The Speeches of Acts, Part 12: Acts 7:1-53ff (concluded)

Due the length and complexity of the speech of Stephen (Acts 7:1-53ff), I have discussed it over three parts (9, 10, 11) of this series on the Speeches of Acts; in this part I will address several key critical and interpretive issues which have thus far been mentioned only in passing:

    1. The Narrative framework—the Sanhedrin trial setting
    2. The actual Speech in relation to the charges against Stephen
    3. The view of the Temple in the Speech (and in the book of Acts), and, finally
    4. The Speech in the overall context of Acts

1. The Narrative framework—the Sanhedrin trial setting

A number of factors have led critical scholars to question the historicity/factuality of the Sanhedrin setting:

    • it follows a general (narrative) pattern already encountered in chapters 4 and 5; and, while certainly it is plausible that the Apostles would have had multiple run-ins with the religious and Temple authorities, the pattern is distinct enough (esp. comparing 5:17-42 with 6:8-7:1, 54-60) to suggest a literary device.
    • the Sanhedrin trial setting, especially here in chs. 6-7, is suspicious due to the clear parallels drawn with the trial/death of Jesus (outlined at the end of part 11); while this may simply represent an historical synchronicity, it is likely that conscious literary patterning is at work here (at least in part).
    • the speech, and the narrative as a whole, in some ways, makes more sense without the Sanhedrin setting (removing portions of 6:12-15 and 7:1):
      (a) the long historical summary better fits a public sermon than a (defense) speech before a tribunal
      (b) Stephen nowhere in the speech directly deals with the charges against him—more to the point, he does not address the question asked to him directly by the High Priest in 7:1
      (c) the shift between the public dispute in 6:9-10 and the appearance before the Council (6:12ff) is rather abrupt and suggests a narrative adaptation
      (d) the reaction of the audience (to the speech) and the subsequent action in 7:54-60 is more consistent with a mob “lynching” than an official action by the Council—in some ways it better fits the (popular) reaction to a public sermon given by Stephen than the Council’s reaction to a defense speech
      (e) this is perhaps confirmed by the fact that the Council is not mentioned in vv. 54-60; apart from the detail mentioned in v. 58b (possibly), there is nothing to suggest that this is an official action

Traditional-conservative commentators, naturally, are more inclined to accept the narrative at face value; while some literary shaping is certainly present, with omissions and simplifications of detail, none of the events described are implausible per se. Probably the most difficult (apparent) discrepancy, recognized by nearly all commentators, is the fact that Stephen’s speech really does not answer (nor even address directly) the charges against him (according to 6:13-14; 7:1). It is to this question that I now turn.

2. The Speech in relation to the charges against Stephen

As mentioned previously, nearly all commentators have noted that the speech does not seem to address the charges brought before the Council in 6:13-14 (and see v. 11) and, correspondingly, the question of the High Priest in 7:1. Indeed, the most implausible detail in the narrative is that the Council would allow Stephen to talk for several minutes, without interruption, delivering the long (and seemingly irrelevant) historical digression we find in vv. 2ff. It must be admitted that, at least through verse 34, there seems to be no clear purpose to the speech; it is just what it appears to be—a straightforward summary of Israelite history (focused on Abraham, Joseph and Moses), with a significant degree of rhetorical development in the section on Moses (vv. 17-34). This changes in verse 35, and it is to verses 35-53 that we need to look for an answer to the charges against Stephen. I offer the following expository conclusions, based on prior exegesis (cf. parts 10 and 11):

    • Moses is presented as one who receives special revelation from God (through Angelic mediation) at Sinai (vv. 30-34), which leads subsequently to:
      (i) receiving the “living words/oracles” of God at Sinai (again through Angelic mediation, vv. 38, 53)—the Law
      (ii) receiving the type/pattern for the “tent of witness” (vv. 44f)—precursor to the Temple
    • A parallel is drawn between Jesus and Moses; both are: (a) sent by God, (b) made to be a leader and redeemer/savior for the people, (c) a Prophet, and (d) ultimately denied/refused by the people
    • A parallel is also drawn between the Temple and idolatry (the Golden Calf, etc)—both are works “made by (human) hands”
    • Just as Moses was denied/refused by the people, so was Jesus—this ultimately meant a rejection of the words of God, i.e. of the Law and the Prophets

These can be distilled down to two basic accusations leveled by Stephen in this section of the speech, that the people:

    1. acted according to a mistaken conception or idea of the “house” (dwelling) of God—the Tent/Temple
    2. refused to follow the Law-giver and Prophet (Moses/Jesus), and so rejected the Law itself

The first conclusion is stated in vv. 48-50, the second especially in v. 53 (and earlier in vv. 35, 39f). These do, in fact, address the two charges against Stephen, though somewhat obliquely; he has actually turned them around into charges against his accusers! Let us revisit the original claims (according to 6:13):

    1. he speaks words against this Holy Place (the Temple), and thus speaks evil “against God” (v. 11)
    2. he speaks words against the Law (also in v. 11)

In verse 14 this is further described according to teaching that:

    1. Jesus would destroy/dissolve this Place (the Temple), cf. Mark 14:58; John 2:19
    2. Jesus would alter the (religious) customs delivered by Moses

The first claim is partially supported in Gospel tradition, and it is certainly possible that Stephen had made statements (related to Jesus and the Temple) which could be interpreted in this way (cf. below). It is hard to know what to make of the second claim, which better fits the accusations made against Paul (see Acts 21:28, etc). If there is any substance to it at all, perhaps Stephen had taught to the effect that the new (eschatological) age inaugurated by Jesus meant that strict observance of the Law was no longer required. This is only guesswork, for we have nothing by which to assess Stephen’s teaching except for the speech in 7:2-53; and, in the speech itself, he makes no statements which could be in any way understood as anti-Law. It is a rather different matter regarding the Temple, as we shall see.

3. The View of the Temple in the Speech

I have already discussed parallels drawn in vv. 35-50 connecting the Tent/Temple with idolatry. Actually, this negative assessment is generally reserved for the Temple itself, the Tent of Witness (Tabernacle) in the wilderness period being treated more positively. Still, there can be no mistaking the implicit claim, regarding the (semi-)idolatrous nature of the Temple as a work (like the Golden Calf) “made with hands”. It is possible, of course, that Stephen (along with many Jews and early Christians) was not objecting so much to the Temple itself, but rather to the way it had been used and administered. This is the essence of the opposition to the Temple in the Qumran texts—it was being run by an invalid (and corrupt) priesthood. To a lesser degree, one can detect a similar emphasis in Jesus’ “cleansing” of the Temple (as recorded in Gospel tradition), both in the action itself and the saying which cites Isa 56:7 and Jer 7:11 together. However, the use of Isa 66:1-2, in the context of expounding/applying Amos 5:25-27 (along with the summary of Israelite history from the Golden Calf to the building of the Temple), strongly suggests a more fundamental opposition to the actual Temple (and the idea/conception of it). If so, this in many ways contrasts with the positive view of the Temple elsewhere presented in Luke-Acts; note:

    • The role and setting of the Temple in the Infancy narratives (Lk 1-2)
    • Compared with the other Gospels, Luke curtails the Temple “cleansing” scene (Lk 19:45f), and gives extra emphasis to the fact that Jesus was regularly teaching in the Temple precincts (19:47; 20:1; 21:37-38)
    • Luke does not include the Temple-saying reported at Jesus’ “trial” (cf. Mark 14:58 par)
    • After the resurrection, the disciples worship God in the Temple (Lk 24:53), and early Christians continue to frequent the Temple in the early chapters of Acts (2:46; 3:1-10; 5:20-25, 42)
    • Acts 6:11-14 describes the claim that Stephen spoke against the Temple as a “false” charge
    • In Acts 21:17-26, prior to Paul’s arrest in the Temple precincts, the author takes great care to depict that the claim that Paul teaches against the Law and religious ritual is false or unsubstantiated

The presentation in Luke-Acts presumably accords with the historical reality—that the early (Jewish) Christians continued to frequent the Temple, probably until the time of its destruction (70 A.D.), though the emphasis may have been more on the Temple as place for prayer, teaching and fellowship, rather than the sacrificial cult/ritual. Many of the New Testament writings (even Paul’s letters) say little or nothing specifically about the Temple. Eventually in early Christianity, a theology of “replacement” developed, which taught that Jesus (in his own person and work) fulfills (and effectively replaces) the Old Testament religious forms—including the Temple and all of its sacrificial ritual. This is best seen in the Gospel of John, the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the book of Revelation, all writings which likely post-date the destruction of the Temple. Luke-Acts probably also stems from this period (c. 70-80 A.D.), but, as indicated above, it demonstrates a more positive view of the physical/historical Temple.

Apart from Stephen’s speech, the nearest parallel to Acts 7:48-50 (with its citation of Isa 66:1-2) is found in Revelation 21:22, which states that there will be no Temple in the New Jerusalem. Rev 21-22 draws heavily upon the eschatological/idealized “New Jerusalem” described in Isa 65-66, and in the later prophecy the Christian theology of replacement/substitution could not be more explicit: “for the Lord God the All-mighty (One) is its shrine, and [i.e. along with] the Lamb”. For believers, ultimately, God (the Father) and Jesus Christ are the Temple. To what extent does Stephen (and/or the author of Acts here) hold such a view? At the very least, the clear use of Isa 66:1-2 in this context would point in that direction. However, the association between the Temple and idolatry probably has more to do with polemical rhetoric (after the manner of the Prophets) than with a developed theological position. Also, one should not ignore the place of the speech in the overall context of Acts, as representing the last great episode of the early Jerusalem Church, prior to the mission into the wider (Gentile) world (see below). Acts records Paul using similar language in regard to Greco-Roman (heathen, polytheistic) religion (cf. Acts 17:24).

4. The Speech in the overall Context of Acts

As indicated above, Acts 6:8-8:1 (which includes the speech of 7:2-53) is the final episode recorded of the early believers in Jerusalem, the first major division of the book (1:128:3). The themes (and style) of Stephen’s speech then would be expected to draw upon the prior chapters, as well as to look forward to what follows. I propose these points for consideration:

    • the sequence of appearances before the Sanhedrin, from a literary/narrative point of view, serve several purposes:
      (a) they provide an effective dramatic setting for proclamation of the Gospel
      (b) they depict early believers fulfilling the pattern and example of Jesus, who also faced opposition from the religious leaders and faced a similar “trial” before the Sanhedrin
      (c) they demonstrate the increasing division/separation between the (Jewish) followers of Jesus and the rest of the (Jewish) people
    • the speech, while it may not entirely fit the Sanhedrin “trial” setting, is nevertheless appropriate here in the narrative:
      (a) it offers a definitive statement as to the place of Jesus and (by extension) early Christians within the Old Testament and Israelite history, and as the fulfillment of it
      (b) the corruption/deterioration depicted through history (leading from true revelation to idolatry) emphasizes the idea that a “new age” has dawned, reflecting the important theme of the “restoration of Israel” found in the early chapters of Acts
      (c) just as Gentiles would need to be instructed in Old Testament history, so here a summary of that history is presented prior to the inauguration of the wider mission (to the Gentiles) as recorded in chapters 8-12ff
    • the climactic position of the narrative makes a longer, dramatic speech fitting, in several respects:
      (a) it records the death of Stephen, the first Christian “martyr”, in terms somewhat similar to Jesus’ own death in the Gospels
      (b) it inaugurates a period of intense persecution, which leads to the dispersal of believers outside of Jerusalem (and Judea) and ultimately into the wider Gentile/Greco-Roman world
      (c) it marks the initial separation between Christianity and Judaism

In conclusion, it may be useful to revisit a basic critical question regarding the speeches in the book of Acts, which is especially acute in the case of Stephen’s speech—that is, the source and nature of their composition. There are two main components to Acts 6:8-8:1: (i) a traditional narrative involving Stephen (reflected in 6:8-15; 7:54-60), and (ii) the speech in 7:2-53. Nearly all scholars would, I think, agree that the core narrative stems from authentic tradition, with some degree of editing or adaptation having taken place. Opinion varies much more greatly regarding the speech; there are four main views:

    1. The speech more or less records Stephen’s actual words (with minor modification), delivered just as the narrative context in Acts suggests—this would be the traditional-conservative view.
    2. The speech is an (authentic) tradition, preserving the substance of what Stephen said (or preached) publicly prior to his death, though much of the actual wording (and style) is probably Lukan (i.e. from the author of Acts); according to this view, the Sanhedrin setting may (or may not) be authentic.
    3. The author (trad. Luke) has set an authentic Christian speech/sermon (or the substance of it) into the mouth of Stephen, inserting it into the traditional narrative and creating the seam at 6:15; 7:1 and 7:54.
    4. The speech is essentially the creation of the author of Acts, though perhaps drawing upon tradition and examples of early preaching, being inserted into the narrative much as in view #3.

Most critical scholars would hold some version of view #3 or 4; my own (personal) view of the matter is closer to the moderate critical position of #2 above. Fortunately the power and effect of Scripture here in Acts (as elsewhere) does not depend on a particular view of historicity and composition, though these are important questions to address; rather, the narrative as it has come down to us—reflecting both historical tradition and inspired creative expression—speaks as a whole, the marvelous end product unique and unparalleled as a work of Christian history, and requiring no defense.

The Speeches of Acts, Part 11: Acts 7:1-53ff (continued)

In the previous two parts of this series (9 and 10), I examined the background and setting of Stephen’s speech, the Narrative Introduction (Acts 6:8-15; 7:1), and the Introductory Address (7:2-42a) which includes the lengthy summary of Israelite history (and the last section of which [on Moses] I discussed in some detail). In this part, I will treat the remainder of the speech, beginning with the citation from Scripture in verses 42b-43.

Citation from Scripture (vv. 42b-43)

Though the length of the prior historical summary might suggest otherwise, the Scripture citation (from Amos 5:25-27) here is as central to Stephen’s speech as that of the prior sermon-speeches in Acts, for it begins to address (somewhat more directly) the charges against Stephen regarding the Temple and the Law. The version of Amos 5:25-27 more or less matches that of the Greek LXX, with two minor differences, and two more significant ones:

    • v. 42 has reversed the order of “in the desert” [e)n th=| e)rh/mw|] and “forty years” [e&th tessera/konta]
    • MSS B D (and several others) read “of the god” instead of “of your god” in v. 43, omitting the pronoun u(mw=n
    • v. 43 read “to worship them [proskunei=n au)toi=$]” instead of “yourselves” [e(autoi=$]
    • the conclusion of the citation, “upon those (further parts) of…” [i.e. beyond, past], Acts reads “Babylon” instead of “Damascus” in Amos 5:27, making it relate more directly to the Babylonian exile (which involved the destruction of the Temple)

The Greek version itself appears to be corrupt, having misread (and/or misunderstood) the twin references in Amos 5:26:

    1. <k#K=l=m^ tWKs! (sikkû¾ malk®½em), “Sakkut your king”
      th\n skhnh\n tou= Molox, “the tent of Moloch”
    2. <k#yh@ýa$ bk^oK /WYK! (kiyyûn kô½a» °§lœhê½em), “Kaiwan, star of your god”, or “Kaiwan your star-god”
      to\ a&stron tou= qeou= u(mw=n Raifan, “the star of your god Raiphan”

In the first expression, (a) MT twks was read rel. to hK*s% (s¥kkâ), “woven-shelter [i.e. hut, booth, tent]”, whereas it should almost certainly be understood as the Assyrian-Babylonian deity Sakkut [vocalized tWKs^, sakkû¾]; and (b) “(your) king”, where the MT ilm was vocalized/read as the proper name “Moloch”. In the second expression, it is generally assumed that an original transliteration Kaifan (Kaiphan) became Raifan/Refan (Raiphan/Rephan); in some (Western) MSS of Acts it reads Remfan (Remphan), while in B a3 it is Romfa–n— (Rompha[n]). “Sakkut” and “Kaiwan” are names of Assyrian/Babylonian astral deities (the latter [kayawânu] being the name for the planet Saturn). In the original Hebrew of Amos, the word <k#ym@l=x^ (ƒalmê½em), “your images”, despite its positioning, probably meant to refer to both deities; it is possible, of course, that there is also corruption in the Hebrew MT. Amos 5:26-27 is quoted, more or less following the MT vocalization, in the Damascus Document [CD MS A] 7:14ff, but applied in a very peculiar way (in connection with Amos 9:11).

Exposition and Application (vv. 44-50)

Also unusual is the interpretation which Stephen (and/or the author of Acts) gives to these verses, for it differs significantly from the original context (though far less markedly than that of CD). Amos 5:18-24, 25-27 is part of a series of Woe-oracles pronouncing judgment against Israel (primarily the northern kingdom, under Jeroboam II, centered in Samaria). Verses 18-20 speak of the day of YHWH, how it will come suddenly and unexpectedly—hitting God’s own people right where they live. Verses 21-24 emphasize that God’s judgment extends even to Israel’s religion: He will not accept their worship and sacrificial offering—a theme found elsewhere in the Prophets, most famously in Isaiah 1:10-17. The implication, indicated by the exhortation in Amos 5:24, is that the people are not living and acting according to justice/righteousness. This is expressed most strikingly in Jeremiah 7:1-26, where condemnation is especially harsh against those who act wickedly and yet continue to participate in the religious ritual (esp. vv. 9-11). The current corruption of religion, according to the prophet, is apparently contrasted with the wilderness period (Amos 5:25): at that time Israel did not present sacrificial offerings (those began only when the people arrived in the promised land)—a much better situation than the corrupt (and idolatrous) worship currently being offered up (v. 26)! It is not entirely clear whether or not we should take v. 26 literally: were the Israelites actually worshiping these Assyrian deities, or are the expressions meant to symbolize the idolatrous character of the ritual (corrupted by unrighteousness and injustice). Either is possible—Jeremiah 7:9-10, for example, mentions actual idolatry (Baal worship) together with moral corruption, whereas Isa 1:10ff emphasizes the ethical side.

In Stephen’s speech in Acts, a rather different point of view is implied: during the wilderness period, the Israelites did not offer sacrifices to God (even though they should have!), and instead actually practiced idolatry during those years. This idolatry began with the Golden Calf (7:40-41), whereupon God “gave them over” (v. 42) to worship the heavenly bodies (sun, moon, and stars, etc). However, it would seem that this interpretation is not so much historical as it is rhetorical (and didactic); note the pattern, which I extend to the verses (vv. 44-47) which follow:

    • Failure to obey Moses in the wilderness—idolatry (the Golden Calf), vv. 39-41
      • The (portable) tent of witness (Tabernacle) in the wilderness, following God’s words to Moses, vv. 44-45
      • David and Solomon seek instead to build a (fixed) house (Temple) for God, vv. 46-47
    • The people are “given over” to more serious and persistent idolatry (leading to the Exile), vv. 42ff

The history of Israel, then, is depicted according to two different progressions—one involving idolatry and corruption of religion (the outer pair above), the other involving the building of a house (temple) for God (the inner pair). That these are meant to be understood in parallel (and corresponding terms) becomes even more clear if one includes the Scripture citation (of Isaiah 66:1-2) that follows in vv. 49-50 and present them in sequence:

    • Failure to obey Moses’ words—beginning of idolatry, vv. 39-41
      • The people are given over to more serious idolatry, v. 42a
        • Citation from Amos 5:25-27, in vv. 42b-43
    • A portable Tent, according to God’s instruction to Moses—beginnings of a “house”, vv. 44-45
      • Construction of a more permanent (fixed) house for God, vv. 46-47
        • Citation from Isaiah 66:1-2, in vv. 49-50

The interpretative key to all this is found in verse 48, which summarizes the Isaiah passage that follows:

“but the Highest does not put down house [i.e. dwell] in (buildings) made with hands…”

Isa 66:1-2 is part of an eschatological/idealized vision of a “new Jerusalem” in 65:17ff, where the people live in peace and harmony in relationship with God. Verses 1-4 of chap. 66 shift the focus to religious worship, questioning the very purpose and value of the Temple and its ritual. Acts cites vv. 1-2a precisely according to the LXX, except for ti$ to/po$ (“what place”) instead of poi=o$ to/po$ (“what sort of place”). The two principal nouns in v. 1—oi@ko$ (“house”) and  to/po$ (“place”)—are commonly used of the Temple. Verses 3-4 identify the ritual sacrifices (offered at the Temple) with outright wickedness, to the point of referring to the (prescribed) ritual as a “miserable” (/w#a*) and “detestable” (JWQv!) thing—both words can be euphemisms for idolatry. This echoes a regular prophetic theme that religious worship is worthless (even detestable) in God’s eyes if it is not accompanied by (personal and communal) righteousness and justice, or if it is similarly corrupted by idolatrous behavior; Jeremiah 7 provides perhaps the most striking example (see above). Isaiah 66:1-5 has a clear parallel earlier in the book (Isa 1:10-17), only here we find a more direct declaration of true worship (in 66:2b):

“This (is the one) I will look on [i.e. give attention to]—to (the one who is) humble/lowly and stricken of spirit/breath and trembling upon my word”

This very much prefigures the language of Jesus in the Beatitudes (and elsewhere in his teaching), and it is significant that Jesus himself says very little about the Temple and its ritual—the few statements which are preserved in the Gospels tend to be critical, such as the citation of Hos 6:6 in Matt 9:13; Mark 12:33 par and the sayings associated with the “cleansing” of the Temple in Mark 11:15-17 par (citing Isa 56:7; Jer 7:11). Keep in mind that in John’s account of the Temple “cleansing”, Jesus uttered a saying similar to that reported during his ‘trial’: “loose [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this shrine and in three days I will raise it (again)” (Jn 2:19). Of course, such a claim was also part of the charge against Stephen (Acts 6:13-14).

This brings us to a key motif in Stephen’s speech: the idea of the Temple as something “made with hands”; note the references:

    • the charge against Stephen in Acts 6:13-14 echoes the saying of Jesus reported at his trial (and partially confirmed by John 2:19); the Markan version of this saying has an interesting detail (italicized):
      “I will loose down [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this shrine made with hands [xeiropoi/hton] and within three days I will build another house made without hands [a)xeiropoi/hton]” (Mk 14:58)
    • in the speech (7:41), the Golden Calf (and, by extension, any idol) is cited as “the works of their hands” (ta e&rga tw=n xeirw=n au)tw=n)
    • the Tent of Witness (v. 44f), i.e. the Tabernacle, is viewed positively (much moreso than the Temple) in the speech, yet it too is something “made” (poie/w); in the Life of Moses II. 88, Philo refers to the Tent with the same expression “made with hands” (xeiropoi/hto$)
    • in verse 48, the Temple is specifically referred to in terms of a house “made with hands” (xeiropoi/hto$)
    • the citation of Isa 66:2a [LXX] in verse 50, by contrast, refers to God as the one whose hand (xei/r) has “made (e)poi/hsen) all these things [i.e. all creation]”

The statement in verse 48 was a truism actually well-understood by ancient people—that the invisible, transcendent Deity did not “dwell” in human-built shrines in an actual, concrete sense. This was admitted by king Solomon at the dedication of the Jerusalem Temple, as recorded in 1 Kings 8:27 (cf. 2 Chron 2:6; Jos. Ant. 8.107). A physical temple or shrine represented a religious accommodation toward human limitations, a way for human beings to relate to God in time and space, by ritual means; however, like any human institution (even one divinely appointed), it was prone to corruption and abuse. Temple priests (and/or the religious-political leaders who controlled them) were often powerful (even wealthy) persons who exercised considerable influence over ancient society. Jesus’ harshest words were directed toward the religious leadership, and the fiercest opponents of Jesus (and early Christians in Jerusalem) were the “Chief Priests” who controlled much of the Temple establishment. Beyond this, however, we do find here, to some degree, strong criticism against the Temple itself, which I will discuss in the next (concluding) part of this series on Stephen’s speech.

Concluding Exhortation (vv. 51-53)

Instead of the exhortation in the sermon-speech pattern, we have here a harsh and vehement accusation toward those in the audience (the Sanhedrin), which proceeds along three points (still drawing upon the historical summary):

    1. they “fall against” [i.e. resist/oppose] the holy Spirit—as their fathers did (v. 51)
    2. they became ones who betrayed and murdered the “Just One” [Jesus]—as their fathers pursued and killed the prophets (v. 52)
    3. they received the Law (as a divine revelation), but did not keep it—along with their fathers (implied) (v. 53)

Several of the expressions in verse 51 are taken straight from the Old Testament:

The particle a)ei (“always”, i.e. continually, regularly) connects the current people (esp. their leaders) with those in the past who rebelled against God. Opposition to the Holy Spirit (by persecuting the Christians) is the most prominent, immediate transgression—from this, Stephen works backward:

Verse 52—their role in the death of Jesus (“the Just [One]”, di/kaio$, cf. 3:14), which has led them to become “betrayers” (prodo/tai, [ones] giving [Jesus] before [the Roman authorities]) and “murderers” (fonei=$)
Verse 53—even prior to this, by implication, they had not kept the Law (of Moses); it is not certain just what is meant by this: from an early Christian standpoint, rejection of Jesus was tantamount to rejecting the Law and Prophets, but whether he is charging them otherwise with ethical or ritual transgressions is hard to say.
For the idea of the Law having been delivered by heavenly Messengers (Angels), cf. Deut 33:2 LXX; Jubilees 1:27-29; Jos. Antiquities 15.136; Galatians 3:19; Heb 2:2 and earlier in Acts 7:38.

Narrative Summary (7:54-8:1a)

The reaction is similar to that in Acts 5:33, with the same phrase being used:

and having heard these things, they were cut/sawn through [diepri/onto] in their hearts…”

In the earlier narrative, Gamaliel is able to prevent the crowd from taking violent action (5:34ff); here the hostility builds as they “grind/gnash their teeth upon him”. Verse 55 picks up from 6:15, emphasizing that Stephen was under the power of God (“full of the holy Spirit”), and stretching (to look) [i.e. looking intently] into heaven, he saw a vision of Jesus standing at the right-hand of God. The image of Jesus having been raised and exalted to the “right hand” of God in Heaven was an important piece of early Christian preaching (influenced by Psalm 110:1), as seen previously in Acts 2:25, 33-34; 5:31. It is hard to say whether there is any special significance to Jesus standing (normally he is described as seated), but it certainly adds to the dramatic effect, and may draw greater attention to the “Son of Man” connection.

In describing his vision (v. 56), Stephen refers to Jesus as the Son of Man (ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou), the only use of this title in the New Testament by someone other than Jesus himself. This is curious, and may reflect authentic historical detail, however, it is just as likely that the reference is primarily literary—to enhance the parallel between the trial/death of Jesus and Stephen; note:

    • the setting before the Sanhedrin
    • the (false) charges, and their similarity—6:11, 13-14; Mark 14:55-58 par
    • mention of the Son of Man at the right hand (of God)—v. 56; Luke 22:69 par
    • the prayer, after Psalm 31:6—v. 59; Luke 23:46
    • the loud cry before death—v. 60; Luke 23:46
    • the prayer for forgiveness—v. 60; Luke 23:34

There certainly would seem to be some degree of conscious patterning here. The dramatic moment leading to the execution (by stoning) is described vividly in verse 57:

“and crying (out) with a great voice, they held together their ears and with one impulse [o(moqumado/n] rushed (ahead) upon him…”

The adverb o(moqumado/n was used repeatedly in the early chapters of Acts (1:14; 2:46; 4:24; 5:12; cf. also 8:6; 15:25) as a keyword to express the unity and solidarity of believers in Jerusalem; here it is used in an entirely opposite sense—to depict a (unified) opposition against Christ (cf. also 18:12; 19:29). Here, opposition has finally broken into open violence against Christians. The mention of Saul in 7:58 and 8:1a sets the stage for the intense, if short-lived, persecution which follows (8:1-4; 11:19a).

By way of conclusion, I will discuss some key points of criticism and overall interpretation of the speech in the next part of this series.

The Speeches of Acts, Part 10: Acts 7:1-53ff (continued)

In Part 9 of this series, I examined the overall setting and background of the speech of Stephen (Acts 7:1-53ff), as well as the Narrative (Introduction) which precedes it in 6:8-15, according to the outline:

    • Narrative Introduction—the speech follows upon the main narrative (or first part of it) in 6:8-15, with the question of the High Priest to Stephen in 7:1.
    • Introductory Address (7:2-42a)—instead of Gospel kerygma, we find here a lengthy summary of Israelite history, from the call of Abraham to the Exodus and the incident of the Golden Calf.
    • Citation from Scripture (vv. 42b-43)—from Amos 5:25-27.
    • Exposition and Application (vv. 44-50), including a second Scripture citation (from Isa 66:1-2) which is parallel to the prior passage.
    • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 51-53), with a faint kerygmatic detail in v. 52b.
    • Narrative Summary—the narrative continues/concludes in 7:54-8:1a.

In this part I will continue with the speech proper.

Introductory Address (7:2-42a)

Stephen begins with a vocative address, similar to that of Peter (e.g., in Acts 2:14, 22, 29; cf. also the beginning of Paul’s address in Acts 22:1):

 &Andre$ a)delfoi\ kai\ pate/re$, a)kou/sate
“Men, Brothers and Fathers—hear!”

Instead of the kerygmatic phrases and statements found in the prior sermon-speeches, Stephen here delivers a lengthy summary of Israelite history in “deuteronomic style”, extending from the call of Abraham to the Exodus and the incident of the Golden Calf; for Old Testament parallels to such an historical summary, cf. Joshua 24; Psalm 78, 105; Ezekiel 20:5-44; Nehemiah 9:7-27, and also note the historical treatment given in the Damascus Document [CD] 2:14-6:1 (Fitzmyer, Acts, p. 364).

Nearly all commentators have noted that this is a curious way to address the question posed by the High Priest in v. 1; it also hardly seems an appropriate way for an accused man to offer defense (apologia) in a ‘trial’ setting. This has served as an argument in favor of the view that the Sanhedrin setting and framework to the speech is a secondary (and artificial) construction by the author of Acts (trad. Luke)—for more on this, see further below.

There is perhaps a tendency to gloss over this lengthy recital of Old Testament history; it can seem rather tedious, even irrelevant, in context. It may be tempting, indeed, to skip on ahead to verse 43ff, or even verse 54ff; however there are several reasons why it is important to include this section (and to read it carefully):

First, there is a rhetorical and narrative structure to the speech (see above) which is disrupted if one omits (or ignores) the historical summary; it is vital to a proper understanding of the speech as a whole.
Second, it is important to recognize the place that the Old Testament narrative had for early Christians and in their Gospel preaching; the way Paul references the Scriptures in his letters makes it clear that even Gentile converts must have been made familiar with the Old Testament and Israelite history as part of their basic instruction. Early Christians also saw themselves as fulfilling the history of Israel along with the promises God made to her, and so the Old Testament narrative was, in many ways, fundamental to Christian identity.
Third, the cumulative effect of the speech is lost if one ‘skips ahead’; in particular, the Scripture citation and exposition in vv. 43ff are climactic to the historical summary and really cannot be understood correctly outside of that context.

There are a number of ways one may outline this section; for a useful five-part outline, see Fitzmyer, Acts, p. 365. I have opted for a tripartite structure, as follows:

    • Abraham—the promise made by God to his people (vv. 2-8)
    • Joseph—the sojourn/exile of God’s people in the land of Egypt (vv. 9-16)
    • Moses—the exodus out of Egypt toward the land of promise (vv. 17-42a); this portion can be broken down further:
      (a) {the first forty years}—Moses in Egypt (vv. 17-22)
      (b) forty years—Moses visits his people in Egypt (vv. 23-29)
      (c) forty years—Moses receives revelation from God, with a promise to deliver the people from Egypt (vv. 30-34)
      —”This Moses”… who led Israel out of Egypt (vv. 35-37)
      —”This (Moses)” is the one who was with the congregation (of Israel) in the wilderness (vv. 38-39a)
      ** The Israelites refused to hear/obey (Moses) in the wilderness—turned to idolatry (the Golden Calf, vv. 39b-42a)

Abraham (vv. 2-8)

The first two sections (on Abraham and Joseph) are relatively straightforward summaries of passages from Genesis, with simplification and compression of detail. The summary of Abraham is taken from Genesis 11-12, with quotations or allusions from Psalm 29:3 and Deut 2:5, followed by references to Gen 17:8; 15:13-14 (LXX); Exod 3:12; Gen 17:10; 21:4. The key verse is v. 5, emphasizing God’s promise to Abraham’s descendents—Gen 17:8 (and 48:4); also Gen 12:7; 13:5; 15:18-20; 24:7. This theme of promise already appeared in Peter’s earlier speech (Acts 3:25), and will also be mentioned in Acts 7:17; 13:32; 26:6; the covenant promise to Abraham would play a key role in Paul’s writings (Galatians 3-4; Romans 4; 9:1-9ff). Verse 7 cites Exodus 3:12 (LXX), with one small difference: instead of “in/on this mountain” (e)n tw=| o&rei tou/tw|) we find “in this place” (e)n tw=| to/pw| tou/tw|), which better fits the Temple context underlying the speech.

Joseph (vv. 9-16)

The section on Joseph draws on portions of Genesis 37-46, along with allusions to Psalm 105:21; 37:19; there are also references to Deut 10:22 and Exod 1:6 in verse 15, along with a conflation of Gen 23:16-20 and 33:19 in verse 16. The overall setting of Israel in Egypt naturally fits the theme of exile and the dispersion (Diaspora) of the Israelite/Jewish people—a motif which could already be seen with Abraham leaving his homeland, and sojourning to the land of promise.

Moses (vv. 17-42a)

This section (on Moses) is by far the most developed, demonstrating a clear rhetorical (and didactic) structure. Verses 17-34 adopt the (traditional) scheme of dividing Moses’ life (of 120 years) into three equal periods of 40:

    • forty years—Moses in Egypt (vv. 17-22) [drawn from Exodus 1-2]
    • forty years—Moses visits his people in Egypt (vv. 23-29) [from Exodus 2]
    • forty years—Moses receives revelation from God, with a promise to deliver the people from Egypt (vv. 30-34) [Exodus 3:1-10, direct quotations and paraphrase]

Vv. 23 and 30 begin with similar Greek expressions:

“and when/as forty years’ time was filled (up) [e)plhrou=to] for him…” (v. 23)
“and forty years having been filled (up) [plhrwqe/ntwn]…” (v. 30)

It is also worth noting some key extra-biblical and/or traditional details mentioned in this section:

    • Moses’ beauty—Exod 2:2 [LXX]; Philo, Life of Moses I.9, 18; Josephus, Antiquities II.224
    • Moses’ learning—Philo, Life of Moses I.20-24; II. 1; Jos. Antiquities II.236
      and eloquence—Philo, Life of Moses I.80; Jos. Antiquities II.271 (cf. also Sirach 45:3)
    • The Angel (of the Lord) in the burning bush—Exod 3:2 [LXX] (MSS D H P S 614 of Acts 7:30 read “of the Lord”)

The revelation by theophany (manifestation of God), i.e. His Presence—even if understood in Exod 3:1-10 as occurring through ‘Angelic’ mediation—is an important theme, as it closes this section on Moses’ life and leads into the forceful section in vv. 35-38ff with its emphasis on false worship and idolatry. Even so, it must be admitted (along with many commentators) that the precise point of the speech (taken through verse 34) is hard to see; it certainly does not answer the charges against Stephen, and appears on the surface to be a long (even irrelevant) digression. The tone of the speech, however, changes suddenly and dramatically with verse 35, with the repeated use of the demonstrative pronoun (ou!to$, acc. tou=ton, “this [one]”).

“This (Moses)…” (vv. 35-38)—the speech moves from historical summary (in vv. 17-34, similar to the sections on Abraham/Joseph), to a series of statements extolling Moses’ role in the Exodus and wilderness period, drawing attention especially to the person of Moses by the repeated, staccato-like use of the the demonstrative pronoun (“this”). This not only represents forceful rhetoric, but also serves to draw a clear and unmistakable parallel between Moses and Jesus, as we shall see. Keep in mind a similar use of the demonstrative pronoun in referring to Jesus already in Acts 1:11; 2:23, 32, 36; 4:10-11; 5:31 (“this [one], this Jesus”; also “this name”, Acts 3:16; 4:17; 5:28); the Temple also has been referred to as “this place” (cf. Acts 6:13-14; 7:7).

    • V. 35—”this [tou=ton] Moses, whom they denied/refused… this (one) [tou=ton] God set forth (as) a leader and redeemer…”
    • V. 36—”this (one) [ou!to$] led them out, doing marvels and signs…”
    • V. 37—”this [ou!to$] is Moses, the (one) saying to the sons of Israel…”
    • V. 38—”this [ou!to$] is the (one) coming to be in/among the called-out (people) in the desolate (land)…”

Verses 36-37 specifically emphasize Moses’ role in the Exodus—the deliverance of God’s people out of Egypt; in verses 38-39, the emphasis is on Moses’ role with the congregation (e)kklhsi/a) of Israel in the wilderness. Verse 39 (beginning with the relative pronoun o%$ [dat. w!|]) is transitional, stressing the disobedience of the people and leading into the section on the Golden Calf (vv. 40ff). The following details clarify the parallel drawn between Moses and Jesus:

    • the people denied/refused [h)rnh/sato] Moses (v. 35, cf. also 39ff) just as they denied Jesus (Acts 3:13, same verb)
    • “leader [a&rxwn] and redeemer [lutrwth/$]” (v. 35) are titles similar to those applied to Jesus in Acts 3:15; 5:31 (cf. also 2:36)
    • Moses and Jesus are both “sent” by God (vb. a)poste/llw) in v. 35; 3:20, 26
    • “wonders and signs” (v. 36) are parallel to the miracles of Jesus (2:22, cf. also 4:30)
    • Jesus as fulfillment of the “Prophet (to come) like Moses” from Deut 18:15 (cited v. 37, and in 3:22-23)
    • Moses was with the “called-out” people (e)kklhsi/a) of Israel in the wilderness (v. 38), just as Jesus is with the “called-out” people (e)kklhsi/a), i.e. the believers in Christ, the “church”—the word is first used in this latter sense in Acts 5:11, and occurs frequently from 8:1 on; it was used in the LXX in reference to the people gathering/assembling (to receive the Law, etc), esp. in Deut 4:10; 9:10; 18:16.

The central theme of the theophanous revelation of God at Sinai (already emphasized in vv. 30-34) is brought out again here in verse 38—the closing phrase is especially significant, as it relates to one of the main charges against Stephen; it is useful, I think, to look at it in context with verse 39a:

“(this [Moses])…
who [o^$] received living lo/gia to give to us,
to whom [w!|] our Fathers did not wish to become as (ones) who listen under [i.e. {are} obedient]…

The neuter noun lo/gion (lógion), related to the more common lo/go$ (lógos, “account, word”), more properly refers to something uttered, i.e., “saying, announcement, declaration”; in a religious context especially it is often translated as “oracle”. For the idea of “living words/oracles” see Lev 18:5; Deut 32:46-47; note also a similar expression “the words/utterances of this life” in Acts 5:20.

The Golden Calf (vv. 39-42a)—the second half of verse 39 leads into the episode of the Golden Calf:

“…but they thrust (him [i.e. Moses]) away from (them) and turned in their hearts unto Egypt”

Verses 40-41 are taken from the account of the Golden Calf incident (Exod 32:1-6), emphasizing unlawful/inappropriate sacrifice (qusi/a, [ritual] slaughtering) and idolatry (worship of an image, ei&dwlon). Most important are the closing words of verse 41:

“…and they were happy [lit. of a good mind] in the works of their hands [e)n toi=$ e&rgoi$ tw=n xeirw=n au)tw=n]”

This last phrase introduces the idea of things “made with hands” (tied specifically to idolatry), which will play a vital role in the remainder of the speech.

In verse 39, it is stated that the people turned [e)stra/fhsan] in their hearts (back to Egypt, and idolatry); now, in verse 42a, God turns [e&streyen, same verb] and gives the people over [pare/dwken] for them to do (hired) service [latreu/ein, in a religious sense] to the “armies of heaven” (i.e. sun, moon, stars and planets). Of the many references warning against the consequences of image-worship, see, e.g. Hos 13:2-4; for a fundamental passage warning against worship of the celestial bodies, see Deut 4:16ff. On this idea of God giving/handing transgressors over to an even more serious form of idolatry, see Wisdom 11:15-16 and the famous passage in Romans 1:24-28; often there is the sense that the result (and punishment) of idolatry will resemble the very thing that was being worshipped (cf. Jer 19:10-13, etc).

The main Scripture citation (from Amos 5:25-27), along with the remainder of the speech, will be discussed in the next part of this series.

The Speeches of Acts, Part 9: Acts 7:1-53ff

The great sermon-speech of Stephen in Acts 7 is by far the longest in the book and serves as the climax of the first division (Acts 1:1-8:4)—the story of the early believers in Jerusalem. The persecution recorded in 8:1-4 sets the stage for apostolic mission outside of Judea and the mission to the Gentiles. Stephen’s speech is part of a larger narrative arc, from 6:1 to 8:4:

    • Introductory Narrative (6:1-7)—Stephen and the Seven “deacons”, with summary in verse 7
    • Main Narrative (6:8-15)—the story of Stephen: his arrest and appearance before the Sanhedrin, which serves as a narrative introduction to the speech
    • The Speech of Stephen (7:1-53)
    • Continuation of the Narrative (7:54-8:1a)—the crowd’s reaction and the death of Stephen, which serves as a narrative summary/conclusion to the speech
    • Concluding Narrative (8:1-4)—onset of persecution and the dispersal of believers out of Jerusalem and Judea

There are several details in this narrative which indicate that it is transitional between the story of the early Jerusalem believers (centered around Peter) in chapters 1-5 and the missionary outreach which follows:

    • Stephen is a member of a second group of (seven) men who serve a ministry and leadership role in the congregation, separate from the (twelve) Apostles (6:2-3ff).
    • Though not Apostles, men such as Stephen still share in the miracle-working gift and power of the Spirit (6:8); more than simply waiting on tables (v. 2ff), Stephen was capable and empowered to teach and preach. It is specifically said of him that he was “full of trust (in God) [i.e. faith] and (the) holy Spirit” (v. 5) and “full of favor (from God) [i.e. grace] and power” (v. 8), and that he spoke “with wisdom and (the) Spirit”. Philip, another member of the Seven, has a similarly prominent role in Acts 8.
    • Stephen (and apparently the rest of the Seven) are connected with the “Hellenists” (6:1). Though its precise meaning is disputed, here the term “Hellenist” (transliteration of  (Ellenisth/$, “Greek” or “one who speaks Greek”) probably refers to Jews (i.e., Jewish Christians) who primarily (or entirely) speak and read in Greek. Most likely this includes many Jews from the surrounding nations (the Diaspora) who came and dwelt (“put down house”, 2:5) in Jerusalem and were among the early converts (2:6ff, 41).
    • In verse 9ff, Stephen is shown in close contact with other Hellenistic Jews (from the Diaspora), indicated as being members of several different groups—Libertini (free Roman citizens in Italy), and people from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia and Asia (i.e. in Asia Minor). Here “synagogue” (sunagwgh/) refers not to a building, but to a congregation that meets together for worship and study. Probably five different congregations (along national/ethnic) lines are meant; though it is possible that the last four groups were all part of the Libertini. This detail echoes the Pentecost narrative in Acts 2, as well as foreshadowing the upcoming dispersion (“diaspora”) of Christians into the wider mission field.

Stephen’s speech, though familiar, is probably not so well-known as one might think. It is actually highly complex, especially when looked at within its context in the book of Acts. Despite its length and complexity, it still fits the sermon-speech pattern I have been using in discussing the speeches of Acts:

    • Narrative Introduction—the speech follows upon the main narrative (or first part of it) in 6:8-15, with the question of the High Priest to Stephen in 7:1.
    • Introductory Address (7:2-42a)—instead of Gospel kerygma, we find here a lengthy summary of Israelite history, from the call of Abraham to the Exodus and the incident of the Golden Calf.
    • Citation from Scripture (vv. 42b-43)—from Amos 5:25-27.
    • Exposition and Application (vv. 44-50), including a second Scripture citation (from Isa 66:1-2) which is parallel to the prior passage.
    • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 51-53), with a faint kerygmatic detail in v. 52b.
    • Narrative Summary—the narrative continues/concludes in 7:54-8:1a.

 Narrative Introduction (6:8ff; 7:1)

The main narrative is divided into two parts: (1) the arrest of Stephen with his appearance before the Sanhedrin (6:8-15) and (2) the death of Stephen (7:54-58), with the speech occurring in between. 6:8-15 effectively serves as an introduction to the speech. Much as in chapters 3-4, 5, the miraculous, Spirit-filled ministry of the early Christians (vv. 8-10) provokes a hostile response from the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Stephen, like Peter and the Apostles, is seized and brought before the Council (the Sanhedrin) for interrogation (v. 12; cf. 4:1-6; 5:17-18ff). Stephen’s opponents, it is said, “threw (in) men under(neath)” (i.e., acted underhandedly, in secret) to make claims against him; this, in turn, “moved [i.e. stirred/incited] the people together” to act, as well as the religious leaders (elders and Scribes) who had him arrested, and brought (“into the [place of] sitting togther”, i.e. the Sanhedrin) to face additional charges. Three specific claims or charges against Stephen are mentioned:

    1. “we have heard him speaking words of (abusive) slander uttered unto [i.e. against] Moshe [i.e. Moses] and God” (v. 11)
    2. “this man does not cease speaking words uttered down on [i.e. against] [this] holy (Place) and the Law” (v. 13)
    3. “we have heard him recount/relate that this Yeshua the Nazarean will loose down [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this Place and will make different [i.e. change/alter] the customary/usual things that Moshe gave along to us” (v. 14)

The dual charge in vv. 13-14 is said to have been made by “false witnesses”—this, along with the mention of dissolving/destroying the Temple, establishes a clear and obvious parallel with Jesus’ “trial” before the Sanhedrin as narrated in the Synoptic Gospels (see Mark 14:56-59 and the par Matt 26:59-61); there is also an echo of the High Priest’s question to Jesus (Mark 14:60 par) here in Acts 7:1. These correspondent details have led many (critical) scholars to the conclusion that the author of Acts (trad. Luke) has consciously patterned the narrative framework after that of Jesus’ trial (note the similar framing in chs. 4-5), and that the Sanhedrin setting is secondary (and artificial) to the basic narrative and the speech of Stephen. I will address this point further on.

It is possible to summarize and simplify the charges against Stephen:

    1. he says harsh and evil things against Moses and God
    2. he speaks against the Temple and the Law of Moses (i.e. the Old Testament / Jewish Law)
    3. he says that Jesus will abolish/destroy the Temple and alter the religious customs (rel. to the Law of Moses)

The first claim should probably be viewed as a vulgarized or simplistic form of the last two, which themselves appear to be parallel versions of the same idea—the abolition of the Temple and the Law. But what exactly is involved? Elsewhere in early Christianity, we find two related claims made (against Jesus and Paul):

    • In Synoptic tradition, as indicated above, witnesses at Jesus’ ‘trial’ before the Council claimed that Jesus said:
      “I will loose down [katalu/w, i.e. dissolve/destroy] this shrine ‘made with hands’ and through [i.e. within] three days I will build another ‘made without hands'” (Mk 14:58)—the Matthean version is simpler:
      “I am powered [i.e. able] to loose down [katalu=sai] the shrine of God and, through [i.e. within] three days, to build the house (again)” (Mt 26:61)
      Mark and Matthew say that these were “false witnesses” (as in Acts 6:13); however, Jesus is recorded as saying something similar in John 2:19:
      “Loose [lu/sate] this shrine, and in three days I will raise it”
      I have discussed this saying at some length in an earlier article.
    • In Acts 21:27-28, upon the occasion of Paul’s arrest in the Temple precincts, the claim is made against him that:
      “This is the man (the one) teaching every(one) everywhere against the People and the Law and this Place…”
      The reaction to Paul may simply be due to the way he dealt with Gentiles (in relation to the Law); however, his complex (and controversial) arguments in Galatians and Romans, especially, could certainly be viewed by many Jews (and Jewish Christians) as speaking against the Law.

The charges against Stephen seem to be a combination of these—i.e., (a) he was repeating a saying/teaching of Jesus similar to that of John 2:19 (cf. also Mk 13:1-2 par), and/or (b) he was teaching that the ‘new age’ in Christ meant that it was not necessary to observe the Law and/or Temple ritual. There is no way of knowing for certain whether either of these were fundamental to Stephen’s own argument—Acts 6:10 provides no information; all we have to go by is the speech in 7:2-53. This is most significant, since the High Priest asks Stephen directly whether these charges are true: ei) tau=ta ou!tw$ e&xei, “if these (things) thus hold (true)?” (7:1) One might expect that Stephen would address the charges in defense; but his response provides a most interesting answer, as we shall see.

A final detail in the narrative here is in 6:15:

“And stretching (to look) [i.e. looking intently] unto him, all the (one)s sitting down in the (place of) sitting-together [i.e. council, Sanhedrin] saw his face—as if the face of a (heavenly) Messenger!”

This precedes the High Priest’s question and heightens the drama greatly; it also foreshadows the conclusion to the narrative in 7:54ff, with Stephen’s vision of the exalted Christ (Son of Man) in Heaven at God’s right hand.

The remainder of Stephen’s speech will be discussed in the next part of this series.

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.

Jesus and the Law, Part 6: The Temple

Jesus’ relationship to the Jerusalem Temple is sometimes treated separately from his view of the Law (Torah); however, the Temple ritual is an important part of the commands and ordinances in the Law, so it will be discussed appropriately within the series “Jesus and the Law”. This article will proceed according to the following outline:

    1. Jesus’ “cleansing” of the Temple
    2. The “Temple saying” of Jesus
    3. Other sayings and teachings related to the Temple

1. The “Cleansing” of the Temple

I have discussed this episode in some detail in earlier notes, and here will primarily repeat or summarize the results of those studies.

a. The Synoptic Accounts (Mark 1:15-19; Matthew 21:12-16; Luke 19:45-47)

Luke provides the simplest version (Lk 19:45-46):

45And coming into the sacred place he began to cast out the (ones) selling, 46saying to them, “It has been written: ‘My house will be a house for speaking-out toward (God) [i.e. prayer], and you have made it a cavern for plunderers’.”

Additional details found in Mark and Matthew (Mk 11:15; Matt 21:12):

    • Jesus casts out the (ones) selling and the (ones) buying
    • He overturns (lit. turns [upside] down) the tables of the coin-changers and seats of the (ones) selling doves

Additional details found only in Mark:

    • He did not allow (any)one to carry a vessel through the sacred-place (v. 16)
    • The quotation from Isa 56:7 is extended: “…will be called a house of prayer to/for all the nations” (v. 17)

There can be no doubt that the compound Scripture citation is the key to interpreting the Synoptic accounts as they stand. The first portion comes from Isaiah 56:7: “…My House will be called a house of petition/prayer [hL*p!T=] for all the peoples”. The message of Isa 56:1-8 is that all people who adhere to the Law of God (including Gentiles and foreigners) will become part of God’s people gathered in from exile. It is interesting to note the difference of emphasis:

    • Jesus: “My house will be (called) a house of prayer
    • Isa 56:7: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples

Mark does include the last phrase, but, it would seem, with any special emphasis. However, considering that the commerce would have likely been taking place in the outer Court of the Gentiles (implied by the use of i(ero/n and not nao/$), the Isaian context of foreigners (Gentiles) joining to become part of the (Messianic) restoration of Israel is surely significant. Primarily though, Jesus contrasts “house of prayer” with “cavern of thieves/plunderers”. This portion comes from Jeremiah 7:11, which also has something of a different meaning in its original context. Jer 7:1-29 is a lengthy oracle condemning the evils committed throughout Judah (delivered by the prophet while standing in the gate of the Temple, v. 2); this includes a familiar prophetic denunciation of those who commit evil and yet come to the Temple to participate in the sacred ritual (vv. 8ff). The bitter question is asked in verse 11:

“Has it become a cave of violent (men), this house of which My Name is called upon it, in your eyes?”

The Septuagint (LXX) renders the Hebrew literally, using the approximate phrase “cavern of plunderers” (sph/laion lh|stw=n); Jesus’ quotation follows the LXX phrase. By way of dramatic hyperbole, any “profane” business, even that associated with maintaining the Temple, was tantamount to turning the sacred place into a “cave of violent robbers”! In all four Gospels, but especially in John (v. 16b), Jesus seems to be objecting to commerce taking place anywhere within the Temple precincts (see below). This also would be confirmed by the curious detail in Mark (v. 16),  that Jesus “did not allow (any)one to carry a vessel through the sacred-place”. This probably is an echo of Zech 14:20-21, a passage which almost certainly colors the Gospel account, even as Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem (as the coming/Anointed King) is shaped by Zech 9:9ff. Another relevant (Messianic) passage would be Mal 3:1ff, which speaks of the Lord coming suddenly to His Temple, where he will purify the priests and their offerings (vv. 3-4). That Mal 3:1 was understood to apply to Jesus (with John the Baptist as his messenger) in Gospel Tradition is clear from Mark 1:2 (cf. also Matt 11:10ff and Luke 1:76).

b. The Johannine Account (Jn 2:14-17)

In the Synoptic Gospels, the “cleansing” episode is narrated near the end of Jesus’ public ministry, just after the Entry into Jerusalem; in John, on the other hand, it appears to take place at the beginning of his ministry. Some traditional-conservative commentators, taking the apparent chronologies literally, harmonize by positing two separate “cleansing” incidents. This is highly unlikely. The narratives (in the Synoptics and John) are close enough that we can be relatively certain that a single historical tradition underlies both accounts. If this is so, then which ‘chronology’ is more accurate? The Synoptics really only record one visit of Jesus to Jerusalem (at the end of his ministry); on the basis of this arrangement, various traditions which take place within a Jerusalem setting, might naturally be included as part of this last visit. Many scholars would view the multiple visits to Jerusalem (with three different Passover settings) as technically and historically more accurate, and thus favor an earlier date for the “cleansing”. On the other hand, the dramatic nature of the episode, which (at the historical level) must have greatly increased opposition to Jesus from the religious authorities, fits better a time closer to his death. If the saying in 2:18-22 was actually uttered at the time of the “cleansing” (on this see below), then again a moment nearer to his trial and crucifixion is to be preferred.

The Johannine account (2:14-17), on the one hand, creates a more vivid and dramatic scene with the inclusion of several details:

    • The mention of cattle and sheep in the Temple precincts (v. 14f)
    • Jesus’ use of a whip made of cords (v. 15)—it is not entirely clear whether he uses it to drive out the sellers, the cattle/sheep, or both.
    • In overturning (lit. upturning) the coin-changers tables, the coin-pieces pour out (v. 15)

On the other hand, instead of the Scripture citation (from Isa 56:7 and Jer 7:11), Jesus replies more matter-of-factly (to the ones selling doves): “Take up/away these (things from here) on this (side and that)! do not make the house of my Father a house of commerce!” (v. 16). Is the Synoptic quotation an ‘exposition’ of Jesus’ words as recorded here in John? Or does John’s account ‘explain’ the quotation? A (different) Scripture passage is cited in John, from Psalm 69:9: “The ‘zeal’ of [i.e. for] your house has eaten me (up)”. The word usually translated “zeal/jealousy” (ha*n+q!) has the basic sense of “(burning) red”, the Greek word zh=lo$ properly “heat/fervor”. The Septuagint (LXX) renders the Hebrew quite literally, and the quotation in John follows the LXX (B), reading the future tense (katefa/getai “will eat me down [i.e. devour me]”). The future form, of course, betters suited the verse as a prophecy related to Jesus; indeed, reflection on Psalm 69 helped shape the Gospel tradition of his Passion (as indicated in v. 17a), and is doubtless one of the key texts used to show that the Messiah must suffer and die (see especially Luke 24:25-27, 44-46). There is a slight ambiguity here in the Psalm: while the ‘zeal’ is generally understood of the protagonist (or Psalmist)—that he is consumed with (righteous) fervor—it could also be taken to mean, in the overall context of suffering, that his righteous zeal has caused him to be “eaten up” by his enemies. The citation in the Gospel could be interpreted, or made to apply, either way. Since it is associated with Jesus’ “cleansing” action, the image primarily would be the intense nature (all-consuming fire) of his ‘zeal’ for God’s house; but it is also possible that a bit of wordplay is involved—a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death that connects with the Temple saying in vv. 19-22.

c. Significance of the “Cleansing” (at the Historical level)

On the basis of an objective analysis of the Gospel accounts, there would seem to be two main possibilities with regard to what Jesus intended to convey by his action:

1. Cleansing/Purifying the Temple. This is the most common interpretation, and is suggested particularly by the Synoptic accounts (see below). But cleansing in what sense? It can be understood several ways:

  • Jesus was focusing on the presence of the sellers of animals and money-changers in the Temple precincts. The general language used in the Synoptic accounts would suggest that he was targeting any commerce taking place in the Temple precincts (“the [ones] selling and the [ones] buying” Mark 11:15 par). Even though these transactions would have occurred in the outer court (of the Gentiles), and not the sanctuary, Jesus may have objected to their taking place in the Temple precincts at all. The symbolism might be understood in terms that the entire Temple (complex) should be holy.
  • Jesus was targeting not the Temple commerce per se, but rather the corruption and profiteering which was taking place. This is a popular view, but there is little evidence for it in the texts beyond a superficial reading of the second part of the saying in Mark 11:17 par (from Jer 7:11). More plausibly, Jesus is targeting the burden which the Temple commerce places upon the poor—cf. the emphasis on overturning the tables of the money-changers and sellers-of-doves (the sacrificial animal of the poor).
  • Jesus’ emphasis was on the Temple ritual as a whole. Since the system of sacrifice, and the tax to fund the Temple, could not exist without the purchase of animals and exchange of coinage, Jesus’ driving out the sellers and money-changers could be viewed as an attack on the Temple ritual itself. However, apart from this episode, there it little evidence in the Gospels for such an explicit attack on the Temple. It will become more prominent later on (cf. the speech of Stephen in Acts 7 [esp. vv. 38-50], the epistle to the Hebrews, and, possibly, within the Gospel of John [see below]). Still, the quotation of Isa 56:7 in Mark 11:17 par. could indicate that Jesus had a different role for the Temple in mind.
  • Jesus was attacking the current Temple administration. This was characteristic of the Community of the Qumran texts, which did not oppose the Temple as such, but rather the illegitimacy and corruption of the ruling Priesthood that oversaw the Temple machinery. In the Gospels certainly we find more instances of Jesus speaking out against the current religious authorities than against the Temple; however, it is hard to find much evidence of that in the episode here.
  • It was a general symbol of cleansing related to the idea of the Temple’s holiness. In other words, the Temple as symbolic of the place where people encounter the Presence of God, requires (at its fundamental religious and spiritual level) the removal of anything profane. I think it quite possible that this is closer to Jesus’ intention than the other interpretations mentioned above.

2. Destruction of the Temple. Here more emphasis is placed on the overturning of tables, etc. as a symbol of judgment. We have additional evidence that Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple on more than one occastion (Mark 14:58; Matt 26:61, also Mark 15:29 par.; Mark 13:1-2 par. [esp. Lk 21:5-6]). As mentioned above, if the saying in Jn 2:18-22 originally took place at the time of the the Temple action, then it makes this interpretation more likely. Again, one may consider several different aspects to the theme of judgment/destruction:

  • The corruption of the current Temple/priesthood. This view is similar to several of the “cleansing” interpretations offered above. The current apparatus will be destroyed and replaced with a new, pure Temple (whether real or symbolic).
  • The Restoration of Israel. In the exilic and post-exilic Prophets, as well as in later Judaism, a new (ideal) Temple is part of the (Messianic) restoration of Israel. See the Temple description in Ezekiel 40-48, and especially Isa 56:1-8 and Zech 14:16-21, both of which are reflected in the Gospel accounts. Also, note that Mark, in particular, connects the Temple episode with the withering of the fig tree (an Old Testament symbol for Israel), Mk 11:12-14, 20-21.
  • Jesus himself replaces the Temple (cult). This is more appropriate as an early Christian interpretation (which will be discussed); however, it is noteworthy in the Synoptic accounts that, after this episode, Jesus spends much of the time teaching within the Temple precincts. At the historical level, Jesus appears to have consciously identified himself with the (Messianic) king of Zech 9-14 (cf. Mark 11:1-11 par.), and may have intentionally tied his presence in Jerusalem (and the Temple) to Zech 14:16-21 (see the curious detail found only in Mk 11:16).

Is it possible that symbolism both of cleansing and destruction apply equally to the event? If we take the Gospel accounts at face value, there are two elements to Jesus’ action (Luke only mentioned the first of these):

    • Driving out the buyers and sellers
    • Overturning the tables of the money-changers (and sellers of doves)

2. The “Temple-saying” of Jesus

This is known in two forms: (a) as a (false) charge against Jesus at his “trial”, and (b) in John 2:19ff.

a. The charge made during the “trial” of Jesus

According to the accounts in Mark and Matthew (Luke does not include this part), false witnesses came forward to testify that Jesus had claimed he would destroy the Temple. Here the statements are presented side by side, along with Jn 2:19 for comparison (cf. below):

Mark 14:58

We heard him saying that
“I will loose down [katalu/sw] this shrine th(at is) made-with-hands and through [i.e. by/within] three days I will build another (house) made-without-hands”

Matthew 26:61

This (man) said
“I have power [i.e. am able] to loose down [katalu=sai] the shrine of God and through [i.e. by/within] three days to build (it again).”

John 2:19

Jesus answered and said to them
“Loose [lu/sate] this shrine and in three days I will raise it (up again).”

Even though the account in Mark/Matthew states that these were false and/or contradictory witnesses, most critical scholars would hold that Jesus made some declaration or prophecy along these lines. The charge was reasonably widespread (cf. also Mark 15:30 par, and Acts 6:14), and all three Synoptics record a prediction that the Temple would be destroyed (Mark 13:1-3 par.). And, of course, it would seem to be confirmed by the saying in Jn 2:19. What is the relationship between the Johannine saying and the Synoptic (false) saying? There are several possibilities:

    • They reflect separate sayings or traditions
    • It is the same saying—John records the exact form, the Synoptics show how it was misrepresented at the ‘trial’
    • It is the same saying, recorded by the Synoptic ‘witnesses’ with general accuracy, and modified slightly in John

The second option is probably closer to being correct, though critical arguments could be (and have been) made for the third. What do the Synoptics (Matthew/Mark) mean when they state that the saying as reported is “false” witness (Mk 14:57; Matt 26:60)? Do they deny that Jesus ever made such a statement (contrary to Jn 2:19)? Or is it a matter of misrepresenting what Jesus said? How then was it misrepresented? There are only a few ways this could have been done:

    • Altering the saying so that Jesus said he would destroy the Temple (“I will destroy/dissolve…”). By comparison, in John the imperative is used, directed at the Judeans (“[Go ahead and] destroy/dissolve…”). Interestingly, the version in Matthew (“I have power to destroy/dissolve…”), while differing in vocabulary, is not so different in meaning from the saying in John.
    • The reference to destroying the Temple that is made with hands (xeiropoi/hto$) and building in its place one made without hands (a)xeiropoi/hto$). These qualifiers are absent from the versions of the saying in Matthew and John. However, the sort of spiritual replacement of the Temple suggested by the terms is consonant with later New Testament theology, and could have originated with Jesus. For a somewhat comparable interpretation in the Gospel of John itself, see below; and note my discussion of the motif in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7.
    • There are two other small differences between the Synoptic and Johannine sayings: (1) the trial witnesses use the phrase “dia/ [through, i.e. by/within] three days”, while Jesus says “e)n [in] three days”; and (2) the trial witnesses use the verb oi)kodome/w (“build [a house]”), while Jesus uses the verb e)gei/rw (“raise”). It is hard to know how far these differences alter the meaning, other than that the language in John better fits the interpretation of the saying given in Jn 2:21 (see below).

b. The Saying in John 2:19

“Loose [i.e. dissolve] this shrine and in three days I will raise it (up again).”

Connection to the question in verse 18. There is a parallel structure between the two verses:

  • Introduction: “Therefore the Judeans gave forth (an answer) [a)pekri/qhsan] and said [ei@pan] to him”
    • Question: “What sign are you showing that you (should) do these (things)?” (v. 18)
  • Introduction: “Jesus gave forth (an answer) [a)pekri/qh] and said [ei@pen] to them”
    • Answer: “Loose this shrine and in three days I will raise it” (v. 19)

The verb a)pokri/nomai indicates responding back to something one has considered, literally, “separating” out from oneself a response. In simple narrative, as here, we would say “answered/responded and said…”.  It is possible that the saying in verse 19 was originally separate from the “cleansing” episode, and that the Gospel writer has joined the two traditions together. Whether or not this is the case, the parallelism indicated above demonstrates precise, careful handling of the material; one might extend the structure, by considering v. 18-19a as a chiasm introducing the saying:

    • The Judeans answered/responded and said
      • “What sign are you showing…?”
    • Jesus answered/responded and said…

It is a bit difficult to determine just how the saying relates to the Judeans’ question (whether at the historical level or in the Gospel narrative). In spite of the different (Johannine) vocabulary, the question would be similar to that in Mark 11:28 par (“in what authority are you doing these things?”). Jesus’ response could then be paraphrased as “I have authority/power even to (destroy and) rebuild the Temple”. The imperative lu/sate seems to put the challenge to the Judeans—i.e. “(Even) if you were to destroy/dissolve this Temple…” or perhaps “Go ahead and destroy this Temple…”—but there is some uncertainty that this represents the original form of the saying.

The Reaction to the Saying in v. 20. One common element of the references to the Temple saying (with the possible exception of Mark 14:58) is that those who heard it assumed that Jesus meant he would destroy the actual (Herodian) Temple. The Synoptic Gospels record that Jesus, in fact, did predict its destruction (Mk 13:1-2 par). How people understood the second half of the saying is not as clear: the Markan version presented at the ‘trial’ indicates that Jesus would build a Temple “made without hands”, by which probably was meant a real (physical) building, but one produced miraculously (possibly coming down out of Heaven). In John, the Judeans naturally question how Jesus could rebuild something comparable to the Herodian Temple (which took “forty-six years to build”) in just three days. This is an example of the wordplay, and theme of misunderstanding, which appear frequently in the Fourth Gospel—Jesus’ audience takes his words at the (superficial) level of their apparent meaning, and miss their deeper (true, spiritual) significance. This is clear from the Johannine interpretation which follows in vv. 21-22.

It is worth noting that many critical scholars believe that (the historical) Jesus meant the words literally (more or less as presented in the Synoptic ‘trial’ narrative)—that he said he would destroy (or that God would destroy) the Herodian Temple, and a new (miraculous) Temple would rise in its place. A new/rebuilt Temple was certainly part of the exilic/post-exilic prophecies (already found in so-called Deutero-Trito-Isaiah [cf. Isa 44:28; 56:1-8; 60:3-14; 66:18-24], and see especially in Ezek 40-48), tied to the idea of the restoration of Israel and, in post-exilic Jewish writings, to the dawn of the Messianic age (e.g., Tobit 14:5ff; 1 Enoch 89-90; and the Qumran Temple Scroll). It is also certain that the Herodian Temple was far from the idealized Temple of the new age—witness the critiques of the Qumran sectarians, and the “Cleansing” by Jesus—and, therefore, the coming of the Messiah would require the rebuilding of a pure new Temple. While some of Jesus’ followers may have expected this of him, there is precious little evidence for such a conventional “Messianic” emphasis in the Gospel narratives as they stand. Indeed, by the time the later New Testament books were written (including, it would seem, the Gospels of Luke and John, c. 75-90 A.D.), there is hardly a trace to be found of expectation for a rebuilt Temple.

The Johannine Interpretation (vv. 21-22). These verses, by the Gospel writer, finally determine how one must interpret the saying in the text as it stands. This interpretation is summarized first in v. 21

But that one [i.e. Jesus] related/spoke about the shrine [nao/$] of his body

and then is expounded (parallel with verse 17) in v. 22

Therefore when he was raised [h)ge/rqh] out of [i.e. from] the dead (ones), his learners [i.e. disciples] remembered that he had said/related this, and they trusted in the Writing and the account [i.e. word] which Yeshua {Jesus} had said.

The Temple saying as recorded by the Synoptics (at the ‘trial’) also uses the word nao/$ (“shrine”), presumably for the Temple as a whole (also in v. 20 here), even though the word more properly applies to the inner Sanctuary (“Holy Place”). Similarly the term i(ero/n (“sacred-place”), though it also could be used for the entire Temple (precincts), in the “cleansing” episode almost certainly it refers to the outer court (i.e. of the Gentiles). By bringing these two traditions together, the Gospel writer here creates an important juxtaposition between i(ero/n and nao/$—the nao/$ Jesus was speaking of was the (inner) sanctuary/shrine of his body. In this regard, the significance in his use of e)gei/rw (“raise”) in v. 19 is obvious. Here, too, we see the Johannine theme of Jesus replacing, or fulfilling, the Old Testament religious types and symbols—the focus moves away from the physical Jerusalem Temple (both sacred-precincts and shrine) to the Person of Jesus. This will be discussed in more detail in an upcoming article on “The Law in the Gospel of John” (part of the series on “Jesus and the Law”).

The remainder of this article—presenting additional sayings by Jesus related to the Temple, and concluding with an interpretive summary—will be found in the next part in this series.

January 22: John 2:13-22 (continued)

This is the concluding portion of an extended note on the “Cleansing of the Temple” narrative in John 2:13-22, posted on Jan 19 and 20. Here I will discuss the Temple saying in vv. 19ff:

“Loose [i.e. dissolve] this shrine and in three days I will raise it (up again).”

Connection to the question in verse 18. There is a parallel structure between the two verses:

  • Introduction: “Therefore the Judeans gave forth (an answer) [a)pekri/qhsan] and said [ei@pan] to him”
    • Question: “What sign are you showing that you (should) do these (things)?” (v. 18)
  • Introduction: “Jesus gave forth (an answer) [a)pekri/qh] and said [ei@pen] to them”
    • Answer: “Loose this shrine and in three days I will raise it” (v. 19)

The verb a)pokri/nomai involves the root verb kri/nw in the fundamental sense of “separate”, i.e. to give out from (a)po/) oneself a response (or answer, defense, etc). Occasionally the legal idea of “judgment” (or a decision) is meant, perhaps indicating a response back to something one has considered (“judged”). However, typically it refers to giving an answer, in the general sense; in simple narrative, as here, we would say “answered/responded and said…”. Previously I mentioned the possibility that the saying in verse 19 was originally separate from the “cleansing” episode, and that the Gospel writer has joined the two traditions together. Whether or not this is the case, the parallelism indicated above demonstrates precise, careful handling of the material; one might extend the structure, by considering v. 18-19a as a chiasm introducing the saying:

    • The Judeans answered/responded and said
      • “What sign are you showing…?”
    • Jesus answered/responded and said…

It is a bit difficult to determine just how the saying relates to the Judeans’ question (whether at the historical level or in the Gospel narrative). In spite of the different (Johannine) vocabulary, the question would be similar to that in Mark 11:28 par (“in what authority are you doing these things?”). Jesus’ response could then be paraphrased as “I have authority/power even to (destroy and) rebuild the Temple”. The imperative lu/sate seems to put the challenge to the Judeans—i.e. “(Even) if you were to destroy/dissolve this Temple…” or perhaps “Go ahead and destroy this Temple…”—but there is some uncertainty that this represents the original form of the saying (see below).

Relation of this Saying to the later ‘charge’. The saying in Jn 2:19 is similar to that presented at Jesus’ ‘trial’ before the Sanhedrin, as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark and Matthew). Here are the three sayings:

Mark 14:58

We heard him saying that
“I will loose down [katalu/sw] this shrine th(at is) made-with-hands and through [i.e. by/within] three days I will build another (house) made-without-hands”

Matthew 26:61

This (man) said
“I have power [i.e. am able] to loose down [katalu=sai] the shrine of God and through [i.e. by/within] three days to build (it again).”

John 2:19

Jesus answered and said to them
“Loose [lu/sate] this shrine and in three days I will raise it (up again).”

Even though the account in Mark/Matthew states that these were false and/or contradictory witnesses, most critical scholars would hold that Jesus made some declaration or prophecy along these lines. The charge was reasonably widespread (cf. also Mark 15:30 par, and Acts 6:14), and all three Synoptics record a prediction that the Temple would be destroyed (Mark 13:1-3 par.). And, of course, it would seem to be confirmed by the saying in Jn 2:19. What is the relationship between the Johannine saying and the Synoptic (false) saying? There are several possibilities:

    • They reflect separate sayings or traditions
    • It is the same saying—John records the exact form, the Synoptics show how it was misrepresented at the ‘trial’
    • It is the same saying, recorded by the Synoptic ‘witnesses’ with general accuracy, and modified slightly in John

The second option is probably closer to being correct, though critical arguments could be (and have been) made for the third. What do the Synoptics (Matthew/Mark) mean when they state that the saying as reported is “false” witness (Mk 14:57; Matt 26:60 [Luke omits the incident])? Do they deny that Jesus ever made such a statement (contrary to Jn 2:19)? Or is it a matter of misrepresenting what Jesus said? How then was it misrepresented? There are only a few ways this could have been done:

  • Altering the saying so that Jesus said he would destroy the Temple (“I will destroy/dissolve…”). By comparison, in John the imperative is used, directed at the Judeans (“[Go ahead and] destroy/dissolve…”). Interestingly, the version in Matthew (“I have power to destroy/dissolve…”), while differing in vocabulary, is not so different in meaning from the saying in John.
  • The reference to destroying the Temple that is made with hands (xeiropoi/hto$) and building in its place one made without hands (a)xeiropoi/hto$). These qualifiers are absent from the versions of the saying in Matthew and John. However, the sort of spiritual replacement of the Temple suggested by the terms is consonant with later New Testament theology, and could have originated with Jesus. For a somewhat comparable interpretation in the Gospel of John itself, see below.
  • There are two other small differences between the Synoptic and Johannine sayings: (1) the trial witnesses use the phrase “dia/ [through, i.e. by/within] three days”, while Jesus says “e)n [in] three days”; and (2) the trial witnesses use the verb oi)kodome/w (“build [a house]”), while Jesus uses the verb e)gei/rw (“raise”). It is hard to know how far these differences alter the meaning, other than that the language in John better fits the interpretation of the saying given in Jn 2:21 (see below).

The Reaction to the Saying in v. 20. One common element of the references to the Temple saying (with the possible exception of Mark 14:58) is that those who heard it assumed that Jesus meant he would destroy the actual (Herodian) Temple. The Synoptic Gospels record that Jesus, in fact, did predict its destruction (Mk 13:1-2 par). How people understood the second half of the saying is not as clear: the Markan version presented at the ‘trial’ indicates that Jesus would build a Temple “made without hands”, by which probably was meant a real (physical) building, but one produced miraculously (possibly coming down out of Heaven). In John, the Judeans naturally question how Jesus could rebuild something comparable to the Herodian Temple (which took “forty-six years to build”) in just three days. This is an example of the wordplay, and theme of misunderstanding, which appear frequently in the Fourth Gospel—Jesus’ audience takes his words at the (superficial) level of their apparent meaning, and miss their deeper (true, spiritual) significance. This is clear from the Johannine interpretation which follows in vv. 21-22.

It is worth noting that many critical scholars believe that (the historical) Jesus meant the words literally (more or less as presented in the Synoptic ‘trial’ narrative)—that he said he would destroy (or that God would destroy) the Herodian Temple, and a new (miraculous) Temple would rise in its place. A new/rebuilt Temple was certainly part of the exilic/post-exilic prophecies (already found in so-called Deutero-Trito-Isaiah [cf. Isa 44:28; 56:1-8; 60:3-14; 66:18-24], and see especially in Ezek 40-48), tied to the idea of the restoration of Israel and, in post-exilic Jewish writings, to the dawn of the Messianic age (e.g., Tobit 14:5ff; 1 Enoch 89-90; and the Qumran Temple Scroll). It is also certain that the Herodian Temple was far from the idealized Temple of the new age—witness the critiques of the Qumran sectarians, and the “Cleansing” by Jesus—and, therefore, the coming of the Messiah would require the rebuilding of a pure new Temple. While some of Jesus’ followers may have expected this of him, there is precious little evidence for such a conventional “Messianic” emphasis in the Gospel narratives as they stand. Indeed, by the time the later New Testament books were written (including, it would seem, the Gospels of Luke and John, c. 75-90 A.D.), there is hardly a trace to be found of expectation for a rebuilt Temple. The role of the Temple in Jewish and early Christian eschatology is addressed in more detail in the series “Eschatology and Prophecy in the New Testament” (soon to be posted here).

The Johannine Interpretation (vv. 21-22). These verses, by the Gospel writer, finally determine how one must interpret the saying in the text as it stands. This interpretation is summarized first in v. 21—

But that one [i.e. Jesus] related/spoke about the shrine [nao/$] of his body

and then is expounded (parallel with verse 17) in v. 22—

Therefore when he was raised [h)ge/rqh] out of [i.e. from] the dead (ones), his learners [i.e. disciples] remembered that he had said/related this, and they trusted in the Writing and the account [i.e. word] which Yeshua {Jesus} had said.

The Temple saying as recorded by the Synoptics (at the ‘trial’) also uses the word nao/$ (“shrine”), presumably for the Temple as a whole (also in v. 20 here), even though the word more properly applies to the inner Sanctuary (“Holy Place”). Similarly the term i(ero/n (“sacred-place”), though it also could be used for the entire Temple (precincts), in the “cleansing” episode almost certainly it refers to the outer court (i.e. of the Gentiles). By bringing these two traditions together, the Gospel writer here creates an important juxtaposition between i(ero/n and nao/$—the nao/$ Jesus was speaking of was the (inner) sanctuary/shrine of his body. In this regard, the significance in his use of e)gei/rw (“raise”) in v. 19 is obvious. Here, too, we see the Johannine theme of Jesus replacing, or fulfilling, the Old Testament religious types and symbols—the focus moves away from the physical Jerusalem Temple (both sacred-precincts and shrine) to the Person of Jesus. This theme will recur, in various forms, throughout chapters 3-12, as Jesus appears in Jerusalem during the various feasts and holy days (Sabbath, Passover [twice more], Sukkoth/Tabernacles, and Dedication/Hanukkah). Ultimately, Jesus will be depicted as the sacrificial (Paschal) Lamb slain (on the cross) on the eve of Passover (Jn 19:14, 31-36).

This diminishing of the Temple’s importance, of priority given to the Spirit over the physical/material, is reflected elsewhere in the Gospel of John (see esp. Jn 4:21-24; 6:63). In the Johannine book of Revelation, the Heavenly Temple of God is mentioned (Rev 7:15; 11:19; 14:15-17; 16:1, 17), virtually to the exclusion of the earthly (11:1-2). In the final vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem, it is stated that there is no Temple [nao/$] in it—for the Lord God Almighty is its Temple [nao/$], along with the Lamb (21:22).

The Temple-action and saying of Jesus is discussed further in the series “The Law and the New Testament” and “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition” (both soon to be posted here).

January 21: John 2:13-22 (continued)

(For the first three sections of this extended discussion of the “Cleansing of the Temple” in John 2:13-22, see the previous day’s note)

4. The Gospel Tradition of the “Cleansing”. As mentioned above, all four Gospel accounts appear to be based on a single historical tradition. Luke provides the simplest version (Lk 19:45-46):

45And coming into the sacred place he began to cast out the (ones) selling, 46saying to them, “It has been written: ‘My house will be a house for speaking-out toward (God) [i.e. prayer], and you have made it a cavern for plunderers’.”

Additional details found in Mark and Matthew (Mk 11:15; Matt 21:12):

    • Jesus casts out the (ones) selling and the (ones) buying
    • He overturns (lit. turns [upside] down) the tables of the coin-changers and seats of the (ones) selling doves

Additional details found only in Mark:

    • He did not allow (any)one to carry a vessel through the sacred-place (v. 16)
    • The quotation from Isa 56:7 is extended: “…will be called a house of prayer to/for all the nations” (v. 17)

The Johannine account (2:14-17), on the one hand, creates a more vivid and dramatic scene with the inclusion of several details:

    • The mention of cattle and sheep in the Temple precincts (v. 14f)
    • Jesus’ use of a whip made of cords (v. 15)—it is not entirely clear whether he uses it to drive out the sellers, the cattle/sheep, or both.
    • In overturning (lit. upturning) the coin-changers tables, the coin-pieces pour out (v. 15)

On the other hand, instead of the Scripture citation (from Isa 56:7 and Jer 7:11), Jesus replies more matter-of-factly (to the ones selling doves): “Take up/away these (things from here) on this (side and that)! do not make the house of my Father a house of commerce!” (v. 16). Is the Synoptic quotation an ‘exposition’ of Jesus’ words as recorded here in John? Or does John’s account ‘explain’ the quotation? A (different) Scripture passage is cited in John, which will be discussed below.

There can be no doubt that the compound Scripture citation is the key to interpreting the Synoptic accounts as they stand. The first portion comes from Isaiah 56:7: “…My House will be called a house of petition/prayer [hL*p!T=] for all the peoples”. The message of Isa 56:1-8 is that all people who adhere to the Law of God (including Gentiles and foreigners) will become part of God’s people gathered in from exile. It is interesting to note the difference of emphasis:

  • Jesus: “My house will be (called) a house of prayer
  • Isa 56:7: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples

Mark does include the last phrase, but, it would seem, with any special emphasis. However, considering that the commerce would have likely been taking place in the outer Court of the Gentiles (implied by the use of i(ero/n and not nao/$), the Isaian context of foreigners (Gentiles) joining to become part of the (Messianic) restoration of Israel is surely significant. Primarily though, Jesus contrasts “house of prayer” with “cavern of thieves/plunderers”. This portion comes from Jeremiah 7:11, which also has something of a different meaning in its original context. Jer 7:1-29 is a lengthy oracle condemning the evils committed throughout Judah (delivered by the prophet while standing in the gate of the Temple, v. 2); this includes a familiar prophetic denunciation of those who commit evil and yet come to the Temple to participate in the sacred ritual (vv. 8ff). The bitter question is asked in verse 11:

“Has it become a cave of violent (men), this house of which My Name is called upon it, in your eyes?”

The Septuagint (LXX) renders the Hebrew literally, using the approximate phrase “cavern of plunderers” (sph/laion lh|stw=n); Jesus’ quotation follows the LXX phrase. By way of dramatic hyperbole, any “profane” business, even that associated with maintaining the Temple, was tantamount to turning the sacred place into a “cave of violent robbers”! In all four Gospels, but especially in John (v. 16b), Jesus seems to be objecting to commerce taking place anywhere within the Temple precincts. This also would be confirmed by the curious detail in Mark (v. 16),  that Jesus “did not allow (any)one to carry a vessel through the sacred-place”. This probably is an echo of Zech 14:20-21, a passage which almost certainly colors the Gospel account, even as Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem (as the coming/Anointed King) is shaped by Zech 9:9ff. Another relevant (Messianic) passage would be Mal 3:1ff, which speaks of the Lord coming suddenly to His Temple, where he will purify the priests and their offerings (vv. 3-4). That Mal 3:1 was understood to apply to Jesus (with John the Baptist as his messenger) in Gospel Tradition is clear from Mark 1:2 (cf. also Matt 11:10ff and Luke 1:76).

5. The Johannine Passage (Jn 2:13-22). The structure of the passage overall should first be noted, for it supplies the framework necessary for interpretation:

  • The Temple action (vv. 13-16)
    • Parenthesis (v. 17): “His disciples remembered…”—citation of Psalm 69:9
  • The Question (v. 18): “What sign do you show us…?”
  • The Temple saying (vv. 19-20[21])
    • Parenthesis (v. 21-22): “His disciples remembered…”—in between (1) interpretation of the saying, and (2) a statement of the disciples’ later belief

The Temple action (vv. 13-17). The account of the “cleansing” derives from the same historical tradition that underlies the Synoptic version. This has been discussed above; there is little indication that the episode itself has a fundamentally different meaning here. If the quotation of Isa 56:7/Jer 7:11 was part of the common tradition, the Gospel writer has omitted it—replacing it with different/historical words of Jesus, or, perhaps, ‘explaining’ the quotation. Another Scripture appears in the parenthesis, from Psalm 69:9: “The ‘zeal’ of [i.e. for] your house has eaten me (up)”. The word usually translated “zeal/jealousy” (ha*n+q!) has the basic sense of “(burning) red”, the Greek word zh=lo$ properly “heat/fervor”. The Septuagint (LXX) renders the Hebrew quite literally, and the quotation in John follows the LXX (B), reading the future tense (katefa/getai “will eat me down [i.e. devour me]”). The future form, of course, betters suited the verse as a prophecy related to Jesus; indeed, reflection on Psalm 69 helped shape the Gospel tradition of his Passion (as indicated in v. 17a), and is doubtless one of the key texts used to show that the Messiah must suffer and die (see especially Luke 24:25-27, 44-46). There is a slight ambiguity here in the Psalm: while the ‘zeal’ is generally understood of the protagonist (or Psalmist)—that he is consumed with (righteous) fervor—it could also be taken to mean, in the overall context of suffering, that his righteous zeal has caused him to be “eaten up” by his enemies. The citation in the Gospel could be interpreted, or made to apply, either way. Since it is associated with Jesus’ “cleansing” action, the image primarily would be the intense nature (all-consuming fire) of his ‘zeal’ for God’s house; but it is also possible that a bit of wordplay is involved—a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death that connects with the Temple saying in vv. 19-22.

The Question (v. 18). The highlighting of this verse is based, in part, on the theory that the Gospel writer has joined together separate traditions. However, even looking at the narrative (2:13-22) as a whole, the question the “Jews” ask remains central. It is similar to the question asked by the religious authorities in Mark 11:28 par.—”In (what) such authority [e)cousi/a] are you doing these (things)?”—but the difference in wording here is especially significant:

Therefore the Judeans {Jews} judged from (this) [i.e. responded back] and said to him:
“What sign [shmei=on] do you show [deiknu/ei$] that you (should) do these (things)?”

The noun shmei=on and verb deiknu/w (which occur in sequence in the Greek of v. 18) are both important words in the Gospel of John, carrying theological-christological meaning. With regard to deiknu/w, the closely related (and more common) verb dei/knumi is used in reference to what the Father shows the Son, and, in turn, what the Son shows (the world) from the Father (Jn 5:20; 14:8-9; also note 10:32; 20:20). Shmei=on (pl. shmei=a) is used frequently in John—Jesus’ symbolic actions (particularly the miracles) are called “signs” (Jn 2:23; 3:2; 4:48; 6:2, 14, 26, 30; 7:31; 9:16; 11:47; 12:18, 37; 20:30); on the basis of the references in Jn 2:11; 4:54, chapters 2-12, with their alternation of miracle and dialogue/discourse, are sometimes referred to as the “Book of Signs”. The use of shmei=on and deiknu/w here serve to transition from the traditional “cleansing” action to the deeper meaning of the Temple saying.

The Temple saying (vv. 19-22). What remains is to treat this powerful and provocative saying of Jesus (v. 19):

“Loose [i.e. dissolve] this shrine [nao/n] and in three days I will raise it (up again).”

(This saying will be discussed in detail in a concluding note.)

January 20: John 2:13-22

The second episode in John 2 is the “cleansing” of the Temple (for the first [the miracle at Cana] see the previous day’s note), which here is comprised of two parts: (1) the action in the Temple (2:13-17) and (2) the saying about the Temple (2:18-22). A proper treatment of this passage requires that one touch upon historical-critical questions more than I would normally do in these notes and articles. I will briefly discuss each relevant point, in sequence.

    1. The Chronology of the Passage
    2. The Relation between Temple Action (Sign) and Saying
    3. Significance of the Temple Action (at the Historical level)
    4. The Gospel Tradition regarding the Temple Action
    5. The Johannine Narrative

1. The Chronology of the Passage. In the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 11:15-19; Matthew 21:12-16; Luke 19:45-47), the “cleansing” episode is narrated near the end of Jesus’ public ministry, just after the Entry into Jerusalem; in John, on the other hand, it appears to take place at the beginning of his ministry. Some traditional-conservative commentators, taking the apparent chronologies literally, harmonize by positing two separate “cleansing” incidents. This is highly unlikely. The narratives (in the Synoptics and John) are close enough that we can be relatively certain that a single historical tradition underlies both accounts. If this is so, then which ‘chronology’ is more accurate? The Synoptics really only record one visit of Jesus to Jerusalem (at the end of his ministry); on the basis of this arrangement, various traditions which take place within a Jerusalem setting, might naturally be included as part of this last visit. Many scholars would view the multiple visits to Jerusalem (with three different Passover settings) as technically and historically more accurate, and thus favor an earlier date for the “cleansing”. On the other hand, the dramatic nature of the episode, which (at the historical level) must have greatly increased opposition to Jesus from the religious authorities, fits better a time closer to his death. If the saying in 2:18-22 was actually uttered at the time of the “cleansing” (on this see below), then again a moment nearer to his trial and crucifixion is to be preferred.

2. Relation between Temple Action (Sign) and Saying. Most critical scholars would hold that the historical “cleansing” episode (2:13-17) and the saying in 2:18-22 likely took place on separate occasions, or, at least, reflect separate traditions which the Gospel writer has joined together here. I think that this is quite possible. The Temple setting would be enough to bring them together, which could be done simply by way of adding verse 18 (cf. Mark 11:28 par. for a similar question). The Synoptic accounts of the “cleansing” make no mention of such a statement by Jesus, which is curious, considering that a similar saying is brought up as an accusation in the ‘trial’ before the Sanhedrin narrated just a few chapters later (cf. Mark 14:58; Matt 26:61, also Mark 15:29 par). However, it clear enough from these references (by multiple attestation between John and the Synoptics) that Jesus must have made some statement which involved destroying and rebuilding the Temple. Indeed, that he predicted the destruction of the Temple is virtually certain (on purely objective grounds), cf. the references above and Mark 13:1-2 par. [esp. Lk 21:5-6].

3. Significance of the “Cleansing” (at the Historical level). On the basis of an objective analysis of the Gospel accounts, there would seem to be two main possibilities with regard to what Jesus intended to convey by his action:

a. Cleansing/Purifying the Temple. This is the most common interpretation, and is suggested particularly by the Synoptic accounts (see below). But cleansing in what sense? It can be understood several ways:

    • Jesus was focusing on the presence of the sellers of animals and money-changers in the Temple precincts. The general language used in the Synoptic accounts would suggest that he was targeting any commerce taking place in the Temple precincts (“the [ones] selling and the [ones] buying” Mark 11:15 par). Even though these transactions would have occurred in the outer court (of the Gentiles), and not the sanctuary, Jesus may have objected to their taking place in the Temple precincts at all. The symbolism might be understood in terms that the entire Temple (complex) should be holy.
    • Jesus was targeting not the Temple commerce per se, but rather the corruption and profiteering which was taking place. This is a popular view, but there is little evidence for it in the texts beyond a superficial reading of the second part of the saying in Mark 11:17 par (from Jer 7:11). More plausibly, Jesus is targeting the burden which the Temple commerce places upon the poor—cf. the emphasis on overturning the tables of the money-changers and sellers-of-doves (the sacrificial animal of the poor).
    • Jesus’ emphasis was on the Temple ritual as a whole. Since the system of sacrifice, and the tax to fund the Temple, could not exist without the purchase of animals and exchange of coinage, Jesus’ driving out the sellers and money-changers could be viewed as an attack on the Temple ritual itself. However, apart from this episode, there it little evidence in the Gospels for such an explicit attack on the Temple. It will become more prominent later on (cf. the speech of Stephen in Acts 7 [esp. vv. 38-50], the epistle to the Hebrews, and, possibly, within the Gospel of John [see below]). Still, the quotation of Isa 56:7 in Mark 11:17 par. could indicate that Jesus had a different role for the Temple in mind. See the earlier Christmas season article on the Temple.
    • Jesus was attacking the current Temple administration. This was characteristic of the Community of the Qumran texts, which did not oppose the Temple as such, but rather the illegitimacy and corruption of the ruling Priesthood that oversaw the Temple machinery. In the Gospels certainly we find more instances of Jesus speaking out against the current religious authorities than against the Temple; however, it is hard to find much evidence of that in the episode here.
    • It was a general symbol of cleansing related to the idea of the Temple’s holiness. In other words, the Temple as symbolic of the place where people encounter the Presence of God, requires (at its fundamental religious and spiritual level) the removal of anything profane. I think it quite possible that this is closer to Jesus’ intention than the other interpretations mentioned above. For more on this view in relation to the Gospel accounts, see down below.

b. Destruction of the Temple. Here more emphasis is placed on the overturning of tables, etc. as a symbol of judgment. We have additional evidence that Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple on more than one occastion (Mark 14:58; Matt 26:61, also Mark 15:29 par.; Mark 13:1-2 par. [esp. Lk 21:5-6]). As mentioned above, if the saying in Jn 2:18-22 originally took place at the time of the the Temple action, then it makes this interpretation more likely. Again, one may consider several different aspects to the theme of judgment/destruction:

    • The corruption of the current Temple/priesthood. This view is similar to several of the “cleansing” interpretations offered above. The current apparatus will be destroyed and replaced with a new, pure Temple (whether real or symbolic).
    • The Restoration of Israel. In the exilic and post-exilic Prophets, as well as in later Judaism, a new (ideal) Temple is part of the (Messianic) restoration of Israel. See the Temple description in Ezekiel 40-48, and especially Isa 56:1-8 and Zech 14:16-21, both of which are reflected in the Gospel accounts. Also, note that Mark, in particular, connects the Temple episode with the withering of the fig tree (an Old Testament symbol for Israel), Mk 11:12-14, 20-21.
    • Jesus himself replaces the Temple (cult). This is more appropriate as an early Christian interpretation (which will be discussed); however, it is noteworthy in the Synoptic accounts that, after this episode, Jesus spends much of the time teaching within the Temple precincts. At the historical level, Jesus appears to have consciously identified himself with the (Messianic) king of Zech 9-14 (cf. Mark 11:1-11 par.), and may have intentionally tied his presence in Jerusalem (and the Temple) to Zech 14:16-21 (see the curious detail found only in Mk 11:16).

Is it possible that symbolism both of cleansing and destruction apply equally to the event? If we take the Gospel accounts at face value, there are two elements to Jesus’ action (Luke only mentioned the first of these):

  • Driving out the buyers and sellers
  • Overturning the tables of the money-changers (and sellers of doves)

(To be continued in the next day’s note)

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: The Temple (Part 3)

In the previous portion (Part 2) of this article, I discussed the first of three episodes in the Lukan Infancy narrative which have the Jerusalem Temple as their setting:

  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)

2. The Encounter with Simeon (Lk 2:25-38)

I have discussed this episode (especially the Song of Simeon, vv. 29-32) at length in prior Advent/Christmas notes; here we will examine specifically the Temple setting, according to several key themes and topics: (a) the ritual setting and parallel with the earlier Zechariah episode, (b) the character of Simeon (and Anna), (c) the eschatological/Messianic significance of the Temple, and (d) the possible symbolic association of Mary with the Temple.

a. The ritual setting and narrative outline. This scene shared with the earlier Zechariah episode a similar ritual context—one aspect of a larger set of parallels. Note:

    • The revelation (through Gabriel) comes while Zechariah is in the Temple performing his priestly duties (1:8-10)
    • The revelation (through Simeon) comes while Joseph and Mary are in the Temple performing their religious duties (2:22-24, 27)

In both instances, the performance of sacrificial ritual in the Temple is a reflection of the righteousness of the parents (of John and Jesus, respectively). This righteousness, defined in terms of faithfulness in observing the Torah, is stated explicitly for Zechariah and Elizabeth (v. 6, “they were just/righteous [di/kaio$]”). In the case of Joseph and Mary, this has to be inferred by the repeated references to their fulfilling the Law (2:21-24, 27, 39, 41); however, in the Matthean narrative, Joseph is specifically called di/kaio$ (1:19).

In the narrative, it is suggested that Joseph and Mary are in the process of fulfilling the required ritual (v. 27), which happens be twofold:

Almost certainly, there is an intentional parallel being made with the Samuel narrative, which explains the consecration (and presence) of the infant Jesus in the Temple precincts, which otherwise would not be required for fulfillment of the redemption law. For more on the Samuel background of the Lukan Infancy narrative, cf. the earlier notes and articles in this series (and note esp. the language used in 2:40, 52).

The narrative parallel between the Zechariah and Simeon episode is particularly striking:

  • Ritual duty in the Temple by the righteous/devout parent(s)—Zechariah | Joseph/Mary [1:8-10; 2:22-24, 27]
    • Revelation occurs for the aged, righteous figure—Zechariah | Simeon [1:11-20; 2:25-26f]
      coming by way of an Angel (to Zechariah) and the Holy Spirit (to Simeon), respectively
    • This person comes to utter an inspired prophetic hymn (though only Simeon does so in the Temple) [1:67-79; 2:29-32]
      —which includes a notice of the destiny of the child (John/Jesus)
      —with strong Messianic language and imagery, filled with Scriptural allusions
  • Completion of the ritual duty—the parent(s) depart the Temple and return home [1:23; 2:39]

b. The Character of Simeon (and Anna). Somewhat in contrast to Zechariah (and Joseph/Mary), Simeon is not in the Temple precincts for the purpose of fulfilling the sacrificial ritual (nor, apparently, is Anna). These two aged figures serve a different sort of purpose (and symbolism). I regard them, from the standpoint of the Lukan narrative, as transitional figures, between the Old Covenant (with its ritual observance) and the New Covenant in Christ. And, as it happens, the Temple setting represents the very point of transition, much as it does in the subsequent episode in vv. 41-51 (cf. below).

Both Simeon and Anna reflect a shift in the Temple’s role and purpose (see the discussion in Part 2), shared by early Christians, in which the Temple serves as a place of gathering for worship, emphasizing Spirit-inspired prayer, teaching, and prophecy. Simeon appears to foreshadow the early Christians primarily through the dynamic of the Holy Spirit; three aspects relate to the role of the Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts:

    • The Spirit was upon him [e)p’ au)ton] (v. 25)
    • He was led, or moved, in the Spirit [e)n tw=| pneu/mati] (v. 27)
    • The Spirit gave special revelation to him [regarding Jesus] (v. 26)

Anna (vv. 36-38) reflects early Christian devotion and piety in other ways. She was always spending time in the Temple (cf. Lk 24:53; Acts 2:46; 5:42, etc), involved in prayer and fasting (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23, etc). Beyond this, we have the specific detail that she was a female prophet, something which distinguished early Christianity (Acts 2:17ff; 21:9; 1 Cor 11:5ff), at least for a time.

c. Eschatological/Messianic significance of the Temple. The allusion to Malachi 3:1ff in the Zechariah episode was discussed earlier in Part 2. I mentioned there the possibility that the Gospel writer (trad. Luke) may have had this (Messianic) prophecy in mind here in 2:22-24ff—”the Lord…will come to his Temple”—i.e. Jesus (the Lord) coming to the Temple (as a child) foreshadows his future appearance (Mk 11:15-18 par). As there was Messianic/eschatological significance to his later appearance in Jerusalem (and the Temple), so there is in his first appearance as a child.

It is enough to point out the importance of the Temple in Jewish eschatological and Messianic thought, where it is often tied to the idea of the (end-time) restoration of Israel. A rebuilt/renewed Temple is part of the restored kingom/people of Israel, centered at Jerusalem; and, at the end-time, many from among the nations (Gentiles) will join Israel, worshiping and serving God in His Temple. The roots of this tradition go back to the Old Testament prophets, and, in particular, the book of Isaiah (esp. chaps 40-66, the so-called Deutero-Isaiah). Among the key passages are: Micah 4:1-5 (Isa 2:2-5); Isa 56:6-7 [cited Mk 11:17 par]; 60:4-7, 10-14; 66:20; and, in subsequent Jewish writings, cf. Tobit 14:5-6; Jubilees 1:17; 2 Macc 2:18; 1 Enoch 90:28f; 91:13; 11QTemple 29:8-10; Testament of Benjamin 9:2.

Both Simeon and Anna are specifically described in the narrative (vv. 25, 38) as being among those devout ones in Israel holding to this (Messianic) expectation for the end-time restoration/deliverance, and this is almost certainly related to the reason they have been spending time in the Temple. There are several allusions to Deutero-Isaian prophecies in the Song of Simeon (vv. 29-32) which draw upon these Messianic and eschatological themes—Isa 40:5; 42:6; 46:13; 49:6; 52:9-10. The presence of Jesus in the Temple precincts may be seen as, in a sense, fulfilling these prophecies.

d. Mary and the Temple. It is also possible that there is intended a symbolic association between Mary and the Temple. As the mother of Jesus, she bears/bore the Son of God (1:32, 35) within her, just as the presence of God would reside (or become manifest) within the confines of the Temple. There are several possible allusions which should be considered:

i. “Daughter of Zion”. Commentators have noted the similarity of language between Lk 1:28 and Zeph 3:14ff, which I cite here from the Greek (LXX) for comparison:

  • xai=re sfo/dra qu/gater Ziwnku/rio$ o( qeo/$ sou e)n soi
    Rejoice (with) eagerness, daughter of Zion…the Lord your God (is) among you” (Zeph 3:14, 17)
  • xai=re kexaritwme/nh o( ku/rio$ meta\ sou
    Rejoice, favored (one), (for) the Lord (is) with you” (Lk 1:28)

The expression “daughter of Zion” occurs numerous times in the Old Testament, including passages with a strong redemptive message and which could be read in an eschatological or Messianic sense: Isa 52:2; 62:11; Mic 4:8ff; Zech 2:10; 9:9. It is essentially a personification of Jerusalem and its inhabitants, as with the use of “Zion” (/oYx!, ‚iyyôn) alone. However, originally, the term referred more properly to the most ancient hilltop site, i.e. the hill on which the Temple stood.

ii. The overshadowing Cloud. The use of the verb e)piskia/zw (“cast shade over, overshadow”) in Lk 1:35 brings to mind the cloud of God’s presence which overshadowed the Tabernacle (Exod 40:35 LXX; cf. also Num 9:18ff; Isa 4:5). The verb also occurs in the LXX at Psalm 91:4 in a similar sense (cf. also Ps 140:7). Three of the remaining four occurrences in the New Testament are in the versions of the Transfiguration scene (Mk 9:7; Matt 17:5; Lk 9:34), where again it refers to the Divine Presence, drawing upon Old Testament traditions of the Exodus and Sinai Theophany.

iii. The Ark. The golden chest (or “ark”) in the Tabernacle/Temple served as the (symbolic) throne of God (YHWH), marking his Presence in the Sanctuary. He would become manifest, or reside, between the winged figures (“cherubim”) which decorated the top of the chest (Exod 25:20-22; 1 Chron 28:18, etc). There are two intriguing verses from the David narratives of 2 Samuel, both connected with the Ark (in different ways), where the language has a resemblance to the words of Elizabeth to Mary in Lk 1:43 (note the words in bold and italics):

“and (from) where [po/qen] (does) this (happen) to me, that the mother of my Lord should come toward me [e&lqh/pro/$ me]?” (Lk 1:43)

“How [pw=$] shall the box [i.e. Ark] of the Lord come in toward me [ei)seleu/setai pro/$ me]?” (2 Sam 6:9b LXX)
“(For) what [i.e. why] (is it) that my Lordcomes toward [h@lqenpro/$] his servant..?” (2 Sam 24:21a LXX)

3. The Boy Jesus in the Temple (Lk 2:41-51)

The Temple also features in the closing episode of the Lukan Infancy narrative. I discuss this passage (vv. 41-51) at length in other notes (esp. on verse 49), but it is worth considering it at least briefly here. It functions as a kind of Appendix to the Infancy narrative, set at a time when Jesus was a twelve-year old boy. Famously, this is the only (canonical) Gospel tradition regarding the childhood of Jesus. In many ways, the Temple setting—indeed, the episode itself—serves as a compendium summary of a number of themes running through the earlier narrative. These themes include:

  • The faithfulness of Jesus’ parents (Joseph/Mary) in fulfilling the religious ritual required by the Torah (cf. above and in Part 2)—here, it is the observance of the Passover in Jerusalem (vv. 41-42). As in the earlier Simeon episode, Jesus’ presence in the Temple relates to the fulfillment of the Old Covenant.
  • In the setting for this episode, Jesus is among his relatives (vv. 43-44)—i.e. Israelites who live under the Covenant established with them by God (cf. Rom 15:8 and Gal 4:4 [“under the Law”]). The entire Infancy narrative involves Jesus relatives (his parents, his cousin John, and John’s parents, etc).
  • The Temple represents the heart of Israelite religion (i.e. the center of the Old Covenant), the place where God’s presence is manifest and divine revelation is set forth. The revelation in the first two Temple episodes (1:13-20; 2:26-35) involves Jesus’ identity (as Messiah and Son of God [“Lord”]).
  • Jesus’ presence in the Temple symbolically marks his identity, and, in particular, his relationship to God the Father (YHWH), as confirmed in the oracles of Simeon (vv. 29-32, 34-35).

The first two points relate to the first half of the narrative (i.e., the narrative setting/introduction in vv. 41-45), while the second two points more properly relate to the core of the narrative (vv. 46-50), centered around the saying of Jesus in v. 49. This famous saying reads as follows:

“For what [i.e. why] (is it) that you search (for) me? Had you not seen [i.e. did you not know] that it is necessary for me to be in/among the (thing)s of my Father?”

The italicized portion represents the core saying. The last portion is often translated “…in my Father’s house”, but this is rather inaccurate. The word corresponding to “house” (i.e. Grk oi@ko$) is not present, and so, we should be cautious about reading in a reference to the Temple as God’s “house” without warrant. More accurate would be the translation “…in my Father’s household“; however, the Greek literally reads e)n toi=$ tou= patro/$ mou (“in/among the [thing]s of my Father”). For more on this, cf. the earlier discussion. It is not the Temple building, as such, which is emphasized, but rather the activity taking place in the Temple (teaching and study of the Torah), and those who are engaged in this activity (those devoted to the Torah and the things of God). There is a clear contrast between “the things of God” and the “things of (his) relatives and neighbors” (v. 44)—Joseph and Mary search for Jesus among the latter, but they find him among the former:

  • e)n toi=$ suggeneu=sin kai\ toi=$ gnwstoi=$ (v. 44)
  • e)n toi=$ tou= patro/$ mou (v. 49)

Thus, here, in this episode, the Temple setting has what we might call a Christological significance—it relates to Jesus’ unique relationship to God the Father, as the Anointed One and Son of God. In the prior Temple scene his identity as the Anointed One (Messiah) of God is confirmed (vv. 26ff); here, it is his identity as God’s Son.