Did Early Christians Mourn the Destruction of the Temple?
Many New Testament texts, including the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John, were written shortly after the Temple’s destruction, between 70 and 100 C.E. These texts are all set in the time when the Temple was still standing and thus do not explicitly discuss its destruction. Nevertheless, it is commonly believed that these early Christ believers did not mourn the Temple’s destruction.
Jesus Predicts the Temple Will Fall: Synoptic Gospels
The Temple’s destruction fulfills the prophecy attributed to Jesus in Mark, the earliest gospel, probably dating to the First Revolt against Rome:
Mark 13:1 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 13:2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Although Mark’s text seems not to mourn the loss of the Temple, it would be wrong to argue that these early Christ believers were not troubled by the destruction of the Temple. In Luke, written after the Temple’s destruction, Jesus is in tears when he predicts it (19:41):
Luke 19:41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 19:42 saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 19:43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 19:44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”
Later in this gospel, while being led to the crucifixion, Jesus calls on the women of Jerusalem to lament the future destruction of Judea (23:28-31).
Moreover, Luke later says: “and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (21:24). This suggests that he believed in the future restoration of the Temple after the age of judgment.
Jesus Replaces the Temple
Another reason many think that early Christ believers did not mourn the loss of the Temple is because, for many NT authors, Jesus stood in place of the Temple or sacrificial cult. John (2:21) relates to “the Temple of his body” (implying that Jesus' body is the new Temple), and argues that worship “in Spirit and Truth” takes its place (4:23). In the Letter to the Hebrews, Christ is the high priest who atones at the heavenly Temple with his own blood.
But there is no innate contradiction between the belief that Jesus is the heir to the Temple's religious center on the one hand, and the memory of the Temple as a legitimate and authoritative institution on the other.
In fact, the early Christ believers continued to be preoccupied with the Temple and the sacrificial system for some time after the destruction. 1 Clement, namely, the letter of Clement of Rome, one of the early church fathers, to the Corinthians, which is usually dated to the last years of the first century C.E., shows this clearly.
Like the Letter to the Hebrews, Clement relates to Jesus Christ as “the high priest of our offerings” (Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν τὸν ἀρχιερέα τῶν προσφορῶν ἡμῶν; 36:1). At the same time, Clement says that the priests and the Levites who serve at God's altar are the greatest gifts of God—along with Jesus, the kings of Judah, etc.
He acknowledges their roles and service, including that of the high priest, and describes the laws of sacrifices:
1 Clement 40:2 He has enjoined offerings |to be presented¦ and service to be performed |to Him¦, and that not thoughtlessly or irregularly, but at the appointed times and hours…. 40:4 Those, therefore, who present their offerings at the appointed times, are accepted and blessed; for inasmuch as they follow the laws of the Lord, they sin not. 40:5 For his own peculiar services are assigned to the high priest, and their own proper place is prescribed to the priests, and their own special ministrations devolve on the Levites…. 41:2 Not in every place, brethren, are the daily sacrifices offered, or the peace-offerings, or the sin-offerings and the trespass-offerings, but in Jerusalem only. And even there they are not offered in any place, but only at the altar before the temple, that which is offered being first carefully examined by the high priest and the ministers already mentioned. 41:3 Those, therefore, who do anything beyond that which is agreeable to His will, are punished with death.
In other words, Clement of Rome saw no contradiction between his Christological belief and his appreciation of the priests as if they were still offering sacrifices on the altar!
Remembering Jesus in the Temple: The Gospel of John
Despite John’s unique “high Christology (understanding of Christ),” whereby Jesus is more than human, John, like all Gospels, details Jesus’ acts here on earth. Notably, beyond what is stated in the synoptic gospels, John has Jesus visit the Temple and teach there on several occasions:
- In two cases, John gives the precise location of Jesus: in the treasure house (8:20) (which is probably inside the Temple courts) and in Solomon's portico (10:23).
- In four places, John specifically states that Jesus teaches in the Temple.
- In John, Jesus visits the Temple during (or immediately before) three Jewish festivals—Passover (6:51-71), Tabernacles (Sukkot, 7:37-39), and "Dedication" (Hanukkah, 10:22-11:53).
For the contemporary reader of John around 100 C.E., Jesus’ recurring appearances at the Temple reflect the conventional attendance of a worshiper at this most sacred place; clearly, from John’s perspective, the Temple is important to Jesus.
For John, the Temple is a means to make Jesus a more authentic Jew, and also more genuine, unique and sacred. When John alludes to the Temple more than a generation after its destruction and three generations after Jesus was crucified, he is actually attempting to revive the memory of the Temple cult and use it to portray Jesus in a Jewish light. And unlike the synoptic gospels, John’s Jesus does not anticipate the destruction of Jerusalem!
For John, Jesus’ presence in the Temple is a sign of his authority, that is, his role as the leader of the Jews, as Jesus declares in his so-called trial before the high priest:
John 18:20 …I have always taught in synagogues and in the Temple, where all the Jews come together…. 
Nonetheless, for readers of John, since the Temple was already gone, its symbolism is more remote than Jesus and his teachings. The close relationship between Jesus and the Temple does not raise any questions about his being Christ, since his Christological status is already a given for John and his audience.
But while John wants to characterize Jesus differently from the previous gospels he also tries to make him more sacred and more aligned with Jewish ideas and symbols. This helps balance the unique speeches of Jesus in John about his divine nature and his objectives.
Temple Heritage after 70? Matthew's Half-Shekel Payment
One story that grapples explicitly with what the relationship between Jesus’ followers and the Temple is Matthew’s story of the Temple tax:
Matthew 17:24 When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the Temple tax (didrachma) came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the Temple tax?” 17:25 He said, “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon [=Peter]? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” 17:26 When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. 17:27 However, so that we do not give offence to them, go to the lake and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin (startēra, which is worth two didrachmas); take that and give it to them for you and me.”
As we read the story, we must remember that for Matthew, the practical question of whether to pay the Temple tax is no longer relevant; Matthew is dated to the 80s C.E. and the Temple tax came to an end after its destruction in 70 C.E. This passage implies that Jesus wants it both ways: he agrees to the tax, but with reservations, and he can have Peter pay the tax without spending his own money by performing a miracle. Even so, the story is difficult to understand, and both the question of the Temple’s tax collectors and Jesus’ response are puzzling.
What Bothers Matthew about the Temple Tax?
Matthew’s bottom line is that the Temple tax must be paid. In fact, at the very beginning of the passage Peter answers the collectors that Jesus does pay the tax. What then, bothers Jesus about the tax?
Scholars have proposed several possibilities. Matthew may accept the common notion that the priests, who generally serve at the Temple cult, are exempt from payment. He may reject the Temple tax as an unfounded innovation, a position similar to the Sadducees and the Qumran Scrolls. Whatever the reason, the reservations about it highlight Matthew's positive attitude toward the Temple.
The consensual understanding of the parable in which the children are not required to pay their father indicates that the relationship between Jews and Christ believers to the Temple reflects their relationship with God. This is why the (illegitimate?) fiscal requirement is problematic, as it somehow distances God’s children from the Temple cult.
So Why Pay? Unity with Fellow Jews
When Jesus states that the tax should be paid “so that we do not give offence to them” (17:27), the pronoun “them” refers to Jews who do not believe in Christ. He apparently does not wish to offend these Jews or to estrange potential followers who favor the Temple tax—so he approves its payment.
The decision to pay the half shekel despite reservations (even if it remains theoretical on Matthew’s part) attests to alignment with the Temple: Matthew is ready to put aside the religious reasons for not paying the tax in order to demonstrate that he conforms with the sacrificial cult.
This unit shows that for Matthew, the Temple, even after it was destroyed, remained a symbol of Jewish religion and identity. Matthew reminds his readers that if the Temple had existed in his day, they would have needed to compromise their distinctive views in order to share the cult both with other Jews.
Why Emphasize the Temple Tax Now?
Given that the half-shekel Temple tribute was no longer paid after 70 C.E., why does Matthew delve into the issue at all? I suggest that Matthew is concerned with religious memory to convey his message, perhaps even as a means of shaping a sense of identity.
The Temple tax tradition functions as a parable about the relationship between Matthew’s followers and other Jews. It is intended to show that, whether in the past or the present, the followers of Jesus are within Israel, and should have a conciliatory rather than hostile attitude toward non-Christ-believing Jews. Readers are urged to not to provoke or be hostile to their Jewish neighbors who do not share their messianic beliefs.
Early Christ Believers and the Temple
In sum, early Christ believers, who lived one or two generations after the destruction of the Temple, did not feel that their ties to the Temple and the sacrificial cult had been severed. Instead, the memory of the Temple and its relevance to spiritual life was retained among these Jewish believers in Jesus.
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July 28, 2020
August 4, 2020
Prof. Eyal Regev is a professor in the Department for the Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology in Bar-Ilan University, where he also received his Ph.D. He is the author of, The Sadducees and their Halakhah: Religion and Society in the Second Temple Period [Hebrew], Sectarianism in Qumran: A Cross-Cultural Perspective, and The Hasmoneans: Ideology, Archaeology, Identity.
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