The first time I remember reading that there’s a day dedicated to the remembrance of the destruction of the temple was during my first years as a pastor in the Lutheran Church in Finland. The note was in the lectionary that contains the texts that are to be read in churches on Sundays, and which also includes a short introduction to the topic of each Sunday. The eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (or Shavuot) falls close to the ninth day of the month Av (Tisha B’Av) on the Jewish calendar in use today.
That Sunday, we read about Jesus wailing for Jerusalem, predicting its destruction and chasing the merchants away from the temple area. Here merchants, high priests, and other leaders represent the rejection of Jesus and the corruption of God’s house. The rejection of God that had been warned about and still happened many times during the previous thousand years came into its zenith in the rejection of Jesus. And because of the rejection of the Messiah, the time of the temple came to an end.
Through the temple, God had dwelled among his people and they had been able to approach him through the sacrifices he had set—especially through the yearly sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). After the death and resurrection of Jesus, God’s presence was no longer in the temple. This had been predicted by the prophets (e.g. Ezek. 10–11), and its fulfillment had been declared by Jesus (e.g. Luke 13:35). After the following Pentecost, the presence of God (the Holy Spirit) was with the followers of Jesus. That was made possible by the death and resurrection of the Son of God that had brought them the forgiveness of sins and the way to approach God via lasting sacrifice. The sacrifice for sins and the presence of God were now with them, which is the reason Paul calls them the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16).
However, it seems that not only the New Testament but also early rabbinical sources record that something essential went “wrong” at approximately the time Jesus was crucified and resurrected from the dead. Both the Talmud and the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (Yosef Ben-Matityahu) record several events that predicted the destruction of the temple. Some of them go hand in hand with the descriptions in the New Testament—especially those events that happened forty years before the destruction of the temple (i.e., the approximate time of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus).
Some of the most interesting signs concern the Day of Atonement. During the last decades of the Second Temple, the goat that was to carry the sins of the people into the desert (according to the instructions in Lev. 16) tended to get loose and run away from the man who was supposed to be leading it. Drawn probably from Isaiah 1:18, there was a tradition in the time of Jesus to tie a strip of crimson cloth around one of the pillars of the temple on the Day of Atonement. When the goat died in the desert the cloth was said to turn white as a sign of cleanness from iniquities. According to the rabbis, this never happened in the last forty years before the destruction of the temple (Talmud Yoma 39).
What can be learned from these extra-biblical signs is that, surprisingly enough, some parts of the tradition that rejected Jesus can be seen to fit and even to support the meaning that was given in the New Testament for his death and resurrection and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, these signs can widen the historical context of these central events. Naturally, not everything in the vast amount of extra-biblical material we have from that period fits this well with the biblical narrative. The part of Judaism that rejected Jesus created its own narrative to replace the temple and the sacrifices that had become impossible without it. That narrative had to do without Jesus, sometimes even ending up with the kind of interpretations that lead one to ask why there was a temple in the first place if every sacrifice can actually be replaced by human effort.
Our faith in Jesus is anchored in the historical events that happened in a certain time and place. These events also left some traces outside the New Testament. These traces can never tell the whole story, but they can be used to widen the narrative we already have in the Gospels. However, what is written in the Gospels is sufficient. And the centrality of forgiveness of sins in Jesus, through which we have the right to approach God, can too easily be forgotten when we concentrate on all the interesting details framing the center. May it be that Jesus will have no reason to wail for us as he did for the people of his time.
The writer is a Lutheran pastor from Finland studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.