Aroma of Incense: Shadow of the Temple in Luke’s Jewish Story of Jesus and the WayAuthor: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Acts, Apocrypha, Church, Exegesis, Luke, Sirach, Worship
I have long known “temple talk” is very pervasive in the NT though frequently unrecognized because “temples” are not part of my experience. The culture of the temple casts a large shadow indeed and is really important for understanding many strands of NT thought. For example in modern, western, Evangelical thought the Gospel of Luke and Acts are commonly believed to be “Gentile” in orientation but this is probably not the case at all. Our cultural distance from the first century and our lack of familiarity with both the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish world of the Way makes it easy to impose things upon the text unconsciously.
Because of our failure to know much about the religion of Jesus we simply screen out or redefine Jewish perspectives in both the Gospel and the Acts. But as one scholar put it “Luke is interested in all things Jewish.” This is a surprise to many but I hope to help us have “eyes to see” Luke’s Story more effectively.
Have you noticed that Luke’s Gospel begins in the temple and it ends in the temple. Acts, too, begins in the temple and that Pentecost occurs in the temple is not without significance. Luke, like all authors, assumes his hearers have a certain amount of cultural info they bring to the text. He does not feel it is necessary to explain some things because he believes they already know what he is talking about. That is how cultural information works. I want to examine one small window into Temple culture and theology that goes thru the Gospel and Acts – the Tamid.
The Aroma of Sacrifice & Righteousness
We first encounter the Tamid in Luke’s opening narrative with Zechariah. The Tamid is the daily sacrifices in the temple, morning and evening. The evening sacrifice, according to both Philo and Josephus, took place at the ninth hour, that is about three o’clock in the afternoon. It is this sacrifice Zechariah was to participate in in Luke 1.
Both Zechariah and Elizabeth are said to be dikaio (righteous) and faithful to the Torah in the manner of 1 Kgs 8.61 (Lk 1.6). Jesus ben Sira spoke about being righteous in this manner too. His book which we call Sirach was both popular, and influential, among Jews and later the early church. Copies, in Hebrew, of Sirach have been discovered at Masada, the work was included in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint, and was even quoted by some Rabbis in the Mishnah as scripture a few times . But dikaio is used in Sirach 35.1, 9 of the person offering sacrifice, they are “acceptable” (dekte).
We know this is the Tamid in Luke 1 because 1) Zechariah is serving with the “daily” crew at the “hour of incense” (Lk 1.10) and 2) we are told of the “whole assembly was praying outside” (1.10). This would be the crowds waiting in the Court of Israel and the Court of Women. As the Tamid ceremony goes, the priest would exit the sanctuary (this is not the Holy of Holies) and and stand before the people to pronounce the blessing on the crowd. This blessing is the familiar words of Numbers 6.24-26. The gathered crowds rightly anticipate the blessing when Zechariah emerges but he is unable to speak. No blessing is spoken (I will come back to this because it is important).
But strange things happen at the “hour of prayer” … that is the Tamid ceremony in the history of Israel and it comes to the fore in Luke-Acts. Gabriel, for example, also appeared to Daniel during the Tamid (Dan 9.21) and it is – not surprisingly – Gabriel that shows up in Luke 1! Luke uses the “scent of sacrifice” to mold his story of Jesus from the beginning … but he is not done.
Pharisee, Tax Collector and Righteousness
The social setting for Jesus’s parable of the Pharisee & Tax Collector (Luke 18.9-14) is also the Tamid. I used to imagine (not sure why) that these two men simply engaged in private prayer. My imagination had nothing to do with the social context, however. Luke states plainly they “went up to the temple to pray.” Both men are described as standing off. Off from what? The crowd that is gathered for almost certainly the evening hour of prayer. Jesus told this parable to those who trust in their own righteousness (v.9), one went home from that hour of sacrifice “rendered righteous” (dedikaiomenos, NRSV reads “justified”). This man has become like Zechariah. The tax collector embodies the spirit of the Tamid, he received the “blessing” of the sacrifice that we anticipate, but did not get, in Luke 1.
Aroma of the Sacrifice and a Healing
Luke is not done with the Tamid. Peter and John go to the Temple at the time of the Tamid, “at the ninth hour, the hour of prayer.” Acts 3.1-10 is an example of what happens during 2.46. It is like a Lukan “snapshot” of what he claims for Acts 2.46. Peter and John are doing what they always do – they gather with the “saved” (2.47) in the Temple at the hour of sacrifice. This is the same time Zechariah was performing his sacrifice, the same time Gabriel appeared to Daniel, the same time the Tax Collector prayed and was rendered righteous. The time of day explains why “all the people” (3.9, 11) were there outside the sanctuary just as they were for Zechariah in Lk 1.10, 21. Strange things can happen at the hour of the Tamid and this man receives the blessing of the Tamid through the name of Jesus. He symbolizes the restoration of Israel in the tradition of Isaiah 35.6, as Luke/Peter says he was a “sign of healing” (4.22). An example of Isaiah 35 coming to life. New creation is bursting forth.
The Tamid and a Gentile Soldier
Cornelius adopted Temple piety by praying regularly at the time of the Tamid service (10.2-3). Luke uses sacrificial language to describe his prayers, they rose to God as a “memorial” (v.4) as if rising with the incense in the temple. It was at the time of the Tamid, as the Roman prayed, an angel appeared to him as with Zechariah and Daniel (10.30). So in good Jewish tradition Cornelius prays to the Lord during the Tamid like Judith (9.1) and Daniel (9.21). Peter addresses Cornelius saying “I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable (dektos) to him” (10.34-35). dektos is a rare word in the NT used again by Luke, 2x by Paul. However, it is frequent in the LXX where it refers mostly to worthy/acceptable sacrifices (Ex 28.28; Lev 1.3, 4; 22.20, 21, 29; 23.31). Peter is not simply calling Cornelius a good, nice, pagan as I once thought a long time ago. Rather his righteousness most naturally refers to the kind of behavior ascribed to Cornelius, that is caring for the poor and cultivating prayer at Tamid. It is Temple Piety. He, a Gentile, is the beneficiary of God’s promises to Israel.
Now two more texts. Luke alone tells the story of the Ascension of the Messiah. Remember the Gospel opened with the Tamid in the Temple but no Aaronic priestly blessing appears. The Gospel ends in the temple drawing on a multiplicity of Hebraic themes (Tobit, Sirach, the prophets). I never noticed, until recently, that my focus was MISPLACED. I focused on the rising and going away. And Luke certainly is interested in that. But Luke emphasizes the blessing and in fact mentions it two times. Jesus, he says,
“RAISED HIS HANDS, and BLESSED THEM. And as he BLESSED them he parted …” (24.50-52).
This is priestly language and would not be missed by any of Luke’s original hearers. This is not only Tamid service language but it is the climax of the Tamid service … the pronouncing of the blessing. Almost all critical scholars point to the connection to Sirach 50, the glory of Simon, for Luke’s description. Sirach 50 is the conclusion, and pinnacle, of a retelling of the history of Israel through the heroes of faith. Simon, the High Priest, is described in his glory during the daily Tamid service. I quote from Sirach,
“coming down he would RAISE HIS HANDS over all the congregation of Israel. The BLESSING of the Lord would be upon his lips, the name of the Lord would be his glory. Then again the people would lie prostrate [proskynesi] to receive from him the blessing of the Most High. And now, bless [eulogesate] the God of all, who has done wondrous things on earth; who fosters men’s growth …according to his will (or mercy, eleos)! May he grant you joy of heart and my peace [eirene] abide among you.” (Sirach 50.20ff)
Luke has numerous points of contact: 1) raising the hands; 2) the blessing;3) the worship; 4) the blessing God; and 5) the note of joy. Jesus is the culmination, the fullness, of Israel’s worship to God according to Luke. As Simon was the culmination of the history of Israel at the time of Ben Sira, Jesus is simply the culmination of all things Israel. The priestly Blessing of Zechariah has been delayed until Jesus himself pronounces it. Jesus is the ultimate righteous one.
Conclusion: The Jewish World of the New Testament Way
Our little study here has revealed the Jewish “atmosphere” of not only Jesus but also Luke and the early followers of the Way. The liturgy of the Temple is deeply embedded into the life of Jesus and Luke uses it creatively to tell the story of the Messiah and how our worship is the culmination of Israel’s. This is why Peter and John are in the temple and this was why a Gentile was righteous because he patterned his life after the Tamid. Our study further highlights the NT authors use of Hebraic sources and how they weave them seamlessly into the faith “once delivered.” At any rate this is what happens when something dawns on you that every person in the first century already knew. Neither Jesus nor a biblical understanding of Christianity can be divorced from its Jewish roots.
1] The points of contact between Jesus ben Sira and Jesus of Nazareth are far to numerous in the Gospels to deny that the Lord knew and respected his namesake. Among the many sources to consult see David A. deSilva, The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude: What Earliest Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (Oxford University Press, 2012), 58-85.