The chief characteristic of a temple in Biblical theology is that it is the dwelling-place of a god. The Temple at Jerusalem, thought of as great house of the God of Israel, is a key part of the history of Israel, and a major theme in the storyline of the Bible.
- Virtual Model of the Temple Mount in the Time of Jesus (YouTube), by Lisa M. Synder
Temples before Solomon
Solomon is rightly credited as the first builder of a temple of God in Jerusalem, but temples to Israel's God appear in the Biblical narrative prior to the construction in Jerusalem. The tabernacle, which travelled with Israel during the days of the Exodus, provided the same point of reference for the Israelite cultus which the Temple was later to provide.
When the people of Israel entered the land of Canaan and had subdued it, the tabernacle appears to have acquired a more permanent residence in Shiloh (Jos. 18:1, Jer. 7:12). It is here that the books of Samuel open, with Hannah and Eli the priest in "the temple of Yahweh", a designation which seems aimed at asserting the kingship of Yahweh over Israel and his supremacy over the surrounding nations' gods.
The psalms also make reference to the temple of God, some written by David. These speak of seeking Yahweh in his temple, and look forward to the day when God's temple will be in Jerusalem.
In 2 Samuel 7, we see David, who has just seen the entry of the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, propose to build a house for Yahweh. He was told through the prophet Nathan that his task was to fight for Israel's peace, but that Yahweh would establish David's house, and one from his line would build the house he wanted to build. Solomon, not even yet conceived, was the direct fulfillment of this promise.
The building of the Temple under Solomon spared no expense to provide a house for Yahweh, the covenant god of Israel. This Temple served as the headquarters for the priestly order, the place for true worship of Yahweh, and the visible sign of his presence with Israel.
Throughout the following turbulent history of Israel, the Temple was one of the fixed reference points for Israel. The priests ministered in it, the prophets invoked it, and the kings sought Yahweh in it. The Temple's gold was frequently used by Israel's kings in emergencies to assuage belligerent neighbours, although the Egyptians and Babylonians also plundered the Temple in war. It is the second of these events which was to be the end of the history of the Temple built by Solomon: Nebuchadnezzar ransacked the Temple twice, carrying off the sacred objects and burning what remained to the ground.
In his account, the Chronicler refuses to leave the story there, for Yahweh had spoken through the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, who foretold of Cyrus and his edict, that he would say "of the temple, 'Your foundation shall be laid.'" (Isa. 44:28)
The Second Temple
The Edict of Cyrus, and subsequent confirmatory edicts, gave the Jews the charge to rebuild Jerusalem, including the Temple. The work was led by Ezra and Nehemiah, and overseen by Zerubbabel. Although it met opposition from surrounding nations, the people worked to re-build the Temple. After the foundation had been laid, the people rejoiced, although many of those who were older wept, because they had seen the former Temple (Ezr. 3:12). We suppose that this is because the Second Temple was not more glorious than the first. However, Yahweh spoke to Zerubbabel through the prophet Haggai, and promised that one day, when the Desire of all nations came, he would fill the Temple with glory to make its glory greater than that of the former house of the LORD [2:69].
The subsequent history of the Second Temple, recorded by the Apocrypha and secular historians, was no less chequered than that of the first. It was rendered unclean by the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes, sparking the Maccabean revolt, and knocked down and expanded under Herod the Great into the Temple complex known by Jesus and the disciples.
The Temple in the prophets
As already mentioned, the Old Testament prophets frequently invoked the Temple of Yahweh in their teaching.
The Temple in New Testament theology and beyond
The Temple features heavily in the gospel accounts, both as a literary device and a setting. John's gospel opens by telling us that the Word became flesh and "tabernacled" among us, while Luke's gospel starts with Zechariah in the Temple, and concludes with the first Christians worshipping there. Of course, all four gospels record the events of Easter week, which were focussed on the Temple.
Jesus and the Temple
Although the Temple naturally featured in the life of Jesus prior to his public ministry, we will focus on how Jesus interacted with the Temple during his time in Jerusalem, the last week of his life, where the majority of that interaction occurred.
The Temple appears in Jesus' teaching just prior to the Olivet discourse and, some commentators will argue, during it. The disciples point out to Jesus the grandeur of Herod's edifice, to which Jesus responds "Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down." (Matt. 24:1) Within the Discourse, there is a reference to an "abomination that causes desolation" [24:1528], which is language drawn from Daniel's prophecy of a desolation of the Temple [11:31]. Commentators differ on why Jesus chooses to use this phrase, although the most natural reading would seem to be that this refers in some way to the subsequent history and particularly the Temple's end.
The most known and studied incident, of course, is the one termed the "Purification of the Temple"^^. Rightly regarded as one of the most significant interactions of Jesus with the Temple, we see Jesus casting out traders and pronouncing judgment. The two major schools of thought have been that, on the one hand, Jesus was attempting to purify (or to announce the purification of) the Temple system; and on the other hand, that Jesus was symbolically destroying the Temple system. Taking the near context of this incident in the synoptic gospels (the withered fig tree in Matthew and Mark, weeping over Jerusalem in Luke), we may suppose that Jesus was enacting a destructive judgment rather than a purificatory one, but either way, this action is most definitely a judgment.
He caused immense outrage among the religious authorities, and this incident proved to be the immediate cause for the plotting against Jesus' life (Mark 11:18). However, Jesus was not aiming directly to provoke the authorities; he was taking aim at the entire Temple system. The Temple, for so long the focal point of Jewish national life, had been warped and twisted by the nation: that which was originally given as an annual reminder of sins had been turned into a badge of righteousness; that which exposed the people before a holy God had become an attempted defence against that same holy God; and now that the messenger of the covenant, the desire of all nations, had come, he was despised and rejected.
It is in the context of this judgment against the Temple that Jesus utters his famous prophecy, "Destroy this temple and I will raise it up again in three days."^^ As John explains, by this Jesus was referring to his body, and to the Resurrection. Matthew tells us that Jesus said of himself that "one greater than the Temple is here" (Matt. 12:6). These words are self-explanatory: the presence of God with man, signified for so long by the Temple, has been revealed in Jesus Christ. No longer is there a need for elaborate ceremonies and ritual purifications, for God has come to earth, and walks among us. God's presence with man, a promise for so long, has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
Finally, at the crucifixion, the curtain of the Temple, symbolising the separation between God and man, was torn in two (Matt. 27:51, Mark 15:38, Luke 23:45).
The New Testament and the Temple
Temple worship practices feature in various parts of the New Testament, particularly in Paul and Revelation. Worth mentioning in this connection is the epistle to the Hebrews, whose author is focussing on tabernacle worship as opposed to Temple worship, but the similarities are sufficient to warrant consideration here.
The end of the Temple
In AD 70, the Roman armies of Titus sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, directly fulfilling Jesus' words in Matthew 24.
- ? There is a body of opinion which holds to two Temple cleansings, on the basis that this incident occurs at the beginning of John's gospel but the end of the Synoptists'. We will treat all four reports together since, even should this notion prove correct, the message of John's account is not thoroughly dissimilar from that of the Synoptists.
- ? Only John [2:19] records these words as coming from Jesus. Mark [14:5759] implies that he said this, while Matthew [26:61] is content to leave the charge with the false witnesses. Luke, presumably as he is writing for Gentiles, does not record these words at all.