What Did Jesus Mean?

What Did Jesus Mean? July 25, 2007

I am still wondering about the saying attributed to Jesus in various forms in various Gospels (and in Mark, denied as a false accusation), “I will destroy this temple and in three days rebuild it”. That something like this was the earliest form is most probable, and it seems to be authentic.

The big question is what he meant by it. On the one hand, given the other evidence that Jesus expected the kingdom to fully dawn in the very near future, I see no particular reason not to take it literally – with the “I” in this case presumably being God, and Jesus speaking in the prophetic first person. On the other hand, given Jesus’ propensity for parables and striking images, I am hesitant to simply assume that the literal meaning is the most likely meaning on the lips of Jesus. Since the Gospel of John dates this saying (and the temple incident) to a period when John the Baptist is also still active, might this not be something Jesus said (and did) while still connected with John the Baptist’s movement? In such a setting, a literal meaning is still possible, but so is a figurative one in which the proclamation of repentance and baptism bypasses (and thus ‘destroys’) the temple, putting in its place a community that is united in repentance and ritual rather than by space and sacrifice.

One final thought. When Josephus says that John’s followers seemed ready to do anything for him, so that Herod was concerned, might not Jesus’ action in the Temple be in mind? Might not Jesus’ action in the Temple have led rather directly to John’s imprisonment, to Jesus’ withdrawal to Galilee, and thus eventually to his sense that his own fate my parallel John’s? Is it also perhaps due to the reaction to this prediction that Jesus was from then on inclined to use the less direct ‘son of man’ rather than ‘I’?

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  • Don’t know how I missed this post in July, but I found it today.Why would Jesus threaten to destroy the temple, even figuratively? You won’t be surprised I take the “I will” as the false part (in Mk) and John’s interpretation to be correct. But I would like to read your SBL papers on the historical Jesus for more on your view. Were they ever published?On a seperate point, thank you for suggesting that Jesus’ words then as perceived may have contributed to John’s arrest. I’m sure they did, to some degree or another. Very interesting…Finally, thanks again for your challenges over at my blog and I hope you saw my reply there. Btw, I’m working on a post about “Ancient Journalism” b/c that parallelism thought really surprised me. Truly, thanks.

  • Re: John’s arrest. It might be more prudent to say, “I’m sure it didn’t help!”Anyway, that’s what I meant! 😉