The Temple

It is one of the most extraordinary things about the New Testament (and most early Church writing) that the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD is not mentioned directly at all. In this piece I plan to examine Jesus’ visits to the Temple and the use of the Temple by the early Church. Mention of the Temple disappears from Acts after Stephen’s sermon about the temple not made with hands.

I would like to begin however with the two genealogies of Jesus given in Matthew 1:2-16, and Luke 3:23-38. They differ in many details, but share the following important ancestors of Jesus: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Jesse, David, Solomon, Zerubbabel. These last two are the builders of the first and second Temples. For some references for Zerubbabel see the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and especially Haggai 1:1. Note that the genealogies between them contain a pretty impressive list of the kings of Israel and the governors of Judah

It is a curious fact that both the RSV and NEB correct the father of Zerubbabel from Salathiel to Shealtiel despite elsewhere only working from the Greek text. Probably as a result of Zerubbabel’s father being incorrectly shown in the Greek text of both Matthew and Luke, I can find no commentaries on the New Testament that have noticed Jesus’ direct descent from both Temple-builders. I would be interested in contributions on this matter, since Jesus would no doubt have been aware of his lineage and it gives an astonishing perspective on his dealings with the Temple.

In the early chapters of Luke the Temple features strongly. There is much of the birth of John, whose father Zechariah was a priest at the Temple (Luke 1). In Luke 2, Jesus is brought to the Temple for the purification (at age just over one month, see Lev 12:2-8), and Simeon sings the Nunc Dimittis, and a prophetess called Anna worships night and day, and "spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem". It does seem excessive for this duty of purification to be performed at the Temple in Jerusalem, if the child was born in Bethlehem, especially if as Matthew tells us they went to Egypt in the meantime! – unless of course Jesus is already being treated as a royal child. According to Luke, Jesus also has his Bar-Mitzvah at the Temple (Lk 2:42), but Jesus stays behind with the teachers, unknown to his family, it seems, but no doubt they were keen to see if the child showed any promise in line with the prophesies of Anna, Simeon, and the rest.

One of the temptations in the wilderness has Jesus on a parapet of the Temple (Mt 4:5=Lk 4:9).

In Luke’s gospel Jesus preaches in the Temple at Luke 6:6 where he heals a man with a withered hand.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ first entry into the Temple is in Mt 21:12=Mk 11:15-17=Lk 20:45 when having entered on the donkey (and the colt?) he cleanses the Temple, heals the sick, and disputes his authority with the chief priests. He remains in the Temple until Mt 24:1. On leaving the Temple, Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple (Mt 24:2=Mk 13:2=Lk 21:6) and of genocide (Mt 24:7) as the beginnings of the labour pains (Mt 24:8=Mk 13:8=Lk 21:10-11). Luke follows this with a command that when you see Jerusalem encircled with armies, it is the time of the end, and they should withdraw to the hills. In Matthew, there follows a sermon on the apocalypse and the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt 25). In Mt 26:55, however, at his arrest two days later, Jesus claims to have taught every day in the Temple, "and you did not arrest me". Luke also has him teaching daily in the temple (Lk 20:47).

Paid witnesses come in Mt 26:61 saying "This fellow said, 'I am able to destroy [Aramaic: unravel] the temple of God, and to build it in three days.'" And the charge is repeated in Mt 27:40, but there is no reply, except that in Mt 27:51 the curtain of the temple is unravelled at the death of Jesus.

In Acts, the young Church meets in the Temple, e.g. Acts 3-5, e.g. 5:12, 5:42. Stephen's repetition of Jesus' prophecy of the destruction of the temple (Acts 6:14) causes ejection of the church in Ch 6. Stephen’s defence, in Ch 7, which ends with the temple not built with hands, leads to his martyrdom, and the temple is not spoken of again in the Acts. Historically the Temple was destroyed by Nero’s general, Titus, in AD 70-73. In Revelation there is a temple, of course, but it is in heaven.

There is evidence in the gospels of a fear that the temple would be destroyed, apart from Jesus' own prophecy on the matter, mentioned above. In John's gospel we are told that in the Pharisees' council it was said "What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation." (Jn 11:47-48). This is followed by Caiaphas' famous advice that it is better for one man to die rather than the people perish. In the event of course, the one man rose from the dead, and the people did perish.


Malcolm Crowe, Glasgow, 11 June - 12 October 1998.