The story of Paul’s journey into Arabia begins and ends in the Temple at Jerusalem (Acts 7:1—8:1; 22:17-21). Paul made his scriptural debut as the young prosecutor who guarded the cloaks of the members of the lynch mob who stoned Stephen (Acts 7:58; 8:1). Scripture offers scant details about the next few years of Paul: he entered into the Arabia desert for an indeterminate amount of time, to pray, and to meditate on the Scriptures that foretold the coming of the Messiah.
To devout Jews, the Temple in Jerusalem was the holiest place on earth. So spectacular to behold was the Temple that Jewish pilgrims drawn to the city for religious festivals thrice yearly the feasts of Weeks, Booths, and Passover could see the majestic structure from miles away as they neared the city gates; its golden, marbled, bejeweled facade glistened in the sun. To the first-century visitor to the city of David the Temple was the chief attraction, though in Paul’s day it was not complete (Jn 2:21).
Temple priests and their attendants labored to fashion the gold and the brass, to carve the cedar beams, to chisel columns, and to lay the limestone blocks cut from local quarries. Walls lined with turrets and gates enclosed the outer areas, but the sanctuary, the place where God dwelled, rose above the walls in fitting splendor. Like the pillar of the angel that rang like fire and lighted the way for the Hebrews from Egypt to Cana, the Temple was a beacon of goodness and light, and Jewish pilgrims looked to Mount Zion as the true pole of the earth, the site where heaven and earth united to form the kingdom of heaven.
The Temple was the seat of the sacred, the epicenter of the Jewish nation that had dispersed throughout the world. Gamaliel, Israel’s Rabban, “our teacher,” taught generations of Scripture scholars including Paul, from the steps of the Temple. Jesus, during Passover, infuriated officials when he overturned the tables of the money-changers and merchants selling the animals for the sacrifices for the festivals (Mt 21:12-13; Mk 11:15-19; Lk 19:45-48; Jn 2:13-23). Gamaliel knew of this incident and so did his student Paul, who was never far from his instructor’s side. Gamaliel understood that Jesus had precedent for his actions, for it was written in the prophets: “My house shall be a house of prayer for all but you have made it a den of thieves” (Is 56:7). For Paul, this incident was cause of indignation and the growing malice he held for detractors of the Law hardened his heart. As a student Paul spent a lot of time at the Temple, praying morning, noon, and night the sacred psalms and canticles from the Old Testament.
The incident involving Jesus was one of numerous disturbances that took place there, whenever some self-appointed prophet went on a tirade or when harlots set up shop outside the Beautiful Gate or at Solomon’s Portico. The Temple had a long and turbulent history that saw the house of God rise and fall at the hands of many leaders, religious and secular, Jewish and gentile, who pitted their ambitions against the Divine will. God the Lord of history decided the fate of this space where Israel worshiped and it was here that Paul received his commission from the Sanhedrin to capture or kill the followers of Jesus. It was to the Temple that Paul returned after his three-year discernment following the vision of Jesus that he received at Damascus. Paul received his vocation: to preach the gospel to gentiles, kings, and Israelites (Acts 22:21).
The Temple, under construction for more than 50 years, was completed in AD 62 and Jesus’s prophecy of its destruction came to pass in AD 70 when the Roman Emperor Titus razed the holy sight in retaliation against the uprising of the Zealots. Paul did not live to see the Temple’s completion but by the time he received the crown of martyrdom at Rome in AD 67 he had come to believe that God was as close to him in the Holy of Holies as he was to him on death row. The words of Stephen, the young deacon that he killed, remained with him thirty years after the martyrdom of the saint: “The Most high does not dwell in a house made by human hands” (Acts 7:48).
The Temple was first constructed in Jerusalem by King Solomon in the 10th century before the birth of Christ on the site where Abraham attempted to sacrifice Isaac his son but the angel of the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand (Gn 22:2ff). From that day Mount Moriah served as a place for man to sacrifice to God. Four-hundred eighty years following the Exodus from Egypt, Solomon, in the fourth year of his reign (966 BC) laid the foundation of the house of YHWH. Solomon’s father David wanted to build a sanctuary worthy of the Lord’s majesty but the Lord would not allow David to do so. “Here I am living in a house of cedar, while the Ark of the Covenant dwells in a tent,” David carped. The prophet Nathan instructed the king to hold off (2 Sm 7:2). God chose Solomon, David’s son, to build a temple worthy of the Most High God. When Solomon was old enough to understand, his father explained to him his destiny:
My son, it was my purpose to build a house to honor of the Lord God. But the word of the Lord came to me: ‘You have shed much blood, and you have waged great wars. You may not build a house in my honor, for you have shed too much blood upon the earth in my sight. (1 Chr 22:7-9)
The Temple was not to be a museum of David’s military conquests but a house of sacrifice, prayer, and study, in accordance with the Law.
The structure of the first Temple was simple and consisted of just three rooms: the Holy Place, the Holy of Holies, and the nave of the structure proper, hemmed by surrounding courtyards, porticoes, gates, and staircases, a sacred dwelling for God, according to human standards. The Israelites, through God’s intervention constructed a holy site with which to show the world that their God fought for them and that he was invincible, a God who chose to live among his people. When Solomon completed the Temple he dedicated it with a magnificent prayer which he prayed before the altar with the entire assembly of Israel present. Stretching forth his hands, Solomon prayed a prayer of thanksgiving. “For can it indeed be said that God dwells among men on earth?” (1 Kgs 8:23a, 24, 26, 27)
For ages thereafter the holy place housed the practice of the priestly rites and sacrifices. Then the Chaldeans sacked Jerusalem and razed the Temple in 586 BC and the city’s inhabitants were carried into exile to Babylon for 48 years. The biblical writings that capture this period most vividly are the prophesies of Ezekiel and Daniel. Ezekiel became a prophet during the exile—the first prophet to receive the call outside the Holy Land. Daniel was a young Jew conscripted into service by the Babylonians, the protagonist of an anachronistic anthology of narrative, poetry, and prophecy, written during the persecution of Antiochus IV Ephiphanes (167-164 BC), a Hellenic ruler who committed genocide against the Jews.
King Cyrus the Great, a Persian, appeared as a liberator of the captives when he routed the Babylonian army and assumed leadership or the largest kingdom in the world at the time. Cyrus was a benevolent ruler, known for his kindness toward the Jews. “The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus, king of Persia” (2 Chr 36:22). In 538 BC Cyrus issued a proclamation permitting the Judean exiles to return to their homeland, and he encouraged them to rebuild the Temple. Those who chose not to return to Jerusalem were to finance the reconstruction by donating silver, gold, and animals. A messenger from God, Cyrus also ordered that the thousands of sacred vessels confiscated by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar be returned to the Jews for use in the Temple. For his actions Cyrus found favor with God, who said, “I say of Cyrus, my shepherd, who fulfills my every wish: he shall say of Jerusalem, ‘Let her be rebuilt,’ and of the Temple, ‘Let its foundations be laid’” (Is 44:28). Cyrus fulfilled the prophecy of God’s prophecy.
Newly liberated, a half million Jews traveled 600 miles through the desert, a second Exodus, and returned to the Promised Land. Reconstructing the Temple was priority. The project took five years to complete, and was overseen by Zarubabbel, a Judean prince and exile, and by Ezra, a priest and a scribe, with masons and carpenters set to work under the supervision of the Levites. Cedar timbers were imported from Phoenicia and the construction was financed by selling food and olive oil—as Solomon had done when he built the original Temple 400 years earlier. The refurbished holy site was dedicated in 515 BC and functioned as it was designed until the Hellenism established by Alexander of Macedonia (356-322 BC) seeped through its walls and imperiled Judea toward days of greater danger.
The Syrian invasion of Judea and the destruction of the second Temple in 167 BC led by King Antiochus ushered in another tragic period of ancient Jewish history. Antiochus’s war against the Jews constituted an assault against the spiritual and cultural sensitivities of the People of God that was as shocking as the 430-year period of enslavement by the Egyptians and the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century under Nebuchadnezzar. The Temple and Judaism in the synagogues throughout the world fell into disarray. Hellenism was a general term to describe a wide variety of Greek practices and influences intended to homogenize the world. Conceived by Alexander the Great, Hellenism reshaped the Mediterranean region and threated the Jewish race and religion with its insistence on polytheism and cultural practices contrary to the Law of God.
One religion, language, culture, and philosophy—all swept throughout the world and kindled a new movement that led to the loosening of the roots of traditional Judaism at the behest of its leaders and the cultural elite. Many Jews of the Diaspora accepted Hellenism, and the Hebrew language?the language of Moses, the language of Torah?ceased to hold pride of place. Hebrew all but disappeared outside Jerusalem. In the city of Alexandria in Egypt?the seat of the largest Jewish population in the world at the time—70 scholars translated the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms into the Greek language. The result was the Septuagint, the Bible, which Jesus and Paul studied. In Jerusalem, Greek education became fashionable, and gymnasia replaced traditional Jewish schools, gymnasia, an abomination to pious Jews, because it practioners performed athletics in nuda.
The Romans were on the rise and began to fan out into the Mediterranean region. Its military humiliated Antiochus when in 168 BC he tried to invade Egypt. Antiochus became desperate to retain his throne and so he rebuilt his kingdom around a unified Greek heritage. He was determined to Hellenize the peoples over whom he ruled in Syria and its environs.
Antiochus received his kingship from the dynasty founded by Seleucus, one of the generals among whom Alexander divided his kingdom when he died 150 years earlier. Antiochus held no regard for the Jews or their language, religion, and culture. He saw Jerusalem as a cash cow?he raided the Temple treasury to finance his warmongering. The more devout Jews held onto their heritage, the harder Antiochus worked to eradicate their faith.
The practice of Judaism was banned, including Sabbath worship and the rite of circumcision—the sign of the covenant—and once his forces occupied Jerusalem many of her citizens perished for refusing to apostatize. A man without scruples, Antiochus desecrated the Temple when he sacrificed swine upon the altar (to Jews swine are unclean) and erected a statue of Zeus in the Holy of Holies. His actions greatly offended the people of God and their Champion, for the king cared nothing for the depth and tenacity of the Jewish monotheistic tradition.
The backlash against the actions of Antiochus were swift and severe and are recorded in the First and Second Books of Maccabees, stories of Jewish freedom fighters who resisted mandates from the Hellenizers and held fast to the traditions of the elders. In 167 BC guerilla warfare broke out under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, the third of seven sons of the revolutionary patriarch Mattathias. Mattathias appointed Judas as the leader of their insurgency. Judas Maccabeus, Hebrew for “hammer”, rejected the assimilationist movement and clung to his ancestral faith and traditions. Believing his cause to be sanctioned by God, Judas and his brothers won several decisive battles against the well-armed forces of Antiochus.
Judas met his troopers in the field and bolstered them, saying, “It is easy for many to be overcome by a few; for victory in war does not depend upon the size of its army, but on the strength that comes from Heaven” (1 Mc 3:18-19). Jonathan, son of Saul, Israel’s first king, said similar words to the Israelites as they prepared to fight the Philistines. “It is no more difficult for the Lord to grant victory through a few than through many” (1 Sm 14:6). Young David the shepherd soon to become king personified this when he struck and killed the Philistine Goliath with a sling and a stone (1 Sm 17:47-51).
The Jewish nation, liberated from slavery but unfit for war after 430 years in bondage, defeated the seven nations of Canaan through their belief in the power of God. Judas’s victories won him renown and gained the king’s attention, for he was a man of great zeal for the Law, devoted to the restoration of Israel and the Temple. In the name of God he vindicated his people.
The brothers Maccabees moved deliberately through the outback of Judea and ascended mount Zion until they entered the city and threw open its gates. “Now that our enemies have been crushed, let us go up to purify the sanctuary and rededicate it,” Judas said. The Temple had been disused for three years, barricaded, and lay in ruins. When Judas and his soldiers saw the sacred site they were overcome with grief at the condition it had fallen into at the hands of the uncircumcised.
They found the sanctuary desolate, the altar desecrated, the gates burnt, weeds growing through the stone floor of its courts, and the priests’s chambers destroyed. “Then they tore their garments, and made loud lamentations; they covered their heads with ashes, and fell prostrate. And when the signal was given with trumpets, they cried out to Heaven” (1 Mc 4:36-40).
Judas appointed a battalion to stand watch upon the walls and the towers and to take aim with their arrows at approaching enemy brigades. Meanwhile Judas and his brothers set about restoring the building and constructed a new stone altar as prescribed by the Law in place of the altar that Antiochus desecrated by sacrificing swine and erecting a statue of Zeus.
As with the second temple restoration following the exile, the priests began the work of cleansing the holy site. Judas selected blameless priests to oversee the tasks of reconstruction and dedication. Following the Babylonian exile, the prophets Haggai and Zechariah helped to rebuild the Temple and served as sources from which to draw upon God’s word. The age of the Old Testament prophets was over, so Judas selected stones for the altar himself “until a prophet should come and decide what to do with them” (1 Mc 4:46).
When they completed the work they set aside a day for the Temple’s rededication, the 25th day of the month of Chislev, the ninth month in the Hebrew calendar. Sacred vessels, an eight-pronged lampstand, incense for the altar, a celebration set to the music of flues, timbrels, and harps the dedication lasted eight days and is known as the perpetual memorial of Hanukkah.
Regardless of where Jews settled and however much they allowed themselves to be influenced by the Greeks their communities worldwide thrived and their fidelity to the Law of God remained strong. This was the world into which Jesus was born, in 4 BC, and the world into which Paul of Tarsus was born 14 years later. Paul was a Hellenized Jew and a Roman citizen; from before his birth God prepared Paul for the singular mission to which he was called: to preach and to teach the nations the Word of God.