While the synagogue was a place for prayer and study of scripture, the Temple was a place for sacrifice. Just as sacrifice of animals is always a part of religion in the ancient world, it played an important part of the practice of religion in Jerusalem. However, Second Temple Period Judaism differed from other pagan religious ceremonies in some very important ways. For example, unlike Greco-Roman religions, there is only one place in the world where and acceptable sacrifice can be made, the Temple at Jerusalem. A Roman could offer a sacrifice anywhere, at any time, even when there was no temple or priest to officiate.
The physical appearance of the Temple was impressive. The Temple grounds were larger than nearly every other ancient religious center, with the exception of Karnak in Egypt. The sanctuary could not be enlarged since the architects were working from biblical descriptions of the Solomonic Temple (no matter how beautiful the building was it had to be built after the pattern of Solomon’s temple, especially the dimensions.)
The Temple was designed with “areas of increasing sanctity” with various courts limiting access based on the relative purity of the worshiper. The Court of the Gentiles, for example, was as far as a Gentile could go without risking his life; the Court of the Woman was as far as a woman could proceed, etc. Even the male priesthood had limits. None could enter the Holy of Holies except the high priest and then only once a year on the Day of Atonement. The Holy of Holies was the most sacred place in the whole complex, and was therefore the center of the Temple structures. This place is holy because is “there” in the Holy of Holies.
Our impression from reading the more extreme views of the Essenes or from Jesus’ sharp critique in the New Testament is that the Temple was viewed negatively in the first century. Despite politically ambitious High Priests and possible corruption in the first century, most Jews supported the Temple through offerings willingly given.
The Temple was therefore central to the life of the “common Jew.” As N. T. Wright puts it, “At the heart of Jewish national life, for better or worse, stood the Temple” (Jesus and the Victory of God, 224).
It is remarkable therefore that in the Synoptic Gospels Jesus does not visit the Temple Mount until his final week. Undoubtedly he visited Jerusalem frequently (Luke 2 as a child, three times in John’s Gospel), but for the most part Matthew, Mark and Luke save the visit to the Temple for the dramatic end of Jesus’ life and ministry. Even when he does finally enter the Temple courts, he engages in a protest against the “moneychangers.” Jesus seems to see the activity of the Temple in much the same way a prophet of the Hebrew Bible might have, it is too little and it is too late. He knows that what he is about to do on the Cross will change everything.
Given the importance of the Temple, I find it remarkable that in each of the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus brings God and the revelation that the “Kingdom was Near” to the common people rather than to the Temple hierarchy. He does not request a meeting with the High Priest, he does not assemble the Sanhedrin and announce that he was the Messiah. He goes to people in Galilee (of all places!) and demonstrates through his words and deeds that he is the fulfillment of the Hebrew Bible.