The Temple epicentre of conflict

A model showing an exterior view of the Second Temple in ancient Jerusalem.(Photo: Getty/iStock)

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds Christians that they are surrounded by a great "cloud of witnesses." (NRSV) That "cloud" has continued to grow in size since then. In this monthly column we will be thinking about some of the people and events, over the past 2000 years, that have helped make up this "cloud." People and events that have helped build the community of the Christian church as it exists today.

In AD 70, in the First Jewish-Roman War, Jerusalem was captured by a Roman army (after a terrible siege) and the great Temple destroyed. Today only the retaining "West Wall" remains of this magnificent building. Its construction had started in about 515 BC, as a replacement of the temple earlier destroyed by the Babylonians.

This building was then totally renovated and enlarged by Herod the Great (the Herod of the Christmas story) in a style which drew architectural inspiration from across the Eastern Mediterranean world. The resulting construction was magnificent, with its huge central building set within a great sanctuary surrounded by colonnades, and with its outer and inner courts of increasing sanctity and religious exclusivity.

The impact of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple

Its destruction ended what is often described as "Second Temple Judaism", a term used to describe the Jewish community between the start of the construction of the Second Temple and its eventual destruction by the Romans.

It was this Second Temple Judaism into which Jesus was born and lived. It was a community and a faith that was centred on the great Temple. Its removal was a cultural earthquake that is difficult to exaggerate. Judaism was fundamentally changed as it was forced to come to terms with this huge loss.

However, for the emerging Christian community there was no comparable shock to faith and practice. For, while the post-Ascension followers of Jesus had first continued to meet in the Temple courts, within a generation the faith had spread out over the eastern Mediterranean and communities had been formed as far away as Rome.

As increasing numbers of gentile converts joined the new community (the "ecclesia," the "church"), the intimate connection with Jerusalem and the Judean heartland had been broken. This shift was accelerated by increasing communal conflict, as early Christians were put out of the synagogues across the Jewish diaspora for holding beliefs deemed highly offensive by those in authority.

More fundamental, something huge had occurred within the belief system of this expanding group. A system of Jewish sacrifice and community-focus which had once centred on the Jerusalem Temple had been radically reorientated to focus, instead, on the person, sacrifice, and resurrection of Jesus.

Christianity was no longer a Jewish sect. It had become a multi-ethnic community in which most members no longer had a historic or emotional tie to the heartland of Judaism. Although profoundly indebted to – and built on – Jewish faith and scriptures, the Christian community had become something different to Judaism. While Jerusalem and the Temple would continue to play a significant role within Christian outlooks, the new faith was no longer dependent on them.

Judaism, too, now had to chart a new course forward which – while longing for restoration of what had been lost – had to become something different to what had existed before. But that – and the development of rabbinic, synagogue-based, Talmudic faith – is another story.

The destruction of the Temple in AD 70 also impacted on the way in which the conflict leading to the events of Easter was emphasised in the emerging Christian community and its foundational documents.

The Temple and Easter

The fact that the Temple vanished removed its physical presence and this had an impact on its place within the way early Christians remembered the conflicts during the ministry of Jesus. As a result, we often think of the events of "Holy Week" (the week leading to Easter) in Jerusalem as the culmination of a conflict which was fundamentally rooted in the Galilean ministry of Jesus. There is a readily understood reason for this perspective and it is, arguably, a result of the events of AD 70.

While there is debate over exactly when the Gospels were written, it would be accepted by most modern experts that they reached their present form either as the Temple was coming to an end or after its destruction. This is particularly the case regarding the Gospel of John and is seen in the ease with which this Gospel contemplates a post-Temple faith.

By the time that the Gospel John was compiled, the Temple, its sacrifices, and its organisation, would have felt like they were part of another world. It would have been like reflecting on the world of 1939 from the perspective of, perhaps, 1960. That other "world" was still the once-lived experience of older members of the community but was, at the same time, profoundly separated from the present.

Jerusalem was destroyed and the Temple was gone. This may have been about to happen, or still a raw event, while the other gospels were being compiled. It had receded into the past when John was written. And this loss impacted on the emphasis in the Gospel records.

The Temple as the epicentre of conflict

Those who acted outside the Temple elites always sailed close to the wind. Even groups that we tend to regard as part of the first-century establishment could come close to this. The Pharisees believed that God could be worshipped away from the Jerusalem Temple and its sacrificial cult. This did not set them in opposition to the Temple, but it certainly set them apart from those who claimed it had spiritual supremacy.

This had within it the seeds of an idea that Torah might one day replace Temple (as indeed it did after AD 70). Given the Pharisees' focus on prayer and active study of the Law, it is no surprise to discover that they fostered the institution of the synagogue as a central place within Jewish community life – and one which would outlive the traumatic Roman destruction of the Temple.

Edginess can be seen more clearly in the ministry of John the Baptist. With a message to all Israel, proclaimed by himself and so circumventing the Temple and its priestly hierarchy and sacrificial activities, John was a huge challenge to the Jewish establishment. He was always living on borrowed time.

This was even more so in the case of Jesus. He warned Jerusalem (regardless of its possession of the Temple) that it will be left "desolate" (Matthew 23:38). He drove money changers from the Temple courts; and, more shockingly, also predicted its destruction (Mark 13:2). He forgave people their sins, outside the system of Temple sacrifice. This was explosive.

A post-AD 70 perspective?

We often tend to view the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities as focused on conflict with Galilean Pharisees, until Easter Week when things exploded in Jerusalem. While, of course, the Gospels tell us that it was the final week in Jerusalem that led to his death, we still tend to focus a lot on the conflict with the Pharisees in Galilee as leading to that. This is understandable because this forms such a key part of the Gospel accounts.

Their emphasis is readily explained. We, arguably, hear relatively little of conflict with priests and the Jerusalem elites (apart from in the Holy Week account) because, after AD 70, this was no longer pressing on the minds of the early church as the Temple and its priesthood had suddenly been consigned to history through the violent actions of the Romans. In contrast, Pharisaic influence survived and fed into post-Temple rabbinic Judaism. This was the form of Judaism with which early Christians interacted after AD 70. Also, Acts 6:7 indicates that priests converted in large numbers; something we would like to know more about.

On closer examination, while he deeply reverenced the temple, Jesus' conflict with key aspects in terms of the practices there, and attitudes towards it, brought him into conflict with the Jerusalem aristocracy and the priestly class. For if his message could bring reconciliation with God and spiritual renewal, it raised the question of what was left for the Temple and its whole sacrificial system?

On reflection, it seems that it was this conflict, more than conflict with the Pharisees, which led to his arrest and execution. Although the well-publicized conflict with the Pharisees in his Galilean ministry is often assumed to have led to the plot to kill him, the simple reality is that this group did not drive his arrest and trial. Instead, it was conflict over the Temple which led to his execution.

Jesus and his followers were probably perceived as a counter-Temple movement and it was this, rather than disputes over details of practice (with the Pharisees), which led to his death. While his style of preaching and his devotion to the Law (Torah) was consistent with many of the practices around him, it was his self-perception and self-presentation that became the most contentious point.

As the Gospels indicate, his message was that it was in him that the longed-for future kingdom was being initiated. A new Israel was forming around him; God's future kingdom was appearing; he, not Temple activity (important though that was), became the main event. Battle lines with the Jerusalem elite were being drawn as Jesus preached.

The Temple elites, much more than the Pharisees, had the capability to make a conflict deadly. Furthermore, their opposition to any unrest and turbulence was something that the agents of the Roman occupying power could understand and collaborate with (Judea being part of the Roman province of Syria).

If conflict in Galilee caused trouble and endangered Jesus' life, that in Jerusalem brought certain death. We are even told that in Galilee "some Pharisees came and said to him, 'Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you'" (Luke 13:31), which suggests that it was Herod Antipas (tetrarch of Galilee and Perea until AD 39) who posed the principal threat there. There is evidence that the Pharisees who opposed Jesus acted in concert with Herodians (Mark 3:6, 12:13).

It is difficult to imagine Jesus' disagreements with the Pharisees in Galilee leading to a successful capital prosecution. It was in Jerusalem, with its priestly theocracy and their relationship with Roman power, that disagreement became lethal. And in the actual arrest and prosecution the Pharisees played no significant part. Mark and Luke assign them no role whatsoever in these final legal events, while Matthew mentions them only once in his Jerusalem narrative regarding the actual death of Jesus (Matthew 27:62). Conflict in Galilee may understandably loom large in our thoughts, but it was conflict in Jerusalem with the priestly theocracy which led to Jesus' arrest and execution.

Comparing the Gospels, it can be argued that John's account of several visits to Jerusalem over three years is persuasive – which would allow for conflict with the Temple elites building over that time – whereas the writers of the synoptic gospels sharpened their focus on the last, and explosive, visit which culminated in Jesus' death. If this is the case, we can envisage a steady ratcheting up of tension, as an increasing sense of challenge was felt by the elites of Jerusalem and the Temple; and then a final (and explosive) Passover visit to the city.

On reflection

The traumatic events of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, in AD 70, had a profound impact on Judaism but less on the Christian community. However, arguably, one of its significant effects was to lessen the emphasis on the long-term conflict with the Temple elites as the Gospels were compiled. This was because the Temple was now part of a lost world, whereas conflict with the institutional descendants of the Pharisees was ongoing.

As our thoughts turn again towards Easter, reflecting on this can assist us as we seek to understand the dynamic that led to the cross. As Jesus proclaimed his radical message, he came into conflict with the holders of wealth, power, and influence and, consequently, with the exponents of imperial force. It is a reminder of how the Gospel is on a collision course with the values of the world.

Martyn Whittock is a historian and a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England. The author, or co-author, of fifty-six books, his work covers a wide range of historical and theological themes. In addition, as a commentator and columnist, he has written for several print and online news platforms and been interviewed on TV and radio news and discussion programmes exploring the interaction of faith and politics. His recent books include: Daughters of Eve (2021), The End Times, Again? (2021), The Story of the Cross (2021), Apocalyptic Politics (2022), and American Vikings: How the Norse Sailed into the Lands and Imaginations of America (2023). Exploration of the conflict which culminated at Easter is an area explored in his co-written book, Jesus the Unauthorized Biography (2021).