The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: The Temple (Part 1)

The second Day of Christmas (Dec 26) is also the holy day (feast) of St. Stephen—deacon of the earliest church and first Christian martyr (Acts 6:1-8:1f). Sometimes his martyrdom is associated thematically with the “massacre of the Innocents” (Matthew 2:16-20), but otherwise there is little connection between Stephen and the Infancy Narratives. As I am going to be treating Stephen’s speech (or sermon) in detail as part of a series on the Speeches in the Book of Acts; here I will discuss only the theme of the Temple (7:44ff), as the Jerusalem Temple plays a key role in the Lukan Infancy narratives (ch. 1-2).

The view and place of the Temple in early Christianity is an extremely complex question, one particularly complicated by several historical factors:

  • Jews of the period (such as the Community of the Qumran texts), occasionally leveled strong criticism against the current priesthood and Temple cult (though not necessarily the Temple itself); these critiques have a biblical basis, and can already be found in the Old Testament Prophets (see below).
  • The conflicts between Jews and early Christians, often resulted in harsh polemic, some of which is preserved in the Gospels and New Testament itself; this must be judged and analyzed most carefully.
  • Portions of the New Testament were written in the shadow of the Jewish Revolt (66-70 A.D.) and the destruction of the Temple—this event would have a profound effect on Christian views of Judaism in the late-first and early-second centuries (see esp. the Epistle to the Hebrews and the so-called Epistle of Barnabas).

The relationship of Jesus himself to the Temple is also hotly debated in many quarters; however, at least two points are fairly certain (on purely objective grounds):

  • Jesus acted in a symbolic (and shocking) fashion on at least one occasion in the Temple—the so-called “cleansing” of the Temple, recorded in all four Gospels (Mark 11:12-19 par.; John 2:12-22). The precise interpretation and significance of this event is still disputed, with three different explanations offered in the Gospels themselves (Mark 9:17 par.; John 2:[16], 17; and John 2:18-22).
  • Jesus prophesied the destruction of the Temple (Mark 13:1-2 par.); this is confirmed, presumably from a separate line of tradition, in the Passion narrative of Jesus’ appearance before the high council (Sanhedrin) (cf. Mark 14:57-59; 15:29 and par.). Underlying the charge against him at the ‘trial’ must be a saying akin to that in John 2:19, which implies not only the destruction of the Temple but that Jesus will raise/build it again (“made without [human] hands”, a)xeiropoi/hto$ in the claim of Mark 14:58). Interestingly, Luke does not include this claim (regarding the Temple) in his account of the Sanhedrin session (see below related to this point).

In Stephen’s conflict with the Jewish authorities and crowds, there may have been a similar “threatening” statement regarding the future of the Temple, judging from the claim recorded in Acts 6:13-14; this claim has two parts:

(a) he utters words against [this] Holy Place [i.e. the Temple] and the Law, and
(b) he says that Jesus will

[i.] unloose [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this [Holy] Place and
[ii.] alter the customs which Moses has passed down.

This ‘trial’ matches that of Jesus’ before the Sanhedrin in many ways, and the narrative may have been consciously shaped to this end by the author of Acts (trad. Luke). The high priest asks Stephen “if these things (said about you) should be held thus [i.e. are true]?” and this is the setting which introduces the famous speech of chapter 7—a sermon couched within a history lesson. Many scholars have noted that the long summary of Old Testament history is a strange response for such a setting, and, indeed, seems not to answer the high priest’s question in v. 1. However, if one studies the speech itself closely, there is an implicit answer by the time one reaches verse 44. Note the following:

  • The section on Moses (vv. 30-38) presents an entirely positive view of the Law and “customs”, at least as it they are described in v. 38, in light of the Sinai revelation—that Moses “received living words/accounts [lo/gia] to give to us”. This concludes what may be deemed the first (positive) half of the speech, centered upon the Patriarchs (Abraham–Moses).
  • The remainder of the speech (vv. 39-53) emphasizes the negative side of Israelite history, which starts with a failure to obey the revelation given to Moses (v. 39). There are three sections to this half of the speech:
    • The idolatry of Israel in the wilderness (vv. 39-43), which ends with a quotation from Amos 5:25-27
    • The building of the Temple, contrasted with the (divinely ordained) Tent (vv. 44-50), which also ends with a quotation (Isaiah 66:1-2)
    • An extremely harsh condemnation of Israel’s disobedience (vv. 51-53)
  • The concluding words in verse 53 especially make clear that what is at issue is not the Law (of Moses) as such, but the people’s refusal to obey it.

The real difficulty (and ambiguity), however, comes just at the point of verse 44—that is, the place and nature of the Temple. The logic of vv. 43-44 seems to work at two levels:

  • The Tent (Tabernacle) is contrasted with the idol-worship during the wilderness period—both are according to a tu/po$ (“stamp, pattern”): the idols according to the figures [pl.] of pagan deities (v. 43), the Tent (skhnh/) according to the pattern [sing.] which Moses saw revealed by God.
  • The Temple appears to be set parallel to the idol-worship of the wilderness period: just as Israel failed to obey the divinely-established Law and followed after idols (vv. 39-43), so Israel failed to continue with the divinely-established Tent and had (under Solomon) a Temple built (vv. 44-50).

This last point many traditional-conservative commentators would dispute, for it runs contrary to much of the Old Testament with its strong emphasis on the positive, divinely-authorized nature of the Solomonic Temple; and yet a comparison of verses 39-43 and 44-50 would seem imply, at the very least, some sort of criticism against the Temple, especially if one looks at the similar positioning of the two Scripture passages: Amos 5:25-27 (which condemns idolatry and the “shrine” of ‘Moloch’) and Isaiah 66:1-2 (which questions the necessity and value of a “house” for God).

Interestingly, much of this ambiguity surrounding the Temple actually exists within the older strands of Scripture going back (very nearly) to the time of David and Solomon. Consider:

  • In Solomon’s prayer of dedication (cf. esp. 1 Kings 8:27ff), he asks much the same question we see in Isa 66:1-2ff. Only the emphasis in the former passage is one of humility in the face of God’s greatness, requesting the Almighty to condescend to be present with his people on earth. In the latter passage, the very Temple cult or ritual is debased in comparison with the importance of personal character and right behavior before God (see Isa 1:10-17ff for similar themes).
  • The oracle of Nathan in 2 Samuel 7: verses 1-7 appear to oppose the idea of building a permanent ‘house’ for God, while verses 11b-16 seem to support the building of such a house (Temple). Many critical scholars hold that an earlier anti-Temple oracle has been joined with a pro-Temple one, by means of vv. 8-11a to create a harmonious whole. It is a matter of considerable debate; traditional-conservative scholars would tend to accept the harmonious (or harmonizing) view of the ‘final’ text as original and authentic. For a good overview of the classic critical position (and variations thereof), along with some detailed notes, see F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History and Religion of Israel (Harvard:1973, 1997), pp. 241-261.

If one were to read Acts 7:44-50 in light of (the critical interpretation) of 2 Samuel 7:1-16, one would detect a similar emphasis: the Tent as a moveable (and temporary) dwelling was God’s intention, rather than a (permanent) house of cedar and stone. If this is the direction of Stephen’s argument, it may explain a curious textual variant in Acts 7:46 (variation unit in italics):

…David, 46who found favor in the eye/face of [i.e. before] God and asked to find a tent for the house of Jacob

This seems to be the best reading, supported a wide range of early witnesses (Ë74 a* B D sahpt al), while other manuscripts and versions read “…for the God of Jacob“. Most likely, scribes found the idiom “house of Jacob” difficult to understand in this context and “corrected” it to “God of Jacob”. But what does it mean to have a tent “for the house of Jacob”? If one understands “house” as a euphemism for the Temple, an intentional contrast may be at work here—as if to say: the Tent is for the people (of Israel), not for God (who has no need of a tent-dwelling), so that they can worship Him; to make the dwelling permanent (and ornate) may put Israel on the path toward a kind of idolatry. A developed, commercialized Temple ritual only increases the danger for priestly corruption and abuse, which was indeed a common complaint in the New Testament period. When one adds to this the fact that the priests and religious authorities played a role in Jesus’ execution, and were now persecuting his followers, the polemic force of Stephen’s speech here can be appreciated. In a purely Christian sense, spiritualizing the argument, we might say that as believers we ourselves, and together, are the (true) Temple of God (1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; also Eph 2:21).

Of the four Gospels, Luke has the most positive overall presentation of the Temple. As indicated above, the Lukan account of Jesus’ ‘trial’ before the Sanhedrin does not include the claim about destroying and rebuilding the Temple, nor does it contain any such saying of Jesus (John 2:19); however it does contain the “cleansing” scene (though much shorter, Luke 19:45-46) and the prediction of destruction (Luke 21:5-6). In between these two episodes, Luke specifically indicates that Jesus taught in the Temple every day (19:47-48, cf. partial parallel in Matt 21:14f, 23 and Mark 13:1 par.). Even after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples were in the Temple “through it all (i.e. continually)”, blessing (and praising) God. The apostles are likewise recorded worshiping in the Temple in the early chapters of Acts (Acts 2:46; 3:1ff; 5:20ff), while Jewish Christians in Jerusalem continue to frequent the Temple (Acts 21:26ff).

The Temple plays an even more prominent role in the Lukan Infancy narrative. It is the setting of three major espisodes:

  1. The heavenly Messenger (Gabriel) appears to Zechariah while he serves in the Temple, in the Sanctuary (Holy Place), at the time of prayer (probably during the afternoon/evening sacrifice), to announce the coming birth of John (Luke 1:5-25).
  2. The infant Jesus is ‘presented’ at the Temple, where Mary and Joseph encounter two devout figures (Simeon and Anna) who represent Israel’s faith and ‘Messianic’ hope (of which Jesus is seen as the fulfillment) (Luke 2:22-38).
  3. The boy Jesus in the Temple (“…it is necessary for me to be in/among the [things] of my Father”) (Luke 2:41-50)

The significance of the Temple in the Lukan Infancy Narrative will be discussed in more detail when we come to the key passages in chapter 2—vv. 22ff, 41ff—in subsequent notes.