Jesus in the Temple

Where did Jesus teach and pray and live when he was in Jerusalem? That’s hard to figure out today because the city was thoroughly destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, and since then earthquakes, wars, political and religious forces have hammered away at the old city.

Jerusalem destroyed: 70 AD

Archeologists try their best to reconstruct ancient Jerusalem and they’ve produced a wonderful model of the city from about the time of Jesus, which can be seen today at the city’s Israel Museum.  As the model indicates, the Second Temple built by Herod the Great dominated the city then. Jesus must have taught and prayed in this splendid place–still being built during his lifetime– as he came to celebrate the Jewish feasts.

His activity here triggered his condemnation to death.

Can we say more precisely where he taught and when he began teaching there? Luke’s gospel offers the interesting story that his parents, after missing him on one of their usual visits to the Holy City,  “found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” (Luke 2,46) This probably took place in the Court of the Gentiles, the extensive space that surrounded the temple itself, which we can see in the model. We can surmise that, as observant Jews, his family brought him to Jerusalem for the major feasts.

The name, Court of the Gentiles, indicates an area open to all, even though the temple building itself was open only to the Jews. In the Court of the Gentiles,  young Jewish children like Jesus and adults looking for a greater understanding of their faith were able to listen and ask questions of the Jewish teachers. At the same time, even those who did not share the Jewish faith were welcome here,  namely,  non-Jews, gentiles, who could speak to Jewish teachers, inquire about the Jewish faith and even pray to the unknown God.

The Court of the Gentiles was an important part of the temple area; it proclaimed Jewish openness to the world.  The psalms and the prophets spoke of the God of all nations and looked to the day when all peoples would be counted among the children of Abraham:

“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house

will be established as the highest mountain

and raised above the hills.

All nations shall stream toward it;

many peoples will come and say:

‘Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain to the house of the God of Jacob,

that he may instruct us in his ways

and we may walk in his paths.” Isaiah 2,1-5

The Court of the Gentiles was the place where Jesus proclaimed a new age that would fulfill these promises.  As he grew “in wisdom and age and grace” Jesus continued to go to the temple with his family from Galilee to celebrate the Jewish feasts, still “listening to the teachers and asking them questions.”

But after his baptism by John, Jesus’ visits to the temple changed. During the feasts he made extraordinary claims about himself and his mission, as John’s Gospel records.  His claims, along with healings he worked in Jerusalem– his cures of  the man born blind and of the paralyzed man, above all his raising of Lazarus from the dead– alarmed the temple authorities.

The gospels all record the disturbing incident that took place in the temple during the final stages of his ministry. According to Mark’s gospel: “He entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold  and those who bought, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he taught and said to them, “Is it not written, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?’ But you have made it a den of thieves.” (Mark 11,15-17, Matthew 21,1017; Luke 19, 45-46; John 2,13-17)

Not only was the Court of the Gentiles a place for teaching and prayer, it was also a place for exchanging money, getting advice from priests about where and how to pray and make your offerings,  buying food and animals for sacrifice. In a prophetic gesture, Jesus upset this traditional apparatus and called for renewing the temple so that it could fulfill its destiny as “a house of prayer for all the nations.”

The Gentiles would no longer be excluded from experiencing the Divine Presence;  Jesus signified he came to break down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile and reconcile both to God through his death. He himself would be the new temple and the sacrifice of reconciliation for all peoples.

No wonder that a major accusation made against him later at his trial before the Jewish leaders was based on what witnesses claimed were his threats to destroy the temple. “We heard him say ‘I will destroy this temple made from human hands and I will build another not made by human hands.” (Mark 14,58)

Some picture Jesus as a hapless Galilean peasant caught in a government net to catch and destroy potential revolutionaries, like Barabbas. Jesus went to his death for more reasons than that. His activity in the temple is an important part of his life and mission, and it led to his death.

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