A Rebuilt Temple?

One aspect of contemporary apocalyptic doctrine held by many evangelical Christians is the expectation that a “third temple” (counting Herod’s temple as a continuation of the second temple rebuilt in the early Persian period) must and will be built in Jerusalem prior to the apocalypse.  It is but a component of Evangelical Christianity’s theological program that leads to virtually unconditional support of the modern state of Israel. This larger program includes the belief that a restored state of Israel, reuniting the twelve tribes, presages the Second Coming; the claim that the current conflict between Arabs and Israeli’s is but the continuation of strife that traces back to conflict between Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau in biblical times, a conflict destined to culminate in Armageddon; and the conviction that, because of God’s promise of protection to Abraham (Gen 12:1-3), anyone who opposes Israel risks getting on God’s enemies list.

This expectation that a revitalized Israel will play a central role in the Second Coming of Jesus also helps to explain the support that conservative American Christians express for the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem, defined as the entirety of the modern city, as the capital of the modern state of Israel (see, for example, https://www.pri.org/stories/2016-10-24/why-american-evangelicals-are-huge-base-support-israel, http://www.cnn.com/2017/12/08/opinions/jerusalem-israel-evangelicals-end-times-butler-bass-opinion/index.html, and ttp://www.gospelherald.com/articles/71691/20171206/5-christian-leaders-reactions-trump-formally-recognizing-jerusalem-israels-capital.htm)  – despite a number of UN resolutions that recognize East Jerusalem (which was countryside in biblical times) as occupied territory. In turn, one can only speculate the Pres. Trump made this decision to recognize Jerusalem and to move the US embassy there, not because of some strategic Middle East policy, but in order to cater to his Evangelical supporters.

In any case, the expectation of a rebuilt temple is dangerous in two significant respects: it excuses, even promotes, injustice toward the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and it is based on faulty biblical interpretation. Before examining these two claims, I should make clear that I do not agree that criticizing the policies of the modern state of Israel or of its major sponsor, the USA, is tantamount to anti-Semitism or lack of patriotism, respectively. Instead, I believe, the call to seek justice knows no restrictions. Amos reminded Israel that responsibility is inherent in election: “Only you have I known of all the families of the earth, therefore I will visit against you all your perversions” (Amos 3:2, my trans.).

The first claim, namely, that the constellation of expectations that include a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem perpetuates injustice toward Palestinians, is almost self-evident. During the British Mandate for the Levant following WWI, the British essentially promised both the Jews and the Palestinians a homeland in the Levant one day (see the Balfour Declaration). The Holocaust shocked and embarrassed the western world. Indifference and incredulity permitted the West essentially to disregard Hitler’s program for addressing “the Jewish problem.” After WWII, however, when the costs of Western inaction became fully known, the international community acted to make amends, establishing the modern state of Israel. It was almost as if the world said to Jews, “We must make up for our failure. Here, we will give you a country.” Meanwhile, to the Palestinians living in that country, the international community essentially said, “We are going to make amends to the Jews for our shortcomings. It will require sacrifice. We have good news! We are going to let you make that sacrifice! Congratulations!”  In the series of brief “wars” since, Israel has seized the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza strip, among other smaller bits of geography.  Despite international law and contrary to a number of UN resolutions which recognize these properties, including East Jerusalem, as occupied territory, Israel continues to build Jewish settlements, erect fences, destroy structures, and seize ground in these regions. The US advocated war against Saddam Hussein for such violations of UN resolutions; yet, it turns it back on Israeli obstinacy. Meanwhile, the US, in particular, expects Palestinians to be grateful for the opportunity to contribute ancestral estates to the welfare of Jewish immigrants.

Furthermore, the idea that a third temple will be built in Jerusalem as a harbinger of the second coming arises from convoluted readings of texts like Matt 24:15; Dan 9:26-27; 2 Thess 2:3-4; and Ezek 40- 48 in the first place. Such interpretations of scripture violate the principle laid out in the previous entry in this blog, namely that, since even Jesus did not know when the end will come, but that its coming will be a stealth occurrence, Christians ought not to waste energy speculating about it, but should, instead, concentrate on being the church in the world.  Furthermore, typically, these readings rely on the interpreter disregarding the historical settings and historical references of the biblical texts. In other words, these interpretations require one to ignore or manipulate, the “plain reading” of the biblical text. Therefore, it will be helpful to establish a simple timeline of pertinent events.

586 BCE         – Nebuchadnezzer destroy’s Solomon’s Temple

515 BCE         – Returnees (re)build the “Second” Temple

168 BCE         – Antiochus IV Epiphanes erects statue of Zeus in the Temple

20-19 BCE      – Herod expands the “Second” Temple into a magnificent edifice

52-53 CE         – 2 Thessalonians written

Late 60’s CE   – Gospel of Mark written

70 CE              – Titus destroys Herod’s Temple

80’s-90’s CE   – Gospel of Matthew written

130 CE            – Hadrian builds pagan temple in which he installs statues of Jupiter and of himself on the temple mount

132-135 CE     – Bar Kokhba Revolt

Examination of the four texts that typically form the basis of the expectation of a rebuilt temple demonstrates that this expectation testifies more to the ingenuity of the interpreter than to the content of the biblical text.  In historical order, they are Ezekiel 40-48; Daniel 9:26-27; 2 Thess 2:3-4; and Matt 24:15.

Pre-exilic prophetic books, without exception, warn against the coming crisis involving either the Assyrian (Hosea, Amos, parts of Isaiah) or the Babylonian (the rest) Empires. They also contain texts that proclaim the continuation of God’s relationship with Israel, or part of it, through and beyond the crisis. Several of these texts promise some kind of reconstitution of Israel, although the details vary widely. On the very day of the destruction of Solomon’s temple, Ezekiel had a vision of another temple (40:1) that he describes in nine chapters.  As described, this temple is grander than Solomon’s and Herod’s combined. The Judeans did not follow Ezekiel’s description when they constructed the so-called “Second Temple” and Herod did not follow it either, which leads some to speculate that Ezekiel had a vision of the “third” temple, yet to be built. One notices quickly that many elements of Ezekiel’s plan contravene the Torah’s prescriptions and that the description does not suit a temple built to usher in the acocalypse.  In Ezekiel 43:7, for example, God identifies Ezekiel’s temple as God’s eternal residence, one that will never be defiled by Israel’s sin. Later in the vision Ezekiel (47:1-12) saw a river, too wide to cross, that flowed from threshold of this temple to the Dead Sea bringing it to life again. These hyperbolic/mythic elements raise the question of whether Ezekiel’s vision should be understood as a prediction or as the kind of heavenly vision Micaiah ben Imlah (2 Kgs 23) or Isaiah (chapter 6) had, a vision that reveals the heavenly temple and the new Jerusalem, not plans for a future structure in historical Jerusalem.

Daniel 9:26-27 speaks with the obscurity typical of apocalyptic literature about seventy “weeks of years” (= 490 years) beginning with the announcement calling for the reconstruction of Jerusalem (Edict of Cyrus 539 BCE?). This period ends with the abomination of desolation engineered by a certain “prince.” Interpreters who see this text as evidence for the “third temple” must interpolate an indefinite period into the time scheme outlined in the text, otherwise this abomination of desolation will have occurred before the birth of Jesus. Was there such an “abomination” in the period before Jesus’ birth?  Yes. Antiochus IV Epiphanes triggered the Hasmonean Rebellion with just such an act.  There is no need to stop the clock in the 69th week of years and restart it sometime yet to be evident.

Jesus referred to this Daniel text in his prediction/warning concerning the Jewish Wars that culminated with the destruction of Herod’s temple (Matt 24:15). Interpreters who expect a third temple argue that, since Jesus refers to the “holy place” in this description of the signs of the apocalypse for his disciples, there must be a temple in the period before Jesus’ return. They simply fail to recognize that “this” (the destruction of the temple in 70 CE) is not “that” (the end of the world).  See the previous entry in this blog.

Finally, proponents of the notion that a third temple must be built before the parousia appeal to Paul’s reference to the “lawless one” taking his seat in the temple before the coming of the Lord. Noting that Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians before both the Jewish Wars and the Bar Kochka Rebellion, the nearest candidates for such a “lawless one” would have been Titus or Hadrian. Presumably, Paul had no more information concerning a detailed sequence of the events to lead up to the Parousia than Jesus himself did.

We do not do the Jews any favors by seeking to hasten the final battle, especially not since such efforts rely on such flimsy biblical evidence. Jesus did not know; we do not know.  Jesus was clear, however, when he called for his disciples to work for peace and justice – for Jew, Samaritan, and Gentile alike.