Jesus and the Temple by Simon J. Joseph   Leave a comment



Cambridge University Press has just released Jesus and the Temple: the Crucifixion in its Jewish Context by Prof. Simon J. Joseph of California Lutheran University. In my opinion, this book is part of what seems to be a Trilogy. A clear programme appears through these books and connects them together. His first book defines his understanding of Q and its place in the formative Christian period. His second book, which I reviewed earlier (pt.1 and 2), defines the image of Q’s Jesus as a nonviolent Messiah with a transformative eschatology that is not very far from the Enochic tradition. The third book puts his findings in action by attesting it against the wider historical milieu of Christian traditions in quest of understanding the original message of Jesus.

The Book

The topic of Jesus’ attitude towards the Temple is fundamental since his fate in several texts (prominently GMk and GMt) was associated with it. Jesus’ relationship with the Temple also shaped and defined the early Christian movement that was not far from it. However, the Gospels did not clarify exactly what offense Jesus made that led to his condemnation. Hence comes the book of Joseph which aims to use this theme to question the identity and scope of Jesus’ message. As I said before, the book is not far from his earlier books through which he developed an understanding of Jesus in Q.

The book starts and ends with the crucifixion: its historicity (ch.1) and meaning (ch.7). Within this event, Joseph states the problem of why Jesus was executed. Hence, he approached the Temple as a probable cause for his violent end, and how it was understood by early Christians (the sacrifice of the dying saviour).  It does not take too long until the rhythm of the book gets faster with rich footnotes in English and German and a careful survey of earlier views. Building up towards unlocking the enigmatic relationship between Jesus and the Temple, Joseph goes through the concept of the Law as it appears from the Torah to early Christianity, in an endeavour to understand Jesus’ possible attitude towards it. Joseph resorts to the vision of the law as it appears in the radicalised maxims of Q through which Joseph seems to go beyond the ordinary state of the law towads the transformed ethics in the realm of realised eschatology. Joseph’s thesis is well understood through his earlier works and is also in a clear agreement with John Kloppenborg who emphasised this specific point in his stratification of Q.

In the third chapter, Joseph defined the eschatological perspective of the Temple in second Temple Judaism just as he did with the Torah. He justifiable shows how the background of Jesus had a milieu of attitudes and forms of criticism against different elements of the Temple as an institution. This, as Joseph suggests, leads consequently to the variety of attitudes seen in Christianity, later.

In the fourth chapter, Joseph sets out the problem of the Christian attitude towards the Temple. He first starts from Q where he senses a “serious indictment” against the establishment in the prophetic saying Q 13:34-5 (See my comment section below) and 11:49-51. A “forsaken” Temple is not one in which sacrifices are either efficacious or capable of reconciling Israel and God. The Temple is a place where the prophets are killed.  Jerusalem has rejected Jesus, and its Temple is now “forsaken.”[1] Moving to Mark, Joseph concludes that Mark’s theology is clearly against the Temple and that the Markan Jesus has no place for the Temple in his vision of the eschaton. Albeit more conservative, Matthew follows Mark. When it comes to Luke-Acts Joseph indeed deems the Lukan attitude ambiguous.  going quickly through the rest of the NT texts, Joseph concludes: “among His people. The New Testament evidence for the historical Jesus’ relationship to the Temple is inconsistent and ambiguous.”[2]

Afterwards, Joseph proposes his own possible solution to the problem. After a critique of the earlier solutions, especially the ones that introduce Jesus with a violent apocalyptic and destructive tone, Joseph goes to a fresh and new corner. He asks a question that would challenge the conservatives across the Atlantic: what if the so-called Jewish Christianity could contribute to the problem by providing a more consistent image of Jesus’ attitude to the Temple? Hence comes Joseph’s bold contribution to the problem.

Overcoming the classic prejudiced view against these groups, Joseph shows how the theology of groups like the Ebionites and the Nazirites is not necessarily later or secondary to the “canonical” ones. The Ebionite dietary, rejection of animal sacrifices and ascetic life are certainly not far from the information, albeit fragmented, we have about the early Jerusalemite Christians (prominently James) or even earlier (John the Baptist). Going beyond James Robinson’s speculation of the possible disappearance of Q along with Jewish Christians,  Joseph proposes a possible trajectory through which we can see the possible reality of Jesus’  Temple attitude and the Jewish Christian groups. Carefully assessing the hypothesis 20th century pillar of Jewish Christianity scholarship Hans Joachim Schoeps,[3] Joseph proposes that their attitude to the Temple was transformative: they did not necessarily abolish the Temple per se but they no longer considered the significance of the sacrificial system.[4] The plurality of the Jewish Christian groups must not be seen as a single sect, and hence they indeed provided a multiply attested memory of Jesus, if we give up on the canonical judgment against them.

In the light of Q’s early witness, through the conflicting Gospel accounts of the matter, to the multiply attested testimony of the Jewish Christian sects, it seems that the best explanation of Jesus’ attitude is that he had a transformative view of the Temple which turns it into an eschatological sanctuary by following the eschatological maxims and teachings rather than blood sacrifices.[5] This image is the most consistent one that could solve the different historical problems.

The final chapter provides a case for the secondary nature of the Christian understanding of Jesus’ sacrificial death (dying as a saviour) under the impact of Paul, the expansion in the Roman empire and the marginalisation of Jerusalem Church after 70 CE.


1)            Joseph engages critically with three problematic issues: 1- the common assumption of the Third Quest which enforces a conformist Jewish image that Jesus must belong to. 2- the insufficiency of the term “Jewish Christian” and its negative impact on research. 3- The ability to acknowledge the incoherence of the Temple attitudes in the Gospels… something we need to assert in the light of the successive books that recently dealt with the matter.[6]

2)            However, I wish I could see an unpacked discussion of the Temple attitudes in the Gospels, including Q (CUP monographs are usually very limited in word count). I personally disagree with the “anti-temple” interpretation of both Q 13:34-5 and 11:49-51. Indeed, Jesus had a negative perspective of the Jewish leadership and Jerusalem as a city, but the judgment was not automatically transferred to the Temple. The Temple was apparently the victim of the Jewish authorities. Q does not provide us with a clear positive or negative image of the Temple and, in my opinion, the different attempts of earlier scholars to suggest an attitude are speculative.  Does depicting the Temple as a place of conflict mean that the Temple itself is negatively viewed? I doubt it. This is clearer in the case of Luke whose special material shows Jesus’ deep commitment to reach the Temple and to stay in it until his arrest. This pre-Lukan tradition was known to Mark (14:49) who seems to have suppressed it. Yet, this commitment was not reduced by the aggressive attitude of the Jewish rulers, in Luke. Hence, Q 13:34-5 is not in conflict with the Lukan context which interprets the destruction of the Temple not in a negative sense like Mark (and Matthew) but because it falls victim to the failure of the Jerusalem’s authorities to recognise “the things that make peace” (Cf. 19:41-5 and 21:20-4). Just like Josephus, the one to blame for the destruction of the Temple is not God but the Jewish rulers. This is certainly not the case of Mark who curses the Temple through the off-putting fig tree incident. Indeed, Stephen’s speech runs against Luke’s theology but the book of Acts aimed to show diversity and Luke tolerated that clearly by combining apostles and figures (like Apollos) who were not entirely in agreement and harmony. Could Luke make a good case for Joseph’s argument within the Synoptic tradition? I would say yes, and this is not entirely new. Lloyd Gaston’s No Stone on Another suggested a non-Cultic devotion to the Temple in Streeter’s Proto-Luke (which combines Q and L), and I find this justifiable.

3)            The book is rich in bibliography, coherent and solid. The 6th chapter on Jewish Christianity is certainly provocative and stimulating. It will certainly bring more discussions since bringing “noncanonical” texts in the historical debates is sometimes a red herring. If you are not familiar with the topic, I would suggest that you start from this book since it will take you through earlier scholarship and will provide you with the foundations up to Joseph’s contribution this year.

[1] p.105

[2] p.132

[3] Cf. Jewish Christianity: Factional disputes in the early church

[4] Epiphanius’ description of Elchasai and his follows shows this seemingly contradictory view : they remained committed to Jerusalem as the centre of worship but they refused the blood sacrifice. The Ebionites also seemed to share this perspective (Pan. 19.3.5–7.).

[5] pp.208-9

[6] See Wardle The Temple and Early Christian Identity (2008); Perrin’s Jesus the Temple (2011) and Charlesworth’s Jesus and the Temple (2014)


Posted January 23, 2016 by Mina Monier in Uncategorized

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