Richard Rohr – NT Wright and the Evolution of the Temple

The brilliant Anglican theologian, N. T. Wright, in his two-volume study of St. Paul, concludes that we have largely missed Paul’s major theme. After Luther, many thought Paul’s great idea was justification by faith (Protestants) versus “works righteousness” (Catholics). It makes a nice dualistic split that fundamentalists just love. But Wright says it missed Paul’s much more foundational point. He believes the great and supreme idea of Paul is that the new temple of God is the human person. In this insight, he offers us a superb example of thin-slicing the texts and finding the golden thread. Once you see it, you cannot not see it.

The first stone temple of the Jewish people was built around 950 BC. On the day of the dedication of “Solomon’s Temple,” the shekinah glory of Yahweh (fire and cloud from heaven) descended and filled the Temple (1 Kings 8:10-13), just as it had once filled the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 40:34-35). This became the assurance of the abiding and localized divine presence of Yahweh for the Jewish people. This naturally made Solomon’s Temple both the center and centering place of the whole world, in Jewish thinking.

When the Babylonians tore down the Temple and took the Jews into exile (587 BC), it no doubt prompted a crisis of faith. The Temple was where God lived! So Ezra, Nehemiah, and Jeremiah convinced the people that they must go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple so God can be with them again. Wright points out there is no account of the fire and glory of God ever descending on this rebuilt temple (515 BC). This “Second Temple” is the only temple Jesus would have ever known and loved.

The absence of visible shekinah glory must have been a bit of an embarrassment and worry for the Jewish people. Wright says it could explain the growth of Pharisaism, a belief strong in Jesus’ time that if they obeyed laws more perfectly–absolute ritual, priesthood, and Sabbath purity–then the Glory of God would return to the Temple. This is the common pattern in moralistic religion: our impurity supposedly keeps Yahweh away. They tried so hard, but the fire never descended. They must have wondered, “Are we really God’s favorite and chosen people?” (This is a common question for all in early stage religion.)

Knowledge of this history now gives new and even more meaning to what we call Pentecost Sunday (Acts 2:1-13). On that day, the fire from heaven descended, not on a building, but on people! And all peoples, not just Jews, were baptized and received the Spirit (Acts 2:38-41). Paul understood this and drew out the immense consequences. He loved to say, “You are that Temple!” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 2 Corinthians 6:16, Ephesians 2:21-22), and of course this morphs into his entire doctrine of individual humans as the very Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:14-30). We are all “walking around like the sun” as Thomas Merton says.

Adapted from an unpublished talk, February 2015 at the CAC
Gateway to Silence
I am the temple of God.

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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