. They also saw his death as the the fullfilment or end of the Law.

Now whether you (or me…)believe this or not, it is abundantly clear that they believed it. There is nothing in the scrpitures to support that the whole of the Law was ended to make conversions easier.

My vote on this one is “No”. It’s often a question of theology. (Now, mind, you might consider “theology” to be “related to superstitious notions”, but that strikes me as needlessly pejorative.)

Consider the ancient Greek concept of “miasma”. There were a number of things that were considered essentially mortal, and thus unfit for bringing into the presence of the immortals. Cleaning away the mortal (connotation here something like “dessicating, dying, rotting”) made it easier to reach the gods, by removing that which was antithetical to their natures.

The Egyptian maintenance of purity (which I know a bit more about) was rooted in a belief that the world existed in a fundamentally pure state, but that it tended to degrade from that point (I tend to think of this as a mythological interpretation of entropy). Thus, both men and gods were responsible for cleaning the grit out – responsible for maintaining purity.

There was also a form of blood taboo, that nobody who was bleeding (whether menstruating or having an open wound) was able to be considered “pure” for purposes of ritual. At least as the modern Kemetics think of this, it is similar to what Shodan says about the Israelites – blood is dangerous, tricky stuff, full of energy, and when loose of the body that is disordered energy which is likely to be disruptive.