Maybe the most divisive religious statements are the ones that make claims about how and where God can be found. Disagreements among people of faith today remind us that disputes over God’s “accessibility” never go away. Jesus’ conflicts with the authorities of his day remind us that such controversies are nothing new.
Jesus and the Temple
Most historians conclude that the execution of Jesus was a consequence of -- perhaps among other things -- words he spoke criticizing the temple in Jerusalem and its leadership. It appears some sort of demonstration he performed in the temple precinct was also part of the equation.
There are persistent debates about why Jesus criticized the temple system. The gospels don’t give a clear picture of his specific reasons or their validity. Most likely his dissatisfaction stemmed from corruption he perceived among the priestly elites, who held significant civil authority as Roman puppets, and whose hypocrisy and disregard for the poor struck a raw nerve in the zealous preacher from Galilee. The gospels give no real evidence to conclude that Jesus rejected temples as a matter of principle, or that he regarded sacrificial practices as inappropriate.
He must have known, though, that temples are powerful things, because of the ideas they symbolize. Messing with them is usually dangerous.
The Jerusalem temple was hardly one sacred site among many for those who worshiped there early in the first century. Here was the place, they believed, where God was most present. The temple served as the focus of identity -- religious, national, social, you name it -- for many (but certainly not all) Jews of Jesus’ time, especially those influenced by the elite members of Jerusalem society. For some, it stood as the architectural and symbolic centerpiece of their most important city - a city that played a key role in their most cherished memories, and a location that would figure in a hoped-for future when God’s promises would be fully realized.
The theological character of the place lent it incredible significance. That is, the temple figured in discussions among Jesus’ compatriots concerning where God is to be found and how God is to be known. This was true even for those who had turned their back on the physical temple. For example, the community that left the Dead Sea Scrolls (a group sharply critical of the Jerusalem temple’s leadership) organized itself and its functions to express its expectation that God would provide a new, authentic, pure temple.
So, when Jesus arrives in town and speaks of the temple’s impending destruction, the gospels depict him trafficking in incredibly potent ideas. He offends powerful people, speaking to convictions deeply rooted in the cultural identities and religious values they affirm.
But What Did He Say?
Memories of Jesus’ words about the temple’s destruction differ across the four gospels. One reason for this has to do with how Jesus’ followers remembered his views toward the temple and deemed his attitudes significant as their world was changing around them.
By the time the gospels were written, the temple actually was in ruins, the climactic casualty of a devastating war between Rome and Jewish revolutionaries about forty years after Jesus’ death. The gospels, therefore, attempt to help their earliest readers understand the relevance of memories about Jesus’ outlook on the temple. Of course this relevance took on increased importance once the Romans reduced the temple to little more than rubble.
And so the particularities of the story about Jesus’ “temple act” in the Gospel according to John deserve special notice. Jesus disrupts commercial activity in the temple compound, similar to accounts in the other gospels. But then the gospel author quickly interprets Jesus’ words about the temple’s destruction:
“Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’” (verse 19, NRSV)
“But he was speaking of the temple of his body.” (verse 21, NRSV)
In John, then, Jesus doesn’t necessarily call for the destruction of the Jerusalem temple or imply it somehow would deserve its ruin. Rather, the author tells us, Jesus metaphorically refers to himself as a temple. Where will God be found? How will God be known? In a newly raised temple, Jesus promises: in his own resurrected body.
Is That Good News, or Bad?
The gospel author’s interpretation suggests, then, that Jesus’ raised body became a site (or did the author mean the site?) of God’s presence -- a place where God is encountered in the world. Not confined to a single point on a map, Jesus serves as the “place” where God is accessible.
This interpretation would have been good news to the first readers of John’s Gospel, who had embraced Jesus as God’s Messiah and who might otherwise have been unnerved by the Jerusalem temple’s recent decimation. God remains within people’s reach, just in a different place.
The interpretation also coheres well with the Gospel of John’s understanding of Jesus’ identity. He is “the Word” of God that “became flesh and lived among us” and “made God known” (John 1:14, 18, NRSV). Perhaps this is why John locates Jesus’ “temple act,”not in the final week of Jesus’ life (as the other gospels do), but near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry: to illustrate what those preceding statements say about Jesus as the presence of God among us.
Christians need to tread very carefully here, for this understanding of Jesus as a new temple has led to grave problems in the history of Jewish-Christian relations. Christians have exploited the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in the year 70 as an excuse to denigrate or to issue a blanket condemnation of Judaism -- in both its ancient and its modern forms. The criticisms Jesus levels in the gospels toward the temple and its leadership give no warrant for such a move.
John’s Gospel originated during a period of differing (and conflicting) interpretations about fundamental religious commitments. How does one commune with God when there is no temple edifice? Christians understood Jesus as fulfilling the principal functions the temple was once said to perform. Those who would come to establish rabbinic Judaism (the foundation of the Judaism practiced today) were moving in different directions. Many of them had been ambivalent about the temple prior to its destruction, anyway. The point is: the destruction of the temple hardly made it easier for people to find common ground about the questions of how and where God can be found.