Some thoughts on the Entry of the Theotokos

In the context of today’s feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple, I have heard some people express disbelief that a child – especially a woman – could have lived in the Jewish temple at Jerusalem. Here’s some background for context:

The temple

The Lord originally commanded the building of a tent to contain the Ark of the Covenant, where he would reveal himself in his glory. After the conquest of Canaan, David and Solomon decided to build a permanent temple for the Lord in Jerusalem – a project that the Lord was not very interested in (2 Samuel 7:1-7), but eventually he blessed their plan.

So from the tenth century BC until 587 BC, this temple complex grew to include a royal palace and throne room, including quarters for families (cf. Jeremiah 35:4).

Solomon’s temple was completely destroyed at the beginning of the sixth century BC, and in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah we read about the project to build a new temple on the same spot. In comparison with the memory of the former temple’s beauty, the new project seemed small and shabby. “But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy” (Ezra 3:12).

Over the following years the second temple was completed. But in 167 BC occurred the “Abomination of Desolation” – the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes had an altar to Zeus built in the temple and slaughtered pigs in sacrifice. (Cf Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, I.1.1-2, and the whole biblical book of 1 Maccabees.) The rededication of the temple, described in 1 Maccabees 4:36-59, is the annual feast of Hanukkah [Dedication] which Christ goes to Jerusalem to celebrate in John 10:22ff.

But between the construction of the humble second temple and the time of Christ, Judea and Jerusalem fell under Roman rule, and the Romans imposed the foreigner Herod the Great as king of the Jews. He undertook many great construction projects, but Herod's most famous and ambitious project was the expansion of the Second Temple in Jerusalem beginning around 19 BC. By the time it was finished, the temple complex was the size of a large modern shopping mall, and covered the entire Temple Mount with a vast multi-storey structure. 

The temple itself was utterly destroyed in 70 AD (Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book 6). What pilgrims now visit as the “Western Wall” is what remains of the complex’s outer wall.

Living in the temple

In a foreshadowing of later Christian monasticism, there were people who lived in the temple complex. “There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying” (Luke 2:36-37).

In a paper titled “Mary in the Protevangelium of James: A Jewish Woman in the Temple?” published in the journal Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, Dr. Megan Nutzman writes:

Since the Protevangelium of James was reintroduced to the West in the middle of the sixteenth century, it has attracted significant scholarly interest. The bulk of this attention has focused on critical analysis of the text, which was greatly advanced in the last century by the discovery of P. Bodm. V. Additional work has examined the date and genre of Prot. Jas., its place in the corpus of early Christian writings, and its role in the development of Mariology. While the popularity and wide distribution of Prot. Jas. in antiquity are clear, its date, authorship, and provenance remain uncertain. Most scholars hold that it was the work of a Christian whose knowledge of Judaism was problematic. Questionable descriptions of Jewish practice and Palestinian geography are frequently catalogued to argue that the author’s acquaintance with Judaism was limited to the Septuagint. In this article I investigate one aspect of Prot. Jas. that is among the most frequently cited errors in the text: the depiction of a young Mary living in the temple of Jerusalem. Through a careful reexamination of Mary’s time in the temple, I will challenge this conventional hypothesis and argue that the author structures his narrative to evoke three groups of Jewish women who were given special privileges in the temple cult. Rather than betraying an ignorance of Judaism, Mary’s relationship to the temple artfully weaves together the unique position in the Jerusalem temple allotted to accused adulteresses, to girls who wove the temple curtains, and to female Nazirites. (Download the full PDF from the journal Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies at Duke University)

Who would give up their child?

In the Akedah, when Abraham is commanded to sacrifice his son, we learn that (unlike some Semitic gods) YHWH hates human sacrifice (cf How is the story of Abraham and Isaac a moral example?) The word dedicate usually means to give something to God by destroying it. In the Jewish law, any firstborn who opened the womb was to be dedicated to God in sacrifice (Exodus 13:2), but a firstborn human child was redeemed by sacrificing a lamb in the child’s place (Numbers 3:23, Luke 2:23). We see the original concept of dedication carried out in gruesomely literal fashion by Jephthah on his daughter (Judges ch 11). Interestingly, in another view, the medieval Jewish rabbi David Kimhi asserted that Jephthah “dedicated” his daughter to a life of virginity and seclusion.

Besides the sacrificial redemption of a dedicated child, we also have the ancient biblical tradition of entreating the Lord for a child, while promising to dedicate the child the Lord as a Nazirite, as in the case of Samson (Judges ch 13) and the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel, ch 1), who was additionally fostered with the priests who served the Tabernacle. 

What about the Ark?

Beginning on March 16, 597 BC, the conquering Babylonians carried away the priests and rulers and wealthy people of Judah, and for seventy years the exiles lived in the city of Babylon. (See Wikipedia: Babylonian Captivity). Along with the leaders of Judah, the Babylonians carried away the Menorah and many other holy things from the temple in Jerusalem (2 Chron 36:10; Daniel 5:1-4).

Interestingly, it is not mentioned in this account what became of the Ark of the Covenant, which stood in the Holy of Holies in the temple. In fact the Ark does not appear again in the Jewish Bible after this event. We see it again only in a mystical vision St John recounts in Revelation 11:19 – “And the temple of God was opened in heaven, and there was seen in his temple the ark of his testament: and there were lightnings, and voices, and thunderings, and an earthquake, and great hail.”

What happened to the Ark? You won’t find it in a Protestant Bible, but in the second book of the Maccabees we read:

One finds in the records that the prophet Jeremiah ordered those who were being deported to take some of the fire, as has been mentioned, and that the prophet, after giving them the law, instructed those who were being deported not to forget the commandments of the Lord, or to be led astray in their thoughts on seeing the gold and silver statues and their adornment. And with other similar words he exhorted them that the law should not depart from their hearts.

It was also in the same document that the prophet, having received an oracle, ordered that the tent and the ark should follow with him, and that he went out to the mountain where Moses had gone up and had seen the inheritance of God. Jeremiah came and found a cave-dwelling, and he brought there the tent and the ark and the altar of incense; then he sealed up the entrance. Some of those who followed him came up intending to mark the way, but could not find it. When Jeremiah learned of it, he rebuked them and declared: “The place shall remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy. Then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord and the cloud will appear. (2 Maccabees 2:1-9)

Jeremiah records in his own prophecy, regarding the future kingdom of God:

In those days, when your numbers have increased greatly in the land,” declares the Lord, “people will no longer say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the Lord.’ It will never enter their minds or be remembered; it will not be missed, nor will another one be made. At that time they will call Jerusalem The Throne of the Lord, and all nations will gather in Jerusalem to honor the name of the Lord. No longer will they follow the stubbornness of their evil hearts. (Jeremiah 3:16-17).

What this means in the context of today’s feast is that the Holy of Holies was empty at the time of Christ’s incarnation. The rending of the veil (Matthew 27:51) exposed the fact that the Jewish priests had no Ark on which to offer the blood of the lamb on the Day of Atonement; the Lord was not in his temple.

Mary, who was to become the Mother of the Lord, containing the living God in her own body, was the only Ark that temple had ever contained.