Did the First Jewish Believers in Jesus Continue to Sacrifice at the Temple?

The question of whether the disciples of Jesus ceased sacrificing at the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem following his death is one that comes up occasionally among scholars interested in understanding the very earliest form of Christ-belief. This question has come up again in a new book by Paula Fredriksen, When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation (Yale, 2018).

There is no question that all of the earliest believers in Jesus as the resurrected Son of God were Jews. That acknowledgment represents a seismic shift in modern scholarship toward reappraising Jesus’s Jewishness and taking his religio-cultural background seriously. Scholars now try to understand the things that Jesus said and did in the cultural context of first-century Judaism. Judaism in the first century was complex, not at all uniform. There were many ways of being Jewish at the time. Jesus began to mark out another way of being Jewish by the things he did and said and required of his followers. According to Jesus’s own “brand” of Jewishness, then, did he deem worship in the Temple in Jerusalem acceptable and did he teach others to do so?

The importance of this question is tied up with the events of Jesus’s last week in Jerusalem. Each of the four New Testament gospels suggests that Jesus came into conflict with Jewish Temple authorities who directed that Jesus be arrested, perhaps interrogated, and then handed over to the local Roman authority, Pontius Pilate, for judgment and execution. Scholars seek to understand how and why Jesus might have been perceived as hostile to the Temple, its priestly administrators, and even to Rome. All four gospels report that Jesus made a public display of overturning the tables of businessmen and tradesmen operating in the Temple courtyard (Mark 11:15ff and par.). What was the reason for this? Did Jesus reject the Temple and teach his followers to do so?

Fredriksen argues that Jesus was a devout Jew who participated in the major festivals in the Jerusalem Temple throughout his life. Indeed, if the episode found in the birth story of Jesus as recounted in the Gospel of Luke (2:22-24, 27, 39) has historical value, even Jesus’s parents participated in Temple sacrifice (at the very least, the making of such a sacrifice by Jesus’s parents did not seem objectionable to the author of Luke or his readers). As an adult, Jesus makes plans to celebrate Passover according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke; he even gives preparation instructions to his disciples for the consumption of the sacrificial Passover lamb (Mark 14:12-16). According to the Gospel of John, in which Jesus is depicted as visiting Jerusalem more often than in the other gospels, Jesus is present not only for Passover(s), but also for the festivals of Tabernacles (Sukkot) (John 7:37-38) and Hanukkah (Feast of Dedication) (John 10:22) though he is not said specifically to offer sacrifices at any of those times.

Nevertheless, there should be no historical problem with characterizing Jesus as a devout Jew who attended the Jewish Temple and participated in its sacrifices at various times in his life. On the other hand, toward the end of his life he is quoted predicting the Temple’s destruction (Mark 13:2, Matthew 26:60-61) and perhaps even symbolically enacting it (overturning the tables). Jesus also lambasts the Temple’s priestly overseers (Matthew 12:5, 21:33-41). Even though it is possible that Jesus became disenchanted with the Temple’s priestly administrators toward the end of his life, that possibility does not negate his sense of Jewish obligation toward offering sacrifices to God. And there is no reason to suspect that Jesus taught his followers not to make sacrifices in the Temple. (There is one example, in fact – Mark 1:44 – in which Jesus instructs a former leper to make the required sacrifice at the Temple for being healed.) But the evidence is much stronger than not for detecting a sea change among Jesus’s followers with regard to making sacrifices in the Temple after Jesus’s death.

It is important to consider how Jesus’s followers might have viewed the Temple’s priestly administration (not all Jewish priests, just those chief priests in charge of the Temple and its sacrificial cultus) after witnessing their complicity in events that led to the destruction of God’s messiah. Would Jesus’s followers have changed their minds about the propriety of further Temple sacrifice? Is it logical to presume that they would continue to believe that God would joyfully accept sacrifices administered by the same priestly authorities who had just participated in the events leading to the death of God’s messiah? This is quite different than Jesus’s earlier dissatisfaction with certain administrative issues.

It is irrelevant whether Jesus or his parents made sacrifices in the Temple. The question is whether, given the execution of their messiah, his disciples continued to do so. We cannot be dogmatically universal in our claim that they did not. Perhaps some continued to make sacrifices. My argument is that many did not. Support for this theory comes in three sets of sources: the first from two centuries before Jesus, the second from immediately after Jesus’s death, and the third from two centuries after Jesus’s death.

First, we may ask if there is any historical precedent for a group of Jews forsaking Temple sacrifices because they viewed the Temple administration as in some way corrupt? The answer is an unqualified “yes”. Paula Fredriksen discusses the abandonment of the Temple in the second century BCE by the Essenes, a group who left Jerusalem in order to found a community on the banks of the Dead Sea. Their beef: the Maccabean revolutionary family that had won independence for the Jews from their Syrian-Greek overlords set themselves up as high priests. Since they did not descend from the ancient family of Zadok, the high priest under King David a thousand years earlier, the Maccabeans should have been disqualified by tradition from serving as high priests. The Essenes decided to leave Jerusalem, eventually deciding not to sacrifice again in its Temple at least until it was sanctified or replaced during the messianic Last Days.

Second, there is near-zero evidence in the New Testament of any Christ-believing Jew sacrificing in the Temple after Jesus’s death and resurrection. It is important to understand that simply being in the Jerusalem Temple does not automatically imply sacrificial activity. The greater Temple was a massive place with a courtyard the size of 11 football fields. Anyone, including pagans, were welcome in this courtyard. The sanctuary in the middle of this courtyard, however, was restricted to Jews only. It was within this sanctuary that sacrifices were offered to God. Anyone teaching in the Temple would not do so in the sanctuary but in the courtyard surrounding it. Both Jesus (John 7:14, 28; 8:2, 20; 10:23; 18:20) and his disciples are said to have done so (Luke 24:53; Acts 2:46; 3:1; 5:21, 42). Teaching, or even praying, in the Temple does not imply making a sacrifice in the sanctuary or even condoning it. Because of the numbers of people usually wandering around the courtyard at any given time, it was the best place for reaching the largest audience with one’s message.

There is one, and only one, episode in the New Testament that suggests that some followers of Jesus might have made sacrifices in the Temple after his death. This dubious account (Acts 21:18-29) occurs in Acts’ story of Paul’s last trip to Jerusalem. To allay suspicion that Paul was teaching Jews not to be religiously observant, James the brother of Jesus instructed Paul to take four Jewish men (probably Christ-believers), who were under a Nazirite vow (see Numbers 6:1-21), to the Temple and provide for their concluding ritual act of sacrifice. Paul went to the Temple authorities and notified them when the four men would be ready to complete their vow. But before a week had passed, Paul was arrested and accused of trying to take a non-Jew into the sanctuary. This situation led to Paul’s claim of being a Roman citizen and his subsequent incarceration by Roman authorities. Though the narrative elements imply that Paul would have complied with James’s request by paying for the sacrifices required by the Nazirites, he is never described as doing so. Nor do we hear whether the Nazirites complied. Small distinction perhaps, but it does not negate the fact that no follower of Jesus is ever depicted offering a sacrifice in the Temple.

Though the book of Acts does not describe the apostles preaching against making Temple sacrifices (with the possible exception of Stephen – Acts 7:44-49 – but the meaning of the relevant passage is debated) there may be reasons for this. First, it may be that not all Christ-believing Jews abandoned the offering of sacrifices. Perhaps some found a way to come to terms with a priestly administration who, while working against the interests of God, could still make valid sacrifices to that same God. It may have taken time and much scriptural study for some to come to this conclusion. Or, perhaps it was unnecessary for the author of Acts to articulate the abandonment of sacrificing by early Christ-believing Jews since it may have been commonly understood that they stopped. Not only that, by the time Acts was written (late 1st-early 2nd c.), the Temple had long since been destroyed (70 CE). Sacrificing in Jerusalem was no longer an issue.

Frederiksen points to Paul’s letters as offering evidence of continued sacrifices by Christ-believing Jews in Jerusalem. She cites 1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:19, 10:18, and 2 Corinthians 6:16 in support of her proposition. Though these passages do use the word “temple” (naos), and one verse mentions the “people of Israel who eat the sacrifices,” this hardly constitutes evidence for what Christ-believing Jews were actually doing. Paul uses temple analogies in order to explain to his pagan converts how they need to become like a temple to God or to God’s Holy Spirit (not like the Temple in Jerusalem). Temple references make perfect sense in the pagan environment in which Paul is preaching. Pagans were far and away more likely to spend time in temples than Jews. Pagans had temples literally everywhere throughout the empire. Jews had one Temple only and that was in Jerusalem. Most Jews never saw their Temple. Paul uses temple language to contrast idol worship in idolatrous temples with becoming a sanctified assembly of Christ-believing former pagans. This has nothing to do with what Peter, James, John, or even Paul for that matter, was actually doing or condoning in Jerusalem. Yes, the people of Israel ate sacrifices. Most people in Israel did not accept Jesus as the messiah, either.

The third piece of evidence for our theory comes from the development of a particular form of Christ-belief in the second century CE that scholars often label “Jewish-Christianity” or Ebionitism. These are Jews who have acknowledged Jesus as the Son of God but have not abandoned their Jewish faith (these groups may also comprise some pagans who have “Judaized,” that is, adopted typically Jewish practices). These Christ-believing Jews traced their beliefs and practices back to the original apostles in Jerusalem. According to literature produced by such groups, one of the important things Jesus did was to abolish sacrificing in the Temple. According to the Gospel of the Ebionites, Jesus proclaimed, “I have come to destroy the sacrifices. And if you do not stop making sacrifice, God’s wrath will not stop afflicting you.”

The question here is not whether these are the actual words of Jesus. Most, if not all, scholars would deny that they were. The point is that to the bearers of this tradition, the Ebionites, these words attributed to Jesus made sense and were believed to be said by him. Since these were Jews who believed in Jesus, they were fully aware of Torah and its provisions for making sacrifices to God. But something at some point in their history changed. Obviously, by the second century, the Temple had long since been destroyed but that is not the point of the passage. It is not saying that sacrifices can no longer be made because the Temple’s gone missing; it is that, for these people, it would be wrong to sacrifice in the Temple specifically because of Jesus. In fact, ever since Jesus, sacrificing now brings down God’s wrath. What changed for these Jews? I submit that the abandonment, by pre-70 CE disciples, of temple sacrificing in light of chief priestly complicity in Jesus’s demise eventually became memorialized as a commandment by Jesus not to do so. God would not be pleased and would not accept the sacrificial offering administered by priests who were hostile to God’s plan of salvation and to his messiah.

In conclusion, there is early precedent (the Essenes) for a Jewish sect abandoning Temple sacrifice. There is virtually no evidence that any follower of Jesus after his death sacrificed in the Temple. And there is a continuing tradition among Jewish believers that since Christ came there was to be no more sacrificing. I think that is a stronger case than the opposite, no matter how much we wish to positively reintegrate Judaism into our understanding of Christian origins.

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