The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: The Temple (Part 2)

In an earlier article, I discussed the Temple in relation to Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 (in commemoration of the 2nd day of Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day). The references to the Temple, and use of the Temple theme in that sermon-speech, reflect, in various ways, early Christian views of the Jerusalem Temple and how it relates to the new religious identity of believers in Christ. This second article will look at the Temple as it appears in the Infancy narratives, more directly related to the birth of Jesus. The Temple is mentioned only in the Lukan narrative(s), as the setting/locale for three different episodes:

    1. The Angelic Appearance to Zechariah (1:8-23)
    2. The Encounter with Simeon (2:25-38)
    3. The Boy Jesus in the Temple (2:41-51)

Each of these episodes is discussed in considerable detail in other Christmas season notes and articles. Here I will focus specifically on the role and significance of the Temple in the Lukan narrative.

1. The Angelic Appearance to Zechariah (Lk 1:8-23)

To begin with, it is importance to notice the close connection between the Temple setting and John the Baptist’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were of priestly lineage. In particular, Zechariah was an active priest assigned to periodic service in the Temple (vv. 5, 8-9, 23). The events which occur in the Temple in this episode take place during Zechariah’s time of service. Thus, here the Temple ritual itself plays an important role in the narrative. This leads to an important thematic (and theological) observation, which is essential to the message of Luke-Acts as a whole. The Gospel records divine revelation manifest in the midst of the Temple ritual. From an early Christian standpoint, this theme can be stated more generally:

The New Covenant is manifest in the midst of the Old, the New being the fulfillment of the Old Covenant.

Let us see how the details of the narrative relate to this thematic principle.

a. The ritual setting. As mentioned above, Zechariah was a priest, and a member of a long-established priestly tradition and lineage whose duties included service in the Temple; on this, cf. 1 Chron 23:6; 24:1ff; Neh 12:1-7; 13:30; Josephus Antiquities 7.365-6; Against Apion 2.108. The particular service Zechariah performs here in the narrative involves the daily sacrifice, and, in particular, the burning of incense at the altar in the sanctuary and tending to the related matters within the sanctuary (vv. 8-9). This duty goes back to the Torah regulations and the tradition of the Tabernacle (Exod 30:7-8; cf. also Mishnah tractate Tamid 5:2-6:3). This detail relates not only to Zechariah’s priestly service, but also to the more important motif that John’s parents were among the faithful ones in Israel, being di/kaio$ (“just, right[eous]”)—which means, primarily, being faithful in observing/performing the regulations of the Torah (v. 6). In addition to the offering of incense, as an officiating priest, Zechariah would also have delivered the priestly blessing to the people as part of his duty (Num 6:24-26; m. Tamid 7:2). This would have taken place upon his leaving the sanctuary and entering into the outer precincts of the Temple, as the setting of vv. 10, 21-22 indicates. Note, then, how this all is expressed clearly in the outline of the narrative:

    • Ritual Duty: Offering incense at the altar within the Sanctuary (vv. 8-10)
      • The Divine Revelation (vv. 11-20)
    • Ritual Duty: The Blessing to the people outside the Sanctuary (vv. 21-22)

b. The offering of incense. The particular sacrificial offering performed by Zechariah in the sanctuary also has a special significance in the Lukan narrative, and for early Christians as a whole. The burning of incense takes on a symbolic meaning for Christians which is twofold: (i) an association with prayer, and (ii) as a form of sacrifice entirely separate from that of animal offerings (with the shedding of blood, etc). The first point—the association of incense with prayer—goes back to Old Testament and Jewish tradition, most notably the statement in Psalm 141:2. Moreover, the time of the evening (afternoon) sacrifice, was traditionally regarded as a time/hour for prayer—cf. Dan 9:21; Josephus Antiquities 13.282; Acts 3:1, etc. That is certainly the setting indicated in verse 10; and there is likely a conscious allusion to Daniel 9:20-21ff (cf. below). The identification of burning incense with prayer is perhaps strongest in the visions of the book of Revelation (5:8; 8:3-4).

In Jewish and early Christian thought, prayer begins to take the place of the ritual offering, taking on the characteristics of sacrifice. We see that they occur simultaneously at the hour of sacrifice/prayer (v. 10). God is also said to respond favorably to the prayer of the righteous, in a manner similar to the divine response to the ritual offering; this is reflected in the idea of a person’s prayer ascending (like smoke) up to God (Psalm 141:2; Lk 1:13; Acts 10:4 etc). This first level of separation—i.e. prayer from the concrete ritual of sacrifice—takes on greater meaning for early Christians, who themselves began to view the entire role of the Temple in a new light. This rethinking of the Temple goes back to Gospel tradition and the sayings of Jesus (see esp. Matt 12:6-7; Mk 11:17 par [Isa 56:7]). With the exception of the episode in Acts 21, neither Jesus, the disciples, nor other early Christians are depicted in the New Testament participating in the sacrificial ritual of the Temple. Rather, the Temple serves primarily as a place for teaching and prayer, or for worship generally—cf. Lk 2:46-47; 18:10-11ff; 19:46 par; 24:53; Acts 2:46; 5:20ff, 42; 22:17; Rev 11:1. The spiritualization of the Temple and the sacrificial offerings can be seen vividly in Paul’s letters (1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; also Eph 2:21), for example, and definitely precedes the destruction of the Temple building itself.

At times, the Christian view of the Temple turned toward actual opposition of the cultus and the ritual apparatus, as we examined in the case of Stephen’s sermon-speech (Part 1). Again, this can be seen as going back to Jesus and the Gospel tradition—i.e., the Temple action and saying of Jesus (Mk 11:12-17; 13:1-2; 14:58 pars; Jn 2:18-21). At the very least, we see a contrast between the ritual purpose of the Temple and the new purpose revealed in the person and work of Christ. With the destruction of the Temple building in 70 A.D., its role for Christians became increasingly spiritualized, existing as a symbol of God’s presence, holiness (i.e. the Holy Spirit) and the religious devotion of believers.

c. The Temple as a place of vision and revelation. The Angelic appearance to Zechariah is in accordance with Old Testament and Jewish tradition, in which the Temple, representing the presence of God and meeting-place for God and His people, is a suitable location for the experience of visions and divine revelation. This idea goes back to the early traditions related to the Tabernacle and the Tent of Meeting, where Moses (and others) had a direct experience of the Divine Presence. Perhaps the most famous visionary scene set in the Temple is that of Isaiah in 6:1-4ff. For other references to visionary/revelatory experiences in the Temple, see e.g., Acts 22:17ff; Josephus Antiquities 13.282-3. Even more relevant to the Lukan narrative here is the occurrence of Divine (Angelic) revelation at the afternoon time of sacrifice/prayer—Dan 9:20-21; Acts 10:3ff. For the possible influence of Daniel on the Lukan narrative, cf. my earlier article in this series.

d. The specific location of the revelation. In verse 11, we read that

“…the Messenger of the Lord was seen by him [i.e. Zechariah] standing out of the giving (side) [i.e. on the right side] of the place of (ritual) sacrifice [i.e. altar] of smoking (incense)”

The right hand side is the “good” and favored side (lit. the giving [decio/$] side), i.e. a propitious sign of God’s favor. Moreover, the sanctuary and the altar mark the presence of God—the place where human beings encounter the Divine Presence. These images and associations reflect a parallel to the Throne/Temple of God in heaven, surrounded by heavenly beings (Isa 6; Rev 4-5; 7:9ff; 11:1ff, 19, etc). In the New Testament and early Christian tradition, the exalted Jesus is seen as standing at the right hand of God on His throne (Mk 14:62 par; Acts 2:33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34, et al). In early Old Testament tradition, the “Messenger of the Lord” was essentially a way of referring to the presence of God (YHWH) himself, as manifest to his people in history. By the time of the New Testament, the expression “Messenger of the Lord” typically referred to a distinct heavenly/angelic being, here identified as Gabriel.

The location of the altar is especially important in light of the theme discussed above, suggesting the idea of ritual sacrifice being replaced by vision/revelation for believers in the New Covenant of Christ.

e. The Old Testament Context of the Revelation. The revelation given to Zechariah by the Messenger Gabriel is Messianic and eschatological. It refers primarily to the role that the child John will play in the end-time redemption God has prepared for his people. As discussed in the series “And You Shall Call His Name…”, the name Yôµanan ( )Iwa/nnh$, “John” v. 13) literally means “God (Yahweh) has shown favor”, alluding to the favor God will show to his people in bring salvation for them, an idea also implied in v. 14. The delight people will have at John’s birth is a foreshadowing of the role he will play (vv. 15-17) in the coming redemption.

The key phrase is found in verse 17:

“and he [i.e. John] will travel before in His [i.e. God’s] sight, in the spirit and power of °Eliyyah {Elijah}…”

It is an allusion to Malachi 3:1ff, a passage of profound eschatological/Messianic significance for Jews of the time. Already in the book of Malachi itself, the “Messenger” is identified as “Elijah” (4:5-6), an association which was highly influential in development of the belief that Elijah would appear at the end-time, before the coming Judgment, to lead God’s people to repentance, as stated here in v. 17b (cf. also Sirach 48:10, for an earlier occurrence of the tradition). I discuss the Messianic figure-type of Elijah at length in the series “Yeshua the Anointed” (soon to be posted here).

Early Christian tradition came to identify John the Baptist with “Elijah” who will appear at the end time, and this identification is expressed several times in the Infancy narrative—both here and in 1:76-77—and, of course is essential to the early Gospel tradition (Mk 1:2, 6-7 par [but note Jn 1:21]; 9:12-13 par; Matt 11:14). Early Christians gave to Mal 3:1ff a distinct interpretation: John (the Messenger/Elijah) prepares the way for the coming of Jesus (the Lord). According to this line of interpretation, the words in Mal 3:1 (“the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple“) would similarly refer to Jesus coming to the Temple in Jerusalem. This idea would, of course, be fulfilled in Mk 11:15-18 par, but it may also be in the Gospel writer’s mind in Luke 2:22-27ff. I will discuss this episode, along with that of Lk 2:41-51, in the concluding portion (Part 3) of this article.

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Luke 1:5-25

The exact nature and composition of the Infancy narrative(s) in the Gospel of Luke has been much discussed and debated by scholars. One of the most certain conclusions is that there is a higher incidence of Semitic coloring and detail in the language and style of chapters 1-2, than in the rest of the Gospel. There are two main explanations for this: (1) it is the result of specific sources (written or oral) used by the author, or (2) it is a product of the influence of the Old Testament (particularly that of the LXX) on the author. Most scholars and commentators today opt for some form of the latter explanation, although the exact place and nature of the ‘hymns’ in Luke 1-2 creates an added complication. One can see the influence of the Scriptures here in a variety of ways:

(a) quotation of verses,
(b) use of similar words and phrases,
(c) use of 1st-cent. B.C/A.D. Jewish phrases (influenced themselves by the OT),
(d) application of OT narrative forms and motifs,  and
(e) parallels drawn between similar characters and scenes.

(a) is relative rare in Luke, being far more common in the Matthean Infancy narratives; it is hard to judge the extent of (c), but (b, d-e) abound in Luke.

Luke 1:5-25

Let us examine this use and influence of the Old Testament in the first Lukan episode: the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25). One can recognize echoes and allusions to several passages:

1. The Birth of Samuel narrative(s) (1 Sam 1-2). The Gospel writer (referred to by his traditional designation as “Luke”) has made extensive use of this section of Scripture; it has shaped the Infancy narratives in a number of ways: sometimes the parallel is made with John the Baptist, other times with Jesus.

Similarities in wording and setting:

Compare for example the wording of Luke 1:5 and 1 Sam 1:1-2 (LXX):

There came to be [i.e. was]… a certain sacred-official [i.e. priest], Zakaryah by name, out of the daily-service (order) of Abiyah, and the woman [i.e. wife] for him was out of the daughters of Aharon, and her name was Elisheba There was a man out of Ramathayim-zophim… and the name for him was Elkanah… and two women for this (man), (the) name of the one (was) Hannah…

Both Elisheba [Elizabeth] and Hannah are without child, though for different reasons: kai\ ou)k h@n au)toi=$ te/knon (“and there was no offspring for them”, Luke 1:7);  kai\ th=| Anna ou)k h@n paidi/on (“and for Hannah there was no child”, 1 Sam 1:2).  Note also the parallel between Luke 1:23-24 and 1 Sam 1:19-20:

  • “and Elkanah went into his house… and Hannah received together (in the womb) [i.e. became pregnant]… and she brought forth a son, and she called his name…
  • “and he [i.e. Zechariah] went from (there) into his house… and Elizabeth received together (in the womb) [i.e. became pregnant…” (the naming is not related until v. 60: “he will be called John”)

Similarities in location: Zakaryah [Zechariah] is officiating in the Temple (Luke 1:8ff); Elkanah sacrifices (1 Sam 1:4ff), and Hannah prays to God (1 Sam 1:9ff) at the Temple.

Similarities in narrative detail: (a) message regarding God’s granting of their request/petition, in the Temple location (Luke 1:13; 1 Sam 1:17); (b) context of the Nazirite, with emphasis on drink, for both the child Samuel and John (Luke 1:15; 1 Sam 1:11, 13-15)

2. Abraham and Sarah (regarding the Birth of Isaac):

  • Abraham/Sarah and Zechariah/Elizabeth are both too old for children (probebhko/te$ e)n tai=$ h(me/rai$/probebhko/te$ h(merw=n, “having advanced forward in days”, Luke 1:7; Gen 18:11). Sarah and Elizabeth were both “barren” (stei=ra); for Sarah a different idiom is used.
  • The (angelic) birth announcement (Luke 1:13f) is formally similar to many Old Testament passages, including those involving Abraham (Gen 16:11; 17:16).
  • At the heavenly announcement that he will receive a son, Zechariah responds in a manner similar to Abraham (Gen 17:16-17; Luke 1:18)—note also the identical wording, in a similar but different context (1:18; Gen 15:8) kata\ ti/ gnw/somai “by what shall I know [this]?”

3. Angelic announcements (often involving the birth of a child). These follow a general pattern in the Old Testament narratives (e.g., Gen 16-18; Ex 3; Judg 6; 13, etc), which is reflected in the Infancy narratives (not only Luke 1:8-20ff and 1:26-38; 2:8-14, but also Matthew 1:18-25; 2:13-15). Luke 1:8-23 follows this pattern relatively closely:

  • The setting for the episode (vv. 8-10), here especially dramatic as: (a) Zechariah is a priest serving in the Temple, (b) he enters the Sanctuary (‘Holy Place’) to offer incense, (c) it is the time of prayer (afternoon/evening offering) and many are praying outside.
  • The appearance of the heavenly Messenger (v. 11)
  • Fear comes upon Zechariah at the sight (v. 12)
  • The Messenger tells him “Do not fear” (v. 13)
  • The Message, addressed to Zechariah by name, with an explanation and promise (including, for birth announcements, the name the child shall be called) (v. 13-17)
  • The fearful response (question) of Zechariah “by what will I know this? for I am old…” (v. 18) (implied is a request for some sign to know that the message will be true)
  • A sign given by the Messenger (often with a rebuke implied)—here the sign can be viewed as a kind of punishment for Zechariah (v. 18-20)
  • The response/effect of the angelic appearance (v. 21-23)

Similarities to other passages:

  • The appearances of Gabriel to Daniel (Dan 8:17ff; 9:20ff; 10:7ff); the appearance in 9:20ff occurs during a time of prayer (Luke 1:10-11)
  • Malachi 3:1, 23-24 [EV 4:5-6]: wording related to Elijah, applied by the heavenly Messenger to the child John in Luke 1:17. This association between John and Elijah occurs at numerous points in the Synoptic Gospels, and will reoccur in the song of Zechariah (‘Benedictus’) in Luke 1:76-79. Cf. also Sirach 48:10.
  • Gen 30:23: Rachel’s response to the ‘miracle’ of becoming pregnant: a)fei=len o( Qeo/$ mou to o&neido$ (“God has taken away my disgrace”, i.e. barrenness as “reproach/disgrace/insult”); compare the response of Elizabeth in Luke 1:25: e)pei=den a)felei=n o&neido/$ mou e)n a)nqrw/poi$ (“He looked upon to take away my disgrace among men [i.e. among people]”).

For a fine summary of most of the points of comparison above, along with additional detail, see R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Anchor Bible Reference Library), 1977, 1993, pp. 270 ff.