Jewish Purity Practices in Roman Judea: The Evidence of Archaeology

By: Yonatan Adler

One of the outstanding characteristics of Jewish religious practice during the late Second Temple period (first century BCE until 70 CE) was a marked preoccupation with the ritual purity laws found in the Torah. Concentrated in the Priestly Code (mostly in Lev 11–15 and Num 19), these laws relate to numerous sources of ritual impurity, such as male and female genital discharges, various skin diseases, as well as human and certain animal corpses. In the literature penned during this period, including the Biblical apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the New Testament, and the works of Philo and Flavius Josephus, we find frequent references to these laws and the ways they were implemented practically by various Jewish groups.

Continued interest in ritual purity law, to one extent or another, is evidenced throughout the rabbinic literature of the Roman and Byzantine periods. Conflicting interpretations of the details of these laws played a major role in the sectarian schisms that characterized the period, with groups such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, the Qumran sect, the nascent Jesus movement, the rabbis and commoners all staking out positions on the specifics of how these laws were to be practically observed.

Mikveh near the Temple Mount, Jerusalem. All figures courtesy of Yonatan Adler except where otherwise noted.

Mikveh at Qumran

Mikveh at Magdala

Mikveh at Magdala

Until recently, the literary sources were our only window onto ancient Jewish purity practices. Today, the texts have been supplemented by a plethora of archaeological finds which provide evidence for the centrality of ritual purity observance in the daily lives of Jews throughout Judea during the Roman period. Chief amongst these finds are stepped water installations which served as ritual baths (Hebrew: mikva’ot; singular: mikveh) for the purification of ritually impure people, clothing, and vessels. The earliest mikva’ot date to the Hasmonean period, from around the beginning of the first century BCE. Baths definitively dating to this early stage have been found in Jerusalem, Jericho, and Qumran. The Early Roman period (63 BCE–135 CE) witnessed a surge in the number of ritual baths throughout the country, with the vast majority discovered to date (over seven hundred) deriving from the period spanning from the first century BCE until the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132–135 CE.

Mikveh at Qumran

Distribution of sites with finds of ancient ritual baths.

Ritual baths from this period have been discovered at dozens of sites throughout Israel, from the Upper Galilee and the Golan in the north, to the Beersheba valley in the south, as well as at a number of sites in Jordan. Not surprisingly, the largest concentration of ritual baths dating to the Early Roman period has been found in Jerusalem, where approximately 170 baths have been uncovered to date. The phenomenon is hardly one unique to Jerusalem, however, as hundreds of ritual baths dating to the Early Roman period have been uncovered at dozens of rural settlement sites in the Judean countryside. Often numerous baths have been found at a single site, even in relatively small villages or farmsteads, a phenomenon which highlights the important role that ritual immersion played in the daily lives of Jews during this period.

The heyday of mikva’ot continued far beyond the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE, with continued construction and large-scale usage of these installations at least until the outbreak of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 132 CE. Ritual baths postdating the Bar Kokhba rebellion have been found at numerous sites throughout Israel, although in far fewer numbers than those from the Early Roman period.

Chalkstone vessels on display at the Old Jaffa Museum of Antiquities

Large chalkstone jars, Jerusalem (Photo © Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Avraham Hay)

Most ritual baths were located in residential contexts, in the basement or ground floor of houses as well as in shared domestic courtyards. The phenomenon of ritual baths installed in private homes was prevalent across the entire socioeconomic gamut, from simple dwellings in rural villages to lavish mansions such as those found in the Upper City of Jerusalem and the royal palaces of the Hasmoneans and of Herod the Great. Numerous ritual baths have been found near entrances to the Temple Mount, in close proximity to the Huldah Gates in the southern wall and Robinson’s Arch and Wilson’s Arch in the western wall. These were apparently public ritual baths, intended for the use of the multitude of pilgrims who visited the Temple on the festivals and throughout the year and required purificatory immersion prior to entering the sacred realms of the Temple.

A number of ritual baths have been found adjacent to winepresses and oil-presses and were apparently used by agricultural laborers in order to ensure the ritual purity of the wine and oil that were produced at these installations. Several ritual baths have been found located adjacent to burial caves and were apparently used after the burial ceremony for the purification of funerary participants who had contracted corpse-impurity.

9. Chalkstone mug (Photo © The Israel Museum, by Dr. Jean-Luc Pilon, Canadian Museum of Civilization)

2016 Excavations at ‘Einot Amitai, a chalkstone vessel workshop in Galilee.

Another important archaeological phenomenon that points to the observance of ritual purity regulations is the widespread use of chalkstone vessels. The practice is based on the conception that stone is a material impervious to ritual impurity. According to the Priestly Code, vessels may be rendered impure upon contact with certain sources of ritual impurity, however in some instances a distinction is drawn between vessels made of different materials: wood, cloth, leather and sackcloth are to be purified through immersion in water (Lev 11:32), while earthen vessels are to be broken (Lev 11:33, 15:12). Other materials singled out for purification through ablutions are gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin and lead (Num 31:22–23).

The status of vessels made of stone (such as grinding implements usually made of basalt or other hard rock) is nowhere apparent from these sources. Throughout the rabbinic literature, on the other hand, we find that the rabbis assumed that stone vessels cannot contract ritual impurity and, as such, never have any need for purification. This understanding appears to lie behind the explanation found in the Gospel of John (2:6) that the stone water jars featuring in the wedding at Cana narrative were associated with “Jewish rites of purification.”

Fragment of lathe-turned bowl, found during 2016 Excavations at ‘Einot Amitai.

Distribution of sites with finds of chalkstone vessels.

During the Early Roman period, various types of vessels made of chalkstone, serving as both domestic tableware and storage containers for food and liquids, were in widespread use at Jewish sites throughout Judea, supplementing the usual repertoire of ceramic vessels. These include hand-carved bowls, mugs basins and platters, as well as lathe-turned bowls, trays, goblets, stoppers, spice bowls and inkwells. Less common are are kraters, tall barrel-shaped jars standing on a single leg and generally measuring 65 to 80 cm in height and 40 to 50 cm in diameter. Kraters were produced on a large lathe and were probably used as storage containers for food and liquids.

Chalkstone vessels first appear in the archaeological record during the second half of the first century BCE and continued to enjoy widespread popularity until the quelling of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 CE, after which the phenomenon almost completely disappears from the archaeological record. Chalkstone vessels have been found at over 250 sites throughout Israel and Jordan. The phenomenon is a uniquely Jewish one, however, as remains of these utensils are conspicuously absent from non-Jewish sites.

Chalkstone quarries and workshops for the production of these vessels have been excavated at Jebel Mukabbir to the south of Jerusalem, at Ḥizma, Mt. Scopus and Tell el-Ful to the north of the city, and at Bethlehem of Galilee in the North of the country. Currently, I am directing excavations at two additional chalkstone vessel production sites located near Nazareth in Galilee—‘Einot Amitai and Reina.

Along with mikva’ot, the chalkstone quarries and workshops reflect the surprising extent to which the economy and landscape were dedicated to the concept of purity.

Yonatan Adler is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Ariel University.


All content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only. The American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this blog or found by following any link on this blog. ASOR will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information. ASOR will not be liable for any losses, injuries, or damages from the display or use of this information. The opinions expressed by Bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of ASOR or any employee thereof.

Sign in to view all ASOR Blog content!
If you have not set up a username and password for the ASOR Blog, please close this box by clicking anywhere on the screen then go to the Friends of ASOR option in the menu above. If you have forgotten your password, please click the Forgot Login Password option in the above menu.