Jesus: Temple Revolutionary

Who was Jesus of Nazareth? How do we know about Jesus? And given that the four canonical gospels are the most complete record of Jesus’ life available to us, are the accounts provided in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John a credible transmission of the life and message of the historical Jesus?

These questions have given rise to an entire field of scholarship. Although they form the backdrop of this article’s discussion, the claims in this article involve a more specific inquiry, but one which can shed light on possible answers to these questions. If one were to do some reading about the world in which Jesus lived, one of the first things one would notice is the way in which the Temple of Jerusalem seemed to dominate the religious and political landscape of 1st century Palestine. The Temple has a long history: originally the center of Israelite religion, it was destroyed and partially rebuilt several times. Around 20 B.C. it underwent a major renovation under Herod the Great and, during Jesus’ life, occupied a fundamental position in the Jewish world. By considering the role of the Temple in Jesus’ world, we can gain a distinctive insight toward answering the questions posed above.

To this end, I want to make two points. First, I will examine the Temple’s place in the extra-Biblical archaeological record of 1st century Palestine, including the written record of the chronicler Josephus. According to this record, the 1st century Temple system was at the core of Jewish life and thought, dominating the religious expression of not only mainstream Judaism but also its many splinter sects and popular movements. Second, I will examine the Temple’s place in the gospel record. According to the gospels, Jesus of Nazareth defined himself by means of the Temple symbol: his parables and teachings take the Temple as one of their key references, and his identity is often described in its terms.

Taken together, these two points indicate that the Temple represents an important point of agreement between the archaeological record and the gospel record. The gospels’ Jesus was not a mystic or martyr in isolation from his time or culture as some have suggested, but rather a Temple revolutionary, whose Temple-centric characterization is consistent with the worldviews of 1st century Israel. Here, it is worth noting that grouping the worldviews of 1st century Israel together is not simple. In fact, as modern scholarship has pointed out, the picture of Judaism during this time period is much more complex than is often suggested. Yet it is precisely the way that the Temple manages to stand out as the central theme of both the archeological record and the Christian gospels in the midst of this complexity that calls for attention. Its centrality lends credibility to the gospel accounts insofar as they represent the Temple as a core symbolic and geographic reference point in Jesus’ ministry. The predominance of temple symbolism in the gospels provides strong evidence that—at least with respect to the Temple—the Jesus presented in the gospel accounts is consonant with what we know about the times in which he lived.

What we know about Palestine in the 1st century is relatively extensive. We have sources from both historical writings and archaeological excavations. The Jewish historian Josephus provides detailed accounts of the First Jewish-Roman War, and his own noble ancestry gives us unique insight into the high priest system that governed the Temple. The Dead Sea Scrolls shed light on the Essenes (with whom the scrolls are generally associated), and supply an important source of information about non-mainstream Judaistic worldviews. And the archaeological record of the time preserves a surprising amount of material from the Jewish diaspora (the communities of the Jewish people scattered throughout the Mediterranean world). Although scholars frequently debate the significance and reliability of this material, at least one clear conclusion emerges: the various Judaistic worldviews in the 1st century were dominated by the Temple system inherited from early, monarchial Israel.

In mainstream Judaism, the Temple was the focal point of national life.i It was the location at which the festivals that marked the national calendar culminated; it was the important administrative and financial center of Jerusalem; and most importantly, it was seen as the dwelling place of their God YHWH and the center of his reign.ii The Temple system was so connected to the national hopes of Palestinian Jews that the political peace of Jerusalem seemed to depend on the attitudes of those in power toward the Temple. Antiochus the Great’s guarantee to preserve Jewish modes of worship gave way to a period of peace, in contrast to the rule of his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, whose anti- Temple, anti-YHWH rule provoked a revolt in 167 B.C.iii In fact, several popular revolts were directly associated with what was considered the ‘defilement’ of the Temple. Prior to the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D., Josephus records an occasion where “a certain [Roman] soldier let down his breeches” in the Temple, leading to a violent uproar by festival-goers and, subsequently, a massacre.iv

Archaeological evidence confirms this picture of the Temple in mainstream Judaism. After the destruction of the Temple, the remains of various synagogues used by the Jewish Diaspora seem to defer to the Temple’s unique role: the synagogue uncovered at Dura Europos, for instance, was decorated around the artistic concept of the Temple,v pointing back to that central institution in framing its own identity. Even the symbols of Jewish identity on the periphery of Jerusalem’s influence appeared to gain “their significance from their implicit relation” to the Temple rather than to draw attention away from it.vi

Outside of mainstream Judaism, the Temple occupied a different (although no less central) position. Whereas with the former the Temple was the center of YHWH’s power mediated through Israel’s priestly authorities, those who subscribed to different interpretations of the Israelite heritage and religion viewed the Temple and its functionaries as illegitimate heirs to their ancestors’ authority.

The Temple was the focus especially of messianic movements, whose revolutionary appeal and alternative claim to political legitimacy relied on the historical significance of the Temple as the seat of royal priestly rule. In his War of the Jews, Josephus records how Manahem—reportedly a descendant of Judas of Galilee, one of the great messiahs from before the 1st century—regularly attempted to legitimate his movement by going up to the Temple to worship dressed in royal garments.vii Josephus tells us also of the “last great messiah” Simon Bar-Kochba, who even “minted coins depicting the façade of the Temple” indicating his intent to rebuild it.viii

In addition to the Temple-centric personality of these popular movements, the Temple’s presence looms heavy over the less violent Essene communities living in various cities. Little is known for sure about the Essenes, but there is at least some scholarly agreement that they were a peripheral Jewish community that held to much stricter ritual requirements and rewrote much of the Jewish Torah found with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The 1960s discovery of the Temple Scroll, the longest of these, gives us particular insight into the importance of the Temple to the identity of the Essene community.

Among other things, this scroll seems to contain a floor plan of a new Temple, reflecting the community’s aspirations to set right an institution it believed to have strayed. The Essene community “rejected the post- Maccabaean Temple regime as illegitimate in theory and corrupt in practice, and looked forward to a day when a new Temple … would be built.”ix Like other Jewish schools of thought, the Essenes seemed to take the Temple as the central expression of their identity, purity, and community purpose. They set their apocalyptic expectations and framed their solution in the concept of a New Temple, and they claimed to be the legitimate rebuilders of that Temple.

All of these examples help to demonstrate the centrality of the Temple system to the various Jewish groups of the 1st century. The archaeological record reveals that the Temple was the dominant symbol of Jewish religion and was consistently the central means of articulating spiritual and political hopes. We will now see that the Temple occupies a very similar position in the gospel record, revealing an important point of agreement between extrabiblical history and the Christian gospels, thus lending credibility to the historicity of the gospel accounts.

Much as Josephus discusses the developments of Jewish-Roman relations with reference to the Temple institution, the gospels often frame the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth in terms of the Temple. In some ways, the Temple is the key to unlocking the words and actions that the gospels attribute to Jesus. Although many of the images of the gospels (blood, light, water, bread) are often read as simple literary symbols, these images quite evidently reflect the language of the Temple system. The history of the blood ritual of the Passover makes the concept of blood inseparable from the atonement offered by the high priest’s sacrifices,x and the archaeological remains of Herod’s Temple suggests that the concept of light symbolized YHWH’s entering the Temple to dwell among his people, much as the Sun’s light shone through the Temple’s eastern door during the autumn festival.xi

Hearing the sayings of Jesus found in the gospels with an understanding of their Temple contexts suggests that they referenced the Temple with a specific intent. By associating himself with the blood of the covenant, the gospel Jesus was staking a claim to the Temple’s unique role in the Temple’s own terms: he was associating himself with the sacrificial system and offering himself as the unique means of atonement and reconciliation with God. And by calling himself the light of the world, Jesus proclaimed YHWH returning to dwell in Zion to redeem his people from their “long night of suffering.”xii

But the gospels go further than this. The gospels not only borrow terminology embedded in the form and system of the Temple but also portray acts of Jesus which are directly concerned with the Temple. All four gospels record an incident known as the Cleansing of the Temple, during which Jesus is said to have entered the Temple and overturned the tables of its moneychangers in anger.xiii Although the gospels do not clearly agree on the chronology of the event, its meaning is clear: by intervening in the daily routine of the sacrificial system, Jesus interrupted “all fiscal, sacrificial, and logistical operations of the Temple” and signaled his total disagreement with the existing Temple institution.xiv Like many other movements before and after him, Jesus’ action seemed rooted in criticism of the Temple priesthood’s “dynastic illegitimacy” and in the “distributive injustice” that the Temple tax perpetuated. xv As N.T. Wright aptly puts it,

Jesus’ temple action was an acted parable of judgment. In casting out the traders, he effected a brief symbolic break in the sacrificial system that formed the temple’s main raison d’etre … Jesus’ action symbolized his belief that when YHWH returned to Zion he would not after all take up residence in the temple, legitimating its present functionaries and the nationalist aspirations that clustered around it and them … [Jesus was] announcing the kingdom of God, but in a deeply subversive way.xvi

In his cleansing of the Temple, the gospel Jesus shows us that the Temple was crucial to his understanding of the fate of Israel and the redemptive purposes of God. This Temple focus is consistent with the gospel record of Jesus’ death. In all four gospels, Jesus’ act of dying on the cross is presented as “destroying the Temple” in order to raise it up in three days and his death and resurrection are regularly associated with the destruction and rebuilding of the Temple.xvii

All the way to the cross, Jesus’ defining teachings and actions were expressed in terms of the Temple system, revealing that the Temple was central not only to his understanding of Israel’s fate but also to his way of communicating his own identity. The gospels’ Jesus presents his purpose by taking upon himself the unique role of the Temple: by dying on the cross, he himself would fulfill the Temple institution and the old covenant it instrumented, and bring about a new covenant with himself as the new Temple. The gospels’ record of Jesus, it seems, presents us not with a prototype of the modern civil rights activist or a Near Eastern healer-mystic, but with a Temple revolutionary who understood the problems with Jewish society in terms of its attitudes toward the Temple, and framed his solution as the fulfillment of the Temple system.

For this reason, the Jesus found in the gospels is radical, but not out of place. The central position the Temple occupies in the gospels is in clear agreement with the role that extra-biblical Jewish history accords to the Temple. In the same way that so many of the 1st century Semitic worldviews surrounding the Jesus movement consistently anchored their belief systems in the central symbol of the Temple, the gospels present a Jesus whose identity and hope was developed in terms of the Temple. His was a claim expressed in the central symbol of his time and place, arising out of the existing religious discourse. Earlier historical Jesus scholars challenged the historicity of the gospels on account of Jesus’ unique claims, arguing that they had to be a later Christology retrofitted by disciples into the gospels after Jesus’ death.xviii But the consistency between the gospel record’s Temple-centric presentation of Jesus, and the Temple-centric Jewish practices of the 1st century attested by the archaeological record, appears rather to lend credibility to the gospel writers. The gospels tell us that, like the movements before and after him, and the communities that surrounded him, Jesus presented himself as fulfilling and revolutionizing the existing Temple institution.

This does not prove that the events in the gospels actually happened, but it does show that the Jesus presented in these accounts is consonant with the picture of 1st century Palestine provided by archaeology and textual history. This should not be a controversial statement. Perhaps the reason it is for so many people is that modern Christians have relied increasingly on creedal statements about Jesus, affirming traditional ideas without anchoring these ideas in the historical context upon which they are contingent. It might be said that Christians today are often scared of history and archaeology— but if this article has shown anything, it is that a proper understanding of the world out of which Jesus of Nazareth gained universal prominence can serve to illuminate and strengthen, rather than threaten, faith. As far as this article is concerned, the two points I have demonstrated might be restated as one: the fact that the Temple of Jerusalem occupies the same distinctive place in both extra-biblical history and Biblical history significantly weakens accusations that the gospels are ahistorical and offers us deeper insight into the historical credibility of the gospel accounts.

 

i. N.T. Wright The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992) 223-224. Wright cites Safrai 1976, Barker 1991, Sanders 1992 and McKelvey 1969 to establish this.

ii. Ibid. 224.

iii. Martin Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations (New York: Vintage Books, 2007) 49.

iv. Flavius Josephus, The Judean Antiquities, trans. William Whiston, 20.5.3.

v. Jás Elsner, “Cultural Resistance and Visual Image: The Case of Dura Europos,” Classical Philology 96 (2001): 281.

vi. Wright 224.

vii. Flavius Josephus, The Judean War, trans. William Whiston, 2.17.9.

viii. Wright 44.

ix. Wright 225.

x. Exodus 12:7, 13.

xi. Margaret Barker, On Earth as it is in Heaven (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995) 16.

xii. Wright, 1996.

xiii. Mark 11:15. See also Matt 21:12, Luke 19:45, John 2:13.

xiv. John Crossan and Jonathan Reed, Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts (New York: HarperCollins, 2001) 220-221.

xv. Ibid. 220-1.

xvi. Wright, 1999: 44.

xvii. Matthew 27:39-40.

xviii. In The Search Begins: The Fathers of Historical Jesus Scholarship, Marcus Borg charts the development of such ‘historical Jesus’ scholarship.

 

Timothy Toh is from Singapore. He is an Economics and East Asian Studies double major. 

 

Image: Christ driving the traders from the temple by El Greco.

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