PMW 2020-078 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.Emperor worship temple 2

In this second 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.

Temple Abuse; Temple Transience

Over and over again the temple cult is disparaged by the OT prophets when Israel falls into sin: Isa 1:10-17; 29:13; 43:23-24; Jer 6:20; 7:1-6, 21-22; 11:15; Eze 20:25; Hos 6:5-6; Am 4:4-5; 5:21-25; 9:1; Mic 6:1-8; Mal 1:10. Jeremiah even presents God as dramatically denying he ever directed Israel to sacrifice: “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you will be My people; and you will walk in all the way which I command you, that it may be well with you’ ” (Jer 7:22-23).

The problem with the temple cult arises not from the God-ordained ritual, but those who minister the ritual. Consequently, “from at least the time of Malachi there had been protests about the priests, whose corruption meant that the sacrifices offered in the temple were neither pure nor pleasing to the Lord (Mal. 3:3f.). Similar complaints are found in the Psalms of Solomon (2:3-5; 8:11-13), at Qumran (1Qp Hab. 8:8-13; 12:1-10; CD 5:6-8; 6:12-17) and the Talmud (B. Pes. 57a), while Josephus describes the way in which the servants of the priestly aristocracy stole tithes from the ordinary priests (Antiquities XX.8.8; 9:2)” (Hooker Mark 264).

In the Gospel record Jesus’ subtle conduct and overt teaching prepare us for the removal of the temple as both theologically unnecessary and as spiritually corrupt. John’s Gospel is especially interesting in this regard (see Gaston 205-12; Walker 167-170; Davies Land, ch 10; Beale Temple 195ff): In Jn 1:14 Christ appears as God’s true “tabernacle” (eskenosen en emin). [1] This theme of Jesus replacing the religious features of Israel recurs repeatedly in his ministry: In 1:51 he, rather than the temple or high priest, is the nexus between heaven and earth because “the angels of God [are] ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” In 2:19-21 he declares his body the true temple. In 4:21-23 he tells the Samaritan woman the physical temple will soon be unnecessary.

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When he attends the festival of Tabernacles (Jn 7:2ff), in 7:37-39 he himself becomes the living water which is associated both with the festival reminder of Moses producing water from the rock (Ex 17:1-7; Nu 20:8-13) and the temple promise (Zec 14:8; Eze 47:1-11). In 8:12 he calls himself “the light of the world,” which reflects the festival ceremony (Sukkah 5:1). In the “I am” debate in Jn 8:13-59 “Jesus was appropriating to himself . . . the whole essence of the Temple as being the dwelling-place of the divine Name” (Walker 168). In 10:22-39 while the Jews are celebrating the Feast of Lights which recalled the re-consecration of the Temple under the Maccabees, he presents himself as the one who is “sanctified and sent.” Immediately after declaring himself “I am” (8:58) he departs from the temple (8:59), which in John’s Gospel serves as his sign that God has departed her temple (Davies Land, 290-96). This appears to be why John does not mention the temple cleansing at the close of his ministry: because in John’s structure, he has Jesus depart the temple at 8:59 taking God’s presence with him.

In Jn 10 Christ comes to the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, which celebrates the Maccabean victory in reclaiming the temple and reconsecrating the altar and temple. There Jesus does not enter the temple, but comes only to Solomon’s portico (10:23; cp. Jo 11:56; cf. Davies Land, 294-96). He declares himself to be the one “whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world” (10:36). In 12:41 while referring to Isa 6:5 Christ becomes the Shekinah glory of the temple. Walker (172-73) argues that the upper room episode (Jn 13-17) reflects a “Temple-experience” beginning with foot-washing as an initiation ritual (Jn 13:3ff) and ending with the “high-priestly prayer” (Jn 17). Thus, it appears “John’s over-riding message is that the Temple has been replaced by Jesus” (Walker 170 [2]).

On and on I could go. In fact, in all the Gospels “there was no denial of its previous theological status, but that status was now appropriated by Jesus” (Walker 164). As Brown (John 1:122) observes: The Gospel of “John belongs to that branch of NT writing (also Hebrews; Stephen’s sermon in Acts vii 47-48) that was strongly anti-Temple.” He even notes that this may explain why he is called a “Samaritan” in Jn 8:48, in that they reject the Jerusalem temple.

On several occasions before Christ’s coming, the temple undergoes cleansings because of profanations by Ahaz (2Ch 29:12ff), Mannaseh (2Ch 34:3ff), Tobiah (New 13:4-19), and Antiochus (1Mac 4:36ff; 2Mac 10:1ff). The temple of Christ’s day is also corrupt for Christ himself symbolically cleanses it when he opens his ministry (Jo 2:13-17) and as he closes it (Mt 21:12-13) — even though it is under the direct, daily, fully-functioning administration of the high priesthood. As Horsley (JSV 163) well notes: “Once in Jerusalem, [Jesus] moves directly into the symbolic and material center of the society, the power based of the ruling aristocracy” to challenge it. In fact, Horsley (300) argues, “Jesus attacks the activities in which the exploitation of God’s people by their priestly rulers was most visible.” Thus, “Jesus’s action is a clear condemnation of the priestly authorities, who have permitted these practices: the result is that ‘the chief priests’ join ‘the scribes’ in plotting his death (cf. 3:6)” (Hooker Mark 268). Christ calls the temple they are controlling a “robbers’ den” (Mt 21:13) only to later have the “chief priests and the elders” demand the release of the robber Barrabas over him (Mt 27:40; Jn 18:40). [3] In fact, they ask him on what authority he drives out the moneychangers and teaches in the temple, since they had not commissioned him to clean up the corruption (Mt 21:23). [4] As Galambush (68) observes: “It is no coincidence that Matthew’s extravagant assertions of Jesus’ authority are placed in the context of confrontations with the Pharisees.”

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DeYoung (JNT 63) argues that Christ’s actions are not an effort at reform but a testimony against the present cultus. This is evident in that in the first cleansing he alludes to its destruction (Jn 2:19) and in the immediate context of the second he curses the fig tree as symbol of Israel’s corruption (cf. Hos 9:10, 16; Mic 7:1). Hahn (155) agrees: “The procedure of Jesus in the temple precincts can only be understood as a symbolic action proclaiming judgment and punishment on the Jewish sanctuary if it is connected with the cursing of the fig tree, as it is in the present redactional context.” Wright (JVG 416) well summarizes the evidence that Christ was symbolically declaring its judgment: “Virtually all the traditions, inside and outside the canonical gospels, which speak of Jesus and the Temple speak of its destruction. Mark’s fig-tree incident; Luke’s picture of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem; John’s saying about destroying and rebuilding; the synoptic traditions of the false witnesses and their accusation, and of the mocking at the foot of the cross; Thomas’ cryptic saying (‘I will destroy this house, and no one will be able to rebuild it’); the charge in Acts that Jesus would destroy the Temple: all these speak clearly enough, not of cleansing or reform, but of destruction.”

(To be continued. If I am not too weary.)


[1]. The writer of Hebrews critiques the temple in terms of the transitory tabernacle. He does this because the old covenant and all of ritual is “becoming obsolete and growing old” and “is ready to disappear” (Heb 8:13). God is about ready to shake “created things, in order that those things which cannot be shaken may remain” (Heb 12:27). The “created things” are the physical implements of the temple (Heb 9:11, 24).

[2] See also: Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966/70), 1:lxx; William D. Davies, The Gospel and the Land: Early Christianity and Jewish Territorial Doctrine (Berkeley: University of California, 1974, 1974), 296ff; Aileen Gui.ding, The Fourth Gospel and Jewish Worship (Oxford: Clarendon, 1960), 172ff

[3] Eventually the Jews would be overrun by robbers: “As for the affairs of the Jews, they grew worse and worse continually, for the country was again filled with robbers and impostors, who deluded the multitude” (Ant. 20:8:5). We should remember that the Gospels are written awhile after Christ and record information to assist Christians in that later time. That Christ denounces the temple as a robber’s den should strike a sympathetic chord with Jewish Christians a few decades later. Josephus notes that the highpriests abuse the people and take away the tithes (Ant. 20:9:2), even making seditious attacks in Jerusalem (Ant. 20:9:4).

[4] During the Jewish War even Josephus speaks of God’s rejecting the temple because “he no longer esteemed it sufficiently pure for him to inhabit therein” (Ant. 20:8:5).


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  1. Alvin Plummer October 2, 2020 at 8:58 pm

    Reblogged this on Acrosss the Stars and commented:
    Gentry notes the length and the depth of the corruption of the pious religious hierarchy in OT times. Focusing on the temple, he traces the corruption to the times of Isaiah and Jeremiah. I would be willing to recognize the even more ancient tabernacle as a temple equivalent, and so toss in the perversions of the sons of Eli (I Samuel 4), or even of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu in Lev. 10.

    Discernment and caution before religious professionals is even MORE necessary than the rest of the time!

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