On Earth As It Is in Heaven:
Temple Symbolism in the New Testament
Temple theology is the original context of the New Testament insofar as the hopes, beliefs, symbols and rituals of the temple shaped the lives of those who came to be called Christians. Temple theology knew of incarnation and atonement, the sons of God and the life of the age to come, the day of judgement, justification, salvation, the renewed covenant and the kingdom of God. When temple theology is presented, even in barest outline, its striking relevance to the New Testament becomes clear.
There are no ancient texts to tell us directly what the temple cult was about, or to prove that its theology was the basis for the claims of the first Christians. Its influence has to be demonstrated by reconstructing what the beliefs and symbolism of the temple must have been. This can be done by drawing on the increasing number of nonbiblical texts which are now available. Some were written in the early churches or were older texts which they used; fragments of others have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Jewish texts written or compiled in the early Christian period are increasingly recognised as important evidence. This has become one of the fastest growing areas of biblical studies, especially in America. Translations are more readily available and serious students now have to study far more than just biblical texts.
For some people these ‘other’ texts present a problem; how do they relate to the more familiar books of the Bible and what is their status? In the Palestine of the early Christians, there was no such thing as a fixed ‘Bible’. There were many sacred texts, some of which had already been recognised as having a special status. They existed as separate scrolls and not as a single volume. Some collections had already been formed, for example the scroll of the twelve minor prophets, but most were still distinct. It is unlikely that all communities possessed a copy of each of the books we now call the ‘Old Testament’. Some would have used books we no longer have in our Bible, for example the Book of Enoch, which was used by the Qumran community and by the first Christians. Some would not have had access to all the books we now regard as canonical. Further, there were new books which had emerged in the Greek-speaking Jewish community in Egypt. These were not accepted as scripture by those who eventually defined the collection which we know as the Hebrew Bible. On the other hand, these Greek books became the Old Testament of the Christians and remained so until the Reformation when there was a formal separation of the Old Testament (Hebrew) from the Apocryphal (Greek) writings.
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has shown that even the text of the Hebrew Bible was not fixed. Several examples have been found which suggest that there were different versions of familiar Old Testament books; one theory is that there were variations in the different communities: one version in Babylon, one in Palestine and one in Egypt. Most of the differences are not significant, interesting only to specialist scholars; others, particularly where they affect ‘Christian’ understanding of the Old Testament, may prove to be very significant indeed. This is a task for the future.
Piece by piece the world of the temple is emerging from this mass of material just at the time when temple language is being removed from some modern translations of the Bible. Thus ‘firstfruits’ (and all the theology that this implies) have been paraphrased out of the Good News Bible at Romans 11.16, 1 Corinthians 15.20 and Revelation 14.4. The ‘mediator of a new covenant’ in Hebrews 9.15 has become ‘the one who arranges it’. This seems a high price to pay for simplicity. Students of the Bible who do not have access to the original languages literally do not know what they are missing!
Many of the new hymns written by charismatic and evangelical churches, however, are using temple imagery; they have rightly sensed that this lies at the heart of the New Testament message. New compositions such as ‘Majesty’ and ‘The Servant King’ now take their place alongside classics such as ‘Immortal Invisible’, ‘Sun of my Soul’ and ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ as temple-based hymns. I have often used the words of ‘Shine Jesus Shine’, perhaps the most popular of all these new hymns, to introduce temple theology to a church study group.
In this book I have taken four aspects of temple theology and used them to show how details missing from the Old Testament descriptions can be recovered from other ancient texts. I hope this will both illuminate and enrich any reading of the New Testament.
The recovery and translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls since 1947 has revolutionised biblical studies. It will be many years before we know the full significance of this new material, especially for understanding Christian origins. The most accessible English translation is G. Vermes’ The Dead Sea Scrolls in English Penguin Books, third edition, 1987.
Joseph bar Matthias, also known as Flavius Josephus, was born into a priestly family in AD 37. He fought as a leader of the resistance in Galilee after AD 66 but then changed sides and threw in his lot with the Romans. His works include a history of his people, Antiquities of the Jews and an account of the war against Rome, The Jewish War.
Philo was a Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria at the end of the first century AD. Much of his surviving work is an exposition of themes from the Pentateuch. It is the best evidence for Jewish thought outside Palestine in the New Testament period and illuminates much in the Fourth Gospel and the Letter to the Hebrews.
The Mishnah is a law code in sixty-three sections (‘tractates’) covering all aspects of Jewish life. Although compiled in the late second century AD much of the material in it reflects established tradition and may be from a much earlier period. When later scholars explained the Mishnah their conclusions were recorded as the Talmud. Thirty-seven tractates were expounded by scholars in Babylon and these became the Babylonian Talmud; thirty-nine were expounded to become the Palestinian Talmud.
The Targums are Aramaic versions of the Hebrew Bible. The custom of translating the Bible originated in the time of Ezra (Neh. 8.1-8) when Hebrew was no longer the vernacular. There are Targums from the Babylonian and Palestinian communities, the latter often expanded with additional lore and legend which give a valuable insight into how the biblical texts were understood.
1 Enoch, also called the Ethiopic Enoch, is the oldest of the three known Enoch books. It could have been written in Hebrew or Aramaic. What is believed to be a complete text survives only in Ethiopic, but Aramaic fragments of four of its five sections have been identified among the Dead Sea Scrolls. There are also Greek and Latin fragments. The first and earliest section describes the fallen angels and the Day of Judgement. The book contains many old temple traditions and an alternative account of the history of Israel which condemns the second temple as impure.
2 Enoch, also called The Secrets of Enoch, is of unknown origin. It survives only in an Old Slavonic translation, but it may have been written in the Greek-speaking Jewish community of Alexandria. It is quoted in early Christian writings and so it must have been written by the end of the first century AD.
3 Enoch, also called The Hebrew Enoch, is attributed to Rabbi Ishmael, the Palestinian scholar who died in AD 132. It is impossible to date the present text as it is a compilation of earlier material describing mystical ascents to the heavenly chariot throne, the merkabah. Estimates vary from the third century AD to the fifteenth, but it is most likely that the final version was produced in Babylon in the fifth or sixth century.
The Ascension of Isaiah is a text of unknown origin, surviving complete in Ethiopic with fragments in Latin, Greek, Coptic and Old Slavonic. It is a valuable picture of Christian belief at the end of the first century, embedded in the story of Isaiah’s martyrdom at the hands of the evil king Manasseh (2 Kgs. 21.1-18). The prophet ascends through the seven heavens and there learns the secrets of the incarnation. It is probably a Christian expansion of a Jewish original, but at this early date ‘Christian’ and ‘Jewish’ are often hard to distinguish.
The Apocalypse of Moses also called The Assumption of Moses is undateable. Opinions vary as to whether it was written during the time of the Maccabean revolt, at the beginning of the first century AD or in the middle of the second century AD, after the Bar Kokhba revolt. It was probably written in Hebrew, but only a single Latin translation survives. It is in effect a rewriting and exposition of Deuteronomy 31-4.