In this blog I am continuing my analysis of the corruption of Jewish worship which was a large issue leading up to the destruction of the temple in AD 70. We see Christ standing against the Temple and its rulers in the Gospel record.
On several occasions before Christ’s coming, the temple undergoes cleansings because of profanations by Ahaz (2Ch 29:12ff), Mannaseh (2Ch 34:3ff), Tobiah (New 13:4-19), and Antiochus (1Mac 4:36ff; 2Mac 10:1ff). The temple of Christ’s day is also corrupt for Christ himself symbolically cleanses it when he opens his ministry (Jo 2:13-17) and as he closes it (Mt 21:12-13) — even though it is under the direct, daily, fully-functioning administration of the high priesthood. As Horsley (JSV 163) well notes: “Once in Jerusalem, [Jesus] moves directly into the symbolic and material center of the society, the power based of the ruling aristocracy” to challenge it. In fact, Horsley argues, “Jesus attacks the activities in which the exploitation of God’s people by their priestly rulers was most visible.” Thus, “Jesus’s action is a clear condemnation of the priestly authorities, who have permitted these practices: the result is that ‘the chief priests’ join ‘the scribes’ in plotting his death (cf. 3:6).” Christ calls the temple they are controlling a “robbers’ den” (Mt 21:13) only to later have the “chief priests and the elders” demand the release of the robber Barrabas over him (Mt 27:40; Jn 18:40). In fact, they ask him on what authority he drives out the moneychangers and teaches in the temple, since they had not commissioned him to clean up the corruption (Mt 21:23). As Galambush (68) observes: “It is no coincidence that Matthew’s extravagant assertions of Jesus’ authority are placed in the context of confrontations with the Pharisees.”
James DeYoung argues that Christ’s actions are not an effort at reform but a testimony against the present cultus. This is evident in that in the first cleansing he alludes to its destruction (Jn 2:19) and in the immediate context of the second he curses the fig tree as symbol of Israel’s corruption (cf. Hos 9:10, 16; Mic 7:1). Ferdinand Hahn agrees: “The procedure of Jesus in the temple precincts can only be understood as a symbolic action proclaiming judgment and punishment on the Jewish sanctuary if it is connected with the cursing of the fig tree, as it is in the present redactional context.” N. T. Wright well summarizes the evidence that Christ was symbolically declaring its judgment: “Virtually all the traditions, inside and outside the canonical gospels, which speak of Jesus and the Temple speak of its destruction. Mark’s fig-tree incident; Luke’s picture of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem; John’s saying about destroying and rebuilding; the synoptic traditions of the false witnesses and their accusation, and of the mocking at the foot of the cross; Thomas’ cryptic saying (‘I will destroy this house, and no one will be able to rebuild it’); the charge in Acts that Jesus would destroy the Temple: all these speak clearly enough, not of cleansing or reform, but of destruction.”
The temple authorities, including especially the high priests, were irrevocably corrupt long before the Jewish War. Indeed, the high priest in Jesus’ day was Anna, of whom Raymond Brown (Jn 1:121) notes: “the corruption of the priestly house of Annas was notorious.” According to Josephus: “The principal high-priestly families, with their hired gangs of thugs, not only were feuding among themselves, but had become predatory, seizing by force from the threshing floors the tithes intended for the ordinary priests” (Ant.. 20.180, 206-7). The Babylonian Talmud laments: “Woe is me because of the house of Boethus; woe is me because of their staves! . . . Woe is me because of the house of Ishmael the son of Phabi; woe is me because of their fists! For they are High Priests . . . and their servants beat the people with staves” (Pesah. 57a). “Starting by about 58 or 59, the high priests began surrounding themselves with gangs of ruffians, who would abuse the common priests and general populace” (Richard Horsley). In fact, “the high priests and royalists actually contributed to the breakdown of social order through their own aggressive, even violent, predatory actions” (Horsley).
Completely frustrated at the high priests’ continuing collaboration with the Romans, “a group of sages/teachers called Sicarii or ‘Daggermen’ turned to assassinating key high-priestly figures (B.J. 2.254-57). . . . The population of Jerusalem was as dependent on the Temple-high-priesthood system as the high-priestly aristocracy was on their Roman sponsors” (Horsley, Galilee 73-74). In fact, “when the Roman troops under Cestius finally came to retake control of Jerusalem . . . the priestly aristocracy attempted to open the gates to them . . . (November 66; B.J. 2.517-55)” (Richard Horsley).
Jesus preaches against the temple’s degenerate condition when he mentions the death of the son of Berechiah who was “murdered between the temple and the altar” (Mt 23:35). When we last hear Christ publicly referring to the temple he calls it “your house” rather than God’s house (Mt 23:38). Then he declares it “desolate” and ceremoniously departs from it (Mt 23:38-24:1). And it “is extremely significant that the declaration of abandonment (v. 38) is preceded by the seven woes upon the religious hierarchy of Jerusalem (vv. 13-36)” (DeYoung). The Qumran community existed largely because of their disdain for the corruption of the temple.
I will continue this negative evaluation of the first-century temple in my next blog.