Emperor worship temple 3PMT 2014-121 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

In this third entry in an 8-part series I am arguing that the Jewish Temple in the first-century effectively functioned as tool of emperor worship, when understood spiritually.

The temple authorities, including especially the high priests, were irrevocably corrupt long before the Jewish War. Indeed, the high priest in Jesus’ day was Anna, of whom Brown (Jn 1:121) notes: “the corruption of the priestly house of Annas was notorious.” According to Josephus: “The principal high-priestly families, with their hired gangs of thugs, not only were feuding among themselves, but had become predatory, seizing by force from the threshing floors the tithes intended for the ordinary priests” (Ant.. 20.180, 206-7). The Babylonian Talmud laments: “Woe is me because of the house of Boethus; woe is me because of their staves! . . . Woe is me because of the house of Ishmael the son of Phabi; woe is me because of their fists! For they are High Priests . . . and their servants beat the people with staves” (Pesah. 57a). “Starting by about 58 or 59, the high priests began surrounding themselves with gangs of ruffians, who would abuse the common priests and general populace” (Horsley HP 45). In fact, “the high priests and royalists actually contributed to the breakdown of social order through their own aggressive, even violent, predatory actions” (Horsley HP 24).

Completely frustrated at the high priests’ continuing collaboration with the Romans, “a group of sages/teachers called Sicarii or ‘Daggermen’ turned to assassinating key high-priestly figures (B.J. 2.254-57). . . . The population of Jerusalem was as dependent on the Temple-high-priesthood system as the high-priestly aristocracy was on their Roman sponsors” (Horsley, Galilee 73-74). In fact, “when the Roman troops under Cestius finally came to retake control of Jerusalem . . . the priestly aristocracy attempted to open the gates to them . . . (November 66; B.J. 2.517-55)” (Horsley, Galilee 74).

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Jesus preaches against the temple’s degenerate condition when he mentions the death of the son of Berechiah who was “murdered between the temple and the altar” (Mt 23:35). When we last hear Christ publicly referring to the temple he calls it “your house” rather than God’s house (Mt 23:38). Then he declares it “desolate” and ceremoniously departs from it (Mt 23:38-24:1). And it “is extremely significant that the declaration of abandonment (v. 38) is preceded by the seven woes upon the religious hierarchy of Jerusalem (vv. 13-36)” (DeYoung, JNT 91). The Qumran community existed largely because of their disdain for the corruption of the temple.

During the interchange regarding his temple actions, Jesus refers to John Baptist who calls Israel to repentance (Mt 21:24-25). John calls the people out of Jerusalem into the wilderness to repent, thereby effecting a reverse exodus (Mt 3:1-5) — as if Jerusalem is now Egypt and must be left (cp. Rev 11:8; 18:4). And he turns down the religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, demanding that they bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance” instead of basking in their pride supposing “that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Mt 3:7-9). Christ even denounces Israel’s religious elite as “an evil and adulterous generation” (Mt 12:38-39).

Furthermore, Jesus intentionally supplants the temple cult ceremonies in his ministry (see Gaston, ch 3). He proclaims that he is “greater than the temple” (Mt 12:6). He teaches that loving God and neighbor “is much more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mk 12:22). He authoritatively declares the leper cleansed (Mk 1:40-45) instead of directing him to go to the priests in order to secure cleansing (Lev 14:2ff). He touches the unclean woman, but is not made unclean himself (Mk 5:25-34; cp. Lev 5:2-3). He declares that food does not make one unclean (Mk 7:15; cp. Lev 11:4ff). He does not even pay the temple tax except on the occasion when it might cause offense (Mt 17:24-27). And then he does not pay it out of his own purse and by means of a unique miracle. In this context “Jesus’ declaration that ‘the sons are free’ thus appears to have provided an unmistakable declaration of independence from the Temple and the attendant political-economic-religious establishment” (Horsley JSV 282).

Jesus prophesies the temple’s destruction so clearly (Jn 2:19-20; Mt 24:1ff) that the Jews mock him on the cross regarding the matter (Mt 27:40//). Later they recall this statement against his disciples (Ac 6:14). After cursing the fig tree as representing Israel (Mt 21:19) he declares that the temple mount will be cast into the sea (Mt 21:21//) (Hooker Mark 269). His trials specifically recall his statements about the temple’s destruction (Mk 14:58; Mt 26:61), though falsely claiming he said he would personally destroy it. Late in his ministry he presents a major discourse on the temple’s coming destruction (Mt 24:2ff //).

At his death the temple veil is “torn in two from top to bottom” (Mk 15:38//). “Jesus’ references to the temple hitherto in this gospel have concerned its destruction and replacement, and the tearing of the more visible and magnificent outer curtain would more naturally pick up this theme. Following the jibe of [Mk 15:29-30], this would be a particularly appropriate divine riposte: the process of the temple’s destruction and replacement has indeed begun, even as Jesus continues to hang on the cross” (France, Mk 657). The rending of the veil, then, was a “clear sign of impending destruction of the Temple” (Horsley JSV 162). In fact, due to its embroidery with the starry heavens,[1] “its tearing would be an apt symbol of the beginning destruction, not only of the temple (which itself even as a whole symbolized the cosmos) but of the very cosmos itself” as the new creation process is begun in Christ’s death (Beale Temple 189). Consequently, this pictures “the inbreaking destruction of the old creation and inauguration of the new creation, which introduces access for all believers to God’s holy presence in a way that was not available in the old creation” (Beale Temple 190). The church Fathers often link the Temple’s destruction with Christ’s death. [2]

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As the very heartbeat of their religion, the temple is a key element in the self-sufficient pride of the Jew. Rabbis proudly exclaim: “He who has not seen the Temple of Herod has never in his life seen a beautiful structure” (B. Bat. 4a; cf. Mt 24:2; Lk 21:5; Philo, Spec. 1, 72, 73; Jos., Ant. 15:11:3 ). Even the Lord’s disciples were enamored of the temple’s majesty (Mt 24:1//). The revolutionaries in Israel during the Jewish War are confident God’s temple would survive the assault of Rome. As they endure seducers and false prophets (J.W. 6:5:2 §285-86). Even during the war the Jews think the city of Jerusalem where God’s temple resides could not be defeated: “”the fighting men that were in the city were lifted up in their minds, and were elevated upon this their good success, and began to think that the Romans would never venture to come into the city any more; and that if they kept within it themselves, they should not be any more conquered” (J.W. 5:8:2 §).

Prior to AD 70 the temple’s significance is such that it was the very “foundation and focus of national worship,” one of “the three great pillars of popular Jewish piety,” “the cardinal postulates” of the Jewish faith, which includes also the Land and the Law (EBC 9:336, 337). And given the structure of ancient life in merging religious and political outlooks, “the function of the Temple was more extensive and central in Jewish society than the typical modern theological reduction to the religious dimension allows” (Horsley JSV 286).

(To be continued.)


[1] Philo QE 2:85; Mos. 2:87-88; Jos. J.W. 5:5:4 §212-14; Ant. 3:6:4 §123, 183.

[2] Barn. 5:11-13; Justin, 1 Apol. 35; 38; 40; 47; Dial. 108; Tertullian, Adv. Jud. 13:14; Apol. 26; Origen, Ag. Cels. 1:47; 4:22; Gosp. Pet. 1:1; 7:25.

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