Judaism in the Second Temple Period: The Temple

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.

Robinson’s Arch

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.

11 thoughts on “Judaism in the Second Temple Period: The Temple

  1. Dr. Long says, “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.” This just seems to confirm some of the ideals of the Jewish faith as well as the character of God. 1) ““Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4). There is only one God. What better way to emphasis this than one pillar of fire, one house of the Lord, and one Temple? This is a huge contrast to the pantheon of Roman gods with many temples and many ways to express “worship.” 2) God requires a priest. This is not an issue of inequality in the eyes of God. In fact, it can be seen as the opposite. None of us are able to approach God and walk with him as Adam once did. So, for the Jews, there was no hesitation to understand the system the God has put in place. Only those established by God as servants of the priestly order could make sacrifices. This is symbolic of the purity and holiness of God and his people. While any prostitute or murderer could offer a sacrifice to Zeus, only God’s chosen few (from amongst the chosen few) could bring forth such a blessing to and from God.
    Dr. Long also points out the impressive stature of the Temple. Suiting for the most impressive being in all existence (and supposedly, beyond existence? Whoa!)

    Going back to the purity and holiness of God represented by the Temple and his people, “the Temple was designed with ‘areas of increasing sanctity’ with various courts limiting access based on the relative purity of the worshiper” (Long). Again, the restrictiveness of these Temple rules is not an issue of the more privileged and the less privileged. It is about the holiness of God. Hence, no one may enter the Holy of Holies except the High Priest on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:2, Heb. 9:7).
    And now for a huge jump in my point! The most glorious news is that the Temple (the building) is no longer necessary! Why? Because the Temple (Yeshua the Annointed) came, was torn down, and rebuilt in three days. Christ is the temple. No longer do we need the temple to represent God as the one true God. We have the one Body of Christ. No longer do we need priests, because the sacrificial system is completed and destroyed in Christ.
    Amen and Amen.

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  2. The story of Jesus clearing the temple is one of my favorite stories. The more I learn about it the more I enjoy it. Even the visiting the remainders of the temple this past winter was impressive. When I picture the temple in its prime I pictured it being pretty intimidating. The size of the building seemed to demand respect and show such strength; it is defiantly something to be proud of. However, the people abused its power and used it as a place to sell cattle, sheep, doves, and other things. Jesus tearing through that enormous temple demanding that those people leave and condemning then for not respecting His father’s house is such an amazing picture in my mind.

    P. Long’s point about Jesus never really entering the temple in before this and even the fact that He did not confront the High Priests about this new oikonomia that was about to take place. It is amazing how he chooses to go to the people of Galilee with the news of the coming Kingdom. However, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many,” (Matt. 20:28). He could have easily gone to the High Priests and been honored by then but he wanted to remain among the least of us and to serve us in a way that we must never forget.

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    • It’s important to remember that the moneychangers and the people selling cattle, doves, and so forth were providing a legitimate and absolutely necessary service in the functioning of the Temple. What were Diaspora Jews supposed to do, bring animals with them all the way from Rome or wherever in order to be able to offer a sacrifice? What were the city dwellers of Jerusalem supposed to do, for that matter? It’s not like you can raise your own cattle in a crowded city.

      As for the moneychangers, this too was necessary. Roman currency had pictures of Caesar that identified him as divine: arguably idolatry, that should not be brought into the holy Temple. Plus, again, Diaspora Jews from all over the known world came to the Temple with whatever money they had in their pockets, and would have needed this service.

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  3. This post if very interesting to read for several reasons. First, I think that it is interesting that Jesus does not go to the temple and teach as much as Jesus does to the people of Galilee. Could it be that the people of Galilee were open to the good news that Jesus brought about the Kingdom of Heaven been near in Matthew 3:2. Were they more open to hear what Jesus was teaching rather than the leaders in the Temple?? I guess it comes down to who the leaders thought of Jesus.

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  4. My understanding is that at the time of Jesus, the Temple had become something of a haven for the Zealots who were plotting rebellion against Rome. (Makes sense, right? Where better to plot against the Gentiles than in places the Gentiles can’t go?) To the extent that Jesus rejected the path of violent resistance, it makes sense that he would not have contacted the Temple leadership that were giving shelter to this faction.

    I recommend N. T. Wright’s chapters in The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions for a very helpful presentation of Jesus in his Jewish context. (We used this in my Gospels and Jesus class, in the section on the historical Jesus.)

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    • I am not so sure that the Temple of AD 30 would be considered a “haven for Zealots,” there is a real problem identifying the Zealots of AD 66 (who do occupy the Temple) with the “zealots” of AD 30. When Jesus is in the Temple courts teaching there were likely some who would become (official) Zealots later, but I am not sure they were dominant.

      That Jesus had a disciple with the nickname “the Zealot” is interesting, but some jump to quickly to the Zealots of AD 66.

      I like what Wright says, though, but demonstrating that “zeal” usually erupts in violent protection of the Law or the Jewish boundary Markers (Phineas, Maccabees, Paul).

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  5. It does seem surprising, at first glance, that Jesus would speak only to the common people and not to the people “in charge”. I think that a possible part of the explanation would center on the people that were involved with the temple. Mark Strauss says that Jesus condemned the Pharisees for focusing on the outward requirements of the law instead of the matters of the heart (Strauss, 133). I believe that this parallels how Jesus felt when He went to the temple and saw the people there that had made the temple a “den of robbers” instead of a “house of prayer” (Mark 11:15-19). Jesus was upset because they were focusing on their own gain instead of doing things that brought glory to God and things that dealt with the heart. Also it may seem weird that Jesus does not claim to be God. I believe this is the case because if Jesus claimed to be God then no one would believe him because it would threaten the power of the high up people.

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  6. Dr. Long says, “The physical appearance of the Temple was impressive. The Temple grounds were larger than nearly every other ancient religious center…” What an amazing statement! The one true God’s Temple was one of the largest and most impressive gathering places. Just another testament to His power and might. Now, it does seem odd that Jesus did not make a trip to the Temple earlier in His life or ministry. Though, I do believe that is what makes His trip to the Temple towards the end of the ministry so interesting. He is establishing in a very intense way the importance and holiness of God’s Temple and place of worship. I love the story and the power Jesus displayed in that moment. All in all, the Temple, it’s design, and it’s beauty as well as Jesus and His power create an interesting picture of God and His ancient holy place of worship.

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