Core Beliefs of Second Temple Judaism: Gentiles and the Temple

The prohibition of Gentiles in the main court of the temple during the first century is well known. Paul refers to a “dividing wall” of hostility between Jews and Gentiles in Ephesians 2:15, probably an allusion to the warning to Gentiles in the Temple courts that crossing into the Court of the Men would result in their death. Paul is accused of breaking this Law by sneaking a Gentile into the Temple courts (a false charge, but it nearly cost Paul his life).

Inscription from the Second Temple warning Gentiles from entering any closer to the Temple (Istanbul Museum)

But in the Torah a Gentile was permitted to bring a sacrifice in the same way any Israelite does, presumably right to the altar of the Tabernacle (Num 15:14-16).

By the third century B.C., however, Jews began to prohibit Gentiles from entering the Temple enclosure.  Antiochus III made a decree to this effect (Antiq. 12.145f) and even Herod the Great respected this when he was rebuilding the temple.  Priests were trained in masonry so that they could work on the sacred areas rather than the Gentile masons Herod used elsewhere (Antiq. 15.390).

What was the basis of the exclusion of Gentiles? The practice of exclusion seems linked to the results of the Maccabean Revolt.  After so much effort was expending in driving the Gentiles out of the Temple and re-dedicating it to the Lord, it would seem impure to allow any Gentile back into the holy places of the temple courts.  In 1 Maccabees 14:29-36 Simon Maccabees was praised for purifying the temple from Gentile impurity.

1 Mac 14:36–37 In his days things prospered in his hands, so that the Gentiles were put out of the country, as were also those in the city of David in Jerusalem, who had built themselves a citadel from which they used to sally forth and defile the environs of the sanctuary, doing great damage to its purity. 37 He settled Jews in it and fortified it for the safety of the country and of the city, and built the walls of Jerusalem higher.

One factor bearing on this issue is the long standing Jewish belief that purity laws did not apply to Gentiles even when they lived in Israelite territory. The “sojourner laws” in Deut 5:14 define these Gentiles as resident aliens and require only a few general commands for them while they are living within the nation of Israel.

Did Jews of the first century consider Gentiles impure and therefore exclude them from the inner courts of the temple? There are several Second Temple texts which indicate eating with Gentiles was a serious problem for some (many? most?) Jews.  Joseph and Asenath 7:1, “Joseph never ate with the Egyptians, for this was an abomination to him”

Jubilees 22:16  And you also, my son, Jacob, remember my words, and keep the commandments of Abraham, your father. Separate yourself from the Gentiles, and do not eat with them, and do not perform deeds like theirs. And do not become associates of theirs. Because their deeds are defiled, and all their ways are contaminated, and despicable, and abominable.

Tobit 1:10–12 (NRSV) After I was carried away captive to Assyria and came as a captive to Nineveh, everyone of my kindred and my people ate the food of the Gentiles, 11 but I kept myself from eating the food of the Gentiles. 12 Because I was mindful of God with all my heart,

Judith 12:1–2 (NRSV) Then he commanded them to bring her in where his silver dinnerware was kept, and ordered them to set a table for her with some of his own delicacies, and with some of his own wine to drink. 2 But Judith said, “I cannot partake of them, or it will be an offense; but I will have enough with the things I brought with me.”

Although Gentile exclusion was not a “core belief” of Judaism in the Second Temple period, it is clear that by the first century Judaism was not a particularly open religion nor were Gentiles welcome to participate fully in worship of the God of Israel.



Bibliography: Joseph Hellerman, “Purity and Nationalism in Second Temple Literature: 1-2 Maccabees and Jubilees” JETS 46 (2003): 401-422.

17 thoughts on “Core Beliefs of Second Temple Judaism: Gentiles and the Temple

  1. It is interesting to see that the “core belief” of Second Temple Judaism was to exclude the Gentiles when there would be a significant transition found within the New Testament. Tomasino notes that “his [Jesus] ethics seemed to be based on the concept of the sacred worth of all persons, including the Gentiles” (p. 283). In addition, the Gospels would record that Jesus extends his ministry to non-Jews, and that “the church followed suit by including the Gentiles as full heirs of God’s promises” (Tomasino, p. 283). Since there was a growing number of Gentiles within the church, it made it more difficult for Jesus’ Jewish followers to maintain any nationalistic prejudices.

  2. While a “core belief” of Judaism may have not been to exclude Gentiles from entering the Temple and practice Temple worship of the God of Israel, the fact of the matter was there seemed to be some sort of resentment the Jews had towards Pagans. In analyzing the reasoning behind this I could see the reason behind this resentment. The fact of the matter was the Jews were very different from the Pagans in many aspects of life. Throughout history the Jews had been subject of turmoil and disregard from many Pagan leaders (Tomasino, 261). The Jews also had very distinctive and specific dietary laws, whereas Pagans would often eat whatever they wanted, despite the fact that the Jews would not and did not eat many of these same things. In taking a look at 4th Maccabees as well, Jews were killed if they did not eat the Pagan pork offered to them. Due to the fact that the there were extreme differences in the values, virtues and lifestyles that were apparent between the Jews and the Pagans, it doesn’t surprise me that there was a level of resentment from the Jews, in regards to the Pagans.

  3. In the Gospels, when Gentiles started to integrate into the church, there was definitely some tension. “The growing numbers of Gentiles in the church made it difficult for Jesus’ Jewish followers to maintain any nationalistic prejudices” (Tomasino, 3508). It is extremely interesting to read about the interaction between Jews and Gentiles during the Second Temple Period. The Jews had very strict practices and traditions that separated themselves from everyone else. The purity laws in Jewish culture were not taken lightly, so it is understandable that there would be some confusion and conflict regarding Gentile interaction. I think that in the first century Jews did consider Gentiles to be impure which caused them to exclude them from the temple. Gentiles were usually not circumcised and did not follow the dietary laws that the Jews did; therefore, I can see the exclusion of Gentiles being somewhat of a core belief for Jewish culture.

  4. The Gentiles being excluded from the Temple would only make sense to a Jewish belief, even if it isn’t considered ‘core’. When you consider that the Gentiles weren’t circumcised, and that their practices were different, the Jews were trying to keep the Temple sacred according to their own beliefs. These days it’s more relaxed, mostly in the sense that some temples and synagogues are seen as historic, particularly in Israel. Which, I am sure Phil here is familiar with every other year or so. I do not doubt, however, that Gentiles were considered ‘impure’ in first century Jewish belief. Paul even goes out of his way to write for Jew-Gentile equality, because there was an imbalance between the two.

  5. I find the idea of gentiles potentially being allowed int the temple before the second temple period rather weird. Women weren’t even allowed into the inner court and only the high priest could enter once a year into the Holy of Holies. Considering that there is a progression of less and less people that can enter based on their cleanliness, holiness, and righteousness it is hard to imagine gentiles who did not keep the cleanliness laws being allowed into the temple. In regards to God-fearers and proselytes it is more plausible that they may have been allowed into the appropriate courts of the temple.

  6. The key for me to have sympathy in the Jews distain for Gentiles relies heavily on understanding the religious bullying that the Jews were subjected to by the Greeks. The Jews must have grown in hate for the gentiles in the Maccabean revolt. This gentile exclusion does not seem to be theologically sound when we look at Judaism and the promises God made to Abraham. For Gentiles who wanted to follow Yahweh, they were not given the same access as Gentiles in the first temple period. I find it sad and intriguing the the Jews became cold to Gentiles, in the same sense that Jonah was cold to the Gentiles in Nineveh. We see in the story of Jonah, that God wanted to spare Nineveh, but he was also ready to destroy them. With the story of Jonah we see a prejudice that Jonah has for the people of Nineveh, even when Jonah finally goes to Nineveh and does what God wants him to do. At the end of the story, Jonah is crying because God won’t destroy the awful Gentiles. I believe that the anti-Gentile understanding that Jonah had grew after the maccabee in revolt.

  7. I think that the Jews during that time may have felt that the Gentiles were impure, so they excluded them because of their impurities. I also think that the Jews may have also thought of themselves as higher or better than the gentiles. The books of Jubilees, Tobit, and Judith all encourage or tell of how the Jews in the past all did not eat with the Gentiles because they were not clean, this played a major part when it came to not eating with Gentiles. I think that since these ideas are a reaccuring theme for the Jews that it has been drilled into them that Gentiles are bad and unclean.

  8. To me, it makes sense that gentiles were not allowed into the temple. They didn’t really have a need to be in there in the first place. If they had their own gods to sacrifice to, they probably had their own alters. I would certainly not expect a Jew to allow a gentile to perform a sacrifice on the alter of the Lord. I mean, just look what had to happen for it to be re purified after the Maccabees took the temple back. Clearly there was some difference between pagan alters and Jewish Alters in temples (as if that needed to be said). Also, the gentiles themselves were unclean in most likely more ways than one. It was at the very least a rule to keep the temple pure. Much like parents today don’t like muddy kids in the house. You have to clean up (or re purify) after the unclean enter in.

  9. After reading this blog post many thoughts swarmed into my mind. I was reminded of Peter’s words in Acts 10:28, “You know it’s forbidden for a Jewish man to associate with or visit a foreigner” (HCSB). However, when I went back to the days of Solomon in 2 Chronicles, there wasn’t a court of the Gentiles. Only the Most Holy Place was considered a place where only a select people (the priests) could enter. So, I believe that your post is correct in saying that before the time of Herod the Great and the Maccabean Revolt Gentiles were able to worship the same way that the Jews were (excluding the role of the priests). Especially when the Pharisees teachings which were indeed “separatist” based and primarily concerned with “maintain[ing] a life of purity and obedience to the Torah” (Strauss, Figure 5.5, pg. 169).
    Considering the time period in which they lived in, it’s no surprise to me that keeping pure meant staying separate from the Gentiles who were promoting the unclean and impure ideas of the world. Not only this, but their oppressors were also Gentiles (the Romans) whom the Jews hated immensely. Another factor to consider is that, according to Strauss, Herod, “sought to gain the favor of the Jews” (pg. 134). Since Herod The Great was the one who constructed the temple in the first place, it very well may be that he added the court of the gentiles in order to please the Jews. So, I do believe that the Jews of the first century generally considered Gentiles unclean/impure even though the Jews before might not have viewed Gentiles in this light of impurity.

    Strauss, M. L. (2020). Four portraits, one Jesus: a survey of Jesus and the Gospels. Zondervan Academic.

  10. One of the core beliefs of the Jews might not have been to not allow Jews into the temple but it sure seemed like it. The Jews did not allow Gentiles or any others to enter their temple. When they got the Temple back they did not want anyone to taint their Holy Place of worship. They wanted to keep all of their traditions Holy. I have been reading Leviticus and it talks about all of the different traditions that they had to follow in order to have their sins properly forgiven. These were strict rules that they needed to follow. My bible had an excerpt in it that compared their rules and laws to the rules and laws in a nuclear power plant. It is so important to follow all of the rules in a nuclear power plant just as it is important to follow the rules and laws that the Jews followed. Their lives depended on it. So even if it wasn’t a core belief they might have been trying the best they could to avoid ruining the Holy Place that they had to worship. The Temple meant so much to them and they did everything they could to keep it Holy. The Gentiles might not have been as clean as the Jews wanted. They were Uncircumcised and might not have followed everything that the Jews did.

  11. Judaism was not made to push out the gentiles but in many ways did just due to contrary belief systems. We see in Tomasino that the pagan rulers typically forced harshness and punishment on the Jewish believers and followers. These extreme differences in beliefs usually always lead to issues due to individuals not agreeing to disagree and work together for the big picture. I am not saying that either side needs to conform to the other but rather understand that their will be different beliefs and because of this there does not need to be constant battle between the sides. Jealousy of how the opposing side was treated better was often the case in many situation from the Jewish stand point.

  12. The act of the Gentiles being banned or forbidden within the main court of the Temple, in the first century is well known. This is something that Paul refers to as like a dividing wall, when he is looking at the hostility that is between the Jews and Gentiles within Eph. 2:15. This idea was likely more of an allusion of the warning given to the Gentiles about the Temple courts, of which going into the Court of the Men would result in death. However, we can learn that this is a law that Paul is accused of breaking when sneaking a Gentile into the Temple courts. “By the third century B.C., Jews began to prohibit Gentiles from entering the Temple enclosure” (Long, 74). This prohibition of the Gentiles being in the main court of the Temple, got expanded and became a prohibition of the whole Temple itself. We might be wondering what happened to cause such a harsh ban of Gentiles from the Temple. There are two main reasons for this exclusion of the Gentiles, the first being the Jews belief that purity laws did not apply to Gentiles. Meaning that they thought that Gentiles should not be welcomed into the Temple, because they are seen as unclean in the Jewish eyes. The second reason for the exclusion of the Gentiles is that of the fact that the “sojourner laws” within Deut. 5:14, describe the Gentiles as “resident aliens and require only a few general commands for them while they are living within the nation of Israel” (Long, 74). Here it is saying that the Gentiles are held to a few general commands while living in Israel, but the Jews don’t find that to be substantial enough to be let into the Temple.

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