Jesus the Temple PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Saturday, 01 January 2011 09:10

Perhaps it’s the dominance of Protestants in New Testaments studies, perhaps it’s the de-Judaizing of Jesus, perhaps it’s the fault of the Enlightenment, as everything is.  Whatever the reasons, New Testament scholars over the past several centuries have given precious little attention to Jesus’ relation to the temple, its leaders, its praxis, its institutions.  Everyone knew that Jesus acted up in the temple during the last week of his life, and some recognized that the Olivet Discourse was directed against the temple. Few recognized just how central the temple was to Jesus’ life and work. Those who focused attention on the temple regarded it in a typically modern, Western fashion, uncoupled from any political or social concerns that might be animating Jesus.

That’s all been changing, what with the effort of the “Third Quest for the Historical Jesus” to put Jesus back into his first-century setting. A number of studies have explored Jesus’ teaching concerning purity and pollution, and N. T. Wright has characterized the movement Jesus led as a “counter-temple” movement that offered all that the temple offered – cleansing, feasting, forgiveness, instruction – in the living temple that was Jesus.

Wright’s one-time research assistant, Wheaton Professor Nicholas Perrin, has now written a book-length study defending and expanding on Wright’s suggestion (Jesus the Temple [Baker Academic, 2010]). Faithful Jews had long looked forward to the time when Yahweh would purge the wicked priests from the temple and erect a new, heavenly temple in its place. Perrin argues that Jesus viewed Himself and His movement as “the decisive embodiment of Yahweh’s eschatological temple,” the appearance now of the temple of the future.  This drove Jesus’ prophetic assault on the corrupt temple administration, and also, positively, gave shape to the temple community and priesthood that Jesus gathered to Himself.

Perrin places Jesus in context by examining counter-temple movements in Judaism prior to Jesus – the “Psalms of Solomon community,” the Qumran sect, and the disciples of John the Baptist. On the far side of Jesus, the New Testament is replete with temple imagery. If Jews expected a temple, and if Paul and the other apostolic writers viewed the church as a new temple, then it’s historically plausible to assume that Jesus’ ministry, which bridges these two worlds, was also part of an eschatological-temple story.

At the center of Perrin’s account of Jesus’ own ministry is his treatment of Jesus’ “action in the temple,” traditionally known as His “cleansing” of the temple. Perrin breaks with some recent interpreters (including Wright) by emphasizing the economic dimension of Jesus’ charges against the priestly establishment. Wright interprets lestes (“robbers”) in “den of robbers” as “revolutionaries,” but Perrin argues that in Jesus’ lifetime the temple authorities were cozy with the Romans. In the early 30s, revolution was not the issue. Instead, Jesus condemned the rapacious greed of the priests, who ran a mob-like loan business out of the temple, gobbled up land from small landowners, and skimmed God’s money from the treasury. Economic oppression was one of the main evils that sent Israel into exile in the first place, and the continuing injustices were a sign that they had never entirely returned.

Because of the injustice that flowed from the temple, the temple was doomed. Its failure was not here and there, but fundamental and

systematic. The temple was polluted by idols of greed. Abominations were about to bring desolation. The old temple system was on its way out.

What would take its place? In a word, Jesus. But not only Jesus Himself, but the community that gathered around Him, living according to His teachings and following His example.In response of the abusive economic pursuits of the priestly establishment, Jesus and his immediate circle adopted a life of voluntary poverty. Not every disciple of Jesus was required to divest himself of all wealth and social standing, but at the core of Jesus movement, Jesus and the Twelve took their stand against the oppressive establishment and identified with the poor as their kin and primary social group. Perrin describes Jesus’ movement as “egalitarian,” though he stresses that the equalization of wealth was voluntary and that it coexisted with hierarchy of various sorts.

Those outside His immediate circle Jesus called to a life of righteousness expressed in generosity and sacrificial self-giving. By giving without expectation of return, Jesus’ followers stored up treasures in the treasure house of the heavenly temple, the heavenly temple that was already emerging in Jesus’ ministry.  Practically, generous sharing created a flow of goods and wealth toward the poor that enabled them to accumulate a surplus of capital. Alms provided the dispossessed poor with a foundation for future economic development. In this way, Jesus not only announced but enacted a Jubilee, the true end of exile, a forgiveness of debts and a restoration of real, tangible property to the poor who had been deprived of property because of Israel’s failure to observe the Sabbatical regulations of the Torah.

Jesus’ exorcisms and meal practices also fit into His new temple agenda. By exorcising “unclean spirits” (a rare phrase outside the New Testament, Perrin shows), Jesus not only helped individuals oppressed by demons but also symbolized Yahweh’s triumph over the impure spirits and idols that polluted the old temple establishment. By eating and drink with the impure and with Gentiles, Jesus formed a festive community, a new temple that was truly a house of prayer for all nations.

Perrin’s book will be tough going for non-specialists. He spends (to me) inordinate and sometimes tedious time establishing the historical authenticity of the gospels. In some contexts, this sort of thing is necessary, but it will unfortunately keep the book provocative insights from reaching as many readers as they should.  More substantively, Perrin puts so much stress on priestly concerns that he neglects some of the royal aspects of his theme. Solomon, a king, built the first temple, and throughout Judah’s history kings were responsible for restoring and repairing the temple when it declined. Quibblingly, but still substantively, I found that Perrin occasionally confused categories that are discrete in Torah (priestly theft from the temple treasury is “sacrilege” more than “profanation,” p. 99).

All in all, though, Perrin’s book is superb. His exegesis is frequently electrifying; his overall sketch of Jesus’ ministry flashes out fresh light in many directions; the import of the book, both for our understanding of the gospel and for the church’s life as the community of Jesus, is enormous.

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