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Recently someone asked me this question: Did Jesus offer sacrifices at the Jerusalem temple? I thought it was a great question so I thought I’d attempt to address it. Now to answer it properly would take more time and space than I have, but let me at least point toward an answer. The question is a historical question not one based on any particular theological agenda. How likely is it that Jesus of Nazareth would have made pilgrimage to the temple and offered a sacrifice or sacrifices there?
Now the Gospels make it clear that Jesus did go the temple on occasion as a child and as an adult, but there is no account of Jesus himself actually offering a sacrifice at the temple. That may not mean that Jesus did not offer a sacrifice while there.
Now the main activity of the temple was sacrifice. That is why there were 24 courses of priests. Technically, only priests offered sacrifices but the sacrifices were provided by worshipers, usually male head of households. The worshipers brought the sacrifices (animals, wine, grain, etc) to the prescribed place and handed them over to the priests.
The temple was a busy place. According to the law, the sacrificial system had been established by God; it was therefore good (Psalm 119). Even if some of the prophets had railed against empty ritual and ethical lapses, they did not condemn the temple itself and sacrifices wholesale (e.g., Amos 5:21-27). Almost universally, it was the temple leadership who got an earful from the Jerusalem prophets. But we must remember that not all sacrifices were “sin” or “guilt” offerings. Many sacrifices were for peace offerings, fellowship offerings, votive offerings, offerings of consecration.
Let’s consider a few episodes from the New Testament and see if they shed any light on our question.
After Jesus is born and the time of Mary’s menstrual impurity had run its course, Luke reports that Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord at the temple. This was in keeping with Mosaic law (Leviticus 12.6-8). We’re told they offered a sacrifice in accordance with the law, a pair of two young pigeons (Lev 5.11).
When Jesus healed the leper (Mark 1:40-45), he instructed him to go to the priest and offer for his cleansing what Moses commanded (Leviticus 14:1-32). The declaration that a leper was cleansed involved sacrifices in the temple. Would Jesus have directed the man to go to the temple and sacrifice if he was teaching his disciples to neglect the temple worship completely?
And there is the matter of the temple tax (Matthew 17:24-27). The tax collectors seek out Jesus and his disciples in Capernaum. They appear to frame the question as if they expected Jesus to somehow object. Perhaps Jesus’ teachings and actions had aroused their suspicions. But Peter lets them know in no uncertain terms that did pay the temple tax. The tax is described in Exodus 30:11-16 as a half a shekel “a contribution to the LORD.” When Peter approached Jesus at home, Jesus appears to claim exemption; but in order not to make waves Jesus instructs Peter to go fishing. And when he does he catches a fish that had swallowed a coin worth enough to pay the annual temple tax for both of them. The temple tax was used for the upkeep of the temple which included the sacrifices.
Then, there is the Last Supper which many consider a Passover meal (though there are debates about it). John, for example, has Jesus crucified on the day of preparation for the Passover (19:31). But there may have been calendrical debates going on at the time because Mark (14:12-25) and the Synoptics present it as a Passover meal. Jesus sends two of his disciples into the city to make preparations which likely included securing a place for the meal and securing the food itself which would have included the lamb from the temple. Even if Jesus himself did not sacrifice in the temple, he had others do it for him. This suggests he had no argument in principle with the sacrifices.
But what about the temple incident (Mark 11:15-19 and par.)? I’ve written about that elsewhere. As a prophet, Jesus is enacting (God’s) judgment upon the temple and predicting its destruction. An event which happens in AD 70. Essentially, the operation of the temple had become robbery under the temple authorities, and the place where the Gentiles were allowed to gather and worship was overrun by animals and merchants. The sanctity of the temple and its purpose had been lost. The problem was not the sacrifices themselves—they had been set up and ordained by God—the problem was with those who superintended the temple.
So what are we to make of this? In the end I see no reason to deny that Jesus like any good Jew of his day would have made pilgrimages to the temple and offered sacrifices there. Based on Hebrews some may wish to conclude that Jesus did not offered sin sacrifices, but there were other ranks of offerings and sacrifices which the righteous Jew could and should make at the temple.
Finally, when opponents accused Jesus of trying to abolish the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17), he claims boldly he comes to fulfill them not to neglect or abolish them. Nothing could be more central to the law than the sacrifices.
I’m posing this question because it was posed to me. Actually, it was not a question; it was an accusation made by Rabbi Stuart Federow of Congregation Sha’ar Shalom in Clear Lake, TX. I had made the statement that Jesus was a model of non-violence. Federow’s jaw dropped and he began to list all the ways in which Jesus was violent, especially the temple incident when Jesus upset the tables of the moneychangers and drove out the animals being sold for sacrifice. According to the rabbi, this event proved that Jesus had a violent streak.
While I don’t have time to deal with all the charges Federow made, let me consider the temple incident and ask whether Jesus acted violently on this occasion.
You may recall that the temple incident is recorded in all four Gospels. The Synoptics place the episode late in the story right before Jesus’ execution. John tells the story early in his account. The majority of scholars follow the Synoptics and take it as an event late in Jesus’ life. Others think it is possible Jesus “cleansed the temple” twice: one early in his ministry and the other right before he died. Clearly, powerful people would have been upset with what Jesus did, and it is likely to have been the catalytic event that led to his execution by the Romans.
I suggest the best way to understand the temple incident is as a prophetic act. Prophets not only spoke their messages; they often acted them out. Isaiah walked around naked for 3 years to show the humiliation coming to the Egyptians and Cushites when the Assyrians took them into exile (Isaiah 20). Today Isaiah would be accused of public nudity and probably put in jail. Ezekiel laid on his left side in the road for 390 days in mock siege to signify the length in years Israel would suffer God’s judgment. Today Ezekiel would be accused of mental illness and hospitalized. Jeremiah purchased real estate near Jerusalem only days prior to the fall of his nation to the Babylonians. Today Jeremiah would be accused of being a bad real estate investor. These prophetic acts were usually accompanied with an oracle (sermon) which explained what was happening and why, from God’s point of view. By today’s standards many prophetic acts would be considered anti-social at least and perhaps even criminal.
When Jesus entered the temple he began to drive out those who sold and bought in outer court, the area where Gentiles were allowed to gather and worship (Mark 11:15-17 and par.). He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and did not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. Exactly what Jesus is objecting to is unclear, but together with the episode of the cursing of the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21) and the Olivet discourse (Mark 13) we may make some reasonable conclusions. First, pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem needed sacrificial animals to participate in the temple worship. Providing them with appropriate sacrifices was an important service. But why did they set up their business in the one area where the nations (outsiders) were allowed to worship? Couldn’t they have offered their services outside of the temple? Imagine the urine and feces which flowed down the pavements from the animals kept in cages and fences. Imagine the stench and the noise of commerce. Was this a house of prayer for all the nations? Furthermore, the temple area was so large that merchants apparently used the porticos and porches as a shortcut so they could save themselves a few steps. Jesus expressly forbade them from making such casual use of God’s house. Essentially, each of these actions violated the sanctity of the temple. The Mishnah Berakah 9.5 gives us some examples worthy of consideration: “One should not act silly while facing the Eastern Gate [of the Temple in Jerusalem] for it faces toward the Chamber of the Holy of Holies. One should not enter the Temple mount with his walking stick, his overshoes, his money bag, or with dust on his feet. And one should not use [the Temple mount] for a shortcut.” If these actions violated the sanctity of the temple, how much more setting up stalls, selling animals, and exchanging money.
Quoting Isa 56.7 and Jer 7.11, Jesus may well have told us why he acted. God’s house was to be a house of prayer for all the nations, but the temple authorities had made it into a den of robbers. As long as people used the temple courts as a cut-through and merchants set up shop selling animals where the nations were to gather for worship, the sanctity of the temple was in jeopardy. Instead of being a place where the humble and repentant assembled, the temple porticos had become a haunt for criminals.
Do not forget that in Jesus’ day anti-temple sentiments were running high. The high priesthood had been bought and sold by scoundrels, and many faithful Jews had withdrawn completely from the temple.
Jesus’ actions in the temple that day are best understood as a prophetic act intended to portray the coming destruction of the temple. Jesus was not “cleansing the temple,” he was pronouncing divine judgment against it. He did so in a big, unforgettable way. But hyperbole characterized Jesus’ teaching all along: “If your right hand offends you, cut it off throw it away.” Was Jesus advocating self-mutilation or was he driving home a point about the seriousness of sin? Obviously, the latter is the case. Jesus was not advocating violence against oneself. When Jesus overturned the tables, scattered the animals, and put an end to that day’s commerce, he was acting out in one place what the Romans would do across the entire temple mount 40 years later. A few days after the temple incident, Jesus gave a sermon called “the Olivet discourse” which described in some detail the events prior to and during the fall of Jerusalem.
I do not think Jesus acted violently that day in the temple anymore than Isaiah was acting lasciviously in his own day. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi considered Jesus a great example of non-violence and so should we. These modern prophets in their own way inspired movements which shocked the world and profoundly shaped it.