In his masterful study of ancient Greek Miasma, Robert Parker notes death was intensely defiling:

“Extramural burial was the norm in almost all classical Greek cities. It would be shocking to mingle the dwellings of the dead with those of the living, still more with those of the gods” (70). As sacred persons, Greek priests and priestesses also avoided defilement by death (52-3).

The same was true in ancient Israel. Normal priests could attend funerals for their nearest relative, but the high priest was prohibited from all corpse defilement (Leviticus 21:10-11).

Christianity changes all that. Parker writes that “Christianity takes control of the natural processes, and particularly of death; the funeral rites are conducted by a priest, and it is beside the church that the body is laid to rest,” something that “Greek religion rejects . . . wholly” (53). Eucharistic celebrations at grave sites would have been repulsive to ancient Greeks. Similarly, Christian burial ad sanctos was a sharp break with pagan practice” (70-1).

Death has been mastered - first by Jesus, then by the his body.

More on: Defilement, Purity, Death

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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