Mapping Jesus Part 2: The Temple and the Problem of Binaries

As the saying goes, there are two types of people: those who can extrapolate from incomplete data. Which type are you?


Don’t panic if you are not sure. It’s a trick question, actually. I think we are all both types: we make sense of the world – of which we only ever have partial knowledge – by letting our minds fill in the gaps. And it is in the ways that our different approaches to filling in those gaps fall short that we open the space for learning and growth. One of our great weaknesses, though, is that we often fail to recognise, first, that the data is incomplete and second, that as a result of this, we fill in the gaps subjectively. One of the other fundamental weaknesses we have is the tendency to do as this saying does: reduce complex realities to simple binaries. There are never only two sides to a situation.


I am constantly amazed at how the responses by many Christians to my theology attempt to create these false binaries. When I claim not to believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, many assume that I am throwing the Bible out altogether. But I am not. If anything, I am treating it with a greater respect by refusing to demand from it that which it was never designed to deliver. When I insist that I cannot believe in Penal Substitution theories of atonement, I am often met with exasperated retort that I am thereby negating the meaning of Jesus’s death. As if the mystery of the cross could be reduced to a singular interpretation. This addiction to dualistic thinking is the curse of our age. It encourages us to only ever seek that which affirms our own views, in the process concretising our conviction that our views are the right ones and anything else is wrong. Our dualistic thinking enables a refusal to allow ourselves to be uncomfortable in our thoughts and transforms what could have been a growth-promoting cognitive dissonance into a monstrous and threatening other.


A third false binary I have encountered relates to a previous topic: my rejection of commonly understood Christian conceptualisations of Heaven and Hell. Penal Substitution Atonement (PSA) theorists are so locked into the PSA=faith vs non-belief binary that my argument that the notion of Hell as a place of eternal torment is patently unscriptural and makes its way into Christian thinking only centuries after Christ is automatically equated with a rejection of God and dismissed without any intellectual engagement with my argument. Dualistic thinking is lazy thinking. And sadly, this particular, terrible dualism results in a Christianity that cannot conceive of a God who is only love. For too many Christians today, if there is no retributive wrath, there can be no God.


When it comes to Jesus, getting at truth is much more complex than many of us like to think. But if we want to understand Jesus (whether or not we identify as Christian), or if we are committed to following him at all, we need to recognise that the Jesus we have created in our post-modern world is a construct. In fact, the Jesus created in the gospels themselves is a construct. But that does not mean that there is not a Jesus worth looking for; it just means that we are going to have to get a little uncomfortable.


Today I want to talk about the importance of Temple in Jewish thinking. If you are going to make the assumption that a key part of Jesus’s ministry was teaching us how to be in relationship with God, then some engagement with Jesus’s thinking on Temple is critical. Jesus was Jewish (an inescapable reality, even though our PSA thinking constructs him more as a white post-modern Calvinist), and there are few issues as important to Jewish theology as Temple is.


Now the Jewish relationship with the Temple should not – indeed, cannot – be conceptualised in the same way that Christians relate to their churches. The two bear only a superficial resemblance. The Temple is not simply the religious centre of Israel. In a time of Roman occupation, where all facets of daily life are governed by Gentiles, the Temple represents the very heart of Jewish identity in the Land, and functions as the religious, political, and economic hub of Jewish life. A Jewish way of being in the world does not allow for a divorce between politics and religion, simply because both are crucial elements of everyday existence, and Judaism is much more than merely a creed, or some nebulous “personal relationship with God”; it is a way of being in the world.


To take a lot of scholarly work and sum it up very briefly and inadequately, the Temple is structured as a sort of microcosm of the universe as a whole. By the 1st Century, the idea of the Temple as God’s dwelling place had evolved from the notion that the Temple was a literal dwelling place for God, to the idea that God was universally present and the Temple served as the place where people offered service to God through sacrifices (which the Pharisees had come to interpret not as animal sacrifices, but as prayer and acts of purity), maintaining Jewish identity as image-bearers of God while waiting for Israel to be restored and God’s Kingdom to come. The Jewish eschatological vision is not one of escaping one reality and moving to a new one; it is of the intersection of Heaven and Earth, of the reclamation and renewal of Earth through the arrival of God’s Kingdom. It is the replacement, if you like, of sinful rulership of this world with God’s restorative Kingship. Heaven comes to Earth and merges with it (this is clearly evident, for example, in the depiction of Heaven in Revelation 21). Until then, the Temple is the intersection between Earth and Heaven.


Being such an important symbol, the Temple, at the time of Jesus, was the source of much division among different groups of Jewish thinkers. The Essenes utterly rejected this new Temple (built by Herod, after the first Temple of Solomon had been destroyed by the Babylonians). They argued that the true Temple had to be constructed by a proper high priest, and according to the proper specifications, as laid out in Ezekiel. They viewed the current set-up as corrupt and illegitimate, and refused to attend the Temple rituals. They regarded themselves as the true Israel, still in exile, waiting for the return of God’s Messiah, when they would drive out not only the Gentiles but also the wayward Israelites, and establish true worship in the purified Temple. Another group, the Pharisees, had their reservations too, primarily around the Hasmonean priesthood (the group who had been in power in the Temple since the Maccabean revolt), but considered the observance of the Temple rituals to be the greater obligation. The Temple was an ambiguous symbol. There was a recognition that only the true King could initiate the building of the Temple proper, which could not have been the Temple that Herod built simply because Herod was not the true King. If he was, then there would be no Roman occupation. But there was disagreement over how to think about and respond to this Temple at the heart of their community.


Enter Jesus. It is testimony to the inadequacies of our Creation-Fall-Redemption metanarrative that we can blithely overlook the frequency and significance of the instances where Jesus in some way constructs himself (at the very least, if you prefer, where the writers documenting his life and teachings in the gospels, construct him) in relation to Temple. One of the few things that all of the gospel writers note is Jesus’s prophesying of the destruction of the Temple and his promise to raise it up in three days. Jesus’s clearing of the Temple is also a pivotal event. The synoptic writers place it near the end of his ministry, but the writer of the fourth gospel, interestingly, leads with it in John 2: 13- 22:

13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”

19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.


I want to make a couple of observations. The first is that whenever I mention that Jesus is unequivocally opposed to violence, this incident is cited as refutation by those who need a violent God. I need to point out that the whip that Jesus uses is only used to herd out the animals. The passage makes no claims that he used it on people at all. Humans direct violence against those who hold different values from their own. God does not.


The second is Jesus’s indirect claim that the true Temple, the place where Heaven and Earth intersect, the place through which God’s Kingdom reign will be inaugurated on Earth, is Jesus himself, through his death and resurrection. Jesus takes over the function of Temple. It is not merely a religious statement, but a political one and an economic one too. It is a profound statement about being-in-the-world as a true human, as part of a Temple made of “living stones” (1 Peter 2). It is the recognition that the interface between Heaven and Earth is found in human relatedness that is not exploitative: I do not think it is so much the commercial activity happening at the Temple per se, so much as it is the nature of that commercial activity that Jesus objects to. See, for example, Mark’s account, where Jesus uses this as a teaching opportunity: “And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Mark 11: 17)


It is this challenge to the Temple, this claim to the usurpation of its function, which is a turning point in Jesus’s trial, and which ultimately gets him killed (Matthew 26:59-66). It is a frequent basis for the verbal abuse hurled at him while he hangs on the cross, and is – because only the true King of Israel can initiate the building of the true Temple – the reason he is given the title: King of the Jews.


When the curtain of the Temple is described as being torn in two at the moment of the death of Jesus, a profound statement is being made, whether or not the curtain tears literally. In the Temple structure, the curtain separates the Holy of Holies – the place of God’s dwelling, (Heaven, if you like) – from the rest of the Temple (Earth, if you like). When the Temple curtain tears, Heaven and Earth become one.


Christians like to interpret the symbol as access to Heaven now being freely available. But that is a modern metanarrative-informed interpretation. The movement in the Jewish liturgies was always the other way around – from Heaven to Earth; God coming to dwell among us – Emmanuel. What is being signified in this moment is the inauguration of God’s Kingdom on Earth, the beginning of the merging of the two, the start of God’s reign. And Jesus has opened the way; God’s Kingdom can come through following Jesus as the true human, as the true high priest, through a practical living out of Jesus’s Way of self-giving love. Because the Kingdom was never a place. It was always a way of being in the world, of being-with. In line with Jewish ways of thinking, God’s Kingdom was always a matter of community living rather than of individual fire-insurance. God is only experienced in community (How’s that for a controversial statement?), because God is love, and love is relational. Love, to quote Jean-Luc Nancy, “designates relation itself at the heart of Being – in lieu of and in the place of Being”. Consider Jesus’s reinterpretation of the whole Law around love, and his consistent teaching that love is everything. And then consider his claim that: “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”(Matthew 18:20). And maybe you will start to see just what a radical statement Jesus is making when he reconceptualises the idea of Temple.


And that is only the beginning. It is hard work, this trying to make sense of Jesus with his enticing promises of renewal and restoration. It is hard because we have to change how we think, how we read, and it never seems like we have all the information we need. And that can be disheartening, because the more we understand, the more we realise that things are a lot more complicated than we thought they were, and that the way we have been programmed has its limitations in making sense of the data. Our binaries no longer work.


As the saying goes, there are only 10 types of people in the world: those who understand binary, and those who don’t. Which are you?

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