E. P. Sanders once said “Judaism was more a way of life than a doctrinal system” (Judaism: Practice and Belief, 3). Sanders describes practical details of daily Jewish life as well as the fundamental teachings of Judaism most the Jews of the first century were in agreement. But Second Temple period Judaism sometimes differed about how to live out the Jewish life in their present circumstance. These hotly debated questions centered concerned both internal affairs, such as who controls the national institutions, such as Temple and sacrifice or who interprets and administers the Law. But there was a range of views on external affairs such as cooperation with the Romans. Could a faithful Jewish person cooperate with Rome and not violate the law? Is rebellion against Rome possible?
Over the next series of posts I want to discuss this cultural landscape forming the background of the Gospels. Beginning with the Temple, I will briefly outline some of the more important institutions and practices found in first century Judaism, with an eye to showing how Jesus in some ways is consistent with these beliefs and institutions, but also how he challenged them in his ministry.
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. 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.
Judaism was different from other ancient religions because it brought everything under the heading of “Divine Law” (50). The Greco-Roman world had religion and philosophy; religion dealt with the gods and philosophy dealt with ethical and practical issues. Judaism combined these two elements since there was nothing in life except one’s duty to God. Any daily practice could be tied somehow to one’s religious devotion (Josephus, Apion 2.170-173).
The Temple was therefore central to the life of the common Jew. “At the heart of Jewish national life, for better or worse, stood the Temple” (N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 224). The impression from reading the more extreme views of the Essenes or from Jesus’ sharp critique of the Temple 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. Diaspora Jews even supported the Temple through the half-shekel “Temple Tax,” a practice the Romans required to be continued after the revolts, although the money was diverted to Rome (War 7.218; Dio Cassius, 66.7).
In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus is not impressed with worship in the Temple. He only visits the Temple in his final week (although John describes him visiting Jerusalem more often). He famously declares the Temple to be a “den of robbers” and disrupts commerce in the Temple courts (Matt 21:12-13). He mourns for Jerusalem (Matt 23:37-39) and declares the Temple will soon be destroyed (Matt 24:1-2).
How shocking would this be for his disciples to hear? To what extent is Jesus attacking the heart of Jewish worship?
3 thoughts on “The Cutural Context of the Gospels: The Temple”
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Well, if he was attacking the heart of worship then the Jewish people of that time definitely had some priorities to straighten out. That seems a lot like us worshipping the church building that we visit every Sunday instead of the God that we are there to actually worship. N.T. Wright suggests that the Temple represented revolt against the Roman Empire (The Challenge of Jesus 66). This suggests to me that in a lot of ways the Temple was an idol for the Jewish people in Jesus’ time. I also like that Wright says that Jesus’ goal was to ultimately replace the Temple with himself. “When he came to Jerusalem, the city was not, so to speak, big enough for the two of them together” (Wright 65). I suppose this would be quite shocking to his disciples.