7. Jesus’ Death and the Powers: Religious Exclusivism (The Temple)

The Old Testament salvation story as interpreted by the eighth-century prophets and then reiterated in Jesus’ life and teaching centers around God’s liberating acts in the exodus and Torah’s provisions for social life meant to sustain that liberating work.  This version of the story minimizes the role of the temple.  It understands the temple to be secondary, even extraneous, to the core salvation dynamic.  At most the temple plays a role as the scene for sacrificial acts that convey the community’s commitment to God.

However, other strands of biblical tradition see the temple more positively.  And, in the Gospel accounts even if Jesus himself does not orient salvation around the temple, it plays a central role in how the drama unfolds.  As Mark tells the story, Jesus’ altercation with the temple leaders in Jerusalem became the final catalyst triggering his arrest and leading to his execution.

The Legacy of Solomon’s Temple

Before Solomon built the temple at Jerusalem, the tribes of Israel had worshiped in a number of sanctuaries, most prominently Shiloh.  The Philistines destroyed Shiloh in the battle recounted in 1 Samuel 4.  The Philistines took from the Hebrews the Ark of the Covenant at that time.  The Hebrews eventually regained the ark and established it in Jerusalem.  King David and his successor, King Solomon, used the desire to have a place where the Ark would be housed as the basis for constructing a temple.  God did not allow David to build the temple himself.  However. Solomon did build the temple, as described in 1 Kings 6–7.

Solomon constructed the temple as a central element of his successful efforts to centralize the power of the kingly office in ancient Israel.  Among other elements, these efforts included Solomon’s gathering an extraordinarily large collection of wives.  Besides serving apparent political benefits gained through marrying women from other countries and thus establishing alliances, this gathering of such a harem also served Solomon’s purposes of ensuring a large progeny of heirs and establishing his own potent fertility.

Solomon also established a rationalized system of tax districts to take the place of the traditional clans and tribes.  In so doing, he furthered the power of the centralized state by deliberately eliminating the tribal system of decentralized power.  “Under Solomon’s administrative policies the concern for equitable distribution of economic resources reflected in the covenant law codes is displaced by an economics of privilege that begins to create sharp class divisions of wealthy and poor within Israel.”[1]

Solomon also developed a large and elaborate bureaucracy.  This bureaucracy reflected Solomon’s effort to larger empires by institutionalizing technical reason and pushing Israel’s Torah-based communal dynamics to the margins.

Solomon established an extensive standing army.  This development created a permanent military class with centralized authority.  It also meant that the gathering of armaments and possibilities of engaging in warfare would not require a broadly based sense of community support, but rather would be an ever-present reality.

The temple provided the central symbol holding together various elements reflecting Israel’s political transformation.  The temple reflected Israel’s conformity with surrounding nations.  Solomon, in creating the centralized king-dominated religious institution centered in the temple, returned Israel to a style of social organizing much more similar the Egyptian empire than the covenant community established by exodus and Torah.  Reflecting this transformation, we see no prophetic figures such as Moses or Samuel at the center of social discernment processes in Israel.  When prophets emerge in Solomon’s time, he are shunts them to the edges for private conversations—and they play no role in the official religious life of the community.

The temple in Solomonic Israel fostered a hierarchical, static, king-controlled style of religion.[2] Religion’s subordination to the king may be seen even in the timing of construction.  The king’s palace comes first; “God’s temple” comes second.  The understanding of God undergoes a corresponding shift in light of the temple’s emergence.  God is now fully accessible to the king.  No longer wild and free, God is contained within “God’s house” and, in effect, available to the king at all times.  “Now there is no notion that God is free and that he may act apart from and even against this regime.  Now God is totally and unquestionably accessible to the king and those who whom the king grants access (cf. 1 Kings 8:12-13).”[3]

The construction of the temple on “Mount Zion” creates in Israel a tradition in tension with the prophetic/Torah tradition.  These two traditions often compete; the later prophets drawing on the Mosaic tradition, the defenders of the king-centered status quo drawing on the Davidic/Solomonic tradition.  These two traditions present reality in vastly different ways.[4]

Though Solomon borrows from other nations in transforming Israel, he seeks not so much to imitate per se as to strengthen his own power and that of his heirs.  “The temple served, more than anything possibly could have done, to gain for the distinctive theology of Jerusalem and of the Davidic covenant, a firm and enduring place in Israel’s religion.”[5] Hence, the temple should not be seen first of all as an example of religious syncretism, though it did have that element, but first of all as part of a centralizing strategy of power politics.

At the heart of Mosaic faith, Israel serves a transcendent God, not simply a God who serves Israel’s needs whatever they might be.  This is the basis for the prophetic critiques that continued to challenge Israel’s public life.  The prophets, affirming God’s freedom, called Israel to serve God’s purposes or suffer consequences.  The God of the kings and the temple did exist to serve the state.  After Solomon, it was not thinkable in establishment Israel that God would act apart from or even against the king’s agenda (see 1 Kings 8:12-13).[6]

God now enters Israel’s life at the beck and call of the king and his minions.  The king’s servants control access to God.  This new approach to religious faith and practice in Israel serves the useful function (for the king) of eliminating the possibility of resistance to the king’s policies based on God’s transcendent will that exists in freedom from the will of the king.  No longer may one approach God formally apart from doing so on the king’s terms.  So no word from God that would stand against the king’s will could be heard.  “In many ways [the temple] represents the danger of the domestication of the radically free God of Israel’s covenant tradition.”[7]

As events unfolded, prophets did arise among the Israelites who did not accept the Solomonic arrangement.  However, for most of the major pre-exilic prophets, we have little evidence that the community respected their words or give them a widespread hearing.  They, indeed, were mostly “voices crying in the wilderness.”  Their access to the public was greatly limited because, as a rule, the religious institutions remained the monopoly of the king.

In the time before Solomon, the shrines and sanctuaries that provided the context for Israel’s worship were quite simple in both their construction and function.  They were decentralized and impermanent.  With Solomon, this changes drastically.  Solomon’s temple was far from simple.  It was large, elaborate, ornate rather than functional.  Solomon gathered materials for the construction of the temple from many foreign sources.  The structure he created differed qualitatively from what had existed before.

“Solomon’s tripartite Temple plan as well as the decorations and furnishings appears to have been typical of the day and eclectic—that is the various features find parallels from Egypt to Mesopotamia.  This is what one would expect, of course, for a sacred precinct constructed and decorated by Phoenician craftsmen.  Sanctuaries from approximately the same period and with comparable plans have been discovered at [various other near eastern sites].”[8]

A crucial expression of this departure from the sensibility of Torah may be seen in the floor plan for the temple that provided for three separate areas including an outer court, a holy place, and a “Holy of Holies.”  Likely Israel borrowed this set-up from elsewhere in the surrounding world.  It reflects a quite different set of theological assumptions from Israel’s prior understandings.  Having separate areas provides for different levels of holiness.  The closer one moved to the Holy of Holies the more authorization one required.  This dynamic fostered distinctions among the people and a loss of direct access for the vast majority.

Along with the loss of access, the temple also fueled the development of an elite class of those few who could gain the authorization to move to the inner sanctums of the temple where, supposedly, access to God was possible.  These religious elites, of course, served at the pleasure of the king.  In this way, access to God came to be thoroughly politicized, and God came ever more to be the tool of human leaders.  So long as the people accepted these arrangements, the religion served as a powerful tool to sustain social control.  The temple played an important role for those with political power.  Religious institutionalism served political authoritarianism.

Another reflection of Solomon’s agenda to transform Israel via the religious institution, along with the floor plan of the temple, may be seen in the exotic nature of the materials used for its construction.  Many of the these materials (e.g., the cedars of Lebanon) came from far away, also reflecting Solomon’s willingness to depart from Israel’s old traditions of suspicion toward foreign alliances.  The use of much gold along with cedars and other expensive materials made a strong statement about Solomon’s desire to lift up wealth as a prime attribute.  Again, the contrast with the simplicity of the Mosaic traditions cultic practices that fostered access across the community and highlighted communal sharing could not be much greater.

The temple that Solomon constructed surely exacerbated the distance between the wealthy and powerful on the one hand and the vulnerable and dispossessed on the other.  These socio-economic tendencies reflected the increased priority placed on wealth accumulation and display by the powerful people in Israel.  The temple indeed communicated the centrality of Yahweh for Israel’s faith—over and above other gods.  Yet, it also glorified Solomon himself, witnessing to his achievements.  It reflected the social evolution of Israel away from the central priorities of Torah toward the power- and wealth-enhancing practices of Israel’s neighbors, thereby signaling also the theological evolution Israel had undergone.

In contrast to the God of Moses, who liberates slaves and acts dynamically in the world, free from control by human power blocs, the God of the temple reinforces the power and order of Israel’s political hierarchy.  Israel under Solomon, centered on the temple, differs greatly from Israel under Moses, centered on Torah.  Consequently, Israel’s view of God changes, too.

The temple presented itself as centering on worship of Yahweh.  In practice, though, the worship of Yahweh in this context also added to the legitimacy and prestige of the king and his supporters.  Under Solomon, and for the generations that follow until the temple was destroyed, the temple played the role of “royal chapel” much more than of a community sanctuary.

Though its builders structured the temple so as to evoke a sense of awe at God’s power, might, and holiness, the temple’s close ties with the ruling elite in practice subordinated the transcendence and freedom of God to the will of the governing authorities.  The temple centralized worship under the auspices of the state and rendered virtually impossible a word of prophetic challenge.  As the temple displaced Torah, God’s ethical demands lost their status as the core of the life of the community, equally applicable to king and subject alike.

As the story—to its undying credit—nonetheless tells us, the emergence of temple-religion as officially dominant among the Hebrews did not eliminate prophetic challenge.  However, in many famous cases, the prophetic word pitted the actual will of Yahweh over against the message (implicit as much as explicit) of the temple and its leaders.  The prophets, at their most intense, actually portray the temple as being in opposition to God.

“The Jerusalem temple could become token of a divine guarantee to bless Israel, irrespective of the people’s conduct and loyalty to him.  The cult could be divorced from the tradition of the covenant and so obscure the fact that Yahweh was its Lord, who made demands on Israel, as well as offered benefits to it.  Israel could feel itself so sure of the immanent presence of Yahweh that it forgot his transcendent lordship.  That this danger did in fact have a deep and harmful effect on the popular attitude of Israel is evidenced by the criticism of Israel’s worship made by the prophets.”[9]

Most famously, Jeremiah 7 contains harsh words for the temple and its leaders.  Jeremiah linked loyalty to the temple with injustice.  “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’—only to go on doing all these abominations?  Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?” (Jeremiah 7:9-11).

“Jeremiah is completely adamant that the temple is no guarantee of Yahweh’s presence and favor, but insists that he is Lord of all sanctuaries.  As in the past he had punished the sins of the people by destroying their sanctuary at Shiloh, so he would do likewise in Jerusalem.  Yahweh’s presence was holy, and was set in Jerusalem as an act of grace, but in the face of Judah’s sins he would no longer continue in the midst of an unholy people.  A performance of a cultic act, however conscientious, could be no substitute for obedience to the covenant.”[10]

Ezekiel, in chapters 8 through 11, also portrays the temple in negative terms, the sight of many “abominations” from which God’s presence will surely depart.  “Ezekiel, like Jeremiah, faced a Jerusalem ideology that assumed that Yahweh was irrevocably committed to Judah, Jerusalem, its temple, and its king.  In violent and daring ways, Ezekiel makes clear that all to which Yahweh has been committed is revocable and is now being revoked.  It is not possible for Judah or its religious establishment to hold Yahweh in thrall to its own interests.”[11]

So, this temple, constructed at great cost and with great fanfare by Solomon and meant to be “God’s house,” fostered a great deal of ambivalence among the Hebrew prophets.  This image of “God’s house” had a mixed meaning—“God’s house” as in providing a sense of God’s presence among the people, a place for worship and renewal of commitment and “God’s house” as in providing a way for the powers-that-be to domesticate God, to keep God under their thumb.

The Second Temple

In the end, the Babylonian armies in 587 B.C.E. (2 Kings 25:1-22) reduced Solomon’s temple to rubble.  “Neither the covenant between Yahweh and the Davidic dynasty, nor the existence of a temple on Mt. Zion, had sufficed to save the people from the judgment of God.  On the contrary, the fearful consequences of apostasy had become manifest in that the king and many of Judah’s leading citizens had gone into exile.  The temple was in ruins, and with it many of the people had been driven out from Yahweh’s land.  The idea of any kind of permanent bond between Yahweh and the land of Judah with its temple was completely discredited.”[12]

Babylon deported most of the Judean ruling class from Jerusalem to Babylon (see Jeremiah 52:28-30).  After the Persian empire gained ascendancy over Babylon, many of the Jewish exiles returned to Palestine.  The Persians then allowed the Israelites to rebuild the temple on a much more modest scale (see Ezra 1–2).  This “second temple,” constructed under the leadership of Zerubbabel in the years 520–516 BCE, provided for a restoration of a religiously-oriented structured social life for Israelites.

“The devastating Babylonian conquest, the destruction of the Temple, and the exiles of Judeans to Babylonia were followed by an unparalleled phenomenon – a miracle wrought by the Judeans themselves.  They were the only people in antiquity exiled from the homeland and national religion who maintained their religious and social identity in captivity.  All other exiled people assimilated, as did the ‘Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.’  Then, still another miracle: in response to King Cyrus’ edict, a substantial number of Judeans, though established now in Babylonia, did return and erect the Second Temple.”[13]

As portrayed in the books of Haggai and Zechariah, this reconstruction happened under the auspices of the new dominant empire in the Middle East, Persia.  The construction of the temple and later efforts under Ezra and Nehemiah to re-establish the Hebrew community in Jerusalem, were not, as in Solomon’s time, linked directly with a Jewish nation-state.  Nonetheless, they still served the purposes of the dominant political powers.

“Both Ezra and Nehemiah conducted their reforming and restoration work with the permission and under a commission from the Persian authorities (see Ezra 7:11-26; Nehemiah 2:1-8).  Their activity, therefore, was not only condoned but also encouraged by the ruling government and thus must have been viewed as in the best interests of the Persians.  This means that their activities must be understood not just in terms of the religious conditions and needs of the Jewish community in Palestine but in terms of the political interests of the Persians.”[14]

Though the prophet Ezekiel had envisioned a rebuilt temple that would provide a powerful symbol for Jewish independence and legitimacy (see chapters 40–48), the actual rebuilding occurred in the context of continued Persian domination—possibly even depending upon Persian financing.  Hence, the actual second temple played not only provided a center for the reconstruction of Israel’s life of worship but also provided an instrument for the Persian Empire’s collection of taxes and a symbol of the Jewish leaders dependence upon the Persians for their legitimacy.  This rebuilt temple made it clear that Israel functioned independently in its religious life only at the prerogative of the Empire.[15]

In the years that followed, Jews exhibited various attitudes toward the second temple.  For many, the beliefs linked with the first temple remained viable—the temple as the dwelling place of God, unique in all the earth.  A post-587 BCE prophet such as Ezekiel, though critical of the religious practices in the temple, nonetheless still saw it as God’s dwelling place—at least the promised new temple.  The prophet Zechariah also held out the hope that God’s promises to Israel would still be fulfilled—including God’s return to Jerusalem (Zechariah 1:17).

On the other hand, others also with roots in the Old Testament expressed more hostility toward the temple.  This more negative viewpoint found expression in the emergent apocalyptic expressions of faith that arose during the inter-testamental period.

This tradition drew on Ezekiel’s hope for a new temple.  However, the actual second temple did not meet the expectations for the new temple.  So, for some Ezekiel pointed toward the structure constructed under the Persians; for others, that actual second temple failed to be a genuine replacement.  The temple that was built under Haggai and Zechariah paled in relation to Solomon’s temple.  It was smaller, less physically impressive.  As well, for some, the actual religious practices in the second temple fell short of what was needed.  Debates swirled continually over how these practices should be implemented.  Finally, many critics believed that the second temple had not been built in the way God had specified the temple should be built.

Regardless of the ambivalence many Israelites felt about the second temple, it remained at the center of Jewish life—down through the days of Jesus in the first century CE.

The Temple in Jesus’ Time

The temple housed the one Jewish altar on which the high priest performed the sacrificial rites of atonement once a year for the entire Jewish world.  The temple provided the location where forgiveness for the people’s sins was provided for.  Here, through entering the Holy of the Holies, the high priest entered the presence of God on behalf of all Jews.

“From the Hasmonaean period [after 167 BCE] forward, the temple came increasingly to be seen as the dwelling place of God, the house of God, and the only place where God’s relations with human beings could be mediated through the sacrificial system.  The temple claimed a monopoly on sacrifice and forgiveness.  This meant, in effect, that the traditions limiting the power of monarchy and subjecting the ruler to the justice of Torah were minimized as were the prophetic critiques of the temple.”[16]

Herod, Rome’s client king in Palestine prior to Jesus’ birth understood how linking the temple with his authority would enhance his power.  So he embarked on an ambitious building project, expanding the temple greatly, seeking to approach the splendor of Solomon’s temple.

The temple had grown to be a majestic symbol of power and might again.  “The Temple functioned as the central political, as well as religious, symbol of Judaism.  It pointed not only to Yahweh’s promise to dwell with his people, and to his dealing with their sins, their impurities, and ultimately with their exile, but also to his legitimation of the rulers who built, rebuilt, or ran it.  It was bound up inextricably with the royal house, and with royal aspirations.”[17]

The temple also served as an economic center.  As many as 18,000 priests participated in the temple activities.  Many lived in the countryside, serving at the temple for weeklong period twice a year.  A number, though, were also on permanent assignment in Jerusalem.[18] An elite group of chief priests managed the operation.  The temple treasury functioned as a huge national bank.  It held the tithes and offerings required of Jews throughout the world.  The elaborate temple operation generated the major source of revenue for the city of Jerusalem, and its tentacles stretched into the countryside where it owned large estates farmed by poor peasants.

Devout Jews living beyond Palestine came to the temple three times a year to celebrate religious festivities.  In springtime the Feast of the Passover chronicled the deliverance from Egypt.  About fifty days later the Feast of Pentecost offered thanks for the first fruits of the harvest.  In the fall the Feast of Tabernacles included a solemn march around the altar in gratitude to God for the completed harvest.  Most importantly, the great Day of Atonement was celebrated in autumn.  On that day, the high priest sacrificed a goat for his own sins and sent another one into the desert for the sins of the people.  During these pilgrim festivals, Jerusalem’s normal population of about 25,000 grew to as many as 180,000 people.

The temple stood as a monumental reminder that God’s people of the promise had direct access to the divine through their rituals.  Each morning and each afternoon, day after day, the “continual” burnt offering of an unblemished lamb was sacrificed on behalf of the community.  These perpetual offerings likely required about 1,200 animals each year.  As well, an offering of incense mixed with spices burned daily.  Devout Jews also offered private sacrifices.  The smell of smoke and burning flesh filled the air of the temple.

The priests held various duties in the sacrificial system. They removed ashes from the altar, prepared firewood, killed the lamb, sprinkled blood on the altar, cleaned the lampstand, and prepared the meal and drink offering.  At least twenty priests, chosen by lot each day, performed the regular sacrifices while others attended to the special offerings.

The temple stood at the center of Jewish faith.  For many, it symbolized God’s living presence on earth.  Believers came to the temple to pray, believing that from this site their prayers went directly to God.  Here both Nazarite and Gentile convert offered sacrifices.  Here mothers presented purification offerings at the birth of each child.

Jewish taxes flowed in from all over to support the temple.  The Sanhedrin, the final Jewish authority in religious, political, and civil matters made their home here along with the high priest.  The temple served as the heartbeat of Jewish faith.  It is impossible to overstate the importance of the temple.

The high priest, priest of all priests, symbolically headed of both faith and nation.  Only the high priest, in purity, could part the curtains and enter the holy of holies in the very presence of God once a year on the Day of Atonement.  He officiated at sacrifices on the Sabbath and during pilgrim festivals.  The high priest was required to have direct ties to the family of Aaron.

The high priest wielded considerable power as the president of the Sanhedrin.  This supreme council had complete judicial and administrative authority in religious and civil matters.  Its judgment on religious issues was respected far beyond the borders of Judea.  It was a self-perpetuating body composed of chief priests, scribes (usually, though not always, from the Pharisee party), and nobility.  Although lower courts met in various districts of Judea, the Sanhedrin was the supreme court of Jewish authority.[19]

The high priest became the most powerful Jewish leader in relation to the occupying Roman leaders.  He negotiated ceremonial and political matters with the Romans. The office of high priest fell generally to a member of just a few Jerusalem families.  “Eventually, four high-priestly families virtually monopolized appointments to the high-priestly office.”[20]

The high priest and Sanhedrin stood at the top of a network of thousands of lesser priests who lived in the countryside and regularly participated in temple ritual.  “The high priests invariably pursued their own political-economic interests, as collaborators with the Roman government.  And when the Romans provoked or abused Jewish sensibilities….Abandoned by their supposed leaders, the populace organized their own mass protests.  All of these factors left the province of Judea in a precarious position.  It was a powder keg waiting to explode.  Above all, it meant that any prophet, like Jesus, who criticized the temple, could expect to receive prompt attention and a hostile response from a ruling class already stretched to its limit.”[21]

The religious party that centered in Jerusalem and made up most of the Sanhedrin was known as the Sadducees.  The Sadducees opposed the Pharisees on most issues, including their rejection of the oral tradition and their skepticism concerning personal immortality (including resurrection) and the existence of demons and angels.  They were generally drawn from Jerusalem’s wealthy upper class.  They accepted the Roman occupation, tending to cooperate with the Romans in order to keep the temple viable.[22]

The role of the Sadducees, and, in fact, the role of the second temple following Herod’s expansion, in many ways harkened back to the first temple under Solomon.  It provided for centralized religion, fostering centralized political authority.  The leaders of the temple in Jesus’ day, as back in Solomon’s day, supported the political and religious hierarchies in Jerusalem, practicing a kind of sacrifice that inverted the theology presented in Leviticus.  Sacrifice served as a means to connect with God, a means that required the mediation of the religious institution whose wealth and power served the king’s interests.  “The religion of the temple was always political religion with economic consequences, because the temple was an instrument of the policies of the ruler and the ruling class.”[23]

In contrast to this hierarchical religion and its service to hierarchical politics, the Old Testament portrays the original theological rationale for sacrifice as a basis for fostering gratitude toward God and justice for all in the community, especially the vulnerable ones.  Sacrifice in Leviticus stems from an experience of God’s mercy and serves the community as a whole, not only the power elite.

As a “conservative,” that is, one who drew most centrally on the tradition of Moses as filtered through prophetic critique, Jesus ended up on a collision course with the temple hierarchy – one that exposed the true nature of religious institutionalism, its violence and subservience to political authoritarianism.

Jesus was not alone in being unhappy with the temple.  “The Essenes were ideologically opposed to the present Temple on the grounds that the wrong people were running it, and the Pharisees were developing a theology in which the blessings normally available in the Temple could be had, by extension, through the Torah….The poorer classes evidently regarded the Temple as symbolizing the oppression they suffered at the hand of the rich elite.  When the revolutionaries took over the Temple at the start of the war [in 66 CE], one of the first acts was to burn the records of debts.  The unpopularity of the ruling class at this time is well documented, and the widespread dislike of them meant that the first-century Temple, and particularly the way in which it was being run, came in for regular criticism.”[24]

Jesus and the Temple

As sharp as the conflict becomes between Jesus and the temple leadership, the Gospels do not present Jesus as a pure rejectionist.  Jesus’ had a nuanced attitude toward the temple and its sacrificial system—though ultimately he rejected the actual practices of the temple in Jerusalem.  More significantly, in harmony with the Old Testament salvation story and prophetic critique, he understood the sacrificial system as peripheral to the dynamics of salvation (“I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” Matthew 9:13 and 12:7, quoting Hosea 6:6).

The two birth accounts, in Matthew and in Luke, already give a mixed perspective on Jesus’ relation with the temple.  Luke presents a more positive view.  His story begins with the birth of Jesus’ distant cousin John (the Baptist), the son of a priest (Zechariah).  While Zechariah was a rural priest not closely associated with the temple (and John certainly does not end up as a temple supporter), simply by being a priest he had some temple connection—rural priests were required to attend temple services several times a year.  Zechariah’s presence in the story implies at least some sort of continuity between the religious institutions of the time and Jesus’ birth.

After Jesus’ birth, Luke tells of his parents dedicating him in the temple (2:21-40).  Their dedication of Jesus is framed as adherence “to the law of Moses” (2:22), and the sacrifice clearly expresses their gratitude for God’s gift of their son (2:24).  While at the temple, Jesus’ family also encounters two old “saints,” Simeon and Anna, who both praise God when they see Jesus for God’s work of salvation.

Significantly, Simeon expresses his praise for God’s work of salvation that will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (2:32).  Much later, when Jesus returns to the temple he harshly critiques it for not being “a house of prayer for all peoples” (see Mark 11:17: “a house of prayer for all the nations”).

Luke also includes the story of Jesus at age 12 visiting the temple and engaging in theological discussions “among the teachers” (2:46).  Here Jesus, speaking his first words in this Gospel, refers to the temple as “my Father’s house” (2:49).

So, Luke presents Jesus coming from a devout family that observed temple rituals, and he shows that in the temple itself people are found who understand Jesus as an agent of God’s saving work for the whole world.  While these incidents reflect a positive view of the temple, they also provide hints for the bases of critique—insofar as the temple is in harmony with the law of Moses and fosters revelation to the Gentiles, then it may be respected.  However, should it depart from those conditions.…

The impression in Matthew’s birth story is subtler.  For one thing, Matthew does not actually mention the temple at all.  The picture one gets from Matthew is of a new expression of God’s saving work that bypasses the temple.

Indirectly, if we associate the temple with King Herod, remembering the extensive resources he put into expansion of the temple buildings, we get a negative impression.  Herod, according to Matthew’s story, with the complicity of “all the chief priests” [i.e., the temple officials] and scribes of the people” (Matthew 2:4), seeks to destroy this rumored newly born “king of the Jews.”  When Herod hears of Jesus’ birth, “he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him” (2:3).  “All Jerusalem” likely alludes to the ruling classes, most obviously including the temple leaders.

Up until Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem, the temple plays a peripheral role in the stories of Jesus’ ministry.  In large part, this is because the gospels portray Jesus as spending his time in the countryside and not in close proximity to the temple.  However, that he does so must be seen as significant.  Jesus presents his program as something entirely independent of temple religion.  For the kind of faith he seeks to foster, the temple and religious institutionalism are irrelevant.

In particular, in pronouncing people forgiven, Jesus circumvented the temple’s role in the process of dealing with sins.  “In Jerusalem, the priests claimed to be the sole brokers of Yahweh’s patronage.  If one sought the benefits of Yahweh’s patronage—fertile land, good crops, and timely rains—then one had to gain access to them by using the temple system brokered by chief priests and ordinary priests.  When Jesus declares God’s forgiveness of the paralytic’s debts, he steps into the role of a reliable broker of God’s forgiveness, and by simply assuming this role, challenges the brokerage house in Jerusalem called the temple.”[25]

Much of the early part of Mark’s Gospel conveys this circumvention of the temple and its role as the center of purity concerns by recounting a series of encounters where Jesus ministries without concern for ritual impurity.  He heals a man with skin disease (1:40-45), casts out “unclean spirits” (3:30), eats with “sinners” (2:16), exorcises a man possessed of a legion of unclean spirits (5:1-17), heals a bleeding woman (5:24-34), and touches a girl already dead.[26]

Jesus’ Conflict with Religious Institutionalism

The stories in the latter part of Mark’s Gospel leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion highlight how Jesus’ conflict with the religious institution of the temple became overt—and fatal.

The temple was absolutely essential to established life in Jerusalem and Judea.  It was the economic center of Jerusalem.  An estimated eighty percent of Jerusalem’s employment was dependent on the temple.[27] The Temple was the political center.  Since Israel was a religious state, its religious code was also its state and civil code.  The leadership organ of the temple, the Sanhedrin, also carried legislative and executive power.  This power was heightened due to the Sanhedrin’s cooperation with Roman rule.  However, most of all, the temple was the religious center.  The temple was where God was present on earth.  It was “a religious center and theological symbol of tremendous emotive power.”[28]

As Mark’s drama approaches its climax, he has Jesus entering Jerusalem (11:1).  This begins the final stage, the last week of Jesus’ life.

Right away (11:11), Jesus visits the temple.  The sense of conflict is established: Jesus versus the religious leaders, the temple authorities.  The conflict escalates when Jesus returns to the temple a second time and proceeds to “drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple” (11:15).  With these actions, Jesus expresses his hostility toward the temple ritual.

Mark brackets this confrontation in the temple with a two-part account of Jesus cursing a fig tree and causing it to wither (11:12-14; 11:20-21).  “He thus clearly intended his readers to get the point: what Jesus was doing in the Temple is cognate with what he is doing to the fig tree.  He came seeking fruit, and finding none, he is announcing the Temple’s doom.”[29] The fig tree symbolizes Israel and its fate reflects the fate of the temple.  Jesus, with his challenge to the temple, actually acts out God’s judgment on the temple.  The problem with the temple is that it has failed to be “a house of prayer for all the nations.”  Instead, the temple had become a center for religious exclusivism and economic exploitation.[30]

Jesus quotes two Old Testament prophets: Isaiah 56:7 (“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”) and Jeremiah 7:11 (“You have made it a den of robbers”).  Isaiah 56 portrays an eschatological hope of foreigners flocking to Jerusalem. Jeremiah 7 condemns the people of Judea for presuming that God would continue to sustain the temple even in the face of their sinful living.[31] Jesus uses Israel’s prophets to challenge temple practices, which he asserts are corrupt and counter to God’s intentions.  “Isaiah 56:7 stands as the climax to an oracle that is perhaps the fullest Old Testament vision of an inclusive Israel.  It also fits the shape and themes of Jesus’ ministry to the outcasts and the marginal, those who because of their uncleanness and cultic impurity were either banned from the community or pushed to its very edge.”[32]

We are told that in response to this “cleansing” of the temple, “the chief priests and scribes…kept looking for a way to kill [Jesus]” (11:18).  These people, the religious leaders, were, for a time, restrained by the popularity Jesus had with the crowds.  But they fully intended to do away with Jesus.  He threatened their purity-based system of religious control.  He not only has shown himself to be cavalier towards the purity regulations, but he also had gained wide popularity.  These factors caused alarm, exacerbated by his direct confrontation with the temple.

The parable of the vineyard immediately follows (12:1-12).  Jesus likens the vineyard to the people of Israel, the watchtower to the temple, and the tenants to the religious leaders.  God intended the temple to be a center for justice in Israel, but it instead became a center for injustice.  God sent messengers to restore the vineyard to its intended purposes.  But the tenants murdered those messengers—the fate of prophets throughout the history of Israel.  Finally, the master sends his “beloved son,” who the tenants also murder.  This final murder ends the owner’s patience, and he promises to come to “destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.”

These tenants (the religious leaders) have shown that they are rivals to the owner (God).  The practices of the temple are not faithful to God’s wishes but rather usurp God’s place as Israel’s object of worship.[33] Jesus patterned the parable after Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard (Isa 5:1-7), itself a strong critique of unfaithful eighth-century Israel.  The parable ends with a quote from Psalm 118:22-23, a temple Psalm.  Temple imagery pervades the parable.  That the parable critiqued of current temple practices and the religious leaders may be seen in their response.  “When they [the chief priests and scribes of 11:18 and 11:27] realized that [Jesus] had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him” (12:12).[34]

Jesus speaks in Mark 13 of the destruction of the temple.  One of the disciples exclaims regarding the greatness of the temple:  “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”  The temple, reconstructed by Herod, was famous for its splendor.  This exclamation likely reflects a sense of security about the temple guaranteeing God’s ongoing protection for the chosen people similar to what Jeremiah critiqued in the text Jesus earlier quoted.  These wonderful buildings symbolized God’s presence with Israel.[35]

Jesus, however, was not impressed.  “Do you see those great buildings?,” he replied.  “Not one stone will be left here upon another.  All will be thrown down” (13:2).  He alludes to impending physical destruction.  Perhaps, too, he refers to the collapse of the spiritual authority of this institution.  Immediately after the discourse of chapter 13, we read again that “the chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him” (14:1).

Finally, they do arrest him and bring him to trial.  One of the main charges against Jesus is that he allegedly said he would destroy the temple (14:58).  This charge is false on the surface.  Jesus did not say that he would destroy the temple.  Yet, ironically, the charge is true in the sense that Jesus’ actions and words render the temple’s functions meaningless.[36]

Mark’s Gospel does not picture Jesus as actually threatening to destroy the temple.  However, the centrality of the accusation that he did (15:29 indicates that the accusation stayed with Jesus) reflects the reality that Jesus’ enemies understood him to be a threat to the temple.

Mark’s treatment of the temple concludes in 15:38.  When Jesus died, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”  This final event links with what immediately follows, the Roman centurion’s confession that “truly this man was God’s Son” (15:39).  The torn “curtain of the temple” juxtaposes Jesus and the temple as alternative places of divine presence.  It provides perspective on what follows, the centurion’s confession.  The death of the Servant opens the way to God for all the world by exposing sacred violence and depriving the temple of its mystique.[37] The self-proclaimed locus of God’s presence on earth is revealed actually to be an institution that responds to the true revelation of God on earth with violence.

“Why does Jesus regard the temple as extraneous to God’s purpose (Mark 11:17)?  Intended as a house of prayer for all the nations, the temple has been transformed by the religious leaders in Jerusalem into a den of brigands.  That is, the temple has been perverted in favor of both socio-religious aims (the exclusion of Gentiles as potential recipients of divine reconciliation) and politico-economic purposes (legitimating and consolidating the power of the chief priests, whose teaching might be realized even in the plundering of a poor widow’s livelihood—cf. Mark 12:41-44.”[38]

For Mark’s gospel, there is a clear connection between Jesus being put to death and Jesus’ conflict with the temple, Jerusalem’s center of religious institutionalism.  In several cases—the cleansing of the temple, the parable of the vineyard, the apocalyptic vision, and the accusation before the tribunal—we see a connection between Jesus being perceived as a threat to the institution and the promise that he will be killed for this.

“Most likely it was because Jesus was seen as a threat to the status quo, a threat to the power brokers within Israel’s social-religious-political system, that they decided to move decisively against him.  In the event, it would seem that they were able to portray the decision to hand Jesus over to Pilate for summary execution as a purely religious one (Jesus guilty of ‘blasphemy’—Mark 14:63-64).  In the event, too, Pilate took not very much persuasion to condemn Jesus as a political challenge to Roman power.  Jesus was executed in the final analysis, because he had become too much of a thorn in the side of the religious-political establishment.”[39]

In the end, though, Jesus’ death does not signal that the religious authorities were victorious.  Jesus’ death actually signifies the opposite.  The temple curtain is torn.  Jesus, even on the cross, fulfills what the temple was meant to and did not—engendering worship of God by Gentiles as well as Jews.  The centurion confesses that “surely this was God’s Son” (15:39).

Jesus, as interpreted by Mark, challenged the dynamics of religious institutionalism head on.  He does so by denying the ultimate legitimacy of his culture’s central religious institution.  He does not answer the religious leaders when they have him on trial (14:61).  By refusing to answer, he, in effect, states that he rejects their legitimacy as representatives of God.

Mark contains several references to Jesus’ mission to the nations in the context of the conflicts in the temple.  The temple in Jerusalem, in its cold institutionalism, had lost touch with God’s will that the word of mercy be expressed to all peoples.  Jesus came to express that word and met only with hostility from the religious leaders.  So, in effect, the old temple must be torn down, and a new, open and inclusive temple based on Jesus himself must take its place (as Revelation 21:22 states a few decades later:  “I saw no temple in the city, for its Temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb”).

Jesus critiqued the temple system.  That system originally had a mission, to help facilitate creative, communally faithful ways of living for all of the people in the society.  But, in ultimately placing its priority on survival and supporting a static, unjust status quo, the temple had left its original mission far behind.

Institutionalism stifles creativity.  When institutional survival takes priority, then order, security, peace at all costs take precedence.  Few risks can be taken.  Few new thoughts can be pursued.  The people who thrive are not visionaries or prophets, but bureaucrats and yes-men.  The institution will not welcome a prophet such as Jesus as a messenger from God, nor see him as one sent to provide much-needed light into new ways of responding faithfully to the many and great crises faced by first-century Judaism.  Rather, the institution sees him as a threat, an upsetter of the applecart, a voice to be stilled, rather than a voice to be responded to.

Jesus’ conflict with the temple was costly.  Many forces in his world benefited from people being subservient to institutions.  Seeking to break free from that subservience provoked resistance.  However, Jesus points to the need to seek such freedom, and witnesses that, at least in part, such freedom may be attained.

Jesus’ witness led to his death.  However, in facing death as he did—fully committed to the life of the Spirit—free from dominance by spirit-denying hierarchies and religious ideologies—Jesus’ life of freedom amidst the struggle points to an alternative to life lived in obeisance to the sacred violence of religious institutionalism.

[1] Bruce Birch, Walter Brueggemann, Terence E. Fretheim, and David L. Petersen, A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 248.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1973), 34.

[3] Brueggemann, Prophetic, 35.

[4] Jon Levinson, in Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1985), writing from a Jewish perspective, draws the contrast between these two traditions; he, though, argues ultimately for their compatibility.

[5] Ronald E. Clements, God and Temple (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965), 64.

[6] Brueggemann, Prophetic, 34-35.

[7] Birch, et al, Theological, 248.

[8] J. Maxwell Miller and John H. Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986), 203.

[9] Clements, God, 79.

[10] Clements, God, 85-86.

[11] Birch, et al, Theological, 340-341.

[12] Clements, God, 98-99.

[13] Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 365.  See also Miller and Hayes, History, 458.

[14] Miller and Hayes, History, 462.

[15] Brueggemann, Introduction, 365; Miller and Hayes, History, 445.

[16] William Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God: A Ministry of Liberation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 121.

[17] N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 411.

[18] Herzog, Jesus, 138.

[19] Much of my summary of the temple here is drawn from Donald B. Kraybill, The Upside-Down Kingdom, second edition (Herald Press, 1990), 60-73.

[20] Herzog, Jesus, 91.

[21] Herzog, Jesus, 105.

[22] James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, volume one (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 270-271.

[23] Herzog, Jesus, 113.

[24] Wright, Jesus, 412.

[25] Herzog, Jesus, 128.

[26] Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 789.

[27] Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred: Poetics of Violence in Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 15; James D.G. Dunn, The Partings of the Ways: Between Christianity and Judaism and Their Significance for the Character of Christianity (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1991), 32.

[28] Dunn, Partings, 33.

[29] Wright, Jesus, 421.

[30] Willard M. Swartley, Israel’s Scripture Traditions and the Synoptic Gospels: Story Shaping Story (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 159-160; Hamerton-Kelly, Gospel, 17-18.

[31] Swartley, Israel’s, 161; Hamerton-Kelly, Gospel, 19).

[32] Herzog, Jesus, 141.

[33] Raymund Schwager, “Christ’s Death and the Prophetic Critique of Sacrifice,” Semeia 33 (1985), 114.

[34] Swartley, Israel’s, 162.

[35] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Mark (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), 304.

[36] Swartley, Israel’s, 165.

[37] Hamerton-Kelly, Gospel, 57; Swartley, Israel’s, 168.

[38] John T. Carroll and Joel B. Green, The Death of Jesus in Early Christianity (Peaqbody, MA” Hendrickson, 1995), 32.

[39] Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 786.

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