Crossing barriers is risky business

Jews from Asia, who had seen Paul in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd. They seized him, shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place; more than that, he has actually brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. Acts 21:27–29

In this era when faith communities are reconsidering boundaries, the story of Jesus and the early church crossing barriers should get our attention. The magnificent outdoor model of first-century Jerusalem at the Israel Museum in modern Jerusalem includes details that illuminate layers of exclusion that surrounded the first-century temple.

Israel, Jerusalem, Israel Museum, model of Jerusalem-6
On this model of the first-century temple, the fence beyond which no Gentile could pass appears as a grey line immediately to the left and right walls of the inner temple courts.

Filling most of this photograph is the spacious “Court of the Gentiles,” which any Jew or Gentile could enter. Along left and right sides of walls around the inner temple courts, however, a fence marks the point beyond which no Gentile could pass. Only Jews could enter the near court (Women’s Court) of the temple complex. Only Jewish men could enter the far court (Court of Priests), and priests alone could enter the Holy Place of the main Temple building. Once a year the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies.

First-century Jewish historian Josephus describes the fence around the temple complex:

There was a partition made of stone all round, whose height was three cubits [56 inches]. Its construction was very elegant. Upon it stood pillars, at equal distances from one another, declaring the law of purity, some in Greek, and some in Roman letters, that “no foreigner should go within that sanctuary” (Josephus, Jewish War 5.193-194).

It was across this physical barrier that vigilant fellow Jews thought Paul had brought a Gentile named Trophimus. Among few identifiable archeological remains we have of the ancient Temple is this fragment from one of the warning signs that Josephus describes.

This fragment of a temple warning sign is at the Israel Museum. We know the full text of the sign because a complete version is at a museum in Istanbul.

The full text read read: No foreigner shall enter within the forecourt and the balustrade around the sanctuary. Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his subsequent death.

At risk of being lynched by fellow Jews, perhaps including followers of Jesus, Paul was arrested by Roman soldiers. Likely they were dispatched from Antonia Fortress, the four-towered barracks at the far corner of the Court of the Gentiles in the model. Paul faced various charges brought against him by fellow Jews. He eventually appealed his case all the way to Rome, where he apparently suffered martyrdom during Nero’s crackdown on Christians after the great fire of AD 64.

Paul risked his life to bridge the gulf between Jew and Gentile. May the same Spirit that guided the early church to cross boundaries inspire and direct faith communities today that wrestle with the tension between tradition and inclusion.

© 2014 J. Nelson Kraybill *******************************************    IMG_0417

Join me on a Peace-Pilgrim visit to the Holy Land! See:
From Nazareth to Rome: Holy Land, Empire and Global Mission, with Pastor Nelson Kraybill – November 3-15, 2014

Holy Land (Jordan, Israel & Palestine) with Pastor Nelson Kraybill – November 5-16, 2015

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Roberta says:

    There is definately a great deal to know about
    this topic. I love all the points you have made.


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