THE TEMPLE AS A TOOL OF EMPEROR WORSHIP (3)

Emperor worship temple 3PMW 2020-079 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.)

NOTES

[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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5 thoughts on “THE TEMPLE AS A TOOL OF EMPEROR WORSHIP (3)

  1. Jason Elliott October 9, 2020 at 3:46 am

    These are intriguing posts, Dr. Gentry. Can you help me understand the temple in 2 Thessalonians 2:4? I do not know any Greek whatsoever, so I’m appealing from complete ignorance on this verse. I’ve heard non-postmillennialists argue that the Greek word for temple here describes a group of people, i.e., “the church”, and I’ve heard partial preterists say that Paul is describing the currently standing physical temple building at the time of writing (50sAD). Is there an answer to this or is the phrase “temple of God” vague? I think understanding what the temple is in this verse will help shed so much light on this passage which no one seems to fully understand. Thank you again for your work in this area!
    Psalm 22:27-28

  2. Kenneth Gentry October 9, 2020 at 6:44 am

    Thanks for reading my blog.

    The word for “temple” here in 2 Thess. 2:4 is the Greek word naos. There are two basic words translated “temple” in the NT: (1) naos and (2) hieron.

    The Greek word hieron is found almost 70 times in the Gospels (e.g., Matt. 4:5; 12:5; Matt. 24:1; Luke 2:27; John 7:14; Acts 2:46). It refers to the whole physical temple complex including the outer courts where even Gentiles could come. It is the word used when Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the “temple” (Matt. 21:12; John 2:14). It is only used of the physical temple complex (Mark 14:58).

    The word in 2 Thess. 2:4 is naos, which appears in the NT 45 times (e.g., Matt. 23:16, 17, 21, 35; 26:61; 27:5l; John 2:20; Acts 17:24). It especially focuses on the innermost portion of the physical temple, where only priests could go (Luke 1:9, 21, 22; cp. Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45). Because of its most holy association, it is used in Revelation of God’s temple in heaven (e.g., Rev. 3:12; 11:19; etc.).

    Because of the association of naos with the innermost portion of the physical temple where God dwells, it is used three times in the New Testament to refer spiritually to the believer who has God dwelling in him (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19) and once of the corporate body of Christ (Eph. 2:21). It is used once by Jesus to refer to his own body (John 2:19-21).

    For my understanding of the 2 Thessalonians passage you should see my articles on this website. Especially notice: https://postmillennialworldview.com/2013/12/25/the-restrainer-and-the-man-of-lawlessness/

  3. Jason Elliott October 12, 2020 at 3:00 am

    Thank you for the explanation of the use of “temple of God” in 2 Thes 2:4 and the link provided. I have a follow up question on this I would like to raise. Historic postmillennialists interpret the man of sin as being the papacy sitting “in” the temple of God, which seems rather forced given that an unregenerate person cannot truly be “in” the church. I know that some argue from a similar line of thinking that the Roman Catholic church is the harlot in Rev 17, in particular, and that apostasy is the continuous working of the RC and the papacy. Continuing on with this view, many say that church buildings are wrong and come from Rome, particularly the architecture and worldliness in their elaborate decorations, etc. How does postmillennialism, in general, view church buildings? Would you consider a nation with so many church buildings (as in America) to be evidence of a postmillennial reality, e.g. Isaiah 2:2-4, Micah 4:1-3? If so, do we have prophecy in the Apostolic writings of a time when church buildings will be common rather then mostly persecuted house churches? Your insights on these matters are quite informative and edifying! Thank you, Dr. Gentry.

  4. Kenneth Gentry October 13, 2020 at 2:56 pm

    The prophecy in 2 Thessalonians must be interpreted contextually. All the context suggests something much different than the papacy, which by the way does not declare the Pope to be God.
    I believe buildings are evidence of a settled condition and that beautiful buildings are images of that which we value. I believe the church should grow and settle in to a society and show the glory of Christ. The Jewish temple was certainly such.

  5. Fred V. Squillante October 13, 2020 at 5:08 pm

    Dr. Gentry, I would like to say that there is so much that has been written about the identity of “Antichrist,” yourself included, and yet there is still speculation regarding the Roman Catholic church and the Pope. It is unfortunate that that idea even found its way into the minds of some of the original reformers. However, 2nd century Tertullian, quoted by 3rd century Eusebius (Histories 2.25) identify the man of sin as Nero. The problem, in my opinion, is 2nd century Irenaeus, who stated several times that Antichrist, who he even said was the abomination of desolation, would sit in the temple and show himself as God (the genesis of the 3rd temple?). That is just some of the flawed eschatology that traces back to Irenaeus. There is a totally different world view by those who remove fulfillment from the 1st century.

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