Jesus and the Law, Part 7: The Temple (continued)

In Part 6, I looked at the episode of Jesus’ “cleansing” of the Temple, as well as the “Temple saying” in John 2:19 par; in this part, I will conclude the article on “Jesus and the Temple” with an examination of other sayings related to the Temple, followed by a summary discussion.

3. Other sayings and teachings related to the Temple

References with an asterisk (*) indicate sayings related to sacrificial offerings (associated with the Temple cult), but do not refer to the Temple itself.

Luke 2:49

In the episode from the Lukan Infancy narratives (Lk 2:41-51), of the twelve-year old Jesus remaining behind in Jerusalem (following the Passover observance), when his parents (Mary and Joseph) find him and ask (v. 48)—

“Child, what [i.e. why] have you done thus to us? See, your father and I, being in pain, search [for] you”

Jesus responds:

ti/ o%ti e)zhtei=te me; ou)k h&|deite o%ti e)n toi=$ tou= patro/$ mou dei= ei@nai/ me;
“What that [i.e. why do] you search [for] me? Did you not know that it is necessary for me to be in/among the (thing)s of my Father?”

The precise meaning and rendering of the Greek phrase e)n toi=$ tou= patro/$ mou is debated, as I have discussed in a prior note. It is sometimes translated as “in my Father’s house”, but this is rather inaccurate and misleading. The expression e)n toi=$ tou= {person} (“in/among the things/people of {so-and-so}”) can indeed have the wider sense of “in/among the possessions of …”, translated conventionally as “in the house(-hold) of…”. Such a basic meaning is attested in the Greek version of the Old Testament (cf. Genesis 41:51), and elsewhere in Greek texts of the period; a close parallel is found in Josephus (Against Apion I.118: e)n toi=$ tou= Dio$ “in the house-(hold) [i.e. temple] of Zeus”). However, if Jesus (or the Gospel writer) had wished to emphasize the Temple (building) as such, he certainly could have used the common word oi@ko$ (“house, building”). The AV/KJV translation “about my Father’s business” reflects the basic sense “in the affairs of my father”—that is, the things in an abstract sense, again referring, one would assume, to the teaching of the Torah and temple activity. Sometimes cited supporting this basic meaning is Luke 20:25, but better Mark 8:33/Matthew 16:23. The specific Greek phrase in verse 49 may be intended to capture both of these senses.

Overall, we see here a positive view of the Temple, which fits the key role and setting it plays in the Lukan Infancy narratives (chs. 1-2). However, it is important to note that Jesus’ saying does not emphasize the Temple, but rather God the Father (“my Father”)—he is in/among the things (and/or people) belonging to his Father. This clearly is meant as a juxtaposition between Jesus’ earthly parents and his (true) heavenly Father in the narrative scene. The specific wording may also imply that the Temple is only the “house(hold) of God” insofar as the things truly belonging to God take place there. Though the Temple ritual is implied in the festal (Passover) setting of the narrative, Jesus is specifically taking part (as a pupil) in teaching and instruction. This is an important emphasis throughout the Gospels (and Acts)—the role of teaching and prayer in the Temple seems to have priority over that of the sacrificial ritual.

Matthew 5:23-24*

In the first of the so-called Antitheses (Matt 5:21-47) of the Sermon on the Mount, the teaching on murder/anger (vv. 21-26), Jesus offers two practical examples of the importance of reconciling with one’s fellow neighbor, etc. The first of these (vv. 23-24) describes a situation where a person is in the midst of presenting a (sacrificial) offering at the altar (i.e. of the Temple), and realizes that he/she has an unresolved conflict with another person (“your brother holds something against you”); Jesus’ instruction is to leave the offering and first be reconciled with (lit. “be thoroughly changed”  toward) the other person. The implied principle is that fundamental ethical matters take priority over fulfilling the sacrificial/ceremonial requirements of the Law. This generally follows the common criticism leveled by the Prophets, denouncing those who participate in the religious ritual despite otherwise behaving in a wicked or faithless manner toward God and neighbor (see below). I have discussed the Antitheses at some length earlier in this series.

Matthew 9:13; 12:7* (citing Hosea 6:6a)

I have discussed both of these verses in a recent note. Jesus’ teaching follows in line with the practical example from the Antitheses (above); and see also, especially, on Mark 12:33 below.

Matthew 12:5-6

This pair of verses was also discussed, along with v. 7, in the previous note.

Mark 12:33*

In the Markan version of the so-called “Great Commandment” (Mk 12:28-34; par Matt 22:34-40; Lk 10:25-28), in response to a question from a certain scribe (“which [thing] laid upon [us] to complete [i.e. commandment] is first of [them] all?”), Jesus answers by citing Deut 6:4-5 and Lev 19:18 together, emphasizing (total) love toward God and neighbor (“there is no other [thing] laid upon [us] to complete [i.e. no commandment] greater than these”, v. 31b). The scribe then responds to Jesus as follows (v. 33):

“Upon truth [i.e. truly] you have said (it) beautifully, Teacher… to love Him out of (one’s) whole heart and out of (one’s) whole understanding and out of (one’s) whole strength—and to love (one’s) neighbor as himself—is over (and) above [i.e. far more than] all the whole burnt (offering)s and (ritual) slayings [i.e. sacrifices]” (vv. 32-33)

Jesus affirms the substance of the scribe’s comment by saying “you are not far from the kingdom of God” (v. 34). So here Jesus effectively teaches that the two-fold “love command” far surpasses the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law. This reflects other sayings of Jesus in the Sermon the Mount (and elsewhere, cf. above), and would become a cornerstone teaching in the early Church (see esp. Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14).

Luke 18:10ff

Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the “Tax collector” takes place in the Temple (v. 10), though it is not entirely clear if there is any special significance to this setting; the emphasis is rather on the contrast between the approach and conduct of the two men. The Pharisee is apparently scrupulous and devout in religious matters, observing the Torah, but also is self-assured (“self-righteous”), justifying himself in prayer before God. The tax collector, on the other hand, is humble and contrite before God, confessing that he is a sinner and asking for mercy. The parable is typical of other “reversal of fortune” sayings and parables by Jesus, such as in the Lukan Beatitudes (Lk 6:20-26) or the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31). Indeed, the Beatitudes (see Matt 5:3-12) especially emphasize the characteristics of meekness and humility. Beyond this, it is hard to ignore the apparent contrast also present in the Lukan parable between external religious observance and inward purpose or intention—without the second, the first is of little or no value. An implicit connection with the Temple, in this regard, has already been noted in the sayings above. A similar passage, with a Temple setting, is found in Mark 12:41-44, with Jesus’ comments on the widow’s offering.

Mark 13:2 par

In Mark 13:1-2 (and the parallel in Matt 24:1-2; Lk 21:5-6) we have Jesus predicting/foretelling the destruction of the Temple. This begins a collection of teachings and sayings (in the Synoptic tradition) known as the “Eschatological” (or Olivet) Discourse (Mk 13 / Matt 24 /Lk 21:5-36 [cf. also Lk 17:20-37]). A foretelling of the coming siege and destruction of Jerusalem runs through this section; the Gospel of Luke, in particular, shows Jesus predicting the siege (more or less fulfilled in the war of 66-70 A.D.) in fairly graphic detail (Lk 19:41-44; 21:20-24; cf. also 23:28-31). This prediction may be related to one or both of the main traditions involving Jesus and the Temple—(1) Jesus’ “cleansing” of the Temple, and (2) the “Temple saying” of Jn 2:19; Mk 14:58 par (on both of these, see Part 6 of this series). One possible interpretation of the Temple “cleansing” event is that Jesus meant to symbolize the destruction of the current (earthly) Temple; if so, then the prediction in Mk 13:2 par should be read in this light. Similarly, the “Temple saying” may indicate a belief or expectation (whether by Jesus or others) that the current Temple would be destroyed and replaced with something new.

The prediction in Mark 13:2 par does not necessarily indicate a particular view (positive or negative) of the Temple on the part of Jesus; however, at least two points may be fairly inferred:

    1. Jesus did not see the current (earthly) Temple as permanent—the building itself would be destroyed. The “Temple saying”, however understood or interpreted, could conceivably mean that something new would take its place.
    2. The destruction likely means that God’s judgment—against Jerusalem and/or the Temple establishment—was involved.

Jesus is responding to comments by his disciples (Mk 13:1 par) admiring the physical/material grandeur of the Temple building; this certainly would suggest a devaluing of the building itself, along with the accompanying Temple ritual—a view which would conform with a number of the sayings above.

Mark 14:49 par

In Mark 14:49 (and the parallel in Matt 26:55; Lk 22:53) Jesus refers to the fact that he had spent considerable time in the Temple, teaching. The Synoptic narrative tradition records just one main visit by Jesus to Jerusalem—during the Passover season just prior to his death. During the time between his (triumphal) entry into the city and his arrest, the Gospels present Jesus as spending most of his time teaching in the Temple (emphasized repeatedly in Luke, cf. 19:47; 20:1; 21:5, 37-38). In the Gospel of John, which records multiple visits by Jesus to Jerusalem (for the holy days), there too the image is of Jesus teaching in the Temple (for more on this see in Part 8). Though the picture painted by the Gospels is rather simplistic, two clear observations can be made:

    1. Jesus presumably was observing the Torah commands in coming to Jerusalem (and the Temple) during the holy (feast) days (such as Passover, Sukkot/Booths, etc)
    2. He is not depicting as participating the sacrificial/ceremonial Temple ritual (though presumably, at the historical level, he would have); rather, he is consistently shown in the role and act of teaching.

Summary Observations

In concluding this study on Jesus and the Temple, it may be useful to summarize the results and highlight several key observations which will be important to keep in mind as we proceed further in the series of “Jesus and the Law”:

The Temple action (“cleansing”)—the four Gospel accounts of this scene all stem from a single historical tradition, a dramatic event which had already begun to be interpreted differently in the various Gospels. By his provocative action, Jesus appears to be following the Old Testament Prophets (cf. the citation of Isa 56:7; Jer 7:11) who occasionally leveled harsh criticism against the sacrificial ritual of the Temple (especially when it was not accompanied by proper ethical and religious behavior). The action by Jesus was primarily symbolic, in two main respects:

  • Driving out the buyers and sellers, etc. likely was meant to be a kind of “cleansing”, at least in the sense of emphasizing the intended holiness of the Temple as the house/dwelling of God. In this respect, the symbolic action strikes against the Temple machinery and apparatus associated with the sacrificial ritual—the very aspect of the Temple most likely to become corrupted through its customary use (and misuse).
  • Turning over the tables, etc. probably was meant to symbolize the impending destruction of the Temple—either as a prediction or a warning. Early Gospel tradition may have connected the “Temple saying” (below) with the “cleansing” episode in various ways, as we see in John 2; the emphasis in the saying is on the destruction of the Temple.

If one gives credence to the quotation of Isa 56:7, especially, in the Synoptic accounts, it is also possible that Jesus was establishing (or at least suggesting) a different (symbolic) role for the Temple, in a two-fold sense:

  1. Emphasizing prayer, rather than sacrificial offering, as the basis for proper worship of God
  2. Inclusion of Gentiles (“a house of prayer for all nations“)—at the historical level, the buying/selling probably would have taken place in the Court of Gentiles; by driving out the buyers/sellers, Jesus may have been declaring the holiness of the entire Temple precincts, extending its sanctity to the Gentiles

There was probably also a definite eschatological dimension to Jesus’ action—ushering in a “new age” with the coming of the (end-time) kingdom of God meant that the old religious forms would either be replaced or given a new significance. If we accept the Johannine version (and context) of the “temple saying” (Jn 2:19ff), then Jesus had already consciously connected the Temple action with his own (sacrificial) death and resurrection.

The Temple saying—it seems certain (on entirely objective grounds) that Jesus made a statement similar to that reported during his trial (Mark 14:58; Matt 26:61; cf. also Mk 15:29 par; Acts 6:14)—that he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it (in three days)—even though Mark and Matthew report this as “false” testimony. John 2:19 perhaps records this very statement, accepting the Gospel record at face value: “loose [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this shrine, and in three days I will raise it (up again)”. Most likely this saying is related in some way to the Temple action (above), though only in John 2:13-22 is a specific connection made. It is also only in John (vv. 20-22) that we have a direct interpretation of the saying, made by the Gospel writer (or his underlying sources) and not by Jesus himself. The author clearly states that Jesus was speaking of “the shrine of his (own) body”, though the disciples did not understand this until after the resurrection. In Acts 6:14ff this saying places a role in the charges made against Stephen and provides the setting for his great speech in Acts 7:2-53 (discussed in detail in the series “The Speeches of Acts” [to be posted here]). Stephen’s speech climaxes with a rhetorical (and polemic) argument against the Temple itself, comparing it in some sense with idolatry, in part through repeated use of the phrase “made with hands” (“work of [their] hands”, etc). Whether this, in any way, reflects authentic teaching of Jesus is uncertain.

Other teaching regarding the Temple and its Ritual—Jesus says relatively little about the Temple elsewhere in the Gospels, but the sayings and teachings which have been preserved (see above) would seem to suggest, or reflect, several related themes:

  • Jesus’ presence in the Temple occurs mainly in the context of teaching, rather than in the performance of sacrificial ritual (e.g. Lk 2:46ff; Mark 14:49 par). In several other sayings, teaching or prayer in the Temple is also emphasized (cf. the citation of Isa 56:7 in Mk 11:17 par; also Lk 18:10).
  • In several sayings and teachings, Jesus clearly states the importance and priority of love (for God and neighbor) over sacrificial offerings (Matt 5:23-24; the citation of Hos 6:6a in Matt 9:13 and 12:7; Mark 12:28-34 par; cf. also Lk 18:10ff).
  • Similarly, one may fairly adduce in such sayings a principle emphasizing inward intention and attitude over against external observance of the ritual (though the latter may still be deemed important).
  • The prediction of the destruction of the Temple (Mk 13:1-2 par) would seem to confirm an important aspect of both the Temple action (“cleansing”) and Temple saying—that the current (earthly) Temple was about to be destroyed, as part of God’s (end-time) Judgment.
  • The sayings in Matt 12:5-6, could be understood in a Christological sense, somewhat similar to the Temple saying (and explanation) in John 2:19ff, whereby Jesus (in his own person) surpasses (and/or replaces) the religious authority and position of the Temple. As there is relatively little evidence for this idea elsewhere in Jesus’ teaching (at least in the Synoptic Gospels), one must be cautious about such an interpretation; on the other hand, neither should it be dismissed simply as a product of early Christian belief.

It is possible—even likely, I should say—that early Christian belief more strongly influences the way that Gospel traditions are presented and narrated in the Gospel of John, and it is here (the Fourth Gospel) that we will now turn for the next part in this series.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.