The chief priests sought evidence to put Jesus to death and were willing to use false witnesses. The false witnesses will say Jesus threatened to destroy the temple. As Robert Gundry says, “In Matthew, the Sanhedrin does not face the problem of discovering true testimony” (Matthew, 542).
They find two false witnesses willing to say Jesus claimed he was going to destroy the Temple of God and rebuild it in three days. Since the verses in Matthew imply that Jesus said this kind of thing was spoken among Jesus’s followers, it is possible these false witnesses were part of the larger group of followers who heard Jesus teach (probably not the twelve). On the other hand, these could simply be political cronies willing to say whatever the chief priests need to hear (and maybe get a “gift” as Judas did?).
How “false” is this evidence? Jesus did say that he would destroy the temple and that he would build it back up again in three days. In Matthew 23:38, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and says the house “is left desolate.” In Matthew 24:1-3 (the very next paragraph), Jesus predicts that not one stone of the buildings of the Temple will be left on another. Jesus does not state that he will destroy the temple in Matthew 24:2, but the words give the false witnesses something to twist. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus did not directly say he would destroy the temple and build it in three days. He does say this in John 2:19, although John is clear that Jesus is talking about his body, so this foreshadows his own death and resurrection.
Any threat to the temple is a threat against the power of the aristocratic priests and scribes gathered to decide what to do with Jesus. By threatening the temple, Jesus is threatening a powerful group of political leaders.
Biblically speaking, only God can destroy the Jewish temple. Daniel 1:1-2 states that God delivered Jerusalem and the temple items to Nebuchadnezzar. Babylon did not destroy the Temple by their own might and power; God allowed Babylon to destroy Jerusalem.
There are several lines of evidence for this. First, Jeremiah 7:12-15 compares the temple to Shiloh, the sanctuary where God “first made his name to dwell.” Jeremiah says the temple is in danger of being destroyed because the leadership has turned it into a “den of thieves,” the verse Jesus quoted during the temple action (Matt 21:12-13). The Temple Action was a prophetic condemnation of the leadership using language from Jeremiah, the prophet who lived through the destruction of Jerusalem.
Ezekiel sees the glory of God leave the temple (Ezek 10), which allows Babylon to successfully attack and destroy Jerusalem and to destroy the temple because Israel has become like the nations (Ezek 11:1-13). It is probably significant that Jesus departed the temple for the last time in Matthew 24 by traveling east to the Mount of Olives, the same way the Glory of God left the Temple in Ezekiel 10.
The prophets and apocalyptic literature of the first century anticipated the temple’s rebuilding in the eschatological age (Isaiah 60:4-7, 17; Zechariah 6:12-13; Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, 77-90). Ezekiel 40-48 describes a future temple in the eschatological kingdom, as does Revelation 21:10, the New Jerusalem is a new city/temple built by God.
1 Enoch 90:28-29 Then I stood still, looking at that ancient house being transformed: All the pillars and all the columns were pulled out; and the ornaments of that house were packed and taken out together with them and abandoned in a certain place in the South of the land. I went on seeing until the Lord of the sheep brought about a new house, greater and loftier than the first one, and set it up in the first location which had been covered up—all its pillars were new, the columns new; and the ornaments new as well as greater than those of the first, (that is) the old (house) which was gone. All the sheep were within it.
Sib. Or. 5.414–433 For a blessed man came from the expanses of heaven 415 with a scepter in his hands which God gave him, and he gained sway over all things well, and gave back the wealth to all the good, which previous men had taken. He destroyed every city from its foundations with much fire and burned nations of mortals who were formerly evildoers. 420 And the city which God desired, this he made more brilliant than stars and sun and moon, and he provided ornament and made a holy temple, exceedingly beautiful in its fair shrine, and he fashioned a great and immense tower over many stadia 425 touching even the clouds and visible to all, so that all faithful and all righteous people could see the glory of eternal God, a form desired. East and West sang out the glory of God. For terrible things no longer happen to wretched mortals, 430 no adulteries or illicit love of boys, no murder, or din of battle, but competition is fair among all. It is the last time of holy people when God, who thunders on high, founder of the greatest temple, accomplishes these things.
Jubilees 1.29 And the angel of the presence, who went before the camp of Israel, took the tablets of the division of years from the time of the creation of the law and testimony according to their weeks (of years), according to the jubilees, year by year throughout the full number of jubilees, from [the day of creation until] the day of the new creation when the heaven and earth and all of their creatures shall be renewed according to the powers of heaven and according to the whole nature of earth, until the sanctuary of the Lord is created in Jerusalem upon Mount Zion. And all of the lights will be renewed for healing and peace and blessing for all of the elect of Israel and in order that it might be thus from that day and unto all the days of the earth.
2 Baruch 31.1–5 And it happened after these things, that I went to the people and said to them: Assemble to me all our elders and I shall speak words to you. 2 And they all assembled in the valley of the Kidron. 3* And I began to speak and said to them: Hear, O Israel, and I shall speak to you, and you, O seed of Jacob, pay attention, and I shall teach you. 4* Do not forget Zion but remember the distress of Jerusalem. 5 For, behold, the days are coming, that all that has been will be taken away to be destroyed, and it will become as though it had not been.
While the evidence is true, (Jesus did say that he would destroy and rebuild the temple), the witnesses twist the evidence to make Jesus sound like a dangerous leader of a revolutionary movement. The decision to kill Jesus is already made. Two witnesses are required to follow the Law, so they find two witnesses to make the trial look legitimate. This is all they need to hand Jesus over to Pilate.