Contagious Holiness

Contagious Holiness is Craig Blomberg’s second contribution to the New Studies in Biblical Theology series. Having thoroughly enjoyed the first – Neither Poverty Nor Riches, and being attracted by his fascinating title, I had no hesitation in buying and reading this one.

Like other volumes in this series, the book contains a survey of the entire Bible’s teaching on one particular topic, and then offers brief conclusions. The topic for this book is “meals”, with particular focus on the meals Jesus eat with sinners. The first chapter surveys all references to meals and eating found in the Old Testament, which naturally is a large amount of material. He notes that it was very rare to eat with outsiders or enemies. There is then a sizable section on the intertestamental period. This first shows how Jewish piety increasingly was concerned not to eat with the unclean, and secondly introduces us to the Graeco-Roman symposium – a form of feasting with entertainments and speeches, which some have suggested forms the background to Jesus’ meals in the gospel.

There are then two chapters dealing with Jesus’ meals, in which the author seeks to demonstrate a number of points. Firstly he seeks to demonstrate the historical authenticity of Jesus’ meals with sinners based on criteria such as multiple attestation, and the criteria of “double dissimilarity and similarity”. Secondly, he seeks to rebut the idea that these meals are symposiums, arguing that they make just as much sense if understood to be traditional Jewish celebratory meals. Finally, he establishes the main thesis of the book – that Jesus did not share the concern of the Jewish religious leaders of his day that by eating with sinners he would become unclean. Rather, he believed that his own holiness was in some sense “contagious”, and could rub off on those he ate with.

In the author’s words…
“As to the meaning of Jesus’ behaviour, the unifying theme that emerges is one that may be called ‘contagious holiness’. Jesus discloses not one instance of fearing contamination, whether moral or ritual, by associating with the wicked or impure. Rather, he believes that his purity can rub off on them, and he hopes that his magnanimity toward them will lead them to heed his calls to discipleship.”

Along the way he also addresses Crossan’s provocative claim that Jesus was the “consummate party animal”. While Jesus did eat with all kinds of undesirables and outcasts, Blomberg is clear to point out that there was always a call, implicit or explicit to repentance in these meals. Many of those he ate with became disciples. What is striking though, is that there was no period of penance or probation required before Jesus would eat with them.

The final chapter presents a summary conclusion and suggests some practical applications. This chapter is a delight to read, with some well-chosen examples of how individuals and churches can provide meals as a means of reaching out to the poor and outsiders, building bridges of friendship and ultimately reaching them with the gospel message. It would be hard to read this chapter without feeling prompted to arrange a meal with someone!

I think this is an important book as it raises some very practical questions as to how we follow the example of Jesus in regards to those on the edge (Blomberg speaks of the “down-and-outs” and the “up-and-outs” such as Zacchaeus). However, I do think that this book is more likely to represent the beginning of a conversation rather than the final word. For starters, the academic nature of the book, with its focus on historicity, intertestamental literature and symposiums, will make dull reading for most laypersons. Second, there is surely much more that could be said by means of practical application. This of course is outside the scope of this book, but it needs to be done. Third, he does not adequately explore the objection that will surely be raised – doesn’t the Bible teach that we can be polluted, corrupted or otherwise unhelpfully influenced by close association with sinners? Fourth, a section on the epistles is conspicuous by its absence. Surely there is some appropriate material here, including some commands not to eat with certain people. Finally, Jesus eating with sinners is just one example of his “contagious holiness”. Another obvious example was his willingness to touch the unclean in healing – resulting in the sick being made whole, rather than Jesus being contaminated. So there is more to this subject to be explored.

Despite these shortcomings, this is a book that is worth the time to read, if only to spark you off on further avenues of investigation. I really hope that someone takes this superb piece of research, and turns it into a book accessible to a much broader audience. He readily admits at the end that his applications are just suggestion, and calls for his readers to “take up the ball and run with it”.

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