Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 24

Psalm 24

This Psalm has one of the clearest liturgical settings of any in the Psalter, even if the historical situation cannot be reconstructed in detail. The superscription itself merely indicates that it is another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”, and offers no other information regarding the performance tradition. The structure of the composition is more enlightening, divided as it is into two main strophes, each of which may tell us something about how this Psalm was used in the ancient liturgy. Following an opening pair of couplets (vv. 1-2), the first strophe (of irregular meter) is comprised of vv. 3-6; the second strophe (of 3+3+3 tricola) is in vv. 7-10. A hl*s# (selah) notation comes at the end of each strophe.

VERSES 1-2

“The earth and her fullness (belongs) to YHWH,
(the) productive land, and (the one)s sitting [i.e. dwelling] in her;
for He set her firmly upon the seas,
and fixed her upon (the) flowing (water)s.”

This pair of 3+3 couplets establishes YHWH as the Creator and Sovereign Lord of the universe. It is a fundamental statement of Israelite monotheism, identifying YHWH as the one supreme Deity. His position as Creator and Lord makes him worthy of worship and honor.

The “earth” (Jr#a#) is paired with the noun lb@T@, difficult to translate in English, emphasizing what the earth contains and produces (“brings forth”); for lack of a suitable alternative, I have rendered it above as “productive land”. Both terms refer to the flat disc or cylinder of the earth (or land) in the ancient Near Eastern cosmology, a geocentric view of the universe. The notice in verse 2, that YHWH set the earth firm and fixed “upon the seas / waters” is an allusion to the the primeval waters that surround the universe (Gen 1:2). This founding/fixing of the earth implies that the chaos of the primeval condition has been ‘subdued’, allowing for order to be established in creation. In ancient Near Eastern cosmological myth, this is often described and depicted in terms of the deity defeating the Sea (and its allies) in battle. While this cosmological myth-aspect is virtually absent from the Genesis Creation account, vestiges of it—i.e., of El-Yahweh’s defeat of the waters—are preserved in the poetry of the Old Testament. For the relevant examples, and the ancient background of this mythic theme, cf. my article “Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”.

VERSES 3-6

“Who shall go up on (the) mountain of YHWH,
and who shall stand in (the) standing place of His holiness?
(The one) clean of palms [i.e. hands] and pure of heart,
who has not lifted his soul to the (thing that is) empty,
and has not (bound himself) seven-fold to deceit.” (vv. 3-4)

The expression “mountain of YHWH” in the Old Testament, while also deriving from cosmological myth, typically refers to the city of Jerusalem—in particular, the ancient fortified hill-top site around which the larger city grew. This original location, a Canaanite fort-city captured by David, was known as the “city of David” and also by the name /oYx! (Zion). Like most such Canaanite walled cities of the period, it was comprised largely of the Temple-Palace complex (rather than being a residence for the populace). So it was also with “Mount Zion”, the most ancient part of Jerusalem—it had a special association with the Temple sanctuary as the dwelling place of God.

The Temple mount was thus a holy site, and no one could approach God’s dwelling in the sanctuary if they were not themselves holy. This applied principally to the priests who officiated in the Temple precincts; however, by extension, the principle of holiness and (ritual) purity related to the wider community of Israel as well. Much of the legislation in the Torah involves the preservation of ritual purity, so that sacrificial offerings and other business conducted in the precincts of the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) and Temple, performed in God’s presence, would not be rendered impure and ineffective.

This purity requirement is described in verse 4, a tricolon with irregular meter (3+4+3). Any one coming into the Temple courts and sanctuary must be both ritually pure (“clean of hands”) on the outside, but also inwardly “pure of heart” (bb*l@ rB^)—that is, one’s mind and intention must be pure. The final two lines function as a couplet with synonymous parallelism, expressing purity in terms of true religion—devotion to YHWH alone. The expression “lift (up) his soul” is parallel to the verb form uB^v=n], a Niphal (reflexive) of the root ub^v*. The precise meaning of this root in the Niphal is uncertain, but is perhaps best understood in its presumed literal sense as “bind oneself seven-fold” (i.e. by an oath or vow). The nouns aw+v* (“emptiness”) and hm*r=m! (“deceit”) are also parallel; while they could simply connote wickedness in a general sense, here, as in other instances in the Psalms, they seem to carry a specific association with the worship/veneration of false deities (i.e., any deity other than YHWH).

“He shall take up blessing from YHWH,
and justice from (the) Mighty (One) of his salvation;
(Yes,) this (is the) circle (that is) seeking Him,
(the one)s searching for (the) face of Ya’aqob. Selah” (vv. 5-6)

The couplet in verse 5 affirms the relationship between YHWH and the one who is righteous; the covenant bond is preserved, and God will provide hk*r*B= (“blessing”) and hd*q*x= to such a person. The latter noun has a semantic range that can be hard to translate consistently; it is usually rendered “righteousness” or “justice”, but in the context of the covenant bond, it can also connote loyalty, generosity, and the like.

The concluding couplet in verse 6 is most difficult, but the (demonstrative) pronoun hz# (“this”) gives the final answer to the question in v. 3: “Who shall go up…?” — “this is who…”. However, the syntax is by no means clear; the first line is alliterative, and reads:

ovr=D) roD hz#
zeh dôr dœršô

The translation would be “this (is the) circle seeking him”, a reference, presumably, to the faithful ones (the priests?) of YHWH, parallel with the initial word of the second line, “(the one)s searching for him” (<yv!q=b^m=). The last two words are the main source of confusion, the Masoretic text apparently being in error (“your face [;yn#P*], Jacob”). Critical commentators are inclined to emend the text here, one of two ways:

    • His face [wyn`P*], Jacob”, following the Targum
    • “(the) face of the Mighty One [i.e. God] of Jacob”, assuming that yhla has dropped out of the text, following some Syriac MSS; for this expression cf. Exod 3:6, 15; Psalm 20:1; 46:7, 11 (and elsewhere in the Psalms), etc.

The latter option is to be preferred; however, it is possible that the expression “face of the God of Jacob” here is preserved by the shorthand “face of Jacob”, the MT suffix ; either being a scribal mistake or representing an emphatic/enclitic particle (yK!) that has been mispointed (cf. Dahood, p. 152). The “face” is the manifest presence of God (Exod 33:14, etc).

Verses 7-10

“Lift up your heads, (you) gates,
and be lifted up, openings of (the) distant (past),
and (the) King th(at is) worth(y) shall come!
Who (is) this King th(at is) worth(y)?
YHWH, strong and mighty,
YHWH (the) mighty (one) of battle!

Lift up your heads, (you) gates,
lift up, (you) openings of (the) distant (past),
and (the) King th(at is) worth(y) shall come!
Who (is) this King th(at is) worth(y)?
YHWH (Creator) of (the heavenly) armies—
He (is) the King th(at is) worth(y)! Selah

By all accounts this is a very old piece of poetry (10th cent. B.C., cf. Cross, pp. 91ff), perhaps older than the remainder of the Psalm. It certainly retains the ancient ritual/liturgical context much more so than the first strophe. Many commentators would associate it with a ceremonial transport of the golden box (or ark) that served as the symbolic throne and dwelling of YHWH in the Temple. It is theorized that a procession of priests and people led the ark into the Temple complex, and that these verses were recited, perhaps in alternating chorus, as accompaniment. Even if this were correct, the exact occasion remains unknown and can only be guessed at. The reference to the Creation in vv. 1-2 raises the possibility of a New Year ceremony, when YHWH takes his place in his house after his victory in battle over the primeval forces of chaos and darkness. Another possibility is that it involves a ceremony commemorating the building/founding of the Temple itself, or of the moment when the ark of God’s Presence first entered the Temple (cp. the setting of Psalm 132).

The gates/doors of the Temple (and city) are directed to “lift up” their heads in homage to YHWH as he enters. This solemn bit of ritual imagery as always seemed curious, but there is some evidence that the basic portrait is derived, in different ways, from cosmological myth. The identification of the Temple-site with the “mountain of God” confirms the correspondence between God’s dwelling in heaven and his symbolic, manifest dwelling on earth. The Semitic Creator deity °E~l (“Mighty [One]”) was thought to dwell on a great (cosmic) mountain also depicted as a (heavenly) Tent. The same basic imagery was applied to YHWH, otherwise identified with as the Creator °E~l. Any local mountain could serve as a form of the cosmic “mountain of God”, even a modest hill-top site such as Jerusalem/Zion.

The heavenly dwelling of God was itself divine, and could be conceived as living or alive. Moreover, the mountain/palace of °E~l in west Semitic (Canaanite) tradition served as the heavenly court where the gods would assemble for feasts and other important occasions. In the great Canaanite Baal Epic (tablet II, column ii [CAT col. III]), as part of the conflict between Baal-Haddu and the Sea (Yamm), messengers from the Sea appear while the gods are assembled in the mountain/palace of °E~l. The purpose of their appearance is to deliver a threatening message that Baal should be handed over as a slave to the Sea. The deities lower their heads at the sight of these fearful emissaries from the Sea, to which Baal rebukes them with an opening line nearly identical to vv. 7a, 9a of Psalm 24:

š°u °ilm r°aštkm
“Lift up your heads, (you) Mighty (one)s [i.e. gods]!”

The only difference is that in the Psalm personified gates of the heavenly dwelling take the place of the gods residing within. It is hard to imagine that the formula used in the Psalm does not stem from the same basic line of tradition. A significant point is that, in the Baal Epic, following his battle with the Sea, a great heavenly palace is constructed for Baal-Haddu comparable to that of °E~l. It is only natural that the gods would likewise “lift their heads” to greet Baal as he comes into his palace, thus affirming his kingship and rule over the universe (cp. verses 1-2 here); it is easy to see how, in an Israelite monotheistic setting, the circle of deities might be replaced by the surrounding gates of the palace.

The gates are called <l*ou, a term which can mean either the distant past or the distant future; it can connote the idea of “eternity, eternal”, and thus implies that these ‘gates’ are somehow divine, or at least have an ancient and eternal quality. It is the heavenly dwelling itself that greets YHWH on his victorious return from battle. Dahood (p. 153) notes the use of the expression “king of the gate” in the Ugaritic texts, as a title for the Canaanite king; even more so would the Creator deity deserve such a title.

The construct expression dobK*h^ El#m# deserves some comment. Literally, it means “king of the weight”, i.e. “the king of weight”. The noun dobK* has the fundamental meaning “weight”, in the sense of have a certain worth or value. It often connotes the idea of “honor”, especially when applied to God, and in such cases is typically translated as “glory” (i.e., “the king of glory”). However, in my view, the force of the ritual has to due with YHWH’s worthiness to be enthroned in his palace as king—sovereign over the universe. A proper translation of the expression might then be “the king of worth”, which preserves the construct form. Along these lines, I have opted for a rendering which is less accurate syntactically, but which, I think, better captures the sense of the passage: “the King th(at is) worth(y)”. Because of YHWH’s strength and might, demonstrated in battle against the waters of chaos, He is worthy to be recognized as King over all Creation.

It is, indeed, YHWH’s role as a warrior (“mighty [man] of battle”) that is emphasized in vv. 7-10, and the cosmological background of the ritual scene best explains this. That is to say, the primary association is with God’s victory over the primeval waters of chaos (the “Sea”), by which He established the current order of creation. The extent to which this same pattern applied to the “holy war” tradition—i.e. YHWH achieving victory for Israel over her enemies—can be debated. Certainly the expression “YHWH of the armies” (toab*x= hwhy), essentially shorthand for “…creator of the heavenly armies”, relates to God’s role as protector of Israel, who fights (with the forces of heaven) on behalf of His people. Whether the ritual setting of Psalm 24 specifically refers to the “wars of Israel” —Exodus and Conquest, etc—remains uncertain.

How do the verses of the first strophe (vv. 3-6, cf. above) fit into the ritual/liturgical context of the second? Possibly, before the procession with the ark entered the Temple precincts, there was a liturgical affirmation of the holiness and purity of the officiants (priests and people), represented in these verses. There was often a magical quality inherent in such ritual formulae—that is to say, the proper performance of the ritual was essential to its efficacy. Without the ritual affirmation of purity, the effectiveness of the entire ceremony—including the divine blessing and favor that result from it—would be put at risk. The ceremonial aspect, however, was only intended to confirm the reality of the situation—i.e., that the priests, etc, had kept themselves pure, conducting themselves in a holy and righteous manner, in accordance with the regulations of the covenant bond.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).
Those marked “Cross” are to Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973).

 

Saturday Series: Isaiah 6:1-13

Isaiah 6:1-13

After a hiatus for Holy Week, we pick up our Saturday Series studies, currently working in the Book of Isaiah. The past few studies were divided according to the specific areas of Biblical Criticism—textual criticism, historical criticism, source criticism, literary criticism. Here, in this study on Isa 6:1-13, we will be using an inductive, exegetical approach, touching upon the various areas of criticism as they are relevant in the context of each verse.

Isaiah 6:1

“In (the) year of (the) death of the king Yah-is-my-strength {Uzziyahu}, and (it was then) I saw the Lord sitting upon (His) seat (of honor), being high and lifted (up), and His (garment)s hanging (down) were filling (His) palace.” (v. 1)

This majestic statement establishes the vision-scene recorded in chapter 6. It is significant that, though the introduction to the book as a whole (1:1) refers to it as a µ¹zôn (literally something one looks/gazes at), actual visions in the book are quite rare. This is one of the few, and it is significant since it marks the beginning of the historical-biographical strand (involving the person and times of Isaiah himself) that runs through the first half of the book (chaps. 2-39).

Textually, this establishing verse is straightforward enough. The only significant variation is found in the Greek version (LXX), where the anthropomorphic detail of YHWH’s hanging garments (Heb. šûl, plur.) is translated more abstractly as dóxa (“honor, splendor”). It is, however, an essential detail, since it relates to the overall vision of God (YHWH) on his throne. The prophet sees Him sitting on his seat of honor (kiss¢°, i.e. throne), raised high above the floor. The locale is further identified as the palace (hêk¹l) of YHWH—that is, the Temple in Jerusalem. In the ancient world, palace and temple were closely connected; indeed, the royal palace and the deity’s temple were often part of the same building complex. Moreover, the temple itself was envisioned as a divine palace, with the deity dwelling in it as a king or ruler. The sanctuary was the “throne room” for the deity, and people would approach God in the sanctuary just as one would the king on his throne. For a similar throne-vision of YHWH, see the vision of Micaiah in 2 Kings 22:19-23; it is a type of visionary genre that would last for centuries, down through generations of Jewish and Christian tradition.

From a form-critical standpoint, this is a vision-narrative (in prose), set within a biographical and historical context—that of the life and career of the prophet Isaiah. It marks the beginning of his prophetic career (cp. the “call-narratives” of Amos, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel), and certainly that which is central to chaps. 2-39, i.e. the Assyrian crises in the second half of the 8th century B.C. In the previous study, mention was made of the critical theory that the opening and closing sections of chapters 2-12 (chs. 2-4, 11-12) may have been composed at a later time (perhaps in the exilic or post-exilic periods), while including earlier (and authentic) material. There is no doubt, however, that the central chapters 6-8 belong to the time of Isaiah himself. This is clear from the opening words here in verse 1, where the vision is said to have occurred the year of Uzziah’s death (c. 740 B.C.). There is no reason, on objective grounds, to doubt the accuracy of this detail. Indeed, the prophetic narrative in chapters 6-8, in particular, derives from authentic historical tradition regarding the prophet Isaiah. Viewed source-critically, the detail in 8:1-2, 16ff allows for the (strong) possibility that these chapters have essentially been preserved from the circle (of disciples) around Isaiah.

Isaiah 6:2

“Burning (creature)s were standing from (the place) above Him, (with) six pairs of wings, six pairs of wings for each—(with) two it covered its face, and (with) two it covered its feet, and (with) two it soared (aloft).”

The main textual difficulty in verse 2 involves the precise meaning of the noun ´¹r¹¸ (here plural ´®r¹¸îm). The verbal root ´¹ra¸ means “burn” (as with fire); however, elsewhere in the Old Testament, the noun refers to a (venomous) snake, presumably with an ancient allusion to the burning/fiery effect of its poison (see Num 21:6-8; Deut 8:15). In Isa 14:29 and 30:6, the noun is parallel with other words used for a deadly snake (n¹µ¹š, ƒe¸a±, °e¸±eh), and clearly refers to a flying snake. Almost certainly that is the same image intended here in 6:2—a winged, flying serpentine figure. However offensive this might be to our modern sensibilities, especially with the traditional negative connotations of the serpent/snake motif, it would not have been nearly so problematic in Isaiah’s time. Hybrid creatures (with animal and human attributes) were frequently used in religious art and royal iconography throughout the ancient Near East, including Palestine and Syria, among the Israelites and related peoples.

The k§rû» (plural k®rû»îm) was a similar divine/heavenly being, which likely possessed both human and animal characteristics. Parallels in ancient Near Eastern iconography suggest a winged lion or bull with a human head. Such sphinx-like figures regularly flanked the throne, and the golden box (or ‘ark’) that served as the throne of YHWH, and placed in the sanctuary of the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) and Jerusalem Temple, also had a pair of winged kerubs surrounding it. As for the image of a winged snake, it is well known from Egyptian royal and religious art (as on the throne of Tutankhamun, see below), and is also attested, for example, on a number of stamp-seals in Palestine, dating from the 8th and early 7th century (the very time of Isaiah). On this, see N. Avigad and B. Sass, Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals (Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities; Israel Exploration Society; Institute of Archaeology, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1997), nos. 11, 104, 127, 194, 206, 284, 381, 385; Roberts, p. 97. This detail would tend to confirm the historical authenticity of chapter 6. Mention could also be made of the tradition reflected in Num 21:6-9; 2 Kings 18:4, of a pole-mounted snake that served as a religious/cult object.

I have translated ´®r¹¸îm literally as “burning (creature)s”, though, as noted above, it is likely that winged serpentine figures (with human attributes) are being envisioned. They represent divine/heavenly beings who stand in the presence of YHWH and attend to him on His throne. The covering of their faces and “feet” (which can be a euphemism for the male genitals) indicates the awe and reverence they display before God, and anticipates Isaiah’s own response. In Egyptian iconography the (winged) snake or cobra serves a protective, guardian role; here, the sense is rather different, emphasizing instead the splendor and holiness of YHWH Himself.

Isaiah 6:3

“And this (one) called to that (one) and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy (is) YHWH of the (heavenly) armies! His weight/worth (is beyond the) fullness of all (the) earth!'”

Probably there are two flanking seraphs overhead, matching the two kerubs of YHWH’s throne, and they call out to each other. It is an overwhelmingly massive and majestic scene, the words uttered by the seraphs matching the visual in verse 1, of YHWH towering high, with his outhanging garments filling the entire Temple sanctuary. The adjective q¹¼ôš and noun k¹»ô¼ each reflect the attempt to express, however inadequately, the nature and character of YHWH. The root qdš fundamentally refers to the idea of purity, especially in the religious context of something that is consecrated or set apart. By contrast kbd carries the basic meaning of weight, with the religious and ethical connotation of the worth and value of something (as the weight of a precious metal, etc). The three-fold exclamation of God’s purity (the Qumran Isaiah scroll [1QIsaa] has only a two-fold exclamation) indicates how different He is from the ordinary world of human life and existence. Similarly his “weight” far surpasses and transcends the full measure (“fullness”) of the entire world.

Isaiah 6:4

“And the ‘elbows’ of the (door)posts wavered from the voice of the (one) calling, and the (entire) house was filled with smoke.”

The imagery from the prior verses continues, blending theophany (manifestation of God) with the sacred space and ritual of the Temple sanctuary. In a sense, we are moving backward—from the throne of YHWH in the innermost shrine, out to the threshhold, and across into the outer sanctuary where the altar for burning incense stood. These last two details are reflected here in verse 4. The technical language can be difficult to render clearly in translation, with the expression “‘elbows’ [i.e. hinges, pivots] of the doorposts” referring to the threshhold of the inner shrine, and the “smoke” a reference to the burning of incense. The “house”, of course, is figurative for the Temple, either the entire building or the sanctuary specifically (here the latter is intended). On the image of the entire house being filled, one is reminded of the scene of the anointing of Jesus, in the Gospel of John: “and the house was filled out of the fragrance of the myrrh-ointment” (12:3). From an historical standpoint, this detailed use of Temple-imagery is interesting, since it is unlikely that Isaiah himself would have ever seen inside the sanctuary (on Hezekiah’s presence in the sanctuary, cf. 2 Kings 19:14-15ff).

Isaiah 6:5

“And I said: ‘Oh, (what this does) to me! For I have ceased (to be)! For I (am) a man of polluted lips, and I (am) sitting [i.e. dwelling] in the middle of a people of polluted lips! For my eyes have seen the King, YHWH of the (heavenly) armies!'”

This verse indicates Isaiah’s response to his great vision. He apparently sees himself positioned in the Temple, probably at the threshhold of the inner shrine. His initial exclamation may be rendered more concisely as “Woe to me!” or “Oh, for me!”, however in my expanded translation above I have sought to capture the proper sense of the effect this vision has on the prophet. From a literary-critical standpoint, it is worth considering the kind of wordplay (and play on images) that is being utilized in the narrative here, something that tends to be lost or obscured in most English translations.

For one thing, we have the contrast between YHWH sitting (yœš¢») on His throne (v. 1), with Isaiah who recognizes that he has been “sitting” (yôš¢», i.e. ‘dwelling’) in the midst of an unclean people. Here the uncleanness (‰m°) of the human condition is contrasted with the purity (qdš) of YHWH. The effect of this realization is expressed by another bit of wordplay (dual meaning) involving the verb d¹mâ. This root fundamentally refers to something ceasing or coming to an end; it can be understood either in an existential sense (i.e. ceasing to exist, being destroyed), or in terms of an action or ability that ceases. The latter sense can specifically refer to the action/ability of speaking—to cease speaking, i.e. be silent. For a prophet (n¹»î°), a spokesperson for God, who speaks on His behalf, the effect on one’s ability to speak is most significant. I have rendered d¹mâ rather literally above, more or less assuming that the existential sense is primary. This follows the basic religious-theological idea that a human being is unable to see God and still live (Exod 33:20, etc). At the same time, it expresses the awe the prophet feels, and so he is unable to speak; this is similar to the reaction of the seraphim in YHWH’s presence (covering their faces).

There is a similar play on the motif of one’s lips (š®¸¹¾ayim). It again relates to the idea of a person speaking, but it also serves as the focal point for the pollution that characterizes the populace. Here the ritual aspect (unclean food, etc, touching the lips) is used to express a religious and ethical point, well expressed, for example, in 29:13: “this people comes near with its mouth, and with its lips it gives weight [i.e. honor] to me, but its heart is wide (apart) [i.e. far away] from me”. The pollution of the people (their lips) has more to do with a false/corrupt religion and ethic, than it does with their ritual behavior, in spite of the cultic (Temple) setting of the vision.

Isaiah 6:6-7

“And he soared to me, one from (among) the burning (creature)s, and in his hand (was) a glowing (stone) (that) he took with a pair of (tool)s for taking (stones) from upon the place of sacrifice. And he touched (it) upon my mouth, and said, ‘See, this has touched upon your lips, and your crookedness is turned (aside), and your sin is wiped (away)’.”

The word mizb¢aµ literally means the place of ritual slaughter (i.e. the altar for sacrificial offerings); however, it came to be used regularly for other kinds of altars, such as those for offering incense. That is the altar referenced here—the incense altar located in the outer sanctuary. The smoke filling the room comes from the offerings of incense, and the hot (glowing rƒ¸) stones are the coals from the altar. Here again is another play on the seraphs as “burning” creatures; one of them picks up a burning/fiery coal from the altar. Now, however, the fire from the altar serves a different ritual purpose—namely, to purify the prophet, specifically his mouth (and lips). For the human prophet to survive in the presence of YHWH’s purity and holiness, his impurity has to be removed. From a ritual standpoint, this may be referred to as expiation. The danger of contact between human and deity is “turned aside” (vb sûr); sometimes this entails a turning away of the deity’s anger and intent to punish, etc, but it can also involve the removal of any possible evil or offense from the human participant. In the case of the prophet Isaiah, it also involves a specific kind of consecration—for a particular prophetic mission.

Isaiah 6:8

“And (then) I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘See, I (am here)! Send me!'”

YHWH’s throne room is the location of His royal court, such as in the pattern of human palaces. This court-setting is only faintly indicated here; a more detailed example is found in the earlier throne-vision of Micaiah (1 Kings 22:19-22, mentioned above). In that vision, YHWH asks of his servants and messengers, “Who will open (up) to Ahab, and (then) [i.e. so that] he will go up and will fall on the heights of Gil’ad?” (v. 20). One particular divine/heavenly being (“spirit”) comes forward and volunteers for the assignment (v. 21), much as Isaiah does here. The purpose of the mission in the Micaiah vision is to entice Ahab so that he will end up facing judgment (by military defeat) for his wickedness. Isaiah’s prophetic mission has a similar purpose. It is likely that the burning coal that touches Isaiah’s lips contains an allusion to the message of (fiery) judgment that the prophet must bring to the people of Judah (see a similar use of fire from the altar in Rev 8:3-5). This represents the dual-aspect of the burning/fire motif in the vision: the purity of YHWH effectively burns away (and destroys) all impurity—for the wicked this means destruction from God’s Judgment, while for the righteous, their sins (1QIsaa reads plur. “sins” in v. 7) are wiped away. This is part of the powerful imagery depicting YHWH as a “devouring fire” (33:14; cf. 10:17; 30:27-33; 31:9; Roberts, p. 100).

The nature and significance of the message of Judgment given to Isaiah is expressed in verses 9-13. While part of the same vision scene, these verses (esp. 9-10) are better known to many readers, from their use (generally out of context) in several key passages of the New Testament. This secondary application, along with certain theological questions that tend to be raised, makes a more detailed study of vv. 9-13 useful here. In next week’s study, we will focus both on the text itself, and on some of the wider issues of interpretation/application, as a way of demonstrating how a sound critical approach can help greatly in addressing such issues.

References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2015).

Saturday Series: Isaiah 2:1-5

Isaiah 2:1-5

“The word which Yesha’yahu son of Amos saw (as a vision), upon [i.e. regarding] Yehudah and Yerushalaim” (v. 1)

This superscription mirrors that of 1:1, and should be taken as the opening of the book proper, that is, of chapters 2-39. Another similar superscription follows at 13:1, which indicates that chapters 2-12 form a distinct division, though whether or not they reflect a specific source document or stage of composition for chaps. 2-39, is difficult to say. In any case, it is important to view a passage (such as Isa 2:1-5) within its wider Scriptural context–which here involves the division comprised of chapters 2-12. Thematically, chaps. 2-4 form a smaller unit, with a parallel section (11:1-12:6) at the end of this division. They share the (eschatological) theme of the restoration of Israel, alternating with oracles of judgment against Judah and Jerusalem. The eschatological aspect of these chapters, with its theme of restoration, is more typical of so-called Deutero-Isaiah (chaps. 40-66), which critical commentators believe was composed later on, reflecting an exilic or post-exilic setting. This would be contrasted with the core section 6:1-9:6, which clearly is set in Isaiah’s own time, dealing with the 8th century Assyrian crises. The surrounding judgment poems and oracles of chapters 5 and 10 also appear more closely related to the late-8th century Assyrian setting.

Before looking at the individual verses and lines of 2:2-5, it may be worth considering the passage briefly in terms of the various areas of Biblical Criticism (see the introductory study).

Textual Criticism

This passage is, of course, contained in the great Qumran Isaiah scroll (1QIsaa), as well as (partially) in manuscripts 4QIsab,e,f. There are several interesting variants between 1QIsaa (the Isaiah Scroll) and the Masoretic Text (MT); most notably, the text of 1QIsaa is shorter in verse 3 (absent the portion in italics):

“(Let us) go, and we shall go up to (the) mountain of YHWH,
to (the) house of the Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob”

The other main difference is the reading of the plural verb form “and they will instruct us” (w®yœrûnû) instead of the MT singular “and He will instruct us” (w®yœr¢nû). There are a few smaller, minor variants, as well as some orthographic differences; but, otherwise the Masoretic Text is relatively secure, and we can work from it without undue complications.

Source Criticism

A textual point of note is that the text of Isa 2:2-5 has a parallel version (with some key differences, noted below) in Micah 4:1-5. This raises a number of source- and composition-critical questions. The relationship between the two versions has been explained in various ways:

    • The book of Isaiah derives it from Micah
    • The book of Micah derives it from Isaiah
    • Both versions are derived from a common earlier source

I am inclined to the latter view, which would tend to support the idea that the opening and closing portions of this division—i.e. chapters 2-4 and 11-12—date from a later period than the material in the central chapters 5-10, but that they still contain old prophetic material (even from Isaiah himself), united by certain key thematic and literary points. Our passage 2:2-5, in particular, seems to have much in common with the Deutero-Isaian oracles in the second half of the book.

Historical Criticism

The eschatological aspect of 2:2-5, with its theme of the restoration of Israel, centered around the Jerusalem Temple, and the outreach to the surrounding (Gentile) nations, is certainly typical of many of the Deutero-Isaian oracles in chaps. 40-66—see, for example, 40:9; 42:6-7; 45:14-23; 49:6; 51:4; 56:7; 57:13; 60:1-18; 65:11, 26; 66:20, etc. Most critical commentators would ascribe the Deutero-Isaian material, generally, to the exile or post-exilic period. A thematic comparison with texts from this period (e.g. Zech 2:14-16 [EV 12-14]; 8:20-23; Hag 2:7-9) would tend to point in this direction (cf. Blenkinsopp, p. 191). I have already noted (above) the idea that the framing sections in chapters 2-4, 11-12, while likely containing earlier/older material, may well have been composed somewhat later. If this is correct, it would tell us something significant about how the book of Isaiah was composed, with the message of the historical Prophet being applied to the situation of Judah/Jerusalem in a later time. In this case, according to this theory, the promise of deliverance (for Jerusalem and a faithful remnant) from the Assyrian invasion would have been applied to the Babylonian exile and the promise of a future restoration/return.

Literary Criticism

Isa 2:2-5 is short oracle, written in a highly poetic prose style; it may be called a poem, though with a loose metrical and verse structure. It would be characterized as a salvation- or restoration-oracle, rather typical, as I have noted, of the oracles in chapters 40-66 (so-called Deutero-Isaiah). The thematic structure of the poem can be outlined as follows:

    • Opening stanza on the Jerusalem Temple (v. 2, lines 1-4)
    • Visionary scene regarding the Nations (v. 2, line 5; v. 3)
    • Closing stanza on the New Age for humankind (v. 4)
    • Concluding exhortation (v. 5)

Thematically, the central scene has a chiastic structure:

    • The Nations come to the Temple to hear God’s word
      • Declaration of the Nations
    • God’s word goes out from the Temple to the Nations

Now, let us briefly examine each of these portions.

Exegesis

Verse 2a-d

“And it shall be, in the days (coming) after (this),
(the) mountain of the house of YHWH shall be set (up),
on the head [i.e. top] of (all) the mountains,
and lifted up from [i.e. over] (the) high (hill)s.”

This opening stanza, as such, establishes the central theme of the Jerusalem Temple, referred to traditionally as the “house” (bê¾) of YHWH, but also as a mountain (har). The mountain motif relates to the ancient fortified hill-top location of the Temple, the Canaanite site taken over by Israel to form the core of the future Jerusalem (the “city of David”, also known as Mount Zion). However, the mountain has an even more archetypal (mythic-religious) association with the Temple. The mountain was a figure-type for the meeting place between heaven and earth, i.e. the place where human beings could come into contact with the divine. A temple building served much the same symbolic purpose, and temples frequently were constructed on mountain or hilltop locations. Ancient Mesopotamian tradition, beginning with the Sumerians, constructed their great city-state temples to resemble a mountain (i.e. the ziggurat form).

The expression b®°aµ¦rî¾ hayy¹mîm, translated “in the days (coming) after (this)”, gradually came to have a specific eschatological connotation—i.e. in the “last days”, or “latter days”, the days to come in the future, at the end of the current Age. Though not as precise here, perhaps, it certainly still carries an eschatological significance. Thus, it is a prophecy of the role the Temple will play in the end-time—marking the end of the current Age, and the beginning of the New Age to come.

Verse 2e-3a

“And all the nations will stream to it,
and many peoples will go and say:”
Micah:
“And peoples shall stream upon it,
and many nations will go and say:”

This couplet opens the central visionary scene of the oracle and introduces the declaration of the Nations in verse 3. The verb n¹har creates the image of people “streaming” to the Temple like rivers, all flowing into a central location, a great reservoir or sea.

Verse 3b-e

“(Let us) walk, and we shall go up to (the) mountain of YHWH,
to (the) house of the Mighty (One) [°E_lœhîm] of Ya’aqob;
and He will instruct us from His ways,
and we will walk in His (well-)traveled (path)s.”

This statement, introduced in 3a, is essentially a declaration of faithfulness by the nations, collectively. The idiom of “walking” (verb h¹lak) is used here specifically for the idea of obeying and worshiping God. Even as the nations walk (travel) to the Temple in Jerusalem, they are demonstrating their loyalty and obedience to YHWH, the God of Israel, walking in His “ways” and “paths”. Again, traveling a path is figurative for following instruction, in a religious or ethical/moral sense. The verb y¹râ is related to the Hebrew noun transliterated as Torah (tôrâ); it literally signifies aiming or pointing in a particular direction (as when one shoots an arrow, etc), thus blending effectively the motifs of travel and instruction.

The idea that the surrounding nations, the non-Israelite peoples, might be converted, coming to worship YHWH—and even joining with Israel as the people of God—is a notable theme in Deutero-Isaiah (as indicated above), but is less prominent in chapters 2-39. It came to be part of the Jewish eschatological (and Messianic) expectation, and, as such, was inherited by early Christians who gave to it a unique interpretation. Naturally, it was applied to the early mission to the Gentiles, and was a key theme in the book of Acts (being foreshadowed also in the Lukan Gospel), as also by Paul in his letters.

On the mountain-motif, see the discussion above. The idea of the Temple as the “house” of God is traditional; here, the expression is “house of the Mighty One [i.e. God] of Jacob [i.e. Israel]”, referring to YHWH specifically as the God of Israel. The Temple is the place where Israel interacts with God, thus it is, in a sense, also Israel’s house (cf. verse 5 below). The expression is typical of the Deutero-Isaian oracles (e.g. 46:3; 48:1; 58:1), but also occurs a number of times in the Psalms.

Verse 3f-g

“For from ‚iyyôn (the) instruction goes forth,
and the word of YHWH from Yerushalaim.”

The couplet is parallel to that of 2e-3a (see above). Just as the nations come to the Temple to hear the God’s instruction (torah), so also God’s word goes out from the Temple, radiating outward to reach the nations. The narrative in the early chapters of Acts plays on both these ideas, both ‘directions’ —people from the surrounding nations come to Jerusalem to hear the Gospel proclamation (chap. 2), and then those who believe go out from Jerusalem to proclaim the same message into the nations (from chap. 8 onward, see 1:8, etc).

Verse 4

“And He shall judge between the nations,
and bring decision for many (people)s;
and they will beat their swords (in)to digging (tool)s,
and their thrusting (weapon)s (in)to trimming (kniv)es.
A nation will not lift a sword to a(nother) nation,
and they shall not learn again to make war.”

Micah 4:3-4:
“And He shall judge between many peoples,
and bring decision for mighty nations,
(even) unto (those) far away;
and they will beat their swords (in)to digging (tool)s,
and their thrusting (weapon)s (in)to trimming (kniv)es.
A nation will not lift a sword to a(nother) nation,
and they shall not learn again to make war.
And they shall sit (together)—
a man under his vine, and under his fig-tree,
and no one will bring fear (to them)—
for (the) mouth of YHWH of the (heavenly) armies utters it.

This three-couplet stanza is parallel to the opening stanza of verse 2; in both, the eschatological context is primary. Here it is defined qualitatively, describing the New Age to come—a ‘Golden Age’ of peace and righteousness. Because the nations now follow YHWH, obeying His instruction, their wicked and violent impulses, i.e. to attack one another, have been curbed and transformed. This ideal hope and promise of peace remains one of the most beloved of all Old Testament passages.

The Mican version is notably different, with additional lines in bold (above), and another minor difference in word order in italics.

Verse 5

“House of Ya’aqob, walk—we shall walk (together) in the light of YHWH!”

Micah 4:5:
“For all the peoples will walk—
a man in (the) name of his Mighty (One) [°E_lœhîm]—
but we will walk in (the) name of YHWH our Mighty (One),
(in)to the distant (future) and unto (the end).”

This final exhortation also summarizes the eschatological promise of the oracle—that the nations will join with Israel (“the house of Jacob”) as the people of God. The version in Micah again differs noticeably, patterned after the prior verse 4; it also establishes a contrast between Israel and the nations—i.e. “our God” (YHWH) vs. the deit(ies) of the surrounding peoples. The emphasis in Isaiah 2 appears to be more inclusive.

References above marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 19 (2000).

 

 

2 Thess 2:3-4 and Early Christian Eschatology

As previously noted in the studies on the eschatology of 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Paul appears to have shared, with other first-century believers, a traditional outlook on the end times. In his letters he does not go much beyond this, and only offers a presentation of this eschatology in any real detail in 1 and 2 Thessalonians. In my view, Paul held to an eschatological framework similar to that of the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (cf. my earlier 4-part study on the Discourse). Even though the Eschatological Discourse likely represents an early Christian (traditional-literary) arrangement of Jesus’ teaching, this does not mean that the basic framework was not shared by Jesus himself. In fact, there is every reason to think that it was, in general, shared by many Jews and Christians of the time.

The simplest form of the Synoptic Discourse is the Markan version (chap. 13), which has the following framework:

    • A single period of “distress” which precedes the coming of the end, presented from three different points of view:
      (1) The world and humankind generally (vv. 5-8)
      (2) The disciples of Jesus (vv. 9-13)
      (3) The people of Judea specifically (vv. 14-22)
      [Probably the destruction of the Temple signifies the end/climax of this period]
    • The end of the current Age, marked by the appearance of the Son of Man and the gathering/deliverance of the Elect [i.e. the final Judgment] (vv. 24-27)

The Matthean and Lukan versions develop and expand this somewhat. It is worth noting that Paul, in 1 and 2 Thessalonians (assuming the latter is genuinely Pauline), was writing c. 50 A.D., only 20 or so years after Jesus’ own teaching, and well before any of the Synoptic Gospels were written. The points of correspondence between the eschatology of 1-2 Thessalonians and the underlying traditions of the Discourse are:

    • He seems to believe (and affirm) that the suffering and persecution believers are experiencing at the time is part of the end-time period of distress (1 Thess 1:6ff; 2:14ff; 2 Thess 1:4-12). This corresponds with Jesus’ teaching in Mk 13:9-13 par. Paul uses the key term qli/yi$ (“distress”) in 2 Thess 1:4, 6 (also 1 Thess 1:6; cf. Mk 13:19, 24 par; Rev 7:14 etc.
    • Paul’s controversial words in 1 Thess 2:14-16, regarding the judgment facing Jewish opponents of the Gospel, likely reflects the idea of specific suffering that is to come upon the people of Judea (and Jerusalem) as part of the end-time period of distress (Mk 13:14-22 par). I discussed this in an earlier note.
    • The teaching in 1 Thess 4:13-17 (cf. the discussion in Part 2) is said to derive from Jesus’ own words (“word/account of the Lord”, v. 15), that is, transmitted through early Gospel tradition. It is essentially an expanded form of Mk 13:26-27 par, naturally identifying the coming of the “Son of Man” with the return of Jesus (cf. also 1 Thess 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 2 Thess 1:7; 2:1).
    • The instruction in 1 Thess 5:1-3ff also echoes Jesus’ proverbial teaching in Mk 13:32-37 par, esp. Matt 24:42-44).
    • 2 Thess 2:1-12 contains much detail in common with Jesus’ description of the end-time period of distress (Mk 13:5ff, 14, 19-22 par).

It is the last point, in particular, that I wish to discuss here. Having already examined 2 Thess 2:1-12 in Part 3 of the article on 1-2 Thessalonians, it is necessary to look at verses 3-4 in a bit more detail, and in light of the framework of the Eschatological Discourse.

2 Thessalonians 2:3-4

One of the events which, according to Paul, must occur before the final Judgment of God (against the wicked) arrives, is the appearance of a person called “the man of lawlessness” (o( a&nqrwpo$ th=$ a)nomi/a$, v. 3) or “the lawless (one)” (o( a&nomo$, v. 8). While this descriptive title could be understood in a general sense, Paul’s exposition in vv. 3-10 strongly suggests that it refers to a political leader of some sort. At the time of writing (c. 50 A.D., assuming Pauline authorship), this likely would have meant a Roman emperor. We would have a clearer sense of what Paul had in mind, and the passage would be easier to interpret, were it not for two factors: (1) the difficult language/syntax in vv. 6-7, and (2) the role of the Temple in verse 4. I discuss the meaning of the Greek of vv. 6-7 in Part 3 and earlier notes (cf. also below). Here it is necessary to look specifically at the role of the Temple, since it marks a defining act by the “man of lawlessness”. Verse 4:

“…the (one) stretching himself out against, and lifting himself over, all (thing)s being counted as God or reverenced, even as to his sitting in the shrine [nao/$] of God, showing himself from (this) that he is God.”

Most commentators are in agreement that Paul here is drawing upon an early Christian use of the prophecies in the book of Daniel, of a wicked foreign ruler who would come and desecrate the Temple (9:26-27; 11:31-39; 12:11). The original context of these prophecies is as a reference to the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the events of 167-164 B.C., in which the sacrificial ritual in the Jerusalem Temple was halted/abolished, being replaced by a form of pagan worship. This act of desecration was specifically identified with the difficult Hebrew wording of 9:27 — “and upon the wing [[nk] of despicable (thing)s he lays waste”, or, perhaps: “and upon the wing of despicable (thing)s (the one) laying waste (comes)”. In Greek, this phrase was translated as “and upon the Temple there will be a stinking (thing) of desolations [bde/lugma tw=n e)rhmw/sewn]”. The earliest interpretation is found in 1 Maccabees 1:54, following the Greek rendering—the “stinking thing of desolations” [bde/lugma tw=n e)rhmw/sewn] is identified with a pagan altar that Antiochus IV had set upon the altar in the Temple (v. 59, also 4:43), and upon which, it would seem, unlawful/unclean pagan sacrifices were offered (cf. 2 Macc 6:5). In his Commentary on Daniel (11:31), Jerome states that Antiochus IV had set up an image of Jupiter (Zeus) Olympius in the Jerusalem Temple; however, the source and basis for this tradition is unclear.

Both Jews and Christians in the 1st century B.C./A.D. had cause to re-interpret the Daniel prophecy, applying it to their own time (a century or two later). Since no definitive judgment/defeat of the wicked occurred in the years immediately following 164 B.C., his meant that the prophecy still had to be fulfilled in some manner. The Dan 9:27 tradition, with a variation of the same Greek expression “stinking thing of desolation” (bde/lugma th=$ e)rhmw/sew$), is used in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:14):

“But when you should see the stinking thing of desolation having stood where it is necessary (that it should) not [i.e. where it ought not to be]…”

The aside which follows, coming either from the Gospel writer or an earlier traditional notice, suggests an interpretation, unstated in the text, that is presumed to be understood by Christians of the time (c. 60 A.D.?). Matthew’s version preserves the same cryptic notice but otherwise makes the Daniel reference (24:15) more clear (differences/additions in italics):

Therefore when you should see ‘the stinking thing of desolation’ that was uttered through Danîyel the Foreteller (now) having stood in the holy place…”

Jesus’ disciples, along with other Christians of the time, c. 35-60 A.D., are warned that the appearance of “the stinking thing of desolation” standing in the Temple sanctuary marks the beginning of a time of terrible distress for the people of Judea. While the original reference in the Synoptic Discourse (Mark/Matthew) may have been well-understood by the first readers, its precise interpretation is unclear for us today. However, the idea of something standing in the Temple suggests perhaps a statue or similar (pagan) construction. The tradition preserved in Jerome’s commentary on Daniel (cf. above) indicated that Antiochus IV had set up an image of Jupiter (Zeus) Olympius in the Temple. This was echoed c. 40 A.D. by the emperor Gaius’ (Caligula), as part of his establishment of the imperial cult, intending that his statue was to be placed in the Jerusalem Temple, transforming it into an imperial shrine (Josephus, Antiquities 18.256-307). Jesus’ use of Dan 9:27 indicates that he is predicting something similar to happen at the end-time, and it could conceivably relate to the historical actions/intentions of the emperor (c. 40 A.D.).

However, in Luke’s version of the Discourse, the Dan 9:27 reference has been completely recast as a reference to the (Roman) invasion of Jerusalem, in which the presence of a pagan army would both desecrate and destroy the Temple:

“And when you shall see Jerusalem encircled by foot-soldiers, then you should know that her desolation [e)rh/mwsi$] has come near.” (Lk 21:20; cf. also 19:41-44)

This of course was accurately fulfilled in 70 A.D. The Lukan version of the Discourse expands the chronological scope somewhat, allowing for a period during which Jerusalem (and the Temple) would be “trampled under (the feet of) the nations”. The length of time involved is not clear, though from the author’s standpoint (probably writing c. 70-80) it would have to be at least a number of years (though scarcely the 1,900+ years looked at from our vantage point today).

Returning to 2 Thessalonians 2:4, Paul seems to accept a rather different interpretation of the Dan 9:27 / Mk 13:14 tradition—what stands in the Temple sanctuary is not a statue, but a person; it is not a pagan army, rather, it is a wicked pagan ruler. Almost certainly, Paul would have understood this as Roman emperor, perhaps one fulfilling the pattern of the wicked Gaius (Caligula) who had intended his own image to be set up in the Temple (cf. above). This would have occurred just ten years or so (c. 40 A.D.) before 2 Thessalonians was written. It would not have been difficult to see it as a foreshadowing of something that would be done by an even more wicked ruler.

There are actually a number of foreign (Greco-Roman) figures whose lives and actions fed into the idea of a wicked end-time ruler along the lines of this “man of lawlessness”. In addition to Antiochus IV and Gaius (Caligula), we may note the Roman general Pompey (106-48 B.C.). It was he who first subjugated Judea to Roman rule (64/63 B.C.), placing it as a tributary under the governorship of Syria. According to many scholars, the so-called “Psalms of Solomon” were written not long after Pompey’s conquest, and that he is the pattern for the wicked/foreign ruler of the end-time envisioned in several of the Psalms. There are some interesting parallels between 17:11-22 and 2 Thess 2:3-4, both conceptually and in the Greek wording used. The Pompey figure is also called “the lawless one” (o( a&nomo$) and his rule is characterized as an especially wicked time of sin and turning of the people away from God. The book of Revelation, written some time after 2 Thessalonians, appears to contain similar allusions to Nero, and, perhaps, other emperors as well (Vespasian?, Domitian?).

In summary, we may note the following points:

    • Paul predicts the rise of a wicked ruler who would stand/sit in the Temple sanctuary, as a fulfillment of the Dan 9:26-27 prophecy (as understood through the Eschatological Discourse [Mk 13:14 par], etc).
    • This wicked ruler would appear toward the end of the period of distress (qli/yi$) in which Paul and his readers were already living (c. 50 A.D.). This may correspond with the conjunction of the time of persecution of believers (13:9-13) and suffering in Judea (13:14-22) outlined in the framework of the Discourse.
    • The reign of this wicked ruler, though relatively brief, would be one of intense wickedness and evil, with supernatural signs and miracles that would deceive people and lead them astray. This also echoes the description of the end-time distress for Judea in Mk 13:14-22, though Paul does not seem to limit the geographic extent so narrowly (in spite of the Temple reference).
    • The destruction of this wicked ruler is described in traditional Messianic language (allusion to Isa 11:4, etc), transferred to the Christian idea of Jesus’ return.
    • From a chronological standpoint, Paul is speaking of something he expects to happen soon, i.e. not long after 50 A.D., when the letter was written. This would generally fit the time frame (of approx. 20 years) before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. In this regard, Paul is fully in accord with the earliest Christian eschatology as expressed in the New Testament—i.e. of the “last days” as a period more or less corresponding to the first generation of believers (30-40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection).

The fundamental problem with this Pauline chronology is the same as that which we have seen already with the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse and the eschatology of the New Testament as a whole. While many of the expected/predicted events and details were accurately fulfilled in the 1st century A.D., the end—i.e. the return of Jesus and final Judgment—did not occur at that time. Paul’s apparent predictions in 2 Thess 2:3ff involve the Jerusalem Temple, as do those of Jesus in the Eschatological Discourse. The Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. which makes it impossible for the event described in 2:4 to be fulfilled—at least not in a concrete historical sense. This has led many traditional-conservative (and Evangelical) commentators to interpret and apply the passage in a more figurative or symbolic sense; this may be done several different ways:

    • as a conflict with the “antichristian” forces of evil, etc, without any specific eschatological significance for the believer today; while this may be a valid application, it effectively negates the clear eschatological context of the passage.
    • as a similar conflict, but an eschatological setting (of sorts) is preserved by viewing the “last days” broadly as the entire period (of nearly 2,000 years) from the time of the apostles to the present day.
    • the specific Temple setting, etc, is figurative but the passage does refer to an actual person who will appear at some point yet in the future (i.e. after 2020 A.D.); as predicted, this ruler will stand in direct opposition to God and Christ and will deceive the world (part of the wider Antichrist tradition).
    • [Some Christians would preserve a literal fulfillment by relying upon the idea that the actual Jerusalem Temple will be rebuilt in the future. While a rebuilding of the Temple does feature in Jewish eschatology to some extent, the idea is almost entirely absent from the New Testament; there is no suggestion, either in 2 Thess 2:3ff or in the Eschatological Discourse, that a rebuilt Temple is in view.]

Only the third approach does justice to the eschatology of the passage, but it founders in the general disregard (admittedly out of practical necessity) for the imminence of Paul’s eschatology clearly expressed throughout 1-2 Thessalonians. As discussed at many points in this series, the basic conflict between the imminent eschatology of the New Testament and the 1,900+ years (and counting) that have since passed, is a problem for which there is no easy solution. It will be addressed more extensively as the series draws to a close.

For more on the Temple in Jewish and early Christian eschatology, see my earlier article on the subject. On the prophecy of Daniel 9:25-27, in particular, consult my note in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, as well as the article here on the Eschatological Discourse.

The “man of lawlessness” of 2 Thess 2:3-11 will be discussed further in an upcoming special article in this series on the “Antichrist” tradition.

October 7: Revelation 11:1-2

Revelation 11:1-2

Many commentators regard the first two verses of chapter 11 as belonging more properly with chapter 10; in my view, it is best to treat them as a separate (transitional) scene set between 10:1-11 and 11:3-13.

Rev 11:1

“And there was given to me a reed (which was more) like a staff, saying ‘You must rise and measure the shrine of God and the place of (ritual) slaughter [i.e. altar] and the (one)s kissing toward [i.e. worshiping] (God) in it’.”

The reed (ka/lamo$) refers to any stick which might be used as a measuring tool; the further description of it as being “like a r(a/bdo$” means that it is larger/longer and firmer, like the staff held by a shepherd or ruler. The possible royal/Messianic allusion adds to the idea that this is no ordinary measuring-stick.

The command to measure is a visionary detail which echoes a number of Prophetic passages, such as Amos 7:7-9. The Old Testament idiom involves a measuring-line (plum-line), and usually refers to the application of judgment—cf. also 2 Sam 8:2; 2 Kings 21:13; Lam 2:8. The most immediate reference comes from Zech 2:1-2, which involves the vision of a man (i.e. heavenly being/messenger) holding a measuring-line, who has been tasked to measure the dimensions of Jerusalem. This passage is part of a visionary promise of Israel’s restoration and return to Jerusalem, presented in eschatological language. Also relevant is the vision of the new Temple in Ezek 40-43ff, where the building’s dimensions are described in detail; the prophet also sees a heavenly/divine being holding a measuring-stick in his hand (vv. 3, 5). Taking all these prophetic passages together, we see that there is a two-fold aspect to the symbolism of measuring:

    • Negative—determining the portion/people which are to receive the judgment
    • Positive—demarcating the space marked for deliverance/restoration

Both of these apply to the visionary scene here in the book of Revelation.

Rev 11:2

(The heavenly voice continues:)
“And the open court(yard) th(at is) outside the shrine you must throw out and you should not measure it, (in) that [i.e. because] it was given to the nations, and they will tread (over) the holy city (for) forty-two months.”

Here the Temple is envisioned as having a simpler structure than the Herodian (Second) Temple in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. It is closer in design to the ancient temple-pattern of the Israelite Tent-shrine (Tabernacle)—an inner sanctuary surrounded by an outer court (cf. Exodus 26-27). This indicates that it is typological—while it draws upon the historical Temple in outline, it should be understood here as a figure or symbol. The Herodian Temple did have a “court of the Gentiles”, marking a division in the Temple-complex past which non-Jews were not supposed to enter (Josephus Wars 5.190ff). This historical detail probably factors into the imagery here as well. Some commentators would infer from this passage that the Jerusalem Temple was still standing when the book of Revelation was written, indicating a date in the 60’s A.D. This is possible, but, I think, rather unlikely; other factors point to a time somewhat later in the 1st century. The reference here involves the (historical) Temple as a basic type-pattern, and really cannot be used for a dating of the book.

The contrast in vv. 1-2 is clear: the inner sanctuary (shrine, na/o$) is to be measured, but the outer courtyard (au)lh/) is not. The people (of God) are worshiping (vb. proskune/w, lit. “kiss toward”) within the shrine, but the outer court is given over to the nations (i.e. foreigners, unbelievers). This results in a religious division within the Temple itself, marking off the sanctuary from all that is outside.

This, too, draws upon historical memory and tradition, as interpreted and given shape in Scripture, set within a distinctive eschatological setting. Two main (historical) events are involved:

    • The violation and profanation of the Temple by the Syrian/Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) in 167 B.C., generally recognized as the primary point of reference in Dan 9:27 (cf. the earlier study on Dan 9:24-27).
    • The destruction of the (Herodian) Temple by the Roman army in 70 A.D., after which the Romans exercised more direct control over Jerusalem. Even prior to the Temple’s destruction, the emperor Gaius (Caligula, c. 40 A.D.) introduced policies which seemed to echo those of Antiochus IV.

Both of these events are reflected in the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus (Mark 13:1-2, 14ff par)—indeed, the Lukan version combines them together, presenting the prophecy in Dan 9:27, and the time of distress associated with it, specifically in terms of the siege/destruction of Jerusalem (Lk 21:20-24). The wording, and the idea expressed, in verse 24 is quite close that here in Rev 11:2:

“…and Yerushalaim will be (be)ing tread (down) under the nations, until the (moment at) which the times of the nations should be fulfilled.”

Here Jesus (along with the Gospel writer) is clearly referring to the conquest of Jerusalem and, with it, the destruction of the physical/historical Temple, which occurred in 70 A.D. After this, there will be a period of time when the “nations” (i.e. Gentile Romans) exercise control over the city and the Temple. This seems to parallel precisely what is declared to the seer (John) in Rev 11:2, and yet, if the book was written after 70 A.D. (as most commentators believe), it cannot refer to the same event(s) prophesied by Jesus. Moreover, in this vision, the sanctuary itself (the inner shrine or “holy place”) is not destroyed or desecrated. Modern-day commentators who wish to retain verse 2 as a concrete historical prophecy, require a situation whereby the Jerusalem Temple is rebuilt at a future time. Yet there is nothing of the kind suggested here in the text, nor anywhere else in the New Testament, for that matter. The idea derives almost entirely from a specific interpretation of Ezek 40-43ff, harmonized to fit the eschatological references to the Temple in 2 Thess 2, etc. As an interpretive method or approach it is highly questionable, though popular as a way of navigating certain historical/chronological difficulties related to New Testament eschatology. I discuss this approach at various points throughout this series.

The idea that the Temple in Rev 11:1-2 refers to an actual historical/physical building would seem to be rather flatly contradicted by the fact that all other references to the Temple in the book are either (a) symbolic of believers, or (b) are part of a setting/locale in heaven; mainly it is the latter7:15; 11:19; 14:15ff; 16:1, 17; 21:22, while 3:12 also indicates the former. Moreover, the final reference in 21:22 identifies the Temple with the person/presence of God and Christ (the Lamb) together. Numerous other passages in the New Testament use the Temple as a symbol for believers (collectively) as the body of Christ—1 Cor 3:9ff, 16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:19-22; 1 Pet 2:5.

As would be expected in a vision such as those in the book of Revelation, the Temple as an image is a concrete symbol or pattern for something else. A proper interpretation should begin with the idea of the Temple as symbolizing believers as a group or body (community). If this is correct, then what is the meaning of the distinction between the sanctuary (nao/$) and the outer court? The key is found in verse 1, where John is commanded to measure the shrine, including specifically the altar and the ones worshiping God there. Above I translate qusiasth/rion literally as the “place of (ritual) slaughter”; however, the context clearly shows that this is not the altar for animal sacrifice (which was in the outer court), but the altar for offering incense (which was inside the sanctuary). This is the altar-type assumed throughout the book (except possibly in 6:9), and the incense is associated specifically with the prayers of believers (8:3). I would say that the persons inside the sanctuary, worshiping at the altar, are meant to represent true believers, those following Jesus faithfully even unto death (6:9ff). By extension, this would imply that any persons in the outer court, outside the sanctuary, are not true believers, but false disciples or believers in name only who do not remain faithful in the time of distress. This is very much the theme of the warning/exhortations in the letters to the Seven Congregations (chaps. 2-3), and follows the clear symbolism in Jesus’ own eschatological teaching (esp. the parables in Matt 13 [vv. 24-30, 37-43, 47-50]).

What, then, of the motif of the nations treading/trampling the “holy city” (v. 2)? The “nations” (e&qnh), in the basic traditional/religious sense of the term, refer to all those who are not part of the people of God (i.e. not believers in Christ). The “nations” are fundamentally synonymous with the “wicked”. As part of the end-time Judgment, in its initial phase(s) at least, the nations/wicked will war against one another, bringing about suffering and destruction on humankind. This is expressed in the first four seal-visions (6:1-8), with the same idea also found in Jesus’ Eschatological Discourse (Mk 13:7-8 par). The time of warfare precedes, or is part of, the great distress (1:9; 2:22; 7:14; Mk 13:19 par; cf. Dan 12:1ff), which will even engulf the faithful.

The measuring of the sanctuary is a sign that those in it (believers) will be protected from judgment (cf. above). Traditionally, a temple, and, in particular, the area around the altar, due to its sacred character, was a place where persons could seek (and find) protection or asylum (Exod 21:13-14; 1 Kings 1:50). Similarly, here, we have the idea that the believers worshiping in the sanctuary (at the altar) will be protected from the Judgment. This does not mean that believers will not suffer any harm, or even be put to death, as is clear from 6:9-11 and Mk 13:9-13, 20-22 par; however, the promise is that, ultimately, the true believer will be saved from the (final) Judgment (2:7, 10-11 etc; Mk 13:13 par), while those outside, among the nations, will be destroyed. God’s Judgment does not only mean punishment for the wicked; it is also a time of testing for the righteous, and is to be endured by believers as part of our coming salvation (1 Pet 4:12-19, etc). The time period involved—forty-two months (= 3½ years)—comes from the book of Daniel (9:27; also 7:25; 12:7, 11f); here, like the rest of the vision in vv. 1-2, it is best viewed as symbolic, reflecting a short but intense period of suffering and distress at the end-time. For those seeking to preserve a concrete literal/historical fulfillment, it would mean a period of precisely 3½ years (42 months), as written. Rev 12:14 uses the same idiom as in Dan 7:25; 12:7 for this duration—”time, times and half and a time”.

It should be pointed out that not all commentators would interpret Rev 11:1-2 exactly as I have above; I note here a different approach, which still treats the Temple image as symbolic in more or less the same sense (Koester, p. 485):

“{The} outer court as the vulnerable aspect of the church. The enclosed temple (naos) that is measured signifies the worshiping community, which God preserves on earth. The open court (aule) signifies the church, as it is vulnerable to affliction in an unbelieving world. The same community is both preserved and vulnerable…”

I have already mentioned above the line of interpretation which would view vv. 1-2 as a vision of the historical/physical city and Temple, to be fulfilled (literally) at a future time, parallel with a similar modern/futurist interpretation of Mk 13:14ff. For more on the Temple in New Testament eschatology as a whole, see the separate study on this subject.

References marked as “Koester” above, and throughout this series, are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

Supplemental Study: Eschatology and the Temple

Supplemental Study:
Eschatology and the Temple

This article is meant as a supplement to the current series Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament. In our study of the “Eschatological Discourse” in the Synoptic Gospels, we saw how it begins with Jesus’ prediction of the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction (Mk 13:1-2 par). The Discourse itself proceeds literally in view of the Temple (v. 3), which continues to play a role in Jesus’ instruction, especially as presented in the Lukan version of the Discourse. Thus it is worth considering the place of the Temple in the eschatology of the time, and how such existing traditions and belief might be reflected in the New Testament. There will be three parts to this study:

    1. The Temple in Jewish Eschatological and Messianic Thought—focusing on evidence prior to, or contemporary with, the Gospels
    2. The Temple-Action & Temple-Saying(s) of Jesus in the Gospel Tradition
    3. Early Christian Views of the Temple with a possible Eschatological aspect

1. The Temple in Jewish Eschatological and Messianic Thought

In the surviving texts from the first centuries B.C./A.D. (i.e. 250 B.C.-100 A.D.), there are a number of passages which indicate the role the Jerusalem Temple was thought to play in Jewish eschatology, which, for the most part, is closely connected with Messianic expectations of the time. Generally speaking, the end time, marked by the appearance of specific Anointed (Messiah) figures, was characterized by two expectations: (1) the deliverance/restoration of Israel (or the faithful remnant), and (2) the judgment of the wicked/nations. Central to both of these components, or aspects, was the location of Jerusalem, which had the Temple at its religious/spiritual heart. Already in the Old Testament Prophets—especially the second half of Isaiah (Deutero-Isaiah, chaps. 40-66)—the promise of return from exile had begun to be expressed in eschatological language, envisioning an ideal time of peace and prosperity, etc, for the faithful ones among the people of Israel, a New Age for the people of God.

Much of this eschatological expectation was current at the time of Jesus, and it informs the worldview of the New Testament. Perhaps the best evidence for it is found in the narrative of Luke-Acts, where the devout in Israel are described as awaiting the coming of this New Age, and, with it, the deliverance of the faithful—cf. Lk 1:32-33, 54-55, 68-75; 2:25-26ff, 38, etc. In Acts 1:6ff, the disciples ask Jesus specifically about the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel, indicating an expectation of the sort outlined above. It is significant that, of all the Gospels, the Temple has the most prominent role in Luke (or Luke-Acts, cf. below).

Especially important for the New Testament view of the Temple is the idea that the restoration of Israel would entail a rebuilding of Jerusalem, and, in particular, a rebuilding/restoration of the Temple. This is suggested already in several passages in the Prophets, esp. (Deutero-)Isaiah—cf. Isa 44:28; 56:5ff; 60:7, 13; 66:20). The Exile, following the destruction of the first (Solomonic) Temple, provides the background for this restoration imagery. The establishment of Israel in the land would require a rebuilding of Jerusalem and a newly-rebuilt Temple. This is presented, in idealized form, in the final chapters of Ezekiel. The new Temple itself is described, in considerable detail, in chapters 40-43. Even after the Temple was rebuilt—even the second (Herodian) Temple in all its splendor (Mark 13:1-2 par; cf. Josephus Antiquities 15.380-425; Wars 5.184-227)—this idea of a New Temple persisted, being cast in an eschatological form. Many Jews in the first centuries B.C./A.D. recognized that the Herodian Temple, in reality, was far from the idealized portrait of the restored Temple found in the Prophetic writings. This is reflected in a number of Jewish texts from this period, where it is expressed, in different ways, that the true Temple will yet be built (by God) at the end-time. We see this, for example, in Tobit 14:15 and 2 Macc 2:7; it is formulated in more figurative language in 1 Enoch 90:28ff. Other passages to note in writings from the 1st centuries B.C./A.C., where this is stated or implied, are Jubilees 1:15-17ff; Psalms of Solomon 17:32; and Testament of Benjamin 9:2. For a good survey and discussion, cf. E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Fortress Press: 1985), pp. 77-85.

The leadership of the Community of the Qumran texts was represented by a group of priests who had separated from the religious establishment of Jerusalem. In their view, the current (Herodian) Temple was corrupt, due to the improper conduct of the priesthood officiating and managing the cultic apparatus of the Temple. They envisioned a new Temple, in the manner described in Ezek 40-43, which would soon be built at the end-time. This is best expressed in the Temple Scroll (11QTemple), where the building, and its priestly operation, are depicted in considerable detail. It is an idealized Temple, viewed, it would seem, in terms of a sanctification of the current Temple. At the same time, it is only a temporary earthly sanctuary, to last (presumably a Messianic age/period) until the final creation by God—i.e. a Temple made by God himself (11QTemple 29:8-10).

Thus, at the time of Jesus, the Temple would have played a prominent role in eschatological and Messianic thought. This helps us to understand the place of the Temple in a number of key points in the Gospel Tradition, and elsewhere in the New Testament as well. The eschatological implications of these passages, based on what we have discussed above, must be examined. We will begin with the Temple action and sayings of Jesus in the Gospels.

2. The Temple Action and Saying(s) of Jesus

a. The Temple Action

The Temple Action, otherwise known as the “Cleansing of the Temple” by Jesus, is recorded in all four Gospels—both in the Synoptics (Mk 11:15-19; Matt 21:12-17; Luke 19:45-48) and the Gospel of John (2:13-22). In spite of the difference in location within the Gospel narrative, it is all but certain that the Synoptic and Johannine accounts go back to a single historical episode and tradition. I have discussed the meaning and significance of the episode in considerable detail as part of the series “Jesus and the Law”, and in a series of earlier notes, and will not repeat all of that here. Rather, I will focus on the possible eschatological implications of the action, in light of the role of the Temple discussed in section 1 above. The following points should be considered:

    • (i) Whether the action symbolizes the destruction of the Temple
    • (ii) A new/restored purpose for the Temple—whether, or to what extent, this reflects the eschatological idea of the coming New Age
    • (iii) The Scriptures cited or alluded to in the episode
    • (iv) The connection with Jesus’ “triumphal entry” and death

i. It has been thought that the act of upturning the tables more properly signifies destruction rather than “cleansing”. While the eschatological idea of a new Temple does not necessarily require destruction of the old, it is perhaps the most natural way to think of the process. In favor of this interpretation of Jesus’ act, at the historical level, we may note:

    • The Prophetic tradition of using symbolic acts to indicate the coming Judgment by God—cf. .
    • The citation of Jer 7:11 (cf. below) implies the destruction of Jerusalem
    • The generally close connection, in the Synoptic narrative at least, with the Temple saying reported during the interrogation of Jesus before the Sanhedrin (in Mark/Matt), as well as the prediction of the Temple’s destruction—on both of these, cf. below.
    • In John’s version, the action is connected with the idea of the Temple’s destruction, through the saying in 2:19ff.

At the same time, a number of key details in the narrative point in a different direction.

ii. Certain elements of the Temple action, as narrated in the Gospels, suggest that the symbolism involves a renewal of the existing Temple, giving to it a new purpose. The overturning of the tables, etc, is just one aspect of Jesus’ action; he also is said to have driven out the people doing business (buying and selling) in the Temple precincts. Many readers and commentators assume that this relates to corruption and dishonesty among the traders and money-changers, etc; however, apart from the citation from Jer 7:11, there is little evidence of this. Rather, Jesus seems to be striking a (symbolic) blow at the very commercial apparatus necessary to maintain the functioning of the Temple as a place for sacrificial offerings. In Mark’s account, Jesus goes so far as to forbid persons carrying anything (i.e. performing any sort of ordinary business) as they went through the Temple (on this detail, cf. below). All of this suggests that Jesus has in mind a different role and purpose for the Temple, and this would seem to be confirmed by the citation from Isa 56:7 (discussed below)—it is to be a place devoted to prayer.

iii. There are four Scriptures associated with the Temple action by Jesus: (1) Isa 56:7 and (2) Jer 7:11, both cited by Jesus in the Synoptic versions; (3) Psalm 69:9, in John’s version; and (4) Zech 14:21b in relation to the main historical tradition.

Isaiah 56:7—The verse reads, “…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. This is one of several Prophetic passages which refer to the nations (Gentiles, non-Israelites) coming to Jerusalem to worship the true God (cf. above; Isa 2:2-4 / Mic 4:1-4 provides a classic formulation of this idea). Subsequently in Jewish tradition, such passages came to be understood in an eschatological sense. Moreover, this is a key text underlying a new/restored purpose for the Temple—i.e., as a place of prayer rather than sacrifice. Certain Gospel traditions and sayings of Jesus already point in this direction, away from the sacrificial/cultic machinery of the Temple (see esp. Matt 12:5-7). It is important to note that even in Luke-Acts, which presents the most extensive (and positive) portrait of the historical Temple, believers are virtually never depicted as participating in the sacrificial ritual (Acts 21:26-27ff is an exception); it is the aspect of prayer, teaching and worship which is emphasized—cf. Luke 1:10; 2:37, 46; 18:10; 19:47 (note the close proximity to v. 45); 20:1; 21:37; 24:53; Acts 2:46; 3:1ff; 5:20ff; 22:17. Cf. also further below on Rev 8:3 and 11:1.

Jeremiah 7:11—Jesus contrasts “house of prayer” in Isa 56:7 with “cavern of thieves/plunderers” in Jer 7:11. This portion from Jeremiah 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) in your eyes, this house of which My Name is called upon it?”

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. It is an oracle of judgment against Judah and Jerusalem (see section i. above). Verse 13ff warns that, because the people (including the priests and religious leaders) have done the things described in the oracle, Judah will face the same judgment (invasion/destruction/exile) experienced by the northern kingdom of Israel/Samaria; this judgment will include the destruction of the Temple (v. 14).

The combination of Isa 56:7 and Jer 7:11 results in the following logic: the Temple is intended as place of prayer and worship, but has been corrupted and so will be destroyed. This corruption extends to the administration of the Temple, and the business needed to maintain the sacrificial ritual (money-changers, sellers of animals, etc).

Psalm 69:9—If the quotation of Isa 56:7/Jer 7:11 was part of the common tradition, the Gospel of John 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. On this particular association, cf. section iv. below.

Zechariah 14:21—Many commentators feel that the historical tradition of the Temple action, as a whole, has been shaped by the closing words of Zechariah (14:21): “…and in that day there will not be merchants/traders [yn]u&n~K=] any more in the house of YHWH…”. The oracle in Zech 14 draws upon the Prophetic tradition of the nations coming to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship God there (along with Israel), but casts it in a more definite eschatological setting, taking place after the great Judgment against the nations (vv. 1-15). Those who survive will turn to worship the true God (vv. 16ff), coming to worship YHWH in the Temple at the appropriate times (the festival of Sukkoth/Booths is particularly mentioned). Verses 20-21 indicate that in this (end) time, the Temple be given a new or special consecration, extending to every utensil involved in the ritual. There is a bit of wordplay involved with the noun /u^n~K=, which could be read either as “Canaanite” (i.e. a pagan foreigner) or as a technical term for a merchant/trader (a traditional occupation for ‘Canaanites’ [Phoenicians, Syrians, etc]). The LXX understands the former, but most commentators today opt for the latter meaning, which may also have been in mind in the Gospel tradition here.

iv. The Temple action, in the Synoptic narrative at least, follows closely after Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem (Mk 11:1-11 par), beginning the final period in Jerusalem prior to his death. These two associations—the triumphal entry and death of Jesus—in context, must be examined. All four Gospels narrate the triumphal entry with Messianic details and allusions, drawing attention to Jesus’ identity as the Anointed One (Messiah) of the Davidic-ruler type. The reaction of the crowd (vv. 8-10 par) makes it clear that many people regarded Jesus as this figure, and that his entry into Jerusalem marked the arrival of the Davidic Messiah into the holy city. Moreover, the narrative details echo Zech 9:9, an association made explicit by the Gospel writer in Matt 21:4-5 and John 12:14-15. There are obvious Messianic connotations in Zech 9, as through much of chaps. 9-14, which helped shape the Gospel (Passion) Narrative and early Christian understanding of Jesus as the Messiah. The appearance of Jesus as the Messiah, for early believers and many Jews of the time, would have meant that the end of the current Age was at hand, and that the new time of the Kingdom of God (i.e. the Messianic Age) would be established by Jesus in Jerusalem. The subsequent Temple-action by Jesus must be understood with this context in mind.

Ultimately, however, the early Christian recognition of Jesus as the Anointed One, departed from the traditional conceptions, and was made unique through the historical reality of his death and resurrection—aspects foreign to most Messianic thought. The structure of the Synoptic Passion narrative sets the Temple action in the general context of Jesus’ death; at the historical level, such an action would have increased the opposition to him from the religious establishment, and, presumably, helped to spur his arrest. Certainly, Jesus’ view of the Temple played a role in his interrogation before the Council, at least according to the Synoptic (Mark/Matt) version. Despite the Johannine location of the Temple action at a much earlier point in the Gospel narrative, there is still a clear connection with Jesus’ death—the Temple saying (cf. below) occurs in this context, and is interpreted (by the Gospel writer) explicitly as a prediction of Jesus’ death and resurrection (2:19-22). There are definite eschatological implications to the Temple saying(s), as we will discuss.

b. The Temple Saying(s)

The Temple features in a number of sayings and parables of Jesus, but there are several which are especially relevant and, indeed, would seem to relate to the significance of the Temple-action (cf. above). These may be reduced to a pair of historical traditions:

    1. A saying about destroying and rebuilding the Temple (in three days)
    2. A prediction of the Temple’s destruction

Saying 1: Destroying and rebuilding the Temple. There are several sources indicating that Jesus made a statement to the effect that the Temple would be destroyed and (miraculously) rebuilt. These will be examined briefly (for a more detailed analysis, cf. the earlier studies on the subject [links at the beginning of Section 2 above]).

i. Jesus before the Sanhendrin. In the Synoptic account (in Mark/Matthew) of Jesus’ interrogation before the Council (Sanhedrin), it is recorded that witnesses came forward reporting that Jesus claimed he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. The Gospels differ in the exact formulation given:

    • Mark: “I will loose down [i.e. destroy] this shrine made with hands, and through [i.e. after] three days I will build another house made without hands.” (14:58)
    • Matt: “I am able to loose down [i.e. destroy] this shrine, and, through [i.e. after] three days, to build the house (again).” (26:60)

These witnesses are referred to as false witnesses, implying that Jesus never claimed such a thing, or that they are misrepresenting what he said. Most critical commentators assume that the historical Jesus did, in fact, make a statement along these lines; and this would seem to be confirmed by the other sources. It is certainly possible, however, that these witnesses, at the historical level, were distorting a genuine saying of Jesus. The context of the Synoptic narrative presents two traditions which may relate to this report during Jesus’ interrogation: (a) the Temple action (cf. above), and (b) the prediction of the Temple’s destruction in Mark 13:1-2 par. If the idea of the destruction of the (current) Temple, and the building of a new Temple, had eschatological significance—i.e., marking the end of the current Age and beginning of the new (cf. Section 1 above)—then such a statement by Jesus could be taken to imply that he was claiming to be a Messiah figure who would usher in the end-time. This certainly appears to have been central to the interrogation, according to Mk 14:61-62 par.

ii. The Lukan evidence in Acts 6:13-14. Interestingly, Luke’s version of the interrogation scene does not include the detail of the false witnesses and the saying they report. If this is a deliberate omission, there may be several reasons for it:

    • The author wished to narrow the focus of the scene to the primary exchange between the Council and Jesus (Lk 22:67-70)
    • It reflects the more positive portrait of the Temple in Luke-Acts, including references to early believers continuing to frequent it
    • Luke was aware that Jesus did make a statement of the kind, as reflected in Stephen’s preaching
    • The detail was reserved for the interrogation of Stephen, which follows the general pattern of Jesus’ interrogation (Acts 6:12-7:1ff)

All three explanations are potentially valid, on literary and thematic grounds. The claims made in Acts 6:13-14 certainly are similar to the reports by the ‘false witnesses’:

“This man does not cease speaking words against [this] Holy Place and the Law—for we heard him saying that this (man) Yeshua the Nazarean will loose down [i.e. destroy] this Place…”

The same verb (katalu/w, “loose down”, i.e. dissolve/destroy) occurs here as in Mk 14:58 par. Given the points made in the sermon-speech which follows (chap. 7), it seems probable that Stephen did report an authentic Temple-saying by Jesus, and followed it in his own preaching.

iii. The Johannine Temple scene. John’s version of the Temple action (2:13-17) is followed by a Temple saying by Jesus, similar to that reported by the ‘false witnesses’ (cf. above):

“Loose [i.e. destroy] this shrine, and in three days I will raise it (again)” (v. 19)

Instead of katalu/w, the simple lu/w (“loose[n]”) is used here, but with essentially the same meaning. The Gospel writer explains that this statement by Jesus is a symbolic reference to his eventual death and resurrection (vv. 21-22). Thus, in the Johannine version, for both the Temple action and saying, the original eschatological and Messianic connotations (such as there were) have been replaced almost entirely by a typological application to the person of Jesus—spec. his death and resurrection—fully in keeping with the approach taken by the Gospel of John.

Saying 2: Destruction of the Temple. The Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” begins with a prediction by Jesus of the Temple’s destruction:

“Are you look(ing) at these great buildings? There shall not be left (at all) here stone upon stone which shall not be loosed down!” (Mk 13:2)

This prediction was fulfilled in 70 A.D. when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans. Its position in the Discourse gives it an unquestionable eschatological significance. The implication is that the Temple’s destruction occurs as the climax of a great period of distress which will come upon Judea (and Jerusalem) prior to the end-time Judgment and appearance of the Son of Man (vv. 14-23ff). The Lukan version describes the time of distress more precisely in military terms as the siege and destruction of Jerusalem (21:20-24; cf. also 19:41-44). The coming of the Son of Man (vv. 25-28) follows this terrible event. For more on the Eschatological Discourse, cf. the current 4-part study in this series.

Thus we see that the Temple-action and Temple-saying(s) by Jesus have eschatological (and Messianic) significance, both at the level of the original historical event/tradition, and they way they these been narrated and presented in the Gospels. Was Jesus consciously responding to the traditional line of eschatological thought, expressed in Section 1 above, that the “restoration of Israel” at the end-time would involve a new/restored Temple? I believe that the answer must be regarded as affirmative, though with some qualification. From the earlier studies on the eschatology in the Sayings and Parables of Jesus, we have seen how Jesus repeatedly began from the point of the traditional expectation, but then proceeded to re-interpret it, giving it a deeper meaning in relation to his own person and identity (as Messiah and Son of Man). The same appears to be true with regard to the Temple action, and also the Temple saying (in John they are combined together). Three distinct strands can be found in the Gospel tradition:

    • The destruction of the Temple in terms of the end-time Judgment
    • A new/restored role and purpose for the Temple—as a place of prayer and teaching
    • The identification of Jesus himself as the new/true Temple, which also marks the end of the old Covenant and the beginning of the new (in Christ)

Early Christians developed all three strands, though it is the last of these which came to dominate by the end of the New Testament period.

3. Early Christian Views of the Temple

The last two themes mentioned above were applied and developed by early Christians almost immediately, indicating that they followed naturally from Jesus’ own teaching; this pair of themes may be summarized:

    • The Temple as a place of prayer and teaching
    • The Temple fulfilled in the person of Jesus

Both aspects involve the elimination of the sacrificial ritual, allowing for the Temple idea to continue among believers long after the historical Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Already in the Gospel tradition, several statements by Jesus identify the Temple with his own person, and, by implication, that following him effectively takes the place of fulfilling the Temple ritual (Matt 12:5-8; John 2:19ff, etc). This came to be made more explicit by early Christians, and two areas of the New Testament may be highlighted:

    1. The sacrificial ritual is fulfilled and completed (i.e. put to an end) by Jesus’ own (sacrificial) death. This is expressed all throughout the body of Hebrews (4:14-10:18), as well as in passages such as Rom 3:25; Eph 5:2; 1 John 2:2; 4:10.
    2. Believers in Jesus are priests, able to touch the holy things and to enter, in a spiritual manner, the sacred shrine through our union with Christ. Cf. 1 Pet 2:5ff; Rev 1:6; 5:10; 20:6; also Rom 15:16.

Combining both ideas leads to the core image of believers, collectively and in community, as the body of Christ—i.e., the (true) Temple and House of God. This is found numerous times in the Pauline letters—1 Cor 3:9ff, 16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; and especially Eph 2:19-22. In 2 Cor 5:1, it refers to the eternal life awaiting believers following death and resurrection; in this regard, there is a clear echo of the Temple-saying of Jesus (in Mk 14:58), with its use of the adjective a)xeiropoi/hto$ (“made without hands”; cf. also Col 2:11 and the wording in Acts 7:41, 48, 50 [referring to Temples]). In John 2:19ff, the Temple-saying of Jesus was interpreted precisely in terms of his death and resurrection, in which believers now have a share. The idea of believers as the (spiritual) house of God is also found in 1 Pet 2:5; cf. also Rev 3:12.

While these references are all eschatological, in the qualified sense that they relate to the New Age that is realized for believers in Christ, there are several passages which specifically mention the Temple in the more traditional (futurist) sense of eschatology—i.e., referring to events to come in/at the end-time.

a. 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4ff—This will be discussed in detail in the study on eschatology in the letters of Paul, but it is worth pointing out here the connection with the Dan 9:27 tradition alluded to by Jesus in the Eschatological Discourse (Mk 13:14 par). The reference would seem to be clearly to the historical Jerusalem Temple, indicating a time-frame within the first century A.D., in spite of the historical/chronological difficulties this poses for us today. As in the Eschatological Discourse, this desecration of the Temple is part of coming time of great distress which precedes the end-time appearance/return of Jesus (vv. 7-8).

b. The visions of Revelation (esp. 11:1-2)—The Temple features as a setting/locale for several of the visions in the book of Revelation (cf. the current series of daily notes, where they are being discussed, at the appropriate place). Since these are symbolic visions, while they draw upon the historical image (and idea) of the Temple, they should not be taken as referring to the physical Jerusalem Temple itself. Indeed, most of the references refer to a temple/shrine in Heaven (7:15; 11:19; 14:15ff; 16:1, 17). Thus, while they occur in the context of the the eschatological visions, they do not describe the role of the Temple in the end-time per se.

The situation is a bit different, however, with the scene in 11:1-2, where the visionary prophet (John) is commanded to measure the Temple of God in the “holy city”. As this passage is to be discussed in the current daily notes on Revelation, I will not go into it here, except to say that, in my view, it primarily refers to Christians collectively, in the sense outlined above. The true and faithful believers are those worshiping at the altar (symbolizing prayer and devotion), and they are protected from the Judgment, while those in the outer court (presumably to be understood as false believers) will suffer when it is trampled/destroyed by the “nations”.

c. The final vision of Rev 21:9ff (v. 22)—The key eschatological reference to the Temple in the book of Revelation is found in the vision of the “holy city”, the heavenly Jerusalem, in 21:9-27. There it is stated clearly in verse 22:

“And I saw no shrine [i.e. Temple] in it; for the Lord God the All-mighty (One) is its shrine, and (so also is) the Lamb.”

This provides an eschatological setting for the early Christian idea discussed above—that the true/real Temple is to be identified with the person of Jesus (the Lamb). According to the fundamental theology in the book, developed from a long line of Christian tradition, the exalted Jesus stands and rules side-by-side with God the Father (YHWH) in Heaven, sharing the same divine authority. Thus here in the vision, God and Jesus (the Lamb) together represent the true Temple.

Appendix: A Rebuilt Temple at the End-Time?

In Section 1 above I discussed the idea of a new and/or restored Temple as part of Jewish eschatological and Messianic expectation—part of the overall belief in the restoration of Israel at the end-time. There are, in fact, only two Scripture passages which specifically indicate that the Temple (originally destroyed in 587 B.C.) would be rebuilt: (1) Isa 44:28, and (2) the vision of the new Temple in Ezek 40-48. The former can be taken simply as a reference to the initial rebuilding under Zerubbabel (c. 516), which really leaves only Ezek 40-43ff to support the idea of a future Temple built at the end-time. The Herodian Temple of the 1st-century B.C./A.D., for all its grandeur, clearly did not fulfill the vision of Ezekiel in many important respects. The Qumran Community continued to emphasize the idea of a new/rebuilt Temple yet to come, along the lines of the idealized portrait in Ezekiel (the Temple Scroll [11QTemple], cf. above). Surprisingly, however, there is little or no evidence for this in the New Testament, apart from the Temple-saying by Jesus, and the Gospel treatment of that tradition is notoriously ambiguous (as discussed in Section 2 above). The lack of early Christian interest in a new/rebuilt Temple would seem to be due primarily to three factors, already discussed and outlined above:

    • Jesus’ prediction of the Temple’s destruction in connection with the coming/end-time Judgment—given that finality, how/when/why would it ever be rebuilt?
    • The sayings and teachings of Jesus eliminating or downplaying the importance of the sacrificial ritual, i.e. the principal purpose for a physical Temple-complex; this includes the identification/substitution of Jesus’ own person and ministry as the true Temple.
    • The corresponding tendency to spiritualize the Temple, as an image symbolizing believers in Christ as a community (body of Christ)—an idea which was already well established before the historical Temple was destroyed.

Even so, some commentators today believe strongly that there will be a Temple rebuilt in Jerusalem at some future point, despite the fact that this contrasts (and conflicts), in many important ways, with the three ideas (and early Christian principles) highlighted above (cf. Section 3 for more detail). The reasons for this belief essentially relate to (a) the need to preserve the accuracy of Biblical prophecy, and (b) the belief that these prophecies are to be fulfilled, in detail, in a concrete and literal way. This involves three areas of Scripture:

The New Testament passages involve the tradition in Dan 9:27, and so, in a sense, must be taken together. In the Eschatological Discourse (on which, see the current study), the allusion to Dan 9:27 is clearly set within the context of events which will occur before the coming of the Son of Man (and the end-time Judgment). Since all of this did not take place prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., historical accuracy would seem to dictate that some or all of the events will have to occur at a future time. If they require the presence of the Jerusalem Temple, as Dan 9:27 and 2 Thess 2:3ff would seem to, then a natural conclusion might be that the Temple will be rebuilt and serve as the setting for these events. There are, however, serious problems with such an interpretive approach; I have already touched on some of these, and will be addressing them in more detail in Part 4 of the study on the Eschatological Discourse, as well as in the study on Paul’s eschatology (in 1-2 Thessalonians). The significance of the Temple in Rev 11:1-2 is discussed at the proper point in the current series of daily notes.

The Law in Luke-Acts, Part 1: The Temple and Torah Observance

The question of the Old Testament Law (Torah) in the Gospel of Luke has already been addressed in the series “Jesus and the Law”; in this article I will be looking at the overall treatment of the subject by the author of Luke-Acts (traditionally Luke, the physician and companion of Paul). The article will be divided into two parts:

    1. The Temple and Torah observance
    2. The early Mission to the Gentiles, with special emphasis on the “Jerusalem Council” in Acts 15

The Temple and Torah Observance

This part will be further divided into two main sections:

    • The Temple setting and theme in Luke-Acts
    • Torah observance by the Apostles and other disciples in Acts

The Temple setting and theme in Luke-Acts

This can be examined according to three aspects—narrative, theological, and apologetic—which are interconnected and impossible to separate out entirely; these will be discussed at the appropriate points below. To begin, with one may isolate several main narrative sections in Luke-Acts where the Temple setting and theme is central:

    • The Infancy Narratives (Lk 1-2)
    • The Passion Narrative (Lk 19:28 through chapter 23)
    • The Sanhedrin “trial” scenes in Acts 3-7
    • The Arrest of Paul (Acts 21-22)

The Infancy Narratives (Lk 1-2)

The Temple in Jerusalem provides the setting for three episodes in the Lukan Infancy narratives:

The Angelic annunciation to Zechariah (Lk 1:5-23)—The conception/birth of John the Baptist is announced by the heavenly Messenger Gabriel to John’s father Zechariah, during his priestly duty in the Temple sanctuary (vv. 8-10, 21ff). Gabriel appears to Zechariah standing on the right side of the altar (of incense).

The “Presentation” of Jesus at the Temple (Lk 2:22-38)—Two different rituals are combined in the narrative (vv. 22-24)—the sacrifice for purification after childbirth, and the ‘redemption’ of the firstborn male child—the latter being described in terms of Jesus being presented/dedicated to God in the Temple. This setting also serves as the dramatic stage for the encounters with Simeon (vv. 25-35) and Anna (vv. 36-38).

The Boy Jesus in the Temple (Lk 2:41-51)—This famous and dramatic narrative is set in the Temple, following the observance of Passover in Jerusalem (v. 41). The twelve-year old Jesus remains behind—when his parents find him again, he is in the Temple precincts, sitting (as a pupil) with the teachers (of the Law). The exchange between Jesus and his parents in vv. 48-49 is the climax of the episode.

Besides providing a dramatic narrative setting for these episodes, the Temple serves a theological and apologetic purpose for the author (and/or his traditional source[s]). An important point of emphasis is the religious devotion and faithfulness of Zechariah/Elizabeth (1:6) and Joseph/Mary (2:21, 22-24, 27, 39, 41), which includes the prescribed ritual activities (priestly duty, sacrificial offering, observance of Passover) in the Temple. This theme runs through the infancy narrative, culminating in Jesus’ declaration to his parents in verse 49: “…did you not know that it is necessary for me to be in/among the (thing)s of my Father?” Jesus stands in the midst of the Old Testament religious forms and fulfills the righteousness of the Torah and Temple. From an early Christian perspective, he is connected to the older Israelite/Jewish religious world, to venerable figures such as Zechariah/Elizabeth or Simeon/Anna (see esp. Lk 2:25ff, 37-38). This also reflects a positive view of the Temple, which we see throughout Luke (and Acts), more so than in the other Gospels.

The Passion Narrative

There are three traditional elements in the Passion narrative(s) of the Gospels involving the Temple: (1) the symbolic “cleansing” of the Temple by Jesus, (2) the Temple as a setting for Jesus’ teaching during the days before his death, and (3) the tearing of the Temple veil at Jesus’ death. With regard to the Lukan handling of these details, the following should be noted:

    • The Temple “cleansing” scene is greatly abbreviated (Lk 19:45-46), compared with the account in Mark
    • Luke makes no mention of the “Temple saying” during the ‘trial’ of Jesus (Mk 14:58, Matt 26:60-61, presented as false witness, but cf. Jn 2:19); however, he presumably was aware of the tradition (cf. Acts 6:14), so the omission here is likely intentional
    • Special emphasis is given to Jesus’ presence teaching in the Temple (Lk 19:47; 20:1, 21:5, 37)
    • In Lk 23:45 the Temple veil is torn prior to Jesus’ actual death (cp. Mk 15:38; Matt 27:51)

The Sanhedrin “Trial” scenes in Acts 3-7

The Temple setting and theme is prominent in three different narrative episodes in the early chapters of Acts:

  • Acts 3:1-4:31—a narrative arc including: (a) the healing of a crippled beggar by Peter and John in the Temple precincts (3:1-10), (b) a sermon-speech by Peter (3:11-26), (c) the arrest of Peter and John and their appearance before the Sanhedrin (4:1-22), including a second speech by Peter (vv. 8-12)
  • Acts 5:12-42—a similar narrative arc, involving: (a) additional healing miracles, including mention of the disciples again in the Temple precincts (vv. 12-16), (b) a second arrest of Peter and others, with their miraculous release and instruction (by the Angel) to go and preach in the Temple (vv. 17-21a); (c) search for the disciples, who are found teaching in the Temple (vv. 21b-26); (d) a second appearance before the Sanhedrin (vv. 27-42), with twin speeches by Peter (vv. 29-32) and Gamaliel (vv. 35-39)
  • Acts 6:8-8:1a—a narrative arc involving the arrest (6:8-15) and death (7:54-8:1a) of Stephen, in between which is the speech (set before the Sanhedrin) in 7:1-53; the Temple plays a key role in both the charges against Stephen (6:11-14) and the climactic sections of his speech (7:35-53)

The Arrest of Paul (Acts 21-22)

During Paul’s final visit to Jerusalem, he took part in a purification ritual in the Temple (21:23-26), where he was recognized and seized by the hostile crowd (vv. 27-30) and removed from the Temple precincts, being taken into custody by Roman authorities. This sets the stage for the speech by Paul in 22:1-21.

The Significance of the Temple setting and theme

This can be summarized under two basic thematic headings related to early Christianity and Judaism—continuity and conflict:

1. Early Christianity as a continuation of Israelite/Jewish religion (centered on the Temple)
  • This an important theme in the Infancy narratives (cf. above)—the parents of John the Baptist and Jesus are shown as righteous (in the traditional Jewish sense), faithfully observing the commands and ordinances of the Law, including participation in the prescribed Temple ritual. Jesus and his parents encounter similar examples of Israelite/Jewish piety in the figures of Simeon and Anna who regularly frequent the Temple. It is following the pilgrimage festival of Passover in Jerusalem, that Jesus stays behind in the Temple.
  • The theme of teaching in the Temple precincts, extending from Jesus (Lk 2:46; 19:47; 20:1; 21:37; 22:53) to the apostles (Acts 3:12; 4:2; 5:20-21, 25, 28, 42).
  • After the Resurrection/Ascension of Jesus, the early believers continue to frequent the Temple (Lk 24:53; Acts 2:46; 3:1; 5:42).
  • Paul, the ‘apostle to the Gentiles’ (in Acts 13-20), willingly takes part (along with observant Jewish Christians) in a Temple ritual (Acts 21:23-26).
2. The Temple as a source and symbol of conflict between early Christianity and Judaism
  • The Temple action (“cleansing”) and saying by Jesus, though minimized in the Lukan narrative (cf. above), clearly serve as a point of conflict and controversy in the early Church. The substance of the charge (that Jesus would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days) in Mk 14:58 par is retained in the accusation against Stephen (Acts 6:14, below).
  • The Temple setting is central to the twin narratives (in Acts 3-5), where Peter and the apostles are arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin; it serves to heighten the sense of conflict (especially in 5:20-25ff).
  • The accusations and charges against Stephen (Acts 6:11-14) are:
    • “we heard him speaking abusive/slanderous words unto [i.e. against] Moses and God” (v. 11)
    • “this man does not cease speaking words against [this] holy Place and the Law” (v. 13)
    • “we have heard him say that Jesus the Nazarean will loose down [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this place and make different [i.e. change/alter] the customs which Moses gave along to us” (v. 14)
      The last two are said to have been made by “false witnesses”, and are clearly related to the charge made against Jesus at his ‘trial’ (Mk 14:58 par).
  • The speech of Stephen remarkably draws a connection between the Temple and idolatry (the episode of the Golden Calf, etc) in 7:39-43ff, and questions the value and purpose of the Temple itself (especially with the citation of Isa 66:1-2) in vv. 44-50. The improper approach to God (and His “dwelling”) is further wrapped up in the counter-charge that the Jewish leaders (i.e. the Sanhedrin, implied) are the ones who have not kept the Law (v. 53). I have discussed this at length in the series on the Speeches of Acts.
  • Paul’s arrest in Acts 21-22 (above) is similarly related to accusations against him, that he speaks against the Jewish Law and religious customs (21:20-21). While it is hard to say whether such claims have any basis with regard to Stephen, they could more plausibly be made against Paul, according to his argument in Galatians (and parts of Romans). However, the author of Acts, in presenting the episode of chaps. 21-22, takes pains to emphasize that this is not true of Paul. James’ recommendation for Paul to participate in the purification ritual is specifically made so that other Jews (and Jewish Christians) will know that “(the things) sounded down about you are nothing [i.e. are not true], but (rather) you walk in line and (your)self (are) keeping the Law” (v. 24). When Paul is recognized by the crowd, the accusation is stated: “this is the man teaching everyone everywhere against the Law and this Place” (note the similarity to 6:13). All of this takes place in the setting of the Temple precincts.

Torah observance by the Apostles and other Disciples in Acts

The episode in Acts 21 (discussed above) brings out more clearly the fundamental issue of whether, or to what extent, the early Christians faithfully observed the commands and ordinances of the Law (Torah). Though the evidence is relatively slight, the book of Acts suggests that the early believers in Jerusalem (Jewish Christians) were observant. The following passages may be noted:

    • The Apostles and early Christians continued to frequent the Temple (Lk 24:53; Acts 2:46; 3:1; 5:42); though they are not depicted especially participating in the Temple ritual, it is likely that they did so as well (cf. Acts 3:1; 21:23-26).
    • The charge that Stephen speaks against the Law (Acts 6:13) is presented as false testimony; there is no clear evidence that he ever did such, though there does appear to be an anti-Temple theme in his sermon-speech (cf. Acts 7:35-53).
    • Peter’s objection to the command in the vision of Acts 10:9-16 suggests that he faithfully observed the dietary regulations in the Torah; on this, see below.
    • The conflict leading to the “Jerusalem Council” in Acts 15 clearly shows that many, if not most, Jewish Christians were strictly observant, and some wished that Torah observance be required of Gentile converts as well (v. 1, 5); cf. also 11:1-3ff. This will be discussed in more detail in the next part of this series.
    • The circumcision of Timothy (Acts 17:3), in apparent contrast with Gal 2:3-5 (and the argument throughout Galatians, etc).
    • James, the leading figure of the Jerusalem Church, is depicted as a staunch supporter of the Torah, both in Acts 21:17-26 and (to a lesser extent) in 15:12-29. Other Jewish believers in Jerusalem are described as “zealous for the Law” (21:20; cf. also 22:12) and as those who would regularly take part in the required Temple ritual (vv. 23-24). James is concerned to quash any rumors that Paul opposed the Law and Jewish religious custom (vv. 21ff), and so recommends that Paul participate in the ritual.
    • In addition to Paul’s participation in the ritual of Acts 21:23-26, he makes several direct statements in his subsequent defense speeches regarding his support and observance of the Law—cf. Acts 22:3, 17; 24:11-14, 17; 25:8. The question of Paul’s observance of the Torah, as well as the portrait of Paul in Acts compared with the Epistles, will be addressed later in this series.

A treatment of the mission to the Gentiles and the “Jerusalem Council” will come in the second part of this article; here, however, it is necessary to discuss briefly Peter’s vision in Acts 10:9-16 (cf. also 11:5-10).

Peter’s Vision (Acts 10:6-16; 11:5-10)

The vision involved the descent of a vessel filled with all kinds of animals—clean and unclean (cf. the dietary regulations in Lev 11:1-47; Deut 14:3-20). A voice commanded Peter to “stand up… slay (the animals) and eat” (v. 13), the implication being that he should eat the unclean animals as well. To this Peter objects saying, “not so, Lord, (in) that I have not ever eaten any (thing) common and unclean” (v. 14). In response, the (heavenly) voice declares: “(that) which God has cleansed you must not consider common” (v. 15). It is a striking and powerful scene, but how is it to be understood? Is it simply about food (dietary regulations), or is it symbolic—or both?

Some commentators have tried to suggest that the vision does not abolish the dietary laws, but is simply meant as an example that the Gentiles should be accepted into the Church. I find this most unlikely, even though it is the primary interpretation given in 11:18. While the symbolism regarding acceptance of the Gentiles is certainly correct (see vv. 28b, 35, 45 and 11:1ff), the argument related to the dietary laws themselves seems abundantly clear and specific. It may be helpful to distinguish between the meaning of the vision itself (as a possible independent historical tradition) and the role it plays in Acts 10-11. Taken at face value, the vision appears to be about food and the dietary restrictions of the Torah regarding “clean and unclean” animals; if so, then declaration in verse 15 means that God has declared all animals clean and that they may be eaten without restriction. This would effectively abolish the dietary laws in Lev 11, etc.; however, it must be admitted that the specific logical consequences of the vision do not play any role further in Acts, nor in the rest of the New Testament. Apart from the behavior of Peter narrated in Gal 2:12, it is hard to find evidence of any apostolic sanction for Jewish Christians to disregard the dietary regulations. Upon hearing Peter’s account of the vision (and subsequent events), the Jewish believers accept that Gentiles have come to salvation, but make no comment about the implications related to clean and unclean food. This certainly accords with the purpose of Acts—the emphasis is on the inclusion of the Gentiles, not a commentary on the Torah regulations per se.

The force of the vision itself may be appreciated by a closer examination of the actual language and symbolism used; first, there appears to be a two-fold aspect to the symbolism of the vision, marked by the adjective pa=$ (“all”):

    • “All [pa/nta] kinds of animals” (v. 12)—this indicates a removal of the clean/unclean distinction in the dietary laws; note Peter’s objection (“I have never eaten anything [pa=n] common or unclean”).
    • “All parts of the earth”—as symbolized by the vessel as a “great sheet” with four corners set down upon the earth (v. 11); this indicates the universality of the Christian mission (to the Gentiles), cf. Lk 24:47; Acts 1:8; 2:5ff; 9:15.

In addition, note the careful structure of Peter’s objection (following the dietary laws) and the divine response (vv. 14-15):

    • Not anything common [koino/$]
      • Not anything unclean [a)ka/qarto$]
      • God has cleansed [kaqari/zw]
    • Do not call/consider common [koino/w]

It is a clear, symmetric argument, which certainly appears to undo or abolish the dietary regulations in the Torah. If the vision originally (at the historical-traditional level) addressed the food laws specifically, the author of Acts has deftly incorporated it into the Cornelius narrative of chapters 10-11. This is indicated by the presence of several details—for example, the three-fold vision (10:16) coincides with the appearance of three men (vv. 17-19); similarly, just as the visionary scene “steps down” from heaven to meet Peter (v. 11), so Peter “steps down” (vv. 20-21) to meet his visitors (the same verb katabai/nw is used). This complex thematic interweaving is appropriate, for the question of the dietary laws is ultimately interwoven with the early Christian mission to the Gentiles, as is made abundantly clear in the episode at Antioch narrated in Galatians 2 (cf. the recent notes on Gal 2:11-21). For Jewish-Christian missionaries, to continue observing the dietary restrictions of the Torah meant that Gentiles would effectively be required to do the same if they wished to enjoy proper table fellowship with their fellow (Jewish) believers. Paul saw the serious problem this created, both at the practical and deeper theological levels.

The next part of this article will deal specifically with the mission to the Gentiles and the central episode of the “Jerusalem Council” in Acts 15.

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.