The Temple in Early Christianity

Experiencing the Sacred

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Eyal Regev
The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , April
     496 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The traditional reconstruction of early Christianity assumes an anti-Temple and anti-Jewish attitude as Christians struggled with identity formation. By the 2nd century, Jewish elements remained essential to the Christian view of “salvation history” (the god of Israel, the fulfillment of the prophets, the ethics of Mosaic Law). But Jewish ethnic identity markers and rituals were dismissed and demonized in the adversos literature as the “old covenant” was replaced by the “new.”

Was this anti-Temple, anti-Jewish attitude prevalent from the very beginning? Did it stem from the ministry of Jesus? In order to answer those questions, The Temple in Early Christianity: Experiencing the Sacred categorizes and analyzes all of the references to the Temple, the priesthood, sacrifices, and rituals in the New Testament texts of the first century.

Author Eyal Regev classifies the texts by dividing the references into four categories: 1) participation; 2) analogy; 3) criticism; and 4) rejection (16). Participation refers to those texts that present the Temple as the center and mainstay of Judaism (such as the stories of continuing Temple attendance by the disciples in Acts). Analogy is where the text draws parallels between the believers and the Temple priests/sacrifices. Criticism most often utilizes “cleansing” references as an attempt to restore the original holiness of the cult. Rejection texts either replace the high-priest with Christ or the Temple with the Christian community.

The first chapter, “Jesus: ‘Cleansing,’ Trial, and Last Supper,” reviews the “Temple incident,” and the subsequent events in Jerusalem. The scene in the Temple became the template for the Christian claim that the Temple was corrupt. As narrated by Mark, it was this corrupt leadership that was responsible for the death of Jesus and not Rome. This story remains at the center of any analysis of Christian attitudes towards the Temple and thus, to Judaism in general (but see below).

Chapter 2, “Paul’s Letters: Temple Imagery as Religious Identity,” surveys the language of Paul’s missions. Regev, in agreement with the latest research on Paul, highlights Paul’s praise of the Temple in several letters. Following the prophetic ideal that Gentiles will turn to god as Gentiles at the eschaton, Paul’s polemic is in relation to those who oppose Gentile admission without circumcision; these arguments are not anti-Jewish. Paul’s metaphors “do not replace the practical role of the cult but fill a religious vacuum” (89-90). Temple and cult symbolism were applied in place of the banned idolatry with shared concepts in Greco-Roman culture.

In Mark (chapter 3), with the exception of the Temple incident, there is no anti-Temple criticism in the ministry but Jesus consistently criticizes Jewish leaders. For Matthew (chapter 4), the Q source claims “something greater than the Temple is here,” but retains the Jewishness of his message without rejecting either the Temple or the Law of Moses (151). Luke-Acts (chapter 5) demonstrates the centrality of the Temple in both the ministry and the post-resurrection activity of the disciples. The focus in these gospels is on condemnation of the Jewish leadership and not the Temple cult per se.

The Gospel of John creates a “Temple Christology,” as a new means to reach god (chapter 6). However, the positive elements of Temple concepts and ritual are analogous to the new understanding of Christ (221). The Book of Revelation (chapter 7) utilizes traditional prophetic material that posits a heavenly Temple that descends at the eschaton.  

Chapter 8 is devoted to the Letter to the Hebrews, perhaps the most complicated text in the New Testament. The letter describes Jesus as the true high priest and includes a heavenly Temple based upon the Jerusalem edifice. Hebrews most often utilizes Levitical references to the tabernacle rather than the later Temple. This letter is the most critical or even negative attitude toward the Temple in the New Testament, while paradoxically containing the most detailed cultic discourse (229).  As the means in which to more fully explain the sacrificial role of Christ in salvation (with more detail than in Paul) Regev claims that this “high Christology” is the main purpose of the letter. Nevertheless, in this letter, Christianity is the direct successor of the sacrificial cult, not its suppressor” (italics, his, 283).

Regev cites contemporary parallels when available (Qumran, apocrypha, later Rabbinic writings) for both similarities and differences. This method aids in emphasizing the diversity of Jewish opinions on the Temple, both before and after its destruction. Such diversity also existed in the first Christian communities. Depending upon the text, he distinguishes references to the real Temple as against an eschatological Temple.

Regev concludes that there is no dominant anti-Temple theme in the New Testament as traditionally understood. Like their fellow Jews, the authors were “negotiating their relationship with the institutional and symbolic center of Judaism as well as with their own Jewishness” (17). At the same time, Temple symbolism and imagery provided the ex-pagan believers with an “experience of the sacred” (p. 285).

Regev is not a New Testament scholar, although he does survey contemporary scholarship in the discipline (with a thirty-four page bibliography). He accepts the historicity of the “Temple incident” and the trials of Jesus in Mark by claiming a consensus among scholars, but consensus is not proof. He attempts to analyze this material by focusing on the “false charges” and then moving backwards. Parallels for the charge are found in the other gospels. In his opinion, this strong tradition indicates that Jesus must have said or done something that was construed as a threat against the Temple. He then analyzes what Jesus may have meant by his actions and the way in which this would have offended the Sadducees and priests (41-42). The earliest source for the “false charges” is Mark, Regev writes. There is no “multiple-attestation” in the other gospels which follow his lead. The story functions in Mark as the means to bring Jesus to the attention of the priests and Rome. At the same time, as an historian, he should know that the events in Mark’s Passion Narrative as reported are historically problematic.

Similarly, Regev treats Paul’s Nazirite vow and alleged trials in Acts as historical events, analyzing Paul’s thoughts and behavior vis-à-vis the Temple. Luke’s stories of Paul’s trials before priests and Roman magistrates, as well as his rejection from synagogues apparently influenced his claim that the Jews “persecuted” the early movement (193).

Regev’s expertise in the variety of Judaism(s) in the Second Temple period does contribute to a new understanding of the references to the Temple in early Christian documents. He consistently and correctly argues that criticism does not imply rejection. While many scholars have analyzed texts relative to the Temple and its cult in early Christian documents, a compendium such as this provides an overarching reference volume.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rebecca Denova is Senior Lecturer in Early History of Christianity at the University of Pittsburgh.

Date of Review: 
December 9, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Eyal Regev is Professor of Jewish studies in the Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University.


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