Margaret Barker

Biblical scholar

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Margaret Barker
 
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Excerpts from the Introduction

The invitation to deliver the Cardinal Hume Lectures for 2003 gave me the opportunity to pause and look around my work. For many years I have been absorbed in a quest to rediscover the meaning of the temple, and as I have accumulated material and drawn tentative conclusions, I have published them before moving on to the next phase. Information has come from many sources, not just from the work of my fellow biblical scholars, and I have often been reminded how far I have travelled (or even strayed!) from the mainstream. In these lectures I describe something of the view from this point on the journey, and speculate about what may lie over the horizon, and how this could affect our perception of Christian origins.

One thing has become quite clear: the original gospel message was about the temple, not the corrupted temple of Jesus’ own time, but the original temple which had been destroyed some six hundred years earlier. All that remained were memories, and the hope that one day the true temple and all it represented would be restored. Jesus was presented as the high priest from the first temple; Melchizedek returned to his people. The restoration of the first temple was the hope of the first Christians, and to set them, their writings and their presentation of Jesus anywhere else than in the temple setting distorts what they were preaching and misrepresents the original gospel. The Book of Revelation is the key to understanding early Christianity. Because it is steeped in temple imagery, most people find it an opaque and impossible text, but people who thought in this ‘temple’ manner also wrote and read the rest of the New Testament. If we read it in any other way, we are reading our own meaning into the texts and are not connecting with the original teachings of the Church.

. . .

The earliest Christian writings assume a world view and a setting which can only have come from a temple – and not the actual temple of their own time. Since the Book of Revelation describes the heavenly throne and the heavenly court of angels and elders, this must have been a memory of the holy of holies in the older Jerusalem temple, furnished with a great golden throne. When the Book of Revelation was written, the holy of holies had been empty for centuries… When very similar material was identified in the hymns found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, it became clear that these were temple scenes with angel priests attending the heavenly throne. People were still singing about a temple that had ceased to exist, or rather, had ceased to have a physical existence in Jerusalem.

 • • •

Jesus was described and remembered as a great high priest (Heb.4.14), the Melchizedek raised up by the power of an indestructible life (Heb.7.16) who had offered the final atonement sacrifice to fulfil and supersede the temple rites (Heb.9.1-14). Melchizedek’s priesthood was more ancient than Aaron’s, and the Letter to the Hebrews argues that the Melchizedek priesthood is superior to the Aaronic (Heb.7.11-19). Now Aaron was the brother of Moses, but Melchizedek was priest in Jerusalem in the time of Abraham. Melchizedek represented the older faith. The Jerusalem kings had been priests in the manner of Melchizedek (Ps.110), but there had been no place for an anointed king, a Messiah, in the religion of Moses. Deuteronomy set strict limits on the role and powers of the king (Deut.17.14-20), but these rules had been elaborated with the wisdom of hindsight, and inserted after the demise of the monarchy. Paul knew where the roots of Christianity lay; he argued that Christianity looked to the faith of Abraham (and by implication Melchizedek), and so was rooted earlier than the Law given to Moses (e.g. Rom.4).

Since the discovery of the Melchizedek text among the Dead Sea Scrolls (11Q13), we can see the significance of this claim that Jesus was Melchizedek. One damaged line of the text seems to describe teachers who have been kept hidden and secret, and the whole text clearly celebrates the return of the divine Melchizedek to rescue his own people from the power of the Evil One. Melchizedek was expected to appear exactly when Jesus began his public ministry, and the description of the role of Melchizedek is exactly how Jesus is presented in the gospels. Jesus as Melchizedek was formerly thought to be peripheral to the understanding of his ministry, something claimed by the early Christians because it was known that Jesus had no family claim to the priesthood of Aaron. Jesus as Melchizedek can now be seen as the key to the New Testament, and the implication of this is that Melchizedek’s temple was the world of the first Christians.

 • • •

The Hebrew Scriptures as we know them were preserved, edited and transmitted by the priests and scribes of the second temple, the very people whom the ‘long exile’ tradition condemned as impure apostates who had altered the Scriptures. ‘Sinners will alter and pervert the words of righteousness in many ways… and lie and practise great deceit and write books concerning their words’ (1 Enoch 104.10; 1 Enoch 98.15-99.1 is similar). This Enoch text was regarded as Scripture by the early Christians, and so they will have known the accusation that the tradition was being altered…

 …

The key event was the great purge in the time of King Josiah at the end of the seventh century BCE, when everything that the Deuteronomists deemed impure was removed from the temple and destroyed ( 2 Kings 23 ). This is not an objective account, and it is easy to see that most of what King Josiah removed were the religious artefacts and practices of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and almost all the kings in Jerusalem. They had survived in the land until the sixth century BCE – sacred trees, pillars, places outside Jerusalem to offer sacrifice – but King Josiah removed everything that did not conform to the Moses religion as set out in Deuteronomy. [8] In other words, the ‘Moses’ religion with the ten commandments and the Aaron priesthood did not finally replace the Abrahamic faith and the Melchizedek priesthood until just before the first temple was destroyed. (It is hard to find any indication in the early chapters of Isaiah, written in the eighth century BCE, that the prophet knew about Moses and the ten commandments.)

• • •

Recovering the world of the original temple is not a simple matter. There is no single text which reveals the lost world and proves beyond any doubt that what I am proposing was the case. What is beyond doubt is the unsatisfactory and even unreasonable account of ‘New Testament background’ which has prevailed for so long. It has been assumed that rabbinic texts from a period long after the New Testament could be used to illustrate the New Testament situation, but that the writings of Philo, a Jewish contemporary of Jesus in Egypt, were suspect because they were so different from the rabbinic texts…

 …There was no fixed canon of Hebrew Scripture until after the advent of Christianity, and there is good reason to suspect that the familiar Hebrew canon was established in reaction to Christianity. Even the Hebrew text from which the English Bible is translated was fixed at the end of the first century CE and excluded the version(s) which the first Christians (and the Dead Sea community) had used. Other pre-Christian texts preserved the voices of the long exile and of hostility to the second temple, yet these texts were only preserved by Christian scribes. Jews were forbidden to read them, and the scrolls of the ‘minim’ (heretics) had to be burned even if they contained the sacred Name.[12] This explains what happened to much of the evidence…

 • • •

The temple tradition, once it has been identified, is clear in the Gospels themselves. The role of the royal high priest (in the older temple this would have been the anointed king), for example, was to carry away the sin and uncleanness of the people so that they could be restored within the bonds of the covenant. The clearest picture of this is in Isaiah 53. It is no coincidence that this is one of the most frequently cited texts in the New Testament. The royal high priest was the great angel in human form, the Man, who passed between heaven and earth. The vision of Daniel 7 is frequently cited or assumed in the New Testament, the human figure ascending with clouds to his enthronement. The royal high priest was born as son of God in the holy of holies. Psalm 110 (damaged in the Hebrew but readable in the Greek) describes this process and is the other most frequently cited text in the New Testament. The two temple rituals originally exclusive to the high priests were carrying blood into the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement and eating the most holy Shewbread on the Sabbath. These were combined to become the Christian Eucharist.

The quest for the temple is also, in a sense, a quest for the underlying or original meaning of some Old Testament texts. One of the curious facts about this investigation is that a high proportion of the relevant Hebrew texts is now either missing from the current Hebrew even though it was known in the pre-Christian Dead Sea Scroll texts, or unreadable in the current Hebrew and has to be reconstructed from the Greek. This cannot be coincidence. Where Christian writings quote a sequence of scriptural texts – as in Hebrews 1 – we cannot assume that the ideas expressed were a Christian innovation, that the texts were being used out of context in order to dress new ideas decently in scripture…

It is beyond doubt that the faith of the temple became Christianity. Images and practices that most Christians take for granted such as priesthood, the shape of a traditional church building, or the imagery of sacrifice and atonement are all obviously derived from the temple. By reconstructing the world of the older faith it can be shown that Invocation of the divine Presence, Incarnation, Resurrection, Theosis (the human becoming divine), the Mother of God and the self-offering of the Son of God were also drawn from the temple. The gospel as it was first preached by Jesus, and as it was developed and lived by the early Church, concerned the restoration of the true temple.

This explains how Christian doctrine was able to develop so quickly; it was the expression of a long established set of beliefs in the light of the life and work of Jesus…


8 This was first set out by J. van Seters in ‘The Religion of the Patriarchs in Genesis’, Biblica 61 (1980) pp. 220-33.

12 Babylonian Talmud Gittin 45b; translation in J. Epstein (ed.), The Babylonian Talmud (35 vols, London, Soncino Press, 1935–48).

 
 
 
     

 

 

 

(c) Margaret Barker 2006.