The Christmas Story (XI). Luke: The Temple

[Part 10 is here. Part 12 is here.]

[You can find the whole series here.]

The first born child of a Jewish marriage at the time of Jesus had to be in effect, given to God. In place of actually turning the child over to the temple cult, a sum was paid (this was symbolic since only Levites could perform the temple service–it was a remembrance of the Golden Calf episode–Num. 18). The parents are not really involved here, but the mother must come after a waiting time for a purification rite (offer a sacrifice). (Lev. 12)

When priests like Zacharias offered sacrifice or incense, they had to be purified. They had to come out of the secular, leave it behind, so that they could enter the presence of God. They had to change their clothing, put on special vestments, wash, and so forth. There were well defined rituals to create this separation.[1] Birth was seen as a creative act (see the second post on the status of Mary) and much like the priestly acts, there was a holiness about birth, a participation with God.

Science has removed much of the mystery of birth, we know about the micromechanics of conception, the stages of embryology, the role of DNA/RNA, cellular differentiation, division, movement, growth and finally birth are all relatively well understood. But for millennia these processes were mysterious, a place where the divine operated, where the invisible was in control.[2] God’s creation was continued, as life was brought into the world, and for a woman to return to ordinary life, she had to mark the end of her contact with the Holy. It is in a sense, the reverse process of separation from the secular to enter the divine.

Thus, there are two things happening in this part of Luke’s story. Jesus is being presented at the temple to be redeemed and Mary goes to be purified—a sacrifice will be offered for her, a lamb if possible, but a pair of doves could be used otherwise, and most people did not have a pair of doves at home, they were obtained at the temple. Luke has given us a sense of continuity between the gospel as he knows it from a relatively distant time, from the turn of the second century, back to the time of Jesus’ birth and before. So the temple is important for Luke, it continues to appear in his recital of the beginnings of Christianity, and in Acts he has the apostles going to the temple at the hours of prayer there, they are a firm part of temple Judaism, indeed, Luke tells of the afflicted who line the avenue where Peter walks from the temple, hoping that at least his shadow might fall on them.

The coming of Jesus to the temple fulfills for Luke the passage from Malachi 3, “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in.” John has been sent before him, and now the Lord comes to his own house.

Simeon and Anna at the temple.

Simeon and Anna at the temple. (Image: Wikipedia)

This coming is marked and confirmed by these persons I’ve mentioned before, Simeon and Anna, and they complete the story that began with Zacharias and Elizabeth. Here we get the hymn of Luke that he inserts in the story of these two final figures. In Acts, Luke treats the earliest community of Christians at Jerusalem with a kind of idealism. The preaching of Peter, and we presume also the other apostles, is powerfully effective and grandly accepted (at Pentecost for example). The people join together in a communal life, sharing their goods, caring for the poor, they come together for prayer and break bread together. This is a model of existence for Luke. It is for him the legend of true Christianity (the Book of Mormon has this kind of thing in 4 Nephi). Luke sees in these early Christians the pious poor and humble who are mentioned in the Psalms and associated with the temple.[3] Simeon and Anna represent this type of person, the pious who spend their days in the temple precincts. Simeon and Anna are righteous. Thus Luke points out again that there were strictly observant people who accepted Jesus as the Messiah.[4]

25 And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him.
26 And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.

Anna is a similar figure, very aged, but waiting for the coming of the Lord:

36 And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity;
37 And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.
38 And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.

For Luke, this pair is a kind of benediction for the birth and he pairs them with Elizabeth and Zacharias—both pray fervently for a birth, both are granted an answer to those prayers.

Another parallel Luke seems to draw here: the out pouring of the Holy Spirit at the beginning of the Gospel, and the beginning of the church in Jerusalem (Acts).

Herod's Temple (Image: Wikipedia)

Herod’s Temple (Image: Wikipedia)

Luke has Simeon repeat this very interesting thing: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou has prepared before the face of all people, a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.” The way that Simeon uses “people” here is unusual and runs counter to Jewish custom. It’s very unlikely that a man of Simeon’s status would have said this. Only one people existed in the world for Jews: Israel. And this speech seems to violate that. It is perhaps Luke’s acknowledgement of the future, and 1st Peter, a message to a post-Jerusalem Gentile church, reads “you who once were not a people but are now the people of God.” [Echoes of Paul, “no more strangers and foreigners (Gentiles)” but of the household of faith, adopted Jews as it were.] And Luke’s picture has both Israel and the Gentiles as a people. What constitutes being a people in the Old Testament? you have to accept Yahweh as God. Luke’s formula is this: once Gentiles accept Jesus, they accept the God of Israel and they become God’s people (Mormons will put an interesting spin on this that takes final form in 1916 with James E. Talmage’s article on the Mormon Trinity).

Next time: The Christmas Hymns

[1] The LDS temple rite has this separation in a very literal form, with a clothing change, vestments, etc., but a (symbolic) cleansing. This cleansing is a very brief ritual in the modern temple cultus, referred to as part of an “initiatory ordinance” but early in Mormonism, particularly in the first temple at Kirtland, these cleansing rites could be very elaborate in the attempt to separate the initiates from the secular. The body was carefully washed and perfumed and so on, the thought being that the secular had to be left behind, as the presence of God was going to come upon the participants and without proper preparation for the holy, there might be failure, or even drastic consequence (see for example, Scott G. Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journal (Salt Lake City: Signature, 1983-85), 3:128-30). Anointings took place and these were associated with visions and visitations and so forth. One of the current sections of the Doctrine and Covenants is related to these rites, section 137, and section 110 can be considered in this light as well. In Nauvoo, all of this was gradually reintroduced in a more systematic way, less charismatic, but more physical in a sense.

[2] In addition to the temple rite, Mormonism, at least large segments of it, reversed these processes back into the divine. Early Mormons continued a trajectory begun by Joseph Smith and came to see heaven in the image of earth in a very full way. Even birth and conception were placed into the heavenly, making earth and heaven one, images of each other. A less literal version is still part of public Mormonism, but for some at least, sex in heaven is still a vital and real part of Mormon thought. See the previous post on Mary.

[3] These weren’t particularly those who were destitute. See Sigmund Mowinckel, (trans. Mark E. Biddle) Psalm Studies, vol. 2 (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2014), 836-40.

[4] In the next century, people began to fill in (fictive) details about all these characters, Simeon becomes the temple priest who followed Zacharias’s term, and he brings them into the sanctuary and so forth (none of which could happen because women couldn’t go beyond the court of the women, men couldn’t go beyond the court of the men. I’ve mentioned Raymond E. Brown’s book on the infancy narratives several times. If you have more interest in the subject, I suggest you Amazon one to your home this Christmas.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    A footnote to your observation that typically people would obtain the pair of sacrificial doves at the temple. This post of mine talks about a bulla discovered in excavations near the temple site that was used in temple administration. You would obtain commodities for sacrifice at the temple, but you wouldn’t pay for them directly with profane money. The bulla was a kind of token that would be presented in a certain place at the temple in order to obtain commodities for sacrifice.

    For me this glimpse into ancient temple administration is fascinating, and provides a small window into the mechanics of obtaining such sacrificial commodities as a pair of doves.

  2. Thanks for the link, Kevin. I remember reading that one. Awesome.

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