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.

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