Building templePMW 2020-082 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

In this sixth entry in an 8-part series I am arguing that the Jewish Temple in the first-century effectively functioned as tool of emperor worship because of its corrupt high-priestly aristocracy. I recommend reading the previous articles first, and in order.

Gaston (75-76) argues for “a definite anti-cultic polemic in the tradition behind the gospel according to Mark.” Thus, in Mk 14:58 the Lord himself alludes to the temple as an idol for Israel. There we read witnesses against him declaring: “We heard Him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands [cheirpoiēton] and in three days I will build another made without hands.’” We see cheirpoiēton frequently used of idols in the LXX in the place of eidōlon or tupos. In the LXX the term “almost always” (TDNT 9:436) refers to pagan idols: Lev 26:1; Dt 4:28; 2Ki 19:18; 2Ch 32:19; 27:15; Psa 115:4; 135:15; Isa 2:8; 10:11; 16:12; 19:1; 21:9; 31:7; 46:6; Hab 2:18. Beale states that it “always” refers to idols (Beale, Temple 224n). Simon (133) notes that “chiropoiēton is the technical term, so to say, by which the Septuagint and the Greek-speaking Jews describe the idols.” We also find it in Philo (Vit. Mos. 1:303; 2:51, 88, 165, 168) and the Sibylline Oracles (3:650ff; 4:8-12). Consequently, Evans notes that “made with hands” is a “hint at [the temple’s] idolatrous status”; Lightfoot agrees. Therefore, Walker (10) calls this phrase “potentially incendiary.”

Many argue that Christ is setting the physical temple of Israel over against the spiritual temple (the Christian Church). This is certainly a legitimate theological truth taught elsewhere in Scripture. However, this does not appear to be Mark’s main point here as will become more evident in Stephen’s reference to Christ’s statement (see below). Besides the “not made with hands” (acheiropoiētois) statement occurs alone when speaking of eternal realities, such as spiritual circumcision (Col 2:11) and the resurrection body (2Co 5:1). It is not contrasted with cheiropoiōton, as here in Mk 14:58.

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This becomes all the more suggestive when we realize that two references in Acts move along these lines, Ac 7:48 and 17:24. Both of these verses to be a part of the tradition deriving from Christ’s teaching as recorded in Mark. In Ac 7:48 Stephen uses this term in warning the Jewish leaders of their spiritual failure. A great many scholars agree with Marshall who notes that “this is a derogatory word used of idol worship (e.g. Is. 31:7; Wisdom 14:8). To apply it to the temple (cf. Mk. 14:58; Heb. 9:24) could well enrage the Jews.”

This idolatry-equation is almost certainly Stephen’s intent as we can discover from his defense. He is standing before the religious authorities of Israel (elders, scribes, Sanhedrin, and the high-priest; Ac 6:12, 15; 7:1). There his accusers charge that he was preaching against the Temple just as Christ did: “we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place” (6:14; cp. Mk 14:58). Instead, of disputing the charge as altogether fraudulent, he provides a redemptive-historical argument defending his teaching when properly understood — even to the point of bringing in the additional fact from Christ’s trial that their temple was “made with hands” (7:48). In this he utters a “radical condemnation” regarding the temple (Simon 134).

Remarkably, just before Stephen speaks of the temple as “made with hands,” he mentions Israel’s fathers making the golden calf and “rejoicing in the works of their hands [ergois tōn cheirōn]” (7:41b) while they were “unwilling to be obedient” (7:39). Beale (Temple 225) sees this as making “it probable that Stephen has idolatry in mind in verse 48.” He then reminds them that God declares their sacrifices in the wilderness were “not to me” but for Moloch and “the star of the god Rompha” (7:42-43; here he is referencing Am 5:25-26). Scobie observes that “the superstitious attachment of the Jews to their temple is made to appear as a continuation of their idolatry in the desert” (Scobie, “Origins,” 394-95). Stephen’s “condemnation of the Temple includes condemnation of the sacrificial cult” in that sacrifices are not mentioned by Stephen “in connection with the Temple, but in relation to the [golden] calf” (Simon 134). He drives this point home in his closing when he declares that the Jewish leaders are virtually gentiles in having “uncircumcised ears” in not understanding God’s will (Acts 7:51).

Regarding Ac 7, Hahn (373-74) states that “the temple worship practised by the Jews is, as the word of the prophet in vv. 48ff. shows, a service of idols which denies the true godhead of God.” He continues: “In the same way the statements regarding the idols and the temple worship together with the prophetic judgments are referred to the time of the Jews then living. With this there also harmonies the inclusive word in v. 51 regarding obstinacy and impenitence with the concluding ‘as your fathers did, so do ye’” (374). He argues that “the word of threatening from Amos 5:25-27 shows that vv. 39ff. also must be understood typologically and consequently the end of v. 43 [“I also will remove you beyond Babylon”] must be referred to the catastrophe of A.D. 70” (373).

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By several means Stephen diminishes the temple and suggests that it has become an idol for Israel (cf. EBC 9:346-48): (1) He speaks highly of the “tabernacle” over against the temple, calling it “the tabernacle of testimony” (Ac 7:44a), whereas the temple is spoken of more negatively (7:48-50). (2) He notes that the tabernacle was erected by God’s word to Moses (Ac 7:44b), who is the central redeptive-hisotircal figure in his sermon (7:20-44) and who serves as a type of Christ (7:37). (3) It led Joshua in dispossessing the nations as he secured the promised land (7:45). (4) It was in use until the time of David, who “found favor in God’s sight” (7:46). (5) Then over against beloved David he states: “But it was Solomon who built a house for Him” (7:47). He probably has in mind Solomon as the one whose “wives turned his heart away after other gods; and his heart was not wholly devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been” (1Ki 11:4; cp. 11:4-9). Solomon’s actions led to his ruin: “So the Lord said to Solomon, ‘Because you have done this, and you have not kept My covenant and My statutes, which I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you, and will give it to your servant’” (1Ki 11:11). Thus, the one who built the temple brought idolatry into Israel where it was to remain as a recurring plague.

Most significantly, Stephen supports his argument against the temple by specifically citing Isa 66:1-2 (7:49-50) — the two verses leading up to God’s denouncing Israel’s temple worship as idolatrous (Isa 66:3; see discussion above). “If Isaiah 66:4-5 is echoed [in Acts 7:51-52], then Stephen’s Jewish enemies are also to be identified with the idolaters in Isaiah 66:3, which would fit with Stephen’s earlier depiction fo Israel as idolatrous (Acts 7:42-43)” (Beale, Temple 223). He then concludes by equating those authorities with their idolatrous forbears, calling them “stiff-necked and uncircumcised [like Gentiles!] in heart and ears” for “always resisting the Holy Spirit . . . just as your fathers did” (7:51; v 39). The idolatrous overtones are clear and unmistakable: he “suggests that the Temple was a form of idolatry” – in the way they revered it.

Marshall concludes that Stephen “rests on the negative point, that temple-worship imposes a false limit on the nature of God.” That is, it suggests limits such as associated with idols housed in shrines. According to Witherington, the point of these verses “is not that God’s presence can’t be found in the temple . . . , but that God’s presence can’t be confined there, nor can God be controlled or manipulated by the building of a temple and by the rituals of the temple culture or the power moves of the temple hierarchy. What is being opposed is a God-in-the-box theology that has magical overtones, suggesting that if God can be located and confined, God can be magically manipulated and used to human ends. Such an approach is idolatry — the attempt to fashion or control God with human hands according to human devices.” Stephen is arguing that “the Temple was not intended, any more than the Tabernacle, to become a permanent institution, halting the advance of the divine plan for the people of God” (Bruce Acts 160, citing T. W. Manson). “Nothing is wrong with the temple itself nor with building it, but it is wrong to believe that it (and perhaps it alone) is the habitation of God. Moreover, allegiance to a temple built with human hands could place Israel in danger of repeating its earlier wilderness sin, for the golden calf had also been made by ‘their hands’ (v. 41). Although it is not certain, the repetition of this phrase might have invited such comparison” (Evans, Luke 198).

In fact, “the beginning and end of the speech, in particular, insist that the presence of God is not restricted to any one land or any material building. God revealed Himself to Abraham long before Abraham settled in the holy land; He gave His law to the people of Israel through Moses when they were wanderers in a wilderness” (Bruce Acts 141). Stephen’s speech also reduces the Land’s significance by arguing “that God’s significant activity has usually taken place outside the confines of Palestine (EBC 9:339): Abraham was called by God while in Mesapotamia (Ac 7:2-3), God was with Joseph in Egypt (7:9-16; “Egypt” appears six times), Israel “increased and multiplied in Egypt” (7:17), God raised up Moses in Egypt (7:22), and Israel received “the tabernacle of testimony in the wilderness” (7:44). Now is the time for God to remove the local temple so thyat the world might have access to his worship (Jn 4:21-23), as the flow of Acts demonstrates (Ac 1:8), showing that God is now turning to the Gentiles (Ac 9:15; 11:1, 18; 13:46-47; 14:27; 15:14, 17; 18:6; 22:21; 26:17, 20, 23; 28:28).

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  1. B Jay October 16, 2020 at 7:04 am

    For me, this article brings home the clear biblical proof that God saw the Jewish Temple in the first century as an object of idol worship, which blinded the Jews from seeing Christ as the Messiah. That puts the status of the temple more logically in context with its impending destruction during the intervening years after the Lord’s death and resurrection and fits a missing piece of the puzzle of understanding the condition of apostate Israel before 70 AD.

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