Within the New Testament there are seemingly paradoxical statements made about the Temple in Jerusalem. If one is not careful, one could assume that Yeshua and Paul no longer associated the Temple with G-d’s abode, and that somehow their message superseded the Jerusalem Temple. Therefore, how are we to properly understand the role of Jerusalem and specifically the Temple Mount within the context of the earliest Jewish followers of Yeshua?
Rather than no longer seeing the Temple as central, both Yeshua and Paul actually argue for a renewed purification of the Temple, and often used imagery of the Temple as a contrast to elaborate a point. It is important to clearly understand that it is only because of the centrality of the Temple in Early Judaism and in the conscience of the early Jewish followers of Yeshua that they can even do this.
Often we try to place paradoxical passages against one another, failing to remember that the ancients did not do so. For within Jewish thought, particularly in ancient Israel, things do not always have to be black or white. Rather, the Bible often tends to function in levels of gray. I am not saying there are no absolutes. However, we must also recognize that for almost every commandment or lesson there is also an exception. In Jewish thought, a statement that seems to be a paradox can have competing truths. This is often a hard concept for western thinkers to grasp.
Within First-Century Judaism, and among the earliest Jewish followers of Yeshua, the role of Jerusalem and specifically the Temple were central matters of importance. This importance was based on a vast history of connecting Jerusalem with the location of G-d’s presence on earth and as the location of the primordial paradise. This Zion tradition continued within the understanding of the early New Testament community. Jerusalem’s association as a place of divine rule, in addition to its centrality in regard to future messianic events, all lent credence to its importance among New Testament Jews. Kim Huat Tan, of Trinity Theological College in Singapore, maintains that, “at this time, Zion had become ‘the symbol of the life, beliefs and hopes of all Jews.’ Those Jews who expected the coming of a messianic Davidic king assumed that it would be from Zion that he would reign.”
Often the issue the Qumran community, Yeshua, Paul, and other opposing sects shared in their criticism of the Temple was in its perceived defilement by the current established authority, and not with the ideals and role of the Temple itself. The centrality of Jerusalem for Yeshua extends back to his early childhood (Lk. 2:22, 41-52) and is deeply multi-faceted. Speaking against the Temple authorities of his day, Yeshua actually foretold of the Temple’s soon destruction as being a result of their unbelief:
“For the days are coming upon you when your enemies will set up a barricade around you, encircle you, hem you in on every side, and dash you to the ground, you and your children within your walls, leaving not one stone standing on another – and all because you did not recognize your opportunity when God offered it (Luke 19:43- 44).”
Yeshua associated the future destruction of Jerusalem directly with his rejection by the Temple authorities. And because the authorities are seated in the Temple, the center of G-d’s manifest presence on earth, it would be there that Israel’s destruction would be most dramatically felt.
In another text from the Gospels, Yeshua identifies his own death and resurrection with imagery of the Temple:
“We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this Temple made with hands; and in three days I will build another one, not made with hands (Mk. 14:58).”
Yeshua used the centrality of the Temple in Jewish thought to emphasize his embodiment of the Temple’s primary purpose and means of unification and redemption for all of Israel. In emphasizing the Temple’s destruction and resurrection, Yeshua magnifies and equates it with himself and his own rejection, death and resurrection.
Jerusalem and the Temple were also central to Paul’s own theology. As a young prodigy, he was brought to Jerusalem and raised at the feet of Gamliel (Acts 22:3). After his coming to believe in Yeshua, and being sent out as an emissary (shaliach) to the Gentiles, he would always return to Jerusalem after each one of his circuits to these Diaspora communities. He also taught that these congregations were obligated to send contributions to Jerusalem to regularly support the believers there, to feed the poor and widowed (Rm. 15:25-27). Additionally, whenever Paul returned to Jerusalem, he would go up to the Temple to pray and present offerings and sacrifices (Ac. 21:26). Like Yeshua, the city of Jerusalem and the Temple itself remained central in Paul’s convictions, despite its perceived defilement by the current leadership.
Therefore, when Paul uses imagery of the Temple and applies it to his listeners, he uses the imagery very purposefully:
“Don’t you know that you people are G-d’s Temple and that G-d’s Spirit lives in you? So if anyone destroys the temple, God will destroy him. For G-d’s temple is holy, and you yourselves are that temple (1 Cr. 3:16-17).”
By using imagery of the Temple and applying it to each individual, he is not superseding the centrality of the Temple in Jerusalem. Far from it! By using its centrality, he elevates the individual to the same level of holiness. By doing so, he also elevated the severity of punishment for those who defile that temple. Anyone in ancient Israel would immediately recall this symbolism. Using this imagery to the Temple, Paul greatly empowered his listeners, as well as increased the individual’s responsibility and expectation before G-d. And this in no way was meant to detract from the reality of the Temple as G-d’s throne.
These passages were meant to elevate the message to a higher level of holiness and increase the responsibility of the listener. It is important to understand that it is only because of the centrality of the Temple in Early Judaism that these passages take on their fullest meaning.
See further: Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane (San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1987)
Ibid. Tan. From a summary paragraph at the beginning of the book.
Ibid. Tan. “Zion Traditions.” Particularly p. 233-236.