Luke 2:22, Leviticus 12, and Parturient Impurity

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In Luke 2:22 Luke attributes parturient impurity to both Mary and Jesus (and/or Joseph). Interpreters have often concluded that this verse demonstrates that Luke misunderstands the levitical legislation pertaining to childbirth impurity (Leviticus 12), which discusses only the impurity of the new mother. This article argues that, despite the apparent contradiction between Leviticus 12 and Luke 2, Luke has not misunderstood Jewish conceptions of impurity after birth. Not only is it possible to conclude that Leviticus 12 implicitly ascribes impurity to the newborn child, but some Second Temple Jewish writers, such as the authors of Jubilees and 4Q265, also believed that the newborn child suffered the same manner of impurity as the new mother. Luke’s gospel, therefore, demonstrates familiarity with contemporary Jewish purity beliefs and practices.

Luke 2:22, Leviticus 12, and Parturient Impurity

Novum Testamentum



  • 2)

    Brown“The Presentation of Jesus (Luke 2:22-40),” Worship 51 (1977) 2-11 (3). Brown is not alone in concluding that Luke here demonstrates his lack of knowledge of Jewish customs. See H. Räisänen Die Mutter Jesu im Neuen Testament (AASF 247; Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia 1989) 127; E. Klostermann Das Lukasevangelium (3rd ed.; HAT 5; Tübingen: Mohr [Siebeck] 1975) 41; J. Mann “Rabbinic Studies in the Synoptic Gospels II: The Redemption of a First-Born Son and the Pilgrimages to Jerusalem” HUCA 1 (1924) 323-355; R. Bultmann Die Geschichte der Synoptischen Tradition (10th ed.; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 1995) 326; G. Schneider Das Evangelium nach Lukas Kapitel 1-10 (ÖKT 3/1; Gütersloh: Gütersloh 1992) 71; M. Soards “Luke 2:22-40” Int 44.4 (1990) 400-405 (401); J.A. Fitzmyer The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX): Introduction Translation and Notes (AB 28; Garden City N.Y.: Doubleday 1981) 424; R.H. Stein Luke (NAC 24; Nashville: Broadman 1992) 113; C.F. Evans Saint Luke (TPINTC; Philadelphia: Trinity Press International 1990) 212; F. Bovon A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1-9:50 (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress 2002) 99; J. Nolland Luke 1-9:20 (WBC 35a; Dallas: Word Books 1989) 117; and I.H. Marshall The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC; Grand Rapids Mich.: Eerdmans 1978) 116.

  • 4)

    TysonMarcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press2006) 99.

  • 8)

    See A. PlummerA Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to S. Luke (5th ed.; ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark1922) 63. Even the possibility that Mary might be deemed impure was problematic for early Christian interpreters. For instance despite Luke 2:22 Origen says of Leviticus 12 “For the Lawgiver added this word [i.e. “conceived”] to distinguish her who ‘conceived and gave birth’ without seed from other women so as not to designate as ‘unclean’ every woman who had given birth but her who ‘had given birth by receiving seed’” (Homilies on Leviticus 8.2.2; translation of G.W. Barkley Origen: Homilies on Leviticus [FOC 83; Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press 1990] 154).

  • 13)

    MilgromLeviticus 1-16743.

  • 14)

    MilgromLeviticus 1-16746. In contrast in his brief discussion of Luke 2:22 Milgrom (Leviticus 1-16 762) states: “Leviticus leaves no room for doubt that only one person needs be purified: the new mother.” See the similar remarks of B.A. Levine Leviticus=Va-yikra: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation (JPS Torah Commentary; Philadelphia: JPS 1989) 72.

  • 16)

    GerstenbergerLeviticus: A Commentary (OTL; Louisville: WJK1993) 147.

  • 17)

    MilgromLeviticus 1-16756. As Milgrom notes some early rabbis assumed ablutions at the end of this initial period of impurity and debated whether it was also required after the second stage of impurity (cf. m. Nid. 10.7).

  • 18)

    A.M. Blackman“Purification: Egypt,” ERE 10:476-482 (477). For conceptions of birth impurity in Greece see R. Parker Miasma: Pollution and Purification in early Greek Religion (Oxford: Clarendon 1983) 49-52 and T. Wächter Reinheitsvorschriften im griechischen Kult (Giessen: Alfred Töpelmann 1910) 25-36.

  • 23)

    Magonet“But if it is a Girl” 151.

  • 25)

    Magonet“But if it is a Girl” 151.

  • 28)

    So too J.M. Baumgarten“Purification after Childbirth and the Sacred Garden in 4Q265 and Jubilees,” in New Qumran Texts and Studies: Proceedings of the First Meeting of the International Organization for Qumran Studies Paris 1992 (ed. G.J. Brooke with F. García Martínez; STDJ 15; Leiden: Brill1994) 3-10and H.K. Harrington The Purity Texts (Companion to the Qumran Scrolls 5; London: T&T Clark 2004) 62 100.

  • 30)

    Baumgarten“Purification after Childbirth” 5.

  • 33)

    Himmelfarb“Impurity and Sin in 4QD, 1QS, and 4Q512,” DSD 8.1 (2001) 9-37 (26).

  • 34)

    Himmelfarb“Impurity and Sin” 26. Himmelfarb’s remarks are similar to the con¬clusions of W. Paschen (Rein und Unrein: Untersuchung zur biblischen Wortgeschichte [SANT 24; Munich: Kösel 1970] 60) who argues that the parturient transmits impurity throughout the entire period of her purification. Interestingly a late-second century Christian work Protevangelium of James 5 claims that Mary’s mother Anna gave birth to her but did not breastfeed her until she underwent purification. The author of this work shares with the author of 4Q266 the belief that a newborn child is susceptible to parturient impurity and attempts to protect Jesus’ mother from this ritual impurity. The Canons of Hippolytus (see esp. Canon 18) demonstrate that in the fourth-century C.E. Christians still believed that childbirth brought about impurity requiring the separation of both parturients and midwives from sacred space.

  • 35)

    Brown“Presentation of Jesus” 3.

  • 38)

    FitzmyerLuke I-IX424.

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