Core Beliefs of Second Temple Judaism: 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.

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. This was not always the case for the Jews, even as late as the reign of Hezekiah in the 8th century B.C. there were still local shrines where sacrifices to the Lord were made.  Hezekiah attempts to reform this system with limited success. In the post-exilic period there are several examples of competing temples in Egypt (at Elephantine and Leontopolis).

Jewish sacrifices were more expensive than Greco-Roman sacrifices primarily because there was a class of priests who needed to be supported by the populace. There was no professional priesthood in Greece or Rome, anyone could function as a priest (Alexander the Great and the Caesars, for example, were priests). Priests in Israel were hereditary and were prohibited from working to support themselves outside of their role as priest.  See this previous post on the wealth of the Temple.

The Temple was 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” (N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 224).  The impression one gets from reading the more extreme views of the Essenes or 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.  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).

Sanders warns us it is possible to have too positive of a view of the Temple based on Josephus (a priest), Philo (a pilgrim, in this case) and other early writers (Judaism, 54). There were wealthy, powerful priests and others who lived in poverty.  The critiques of the Temple by the Essenes and the Gospels may therefore be taken as a corrective to the positive material in the Jewish sources.

Yet in the New Testament the Temple is impressive to the Disciples (Matt 24:1-2) even if the current leadership is under God’s judgment and about to be replaced (Mark 12:1-12). It is still the main place for the apostolic preaching in Acts 2 and 3, although by Acts 7 Stephen is accused of attacking the Temple. Both Paul (Eph 2:19-22) and Peter (1 Peter 2:4-5) refer to believers as stones in a living Temple.

5 thoughts on “Core Beliefs of Second Temple Judaism: Temple

  1. The references to believers as living stones in a living temple would have been a perfect visualization of the role that believers play in the body of Christ. Early Christianity was often compared to familiar elements of Judaism. For example, the obvious comparison between the sacrifices at the temple and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The stones of the temple were special, cut specifically for the purpose of being put into the temple. In the same way, being a member of the body of Christ means believers have been intentionally purposed for a role in the Kingdom of Heaven. This comparison creates a compelling image of the idea that every believer makes an essential contribution to the Kingdom as a whole.


  2. I never thought about this, but even today, most senior pastors or priests do not have a job outside of the church. I do not know if there is actually a rule saying that senior pastors and priests cannot have a separate job outside of the church, but they do not typically have to worry about things like a house payment because the church pays for that kind of thing. On the other hand, if the church has a youth pastor or associate pastor, they typically do have another job so there must not be an actual rule saying that pastors and priests cannot have another job.


  3. I have never really thought about having too positive of a view of the Temple during Jesus’ time as Sanders warns. Unfortunately, however, “politically ambitious High Priests and possible corruption” sort of makes sense given the often corrupt, power hungry Hasmonean high priest-kings. Corrupt priests trying to make points with or gain power through their pagan rulers certainly would not be a good thing for the lay Jews. The Temple was where the sacrifices for the nation was made and was supposed to be the holiest place in Israel, not a place to gain political power or prestige.


  4. Probably due to the current pop culture view of Greco-Roman culture I had always thought they had their own sort of priesthood in which one may have had to be specially trained in order to be a priest, though still different from Judaism in that there was no lineage required. God established many of the Laws for the Jews in order to separate them from those around them. The priesthood is a part of what makes Judaism unique though not completely unique. Egypt also had a similar thing in the form of the pharaohs.


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