Review of ‘The Temple—Its Ministry and Services’

Book cover of an updated version of The Temple
Book cover of an updated version of The Temple

I don’t know how I got started on reading Alfred Edersheim and I really wish I did because I’m loving it. I started off months ago with his Sketches of Jewish Social Life , which sadly I didn’t take notes on. I immediately proceeded to The Temple: Its Ministry and Services As They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ, but a change in my daily routine meant I left off reading it for at least 3 months, maybe longer.

Description

As the title states, this book is about the Jewish temple. Edersheim starts by describing the architecture of Herod’s temple, a section of the book that could have greatly benefitted from visual aids. His verbal descriptions were superb, but I got lazy and sort of tuned out. I suspect I’m not the only one to react in such a manner.

The third chapter deals with the temple’s sanctity, its treasury, the hymnody and music, and relies almost exclusively on extrabiblical sources (not that there’s anything wrong with that). The fourth chapter is all about the priesthood itself: how many priests there were, how they organised their duties, how they were supported economically, and the office of the high priest.

Chapters 5-9 discuss the various sacrifices mandated by the OT. One of these chapters is devoted to a description of night-time in the temple and another to Sabbath in the temple.  In addition to minute descriptions of each sacrifice, Edersheim dedicates a lot of space to the symbolism in and substitutionary significance of the sacrifices, comparing the views of the NT and those of the ancient synagogue.

Chapters 10-16 deal with the Jewish religious calendar in detail. A chapter each is given to the Passover, the feast of unleavened bread and the day of Pentecost, the feast of tabernacles, the new moons, and the day of atonement. He bases his reconstruction of the as they were practised at the time of Christ on sources such as the Talmud, the Mishnah, the writings of Moses Maimonides and many more.

In this section on the religious calendar, Edersheim often points out what features of the observances as recorded in his sources were later additions to the biblical commands found in the Pentateuch. He also points out how contemporary Judaism of his day (and presumably today’s as well) diverged from what is laid down in the Bible. He ably spots the NT realities of the OT shadows and types. His Jewish upbringing most likely contributed to his keen knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and whoever instructed him in New Testament Christianity did a remarkable job. Even though some of the scholarship in this book may be dated, the devotional insights Edersheim gives are totally worth reading.

The Post-Mosaic festivals are the subject of chapter 17. These are Purim, Hanukkah, the feast of wood-offering, and the four public fasts (see Zechariah 7-8). Also in this chapter is a treatment of the private fasts such as exemplified by the Pharisee in the parable (Luke 18:12).

Chapter 18 is about the purification rituals: the red heifer, the purification of lepers and the rite regarding a woman suspected of adultery (I’ve blogged about this). Chapter 19, the final one, concerns itself with vows, starting with that of the Nazirite.

What I learned

My two takeaways from reading this book are:

  • One, the richness of the visual aids present in the Old Testament Levitical system. There are big hints and little hints; some are subtle and others are in-your-face. And all are beautiful when you see them.
  • Two, God-given instructions can be twisted. The later human additions to the divine ordinances ranged from the benign to the superstitious to the opposite of what was intended. I don’t think the Rabbis set out to be unfaithful to the Mosaic Law but that’s how it ended. That should be a caution for us today as we seek to apply God’s word in a culturally-appropriate way.

Conclusion

The Temple is in the public domain, and can be downloaded for free from the CCEL website (see the link above). It was written a while ago, when attention spans were longer and people used bigger words, so be warned.  In any case, Edersheim’s enthusiasm for his subject matter should help you get through it 🙂 I can most certainly see myself re-reading it in the future.