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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Temple, Synagogues, and Sanhedrin

The Temple had been the central concern of the Maccabees and a focus of continuing Hasmonean politics, and it was central to Herod the Great's domestic politics. Built by Solomon, destroyed by Nebuchadrezzar, rebuilt during the Persian period, and remodeled by Herod, the Temple served mythologically as the link between heaven and earth, ritually as the locus of sacrifice and domain of the priesthood, economically as the national bank, and politically as the focus of many who sought the rule of heaven as opposed to the rule of Rome. The center of worship for all Jews in the formative period—either because they participated in it or because they defined their movement as an alternative to it—the Temple would remain, long after its destruction in 70 CE, a major focus of Judaism's religious imagination.

The Temple's centrality for Judaism, both locally and throughout the Diaspora, is indicated in various ways. One was Jewish fidelity to paying a Temple tax of a half-shekel annually, a practice based on Exodus 30.11–16 and mentioned in Matthew 17.24 . Another manifestation of the Temple's importance were the annual pilgrimages during the festivals of Booths (Sukkot), Passover (Pesach), and Weeks (Shavuot), which brought Jews from throughout the empire to the capital (see Acts 2.5–11 ). Still other signs of the Jews' attachment to the Temple are the extensive renovations undertaken by Herod and his successors; the fight for control of the Temple and Temple Mount during the First Revolt; the extensive discussion of the Temple and its sacrifices within the documents of early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism; the depiction of the Temple menorah on the Arch of Titus; the image of the Temple on the coins minted by Bar Kokhba in the Second Revolt, more than sixty years after the Temple's destruction; and the ongoing references to the Temple in Jewish liturgy. Yet permutations of this centrality emphasize as well the diversity of practice and belief among the people called “Jews.”

Within the Temple, daily sacrifices were offered by the priests, both on their own behalf and for the Jewish community. The priests themselves, who inherited their position, were divided into twenty-four courses; each course served for a set period. Aiding the priests in the Temple were members of a second hereditary group, the Levites.

Priests and Levites were not the only figures in the Temple. Pilgrims could purchase animals for sacrifice from local sellers, and those wishing to pay the Temple tax or make monetary offerings could exchange their own currency for the Tyrian shekels that alone were accepted by the institution—hence the employment that the Temple offered to money changers.

The Temple itself consisted of areas of increasing holiness. Outermost was the court of the Gentiles, which anyone could enter. Proceeding farther in, one reached the court of the (Jewish) women, the court of the (Jewish) men, and finally the holy of holies—entered only by the high priest on the Day of Atonement. Participation in the Temple was open to everyone: women could make offerings, as Jesus' account of the widow's offering (Mark 12.42–43 ) and Josephus's narrative of Queen Helena of Adiabene, the proselyte, clearly indicate.

For Jewish groups, the Temple had diverse meanings. Some Sadducees, who were priests, saw it as their livelihood; when the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the priestly Sadducees for all practical purposes lost their public role and disappeared. For the Pharisees, it provided the model of holiness which they then extended to the home; after 70, members of this group clung to the hope for the Temple's reconstruction while at the same time claiming that deeds of loving-kindness took the place of sacrifice. For the authors of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the “Temple Scroll,” a new Temple would replace the corrupt present one. Early Christians presented Jesus as disrupting the Temple's daily activities, and although Jesus' Jewish followers remained involved with Temple worship, Christian theology eventually replaced Temple sacrifice with the sacrifice of Jesus, a shift articulated in the letter to the Hebrews. Thus, with the exception of the Sadducean priests, the various Jewish groups of the final centuries BCE and the first centuries CE were prepared to continue their worship apart from the Temple.

Because the Temple was a place of sacrifice, it was also a place of sanctification. Worshipers in the Jerusalem Temple, as in most temples of Greco-Roman antiquity, had to be in a state of ritual purity before entering the sacred precincts. The Temple courts were therefore inappropriate places for men who had just had an emission of semen, or for women who were menstruating. Such traditions—many of the regulations are outlined in Leviticus and Numbers—concern the sanctity of the site, not the sinfulness of the person. To menstruate was not sinful, and sexual intercourse was mandated by God's command to “be fruitful and multiply.” Many Temple-based purity regulations were extended to their homes by several communities of Jews, and each group determined both which rules to emphasize and how to interpret them. For example, havurah (fellowship) groups insisted on eating only food that was scrupulously tithed and prepared. For the majority of Jews during the early Roman period, however, purity concerns such as restrictions on menstruants or ejaculants were not emphasized; apart from the Temple, there was little need to maintain a state of ritual purity.

In the absence of the Temple, the synagogue—the word itself is a Greek term that means “bring together”—became the most recognizable public Jewish institution. The synagogue and the Temple were not ultimately comparable institutions. The Temple was a place of sacrifice and pilgrimage; synagogues were not. Officially there was one Temple—although others did exist, prior to the time of Pompey, in Elephantine and Leontopolis in Egypt and, for the Samaritans, on Mount Gerizim—and it was controlled by priests. There were many synagogues, but they were apparently not, especially before 70 CE, dominated by the Pharisees, despite suggestions by the Gospels. The book of Acts (6.9) mentions synagogues of freed slaves, of Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and Cilicians. Synagogue activity included the reading and interpretation of scripture, and the institution also served as a meeting place and a house of study. From the first century CE comes this inscription from Jerusalem: “Theodotus, son of Vettenus, priest and leader of the synagogue, built the synagogue for the reading of the law and the teaching of the commandments, and the guest house and the rooms and the water supplies as an inn for those who come from abroad, which [synagogue] his fathers had founded and the elders, and Simonides.” Comparable to the synagogue is the proseuche, or place of prayer; the term appears in reference to Jewish gathering places in the Diaspora as well as in Galilee, and Acts 16.11–15 refers to a proseuche in Philippi, the Thracian city where Paul finds several women gathered and where Paul makes his first convert on European soil, Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth.

Judea's principal judicial body, the Sanhedrin, took its name and probably its form from the Greek institution known as the Synedrion, the “sitting together” or “assembly.” Rabbinic writings (especially Tractate Sanhedrin in the Mishnah) describe the seventy-one-member Great Sanhedrin that met in the Temple; this institution was headed by the high priest. The Gospels, which with some major discrepancies describe a trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, suggest that its membership included Sadducees, Pharisees, and priests. According to Josephus, the Sanhedrin met occasionally, whenever the high priest convened it for the major task of providing him guidance. Apparently it was rendered powerless under Herod, who remembered how it had once humiliated him, for there are no records of any action undertaken by it during his kingship. The Sanhedrin regained some authority under direct Roman rule. By that time its concerns included implementing religious law on such issues as agriculture and trade as well as maintaining peace with local Roman authorities.

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