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The Pharisaic Principle

The Pharisees saw 'dirt' as something which contaminated by contact, almost in the way we see a virus today. Following Old Testament law, they were scrupulous about ritual cleanness, anxious to maintain the state in which an Israelite could take part in worship.

During Jesus' ministry he came into conflict with the Pharisees over the law on a number of occasions; in some cases these were disputes over the Pharisees' interpretation of the Old Testament, as when he healed the sick on the Sabbath, but in other cases his actions were contrary to any straightforward reading of the Old Testament, as when he ensured the liberty of the woman taken in adultery. He did not condone the adultery, but set aside the statutory penalty.

As far as dirtiness was concerned, the key difference between Jesus' teaching and that of the Pharisees was that, for Jesus, dirt was something that came from the inside.

The classic locus for this element in Jesus' teaching is the confrontation over eating food with unwashed hands, in Matthew 15 and Mark 7. The Pharisees complain to Jesus about his disciples' behaviour; he replies (publicly): 'What goes into a man's mouth does not make him "unclean", but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him "unclean". Later, to his disciples, he adds that 'the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man "unclean". For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man "unclean".

Moving the source of the dirt from outside the individual to the inside has a dual function. It shifts the blame both to and from, and by shifting the blame away from the outside environment, it allows us to see that environment as clean.

This is an affirmation of creation theology. According to Genesis, when God had finished the work of creation he looked at what he had made and saw that it was good. Although the world is cursed by the fall in Genesis chapter 3, it is not made 'bad'. It is simply subjected to the consequences of badness imposed by human or demonic agency.

In this context, there is a perfect harmony between Jesus' teaching on dirt and that which we encounter elsewhere in the New Testament, as for example in the passages quoted on the home page; 'Nothing is unclean in and of itself' (Romans ch. 14 v. 14) and 'To the pure, all things are pure' (Titus ch. 1 v. 15).

I would argue that to see the naked figure (that is to say, the 'published' nude) as intrinsically dirty is to affirm the Pharisaic principle, and in so far as this attitude towards the nude is found in religious contexs, or in cultures with a religious heritage, Pharisaism should be seen as the guilty party rather than 'Calvinism' or 'Victorian morality'. In a sense, the Pharisees were the first fundamentalists, and their influence can be found in the contemporary fundamentalism both of Christianity and of Islam.

Seen in this context, religous practices such as the hejab of Islam, or the similarly enveloping robes of the Western religious orders (think, if you dare, of Catholic schoolgirls bathing in their nighties) are a logical consequence of Pharisaism. Like the handkerchief held over the flu-victim's mouth, they attempt, in a fairly futile way, to close off the infection at source and create a public space free of pathogens. Perhaps the classical text here is Paul Durcan's poem, 'Archbishop of Dublin to Film Romeo and Juliet'. The archbishop, 'to stamp out sexuality and spread the gospel of love', proposes a version of the story in which the two protagonists' bodies never touch, and are in fact never in the same scene together. Instead, Romeo will be kept in a refrigerator in Rome, while Juliet will occupy a refrigerator in Armagh. They will speak only by telephone. The critical reaction is that not since Last Tango in Paris has the cinema seen 'as erotic a conception of sexual love'.