from jesus to christ - the first christians

Temple Culture

Why the Temple symbolized the nation of Israel and, collaboration with Rome.

Shaye I.D. Cohen:

Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University


The crucial thing to remember is that nowadays, there are temples and synagogues everywhere you go. There is not a Jewish community in the world that doesn't have a synagogue, and many of them are called temples. In this period, however, we should always remember that there is only one Temple and that's the one Temple in Jerusalem. The building itself was very small. The actual building of the Temple could fit inside the infield of any baseball stadium. However, the large structure all around it, the large plaza, the porticos, the columns, the staircases, all of that, were built up by Herod the Great on a monumental scale, filling up, I think something like ten football fields.... So we have then a very large, very conspicuous, grandiose, grand... structure in the center of Jerusalem which attracted pilgrims from near and far, both Jews and gentile....

In the Temple itself, we have priests, all descending from Aaron, the High Priest, back in time, brother of Moses - the tribe of priests who officiated at the altar. They slaughtered animals, they took the animal carcasses on the altar, roasted the animals, spattered the blood on the corners of the altar, dispensed the meat, and the bones and the blood and so on, and performed other similar tasks inside the Temple. Only the priests were actually able to penetrate the innermost areas of the Temple. Even full blooded religious pious Jews could only go near, just get to the outskirts of the Temple. Further back, even gentiles could attend....

Even though the actual religious rituals of the Temple were solely in the hands of the priests, that is, if you brought your sacrifice to the Temple because say, your wife had a baby, say a child recovered from illness, or say you're at a pilgrimage festival and you're celebrating at the pilgrimage. So, you bring your animal offering to the Temple, the priest takes it away from you and brings it back, brings you back roast beef or roast lamb in a little while where you and your family sit and eat. So, even though the actual doing, the actual performing [of rituals] were in the hands of the priests, nonetheless, the Temple played a large role in a collective religious mentality and a collective religion of the people, as a whole. Everybody realized that this was the one most sacred place on earth, the one place on earth where somehow heaven and earth meet, where somehow there is a telephone connection, perhaps we would say, between heaven and earth, where the earth rises up and heavens somehow descend just enough, that they just touch.... So, even though it was a small institution, entirely run by a small caste of people and even though most people can never ever get in, get inside the innermost precincts, nonetheless, the Temple as a whole, the institution, the values and the structure played a very important role in the society at large.

Paula Fredriksen:

William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University


What happened at the Temple in Jerusalem?

The way the Temple operated was described in principle by God to Moses in the first five books of the Jewish Bible, the Torah. From halfway through Exodus on until the end of Deuteronomy, God is detailing to Moses certain types of legislation, a great number of which turn upon issues of offerings to be given to God under different circumstances....The Temple was a place of animal offerings, which makes it completely typical of any temple in Mediterranean antiquity. That's what happened in temples. Animals were offered, cereals were offered, there were liquid offerings. There were pigeons that were offered. It's also a place of prayer. It's also a place where the Psalms are chanted by the Levites. And where the Priests do their work.

But the Temple is something that is publicly available in two ways to all of the Jewish people. [First], Jews would go up and worship at the Temple. But also, thanks to the text of the Bible, Jews hear about how the Temple works by hearing the Torah read usually on a weekly basis on the Sabbath. And in that sense, the Temple is an interior and religious reality to any Jew anywhere in the Empire. They know what goes on in the Temple because they have the description, in principle, that's granted in the Torah.

Could people who weren't Jewish go to the Temple?

Most temples in antiquity encouraged the respect and patronage of as many people as possible. It's simply good business. And again, in this respect, the Temple in Jerusalem was no different. Gentiles had an area within which they could penetrate the sacred precincts of the Temple. They were certainly permitted to give offerings.... The Temple was organized in terms of degrees of sacred space, and the most sacred space was occupied only by the Priest. But the gentiles, who could bring offerings, would pass it over so that eventually the offering would be offered by the Priest on behalf of the gentile who was making the offering.


In Judaism, described in the Bible, there are three pilgrimage festivals. One is in the fall, and two are in the spring. The biggest holiday that would bring in pilgrims from all over the the known world is the holiday of Passover. It resonates historically with the liberation of the children of Israel from Egypt. So it has a tone of national liberation. There's a political aspect to the holiday. But also, Jews everywhere, if they chose to, if they were pious, would put aside part of their income. It's sort of like the way Christmas Clubs operate now. You'd put aside tithing money ... and that money or whatever it is from your property that you would put aside was explicitly to be spent having a party in Jerusalem. And you would spend that saving[s] when you went up to celebrate a pilgrimage holiday.


People from all over the Empire went to Jerusalem on Passover. It's one of the most populated times in the whole city. And there are certain things that would be required if you wanted to go and be at the Temple. You'd have to eat your Passover lamb in a state of purity, which would require certain things, for example, if you were a woman in a family who were traveling and you happened to get your period,... you couldn't actually go into the Temple area. But your husband would really be the person required to show up in the Temple area, because he would be the one who would have to sacrifice the Pascal lamb that would be the center of the meal that you would have with your family. You'd go up, probably a week beforehand, to make sure that everybody would be in a state of purity. Purity is not an ethical metaphor in first century Judaism. Purity is a state. It's almost like a physical state that has metaphysical consequences. If you are menstruating, for example, or for a man, a common way of contracting impurity would be through ejaculation ... semen transmits impurity. There's nothing morally wrong with you. It just means that while you're in that state, you shouldn't enter a zone of holiness. So pilgrims frequently went a week before Passover actually started so that they could undergo certain rituals of purification, and take part in the slaughter of the lambs for Passover that happens the night before Passover begins. And and then go back with people living in tents or people in outlying villages.

There's reminiscences of this in the gospel writings. Jesus enters with with the flock of pilgrims going into Jerusalem the week before Passover. That's what the triumphal entry is staged as in the gospel. And he teaches at the Temple in the week before Passover. The reason everybody's there is because everybody, I assume Jesus, too, is undergoing the ritual purification that's required so people can be in the correct state. Not not just morally or religiously, but actually with purity. So that they can eat the Pascal lamb as God mandated it when he spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai.

Impurity is assumed by Jewish Law. It's a natural phenomenon. People move in and out of states of purity and impurity because much impurity is tied to biological rhythms. You incur impurity by doing things that God actually enjoins Jews to do, like having babies, or having sexual relations with a marriage partner. Bearing the dead, which is one of the most important religious commandments within the religion, then as now, is something that, because of contact with the corpse or even being in the same room as the corpse, one would be in a state of impurity. The remedy for impurity is rituals of purification. And in Judaism, most religions that are concerned with this kind of way of making sense of the world, water is one of the great media for purifying. Throughout the land of Israel [at] different archaeological sites that you can see to this day. You see it on top of Masada, you see it in the excavations in Jerusalem, you can see it in digs in the Galilee, there are immersion pools. Herod, even though he had a very complicated family life and very unfortunate political habits with how he dealt with sons or other perceived rivals, nonetheless, in the palaces he built for himself, built pools to purify himself .... Being concerned with purity is one of the normal things that a Jew who chose to be religious would involve himself with. And water purification ritual is part of the way of taking care of impurity.


Passover would be one of the very busiest times in Jerusalem. Because of the swollen population of Jews coming, not only from territorial Israel, but also from the Diaspora, also interested gentiles, as well. Big holidays always draw crowds. Roman troops who were usually stationed on the coast in Caesarea, would come up to Jerusalem and also be in the city specifically as a kind of crowd control while all these pilgrims were present. Meanwhile, the Temple itself was a focus of ferocious activity. The requirement of Passover was that the Passover lamb be sacrificed. There was a census reported in Jospehus in which tens of thousands of lambs were slaughtered. And it all has to be done in at a particular period just on the cusp of the very beginning of the holiday. It's not like these lambs can be slaughtered over the course of the week, frozen and then given to different customers.... Josephus estimated that one lamb would be good for...ten men. And so it's hundreds of thousands of people are in Jerusalem on Passover.

The ultimate responsibility for making sure that things were done correctly ... that the sheep themselves were perfect, ...that the Temple itself was ready and correct, to be a medium for this act of piety and religious enthusiasm, and to make sure that the slaughter of the animals was done correctly [fell to] the Priests.... There would be extra teams of Priests, rotations of Priests who would come up to Jerusalem. They would be working in the Temple and it was on their shoulders that the ultimate responsibility for the correctness of this unbelievably frenzied scene would rest... It would be physically exhausting work. Made exhausting not for the least reason that most Jews had very strong opinions on whether the Priest was doing his business properly or not.... Sometimes reading ancient sources is like overhearing family quarrels in a distant room... I mean, people who weren't priests at all would have absolutely firm opinions on how the Priests should be doing their business. A Priest who would be a member of a particular group, say a Priest who had a Pharisaic orientation, might think something should be done one way, and a Priest who didn't have that orientation would think it would be done another way. Everybody is looking at the Bible and then on the basis of tradition and improvisation, doing what he thought was the correct way to do it....

L. Michael White:

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin


Herod's building programs, both in Caesarea, and throughout the countryside are very extensive. And this is seen, especially in the city of Jerusalem itself. It appears that Herod thought of Jerusalem as his showpiece. He really wanted to make it a place where people would come, just as people would have gone to Athens or Rome, or the great cities of the Mediterranean world. And so, when Herod built the city, or helped to rebuild the city, he did so on a monumental scale. And this can be seen in the rebuilding of the Temple. If we move around the Temple complex, which we can still see standing today, at least on its foundation levels, you see the monumental size of it. You look up forty feet on certain sides. And yet, that wall is really just the foundation course. The Temple itself stood up above with gleaming pillars and lots of marble. And so, it was really quite impressive. It was meant to be a showplace.

And, what was the point of building it on such a scale?

For Herod, it looks as though this is his pet project, as it were, to give something to his homeland. To turn the Temple, the centerpiece of Jewish life and identity, into a temple that would rival all of those in the ancient world. And so apparently, he poured, enormous amounts of money into it. Now this Temple project was begun in about 20 B.C.E. It would be under construction for over eighty years before it was completed. Unfortunately, it would only stand for a few years before it would be destroyed again. But while it was under construction for those eight decades, it was a source of economic growth. It kept all kinds of construction guilds in work. And it was really meant to be a place where everyone would be proud that this was the center of Jewish life.

Tell me about the people and factions and hierarchy around the Temple.

The Temple, basically, would have been under control of the old priestly aristocracy. There were the High Priests, who were in charge. And those came from particular families. Around them, and serving as their helpers and their agents, were number of orders of regular priests in various grades. We hear of them even in the New Testament. Priests and Levites, they're called. These other priests had a variety of duties of taking care of the Temple itself. Everything from cleaning house, to performing animal sacrifices and overseeing the activities that would have taken place on the Great Holy Day festivals. The priests, then, really are in charge of the Temple itself the Temple Proper.


Who were the Pharisees and the Sadducees?

Among the other groups that would have circulated around the priesthood and around the Temple in Jerusalem, was an old group known as the Sadducees. The Sadducees are really also part of this old priestly aristocracy. They're the land holding group ... the descendants of the people who came back from the Babylonian exile. They were the old Jerusalem upper crust. And they were in charge of most of the political life of Jerusalem proper. They dominated the city council of Jerusalem, or what is called the Sanhedrin. But there were other groups as well. The Pharisees were a Johnny-come-lately group that had joined the political ranks of Jerusalem life, probably, sometime in the later Hasmonean Period. That is, just before the Romans came on the scene. The Pharisees have a political interest, but they, in some ways, constitute a kind of outside political faction over against the landed aristocracy -- the Sadducees. As a result, we see both political tensions and also religious interests between the groups showing up in different ways.

One of the classic ways we differentiate the Sadducees from the Pharisees, is on the basis of religious beliefs and practices. The Sadducees are conservative. They only read the Torah, the five books of Moses. They don't read other things among the Scriptures as authoritative. And so as a result, they don't believe in certain ideas. For example, it's typically suggested that they do not believe in resurrection of the dead. Why? Because it's not in the Torah. The Pharisees, on the other hand, are, if anything, the religious liberals ... the progressives of their day. They want to reinterpret the Scriptures. They want to read more texts, all of which are the expression of this vibrant Judaism of the time. And as a result, they're willing to entertain new ideas, new beliefs, such as that of the resurrection of the dead.

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published april 1998

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