Jesus’ Challenge to Christian Zionism

“Prominent Israeli officials have called not simply for the defeat of Hamas but for the annihilation of Gaza, the starving of its population, and the removal of Palestinians from some or all of its territory. The Israeli president suggested that civilians in the Hamas-controlled territory are not ‘innocent.’”[1] Washington Post

“We are the mother who is not willing to rip her child to shreds. We are the true mothers of Jerusalem.”[2] The Master of Ceremonies at an Israeli rally comprised of a quarter-million people in Jerusalem

The first quote comes from yesterday’s Washington Post and the second from an article in the same paper in 2001, when Bill Clinton proposed sovereignty over east Jerusalem be divided between Israel and a Palestinian state. For some Jews, the land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem cannot be shared (it would be the equivalent of Solomon slicing the child brought to him in half in 1 Kings 3:16–28), as it is their land by divine fiat. Jewish identity is, for many, tied to the land, which in the world’s religions is not unusual. Sacred shrines, sacred groves, sacred mountains, and sacred land, are thematic in the world’s religions, and most particularly Judaism, but my concern is what role Christianity plays in the notion of a sacred land.

Cleanliness and the Temple

Ethnic cleansing is not far removed from notions of purity that are tied to sacred land. In the Hebrew Bible, Gentiles, along with blood, dead bodies, the sick, women in their menstrual cycle, certain foods, and certain religions (e.g., idolatrous and Samaritan) are a pollution to the land. In fact, God seems to condone genocide in order to cleanse the land of its original inhabitants, and thus create a sacred land and people.

When the LORD your God brings you into the land where you are entering to possess it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and stronger than you, and when the LORD your God delivers them before you and you defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy them. (Dt. 7:1–2)

First century Jews could agree that the problem is pollution and the answer cleansing, but what they could not agree on was how to cleanse the land. The priests would have focused on the sacrificial cleanliness of the temple, while the Pharisees considered themselves an alternative to the priests with an alternative mode of cleanliness. Many Jews, such as the Qumran community, considered Herod’s temple and its hierarchy and priesthood corrupt, and so they looked forward to the establishment of the real temple, and true purification. As Karen Wennell describes, “The Qumran community separate themselves from the Jerusalem temple and can therefore view themselves as a temple community in opposition to the institution in Jerusalem, the problem being that the temple is no longer the seat of the law, but that Israel has not followed the correct law because it was rooted in the wrong temple.”[3]

The temple was the center for cleansing, sending out concentric circles of holiness from the holy of holies to the holy place, with God’s holiness flowing through the temple, to all of Israel (Ex. 25:8-9). It is not entirely clear how literally or symbolically this may have been conceived. Isaiah or God declares, that God obviously does not dwell in temples made by man (Is. 66:1-2), and it was to be understood the temple, priests and sacrifices, were a symbolic order pointing to a reality they did not contain. Both Stephen and Paul reference Isaiah, Stephen to Jews and Paul to Gentiles, to make the case they may have all instinctively understood, that temples or any place do not literally contain God.

The temple as symbolic is accentuated with the controversies surrounding the second temple. It was clear the temple represented, not so much the power of God, but bestowed a more material power, thus it was considered by many to be corrupt at its root. The closer one could position themselves to the temple, the greater power one exercised, but this was not spiritual power (at least in the estimate of the Pharisees, the Samaritans, and the Qumran community). Priestly power flowed from proximity to Roman and Herodian power, along with the wealth afforded those receiving the tithes of Israel. The wealthiest priests lived, with their families close to the temple. “There were bridges from the western wall of the enclosure leading to Jerusalem’s upper city. Here, the prominent ruling and priestly families had homes connecting them directly to the temple building.”[4] Josephus in Antiquities (18.90-95) indicates Herod and then Rome kept direct control over the high priest’s vestments, loaning them out only as needed. In addition, Rome maintained a fortress located next to the temple, fortified by extra troops during temple festivals giving them direct control over its activities (War 2.224; Ant. 20.106-107).[5] While there may have been a more unanimous understanding surrounding Solomon’s Temple, there was a great deal of contention as to whether the second temple was accomplishing or corrupting its purpose.  

Jesus, Cleanliness and the Temple

Jesus’ kingdom, ushering in the rule and sovereignty of God, was clearly not tied to a particular land or temple, but was a message to be preached to the ends of the earth. This kingdom is cosmic and universal, and it never occurred to anyone to localize it, but each new group of believers was its own temple, living stones spreading God’s presence. As Paul describes, Christ’s rule is cosmic and all inclusive: “For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Col 1:19–20).

Jesus not only did not concern himself with observing the boundaries between Israel and Samaria, he did not concern himself with ritual boundaries, such as food laws, sabbath keeping, laws of cleanliness, or the special role assigned to priests, scribes and Pharisees. Among his followers, we find both zealots and those who consorted with Rome. With Paul, and many of the early Christians, the Pharisees are widely represented among his followers. We also find the Sanhedrin represented by Nicodemus. All of this to say, Jesus was not concerned with the various arguments among the Jews about what place is holy or which modes of ritual cleanliness are correct. Jesus had come to unite them all, not by litigating their arguments, but by setting the discussion in a different register. “But the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but inside of you, you are full of robbery and wickedness’” (Lk 11:39). The Pharisees were concerned the land and the people were polluted due to a ritual uncleanness, but Jesus dismissed their concerns, and focused on human interiority rather than spatial and ritual pollution.

The mode to purity, in Jesus’ system, is not through a sacred place, sacred rituals, or a sacred building, but through himself. At the beginning of John (as I have described it here), Jesus disrupts the Passover sacrifice in the temple with a sign which, in his explanation, points to himself as true temple: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). The temple incident is not about cleaning up Herod’s temple nor is it about getting rid of coin exchange (it was necessary that the coins bearing Caesars image be exchanged for those with “no graven images”) or animals being sold. As Mary Coloe points out, such trade was not itself wrong; rather, “his words and actions must be seen as a prophetic critique of the entire sacrificial system.”[6] The Jewish response indicates as much, as they do not question why he did it but ask what sign he could give that he had the authority to do such a thing. They did not take his action as some sort of violent assault on the temple, but presumed it called for a legitimating sign of authority, as with Moses’ “signs and wonders” (Deut. 34:11). They knew the prophecies concerning the end of sacrifice and the limitation of the efficacy of animal sacrifice, and indeed, Jesus is declaring the end of the sacrificial system, as he is true temple and true sacrifice. As Jacob Neusner describes Jesus’ action in the temple, it “represents an act of the rejection of the most important rite of the Israelite cult and therefore, a statement that there is a means of atonement other than the daily whole-offering, which now is null.”[7]

The particular pollution that Jesus cleanses from, which temple cult, sacrifice, and law, all pointed toward but which they could not accomplish, was cleansing from death and the grave. In brief, John is identifying the life God provides in Christ (the work of the Lamb in Egypt celebrated in Passover) as the means of “taking away the sin of the world.” The life of God as the rescue from sin and death is the means by which sins are taken away.

It is precisely assignment of the sacred to a place that Jesus challenges, in that he himself now occupies and opens up life to all everywhere. The Hebrew Bible certainly places a (the?) primary importance on the “holy land” and many Jews today retain focus on the land of Israel as an essential part of Jewish identity, but the radical difference Jesus introduces is a challenge to this understanding.  Jesus and Christianity broke from Jewish attachment to sacred places, such as the temple and the land. Christ and Christianity are universalized, and so are not attached to a particular place, a particular space, a particular building or a particular land. As Jesus explains to the woman of Samaria, “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23–24). Those attached to a holy building or a holy land are not the true spiritual worshipers Jesus describes.

The creation of the modern state of Israel, and the ongoing displacement of Palestinians, supported by Christian Zionists, raises once again the question of the role of Christianity in colonialism. Does Jesus challenge or confirm the fusion of the sacred with particular places or a sacred land? The clear and obvious teaching of the New Testament does not accord with the history of “Christian colonialism” in which lands have been conquered and peoples removed in the name of Christ, nor does it accord with widespread support of Israel and its ethnic cleansing of Palestinians among modern Christians. God’s purposes are not localized in a chosen land, but they are realized through the gift of his Son to all everywhere.

[1] Ishaan Tharoor, “Israel’s war in Gaza and the specter of ‘genocide’”, Washington Post, (November 7, 2023).

[2] Keith B. Richberg with Eetta Prince-Gibson, “Jerusalem Protesters Decry U. S. Proposals: Crowd Insists City Remain Undivided as Israeli Capital, ” The Washington Post; Tuesday, January 9,2001: A17.

[3] Wenell, Karen J. Jesus and land: constructions of sacred and social space in Second Temple Judaism. (PhD thesis, University of Glasgow, 2004), 92-93.

[4] Wenell, 84.

[5] Wenell, 80-81.

[6] Mary Coloe, “Temple Imagery in John,” Interpretation (2009, 368-381)

[7] Jacob Neusner, “Money Changers in the Temple: The Mishna Explanation,” NTS 35 (1989) 290. Quoted in Coloe, ibid.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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