The Temple

This coming Sunday is the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Lectionary Cycle C. In yesterday’s post we set the stage for understanding the nature of the Lucan narrative that is our gospel reading. Today’s post explores the significance of the Jerusalem Temple, its history, and the potential impact of Jesus’ words: “All that you see here—the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.

The architectural entity known as the Jerusalem Temple was a complex institution. It played a central religious and cultic role in Israelite life, as well as functioning on a political level. It was a symbol of the national state of which Jerusalem was the capital during the pre-exilic period (Babylonian Exile), then of the semi-autonomous community of Judeans after the exile, and finally of the Jews who continued to live in Jerusalem and the surrounding territory, with sporadic periods of autonomy, in the centuries before its final destruction.

The history of this building thus extends from the origins of the monarchy in the 10th century B.C.E., when it was constructed by King Solomon, until the capture of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. However, this millennium-long period did not entail the continuous existence of the original structure. A major rebuilding effort, nearly from the ground up, took place after the Exile, beginning in 520 B.C.E., after nearly seventy years of desolation in the wake of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 587. A second, enormous rebuilding effort took place near the very end of the Temple’s history, when King Herod included the Jerusalem edifice among the extensive building projects that characterized his reign (37 to 4 B.C.E.). Although the early and late postexilic temples were in many senses continuations of the first temple building, they were also new buildings, exemplifying the techniques and styles of their own periods.

Consequently, the term Jerusalem Temple can designate one or all of these three distinct yet related buildings. The first is usually called the Solomonic Temple, because of Solomon’s role in the building project; it is also called the First Temple. The next building is designated the Second Temple or sometimes Zerubbabel’s Temple, in recognition of the chief political officer in the Persian province of Yehud (Judea) at the time of the reconstruction efforts of the late 6th century B.C.E. The third structure, while technically existing during the period known as the Second Temple period (515 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.), was in fact a new and grandiose edifice and is generally referred to as the Herodian Temple.

The structures of earthly empires are meant to impress and to give the sense that they and what they represent will last forever. Visiting the great ruins of civilizations from Babylon to the Aztecs, one imagines the people must have assumed that their glory would endure forever. Such are the delusions of man-made immortality.

The rebuilt temple of Herod created such an impression. When the disciples praised its grandeur to Jesus (v. 5), the temple was in the midst of an eighty-three-year building program. Started about 20 B.C., it continued until A.D. 63-64, just a few years before Jerusalem’s fall in A.D. 70. Assuming an A.D. 30 date for the crucifixion, the program was about fifty years old at the time the disciples marveled at it. The temple clearly made a deep impression on all who visited it. Josephus gives detailed descriptions of its beauty (Jewish Wars 1.21.1 401; 5.5.1-6 184-227; Antiquities 15.11.1-7 380-425). The Roman historian Tacitus also describes the temple as containing great riches (History 5.8.1). Some of its stones were 12 to 60 feet in length, 7.5 feet in height and 9 feet in width. The temple loomed over the city and formed its center: politically, geographically and most importantly, religiously. Surely something so magnificent and God-honoring, something that had taken so long to build, would last a very long time.

Outside of our gospel reading, it is good to note the scene upon Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem when he pronounces: 41 As he drew near, he saw the city and wept over it, 42 saying, “If this day you only knew what makes for peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days are coming upon you when your enemies will raise a palisade against you; they will encircle you and hem you in on all sides. 44 They will smash you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another within you because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:41-44).

That was outside the city. This takes place inside the walls in the shadow of the Temple mount. Jesus’ response must have come as a shock: “All that you see here—the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” It is hard for us to appreciate the effect on Jewish ears of what Jesus predicts here. When Jesus speaks of time coming, he is predicting in prophetic terms the arrival of judgment, just like the one Israel had experienced at the hands of Baylon (Jer 7:1-14; 22:5; 27:6; 52:12-13). The magnificent temple, the center of the nation’s worship and the sacred locale of God’s presence, will be destroyed and turned into a heap of rubble. Centuries of worship and years of reconstruction will be brought to an end.


Image credit: Image credit: Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by Francesco Hayez. Oil on canvas, 1867. Public Domain

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