Recent scholarship on the historical Jesus has placed him within the context of first-century Galilee and first-century Judaism. One line of scholarship, best exemplified by the work of Richard Horsley, sees Jesus as a product of and response to the social and economic conditions faced by many first-century Galileans. Another group of scholars, including Bart Ehrman, N.T. Wright, and Paula Fredricksen (to name a few), situates Jesus within first-century Jewish apocalyptic thought. Nicholas Perrin’s recent book has brought these two lines of thought together. He argues that Jesus’ social agenda is inextricably connected to his eschatological theology, one that focuses upon the corruption of the current temple in Jerusalem and the breaking-in of the heavenly temple. In this light, the title of the work is somewhat misleading. In Perrin’s account, Jesus and his movement are not so much the new temple itself but rather the bridge between the corrupt old temple in Jerusalem and the coming eschatological temple, of which Jesus would be the primary architect, sponsor and representative (99).
The book is divided into five chapters. The first two bracket the historical Jesus with Jewish counter-temple movements on one side and the early church and its use of temple imagery on the other. The bridge between these two phenomena occurs in the life and ministry of the historical Jesus, explored in chapters three through five. Perrin limits himself to Jesus’ actions, namely the cleansing of the temple (chapter three), his ministry about the kingdom (chapter four), and his practice of eating with sinners and his healings and exorcism (chapter five). He alludes to two future volumes that will examine Jesus’ discourses and his final days (16).
Perrin begins by comparing the communities behind the Psalms of Solomon, the Qumran documents, and John the Baptizer to establish a “phenomenology of ancient Jewish counter-temple associations” (44). Each of these communities considered the temple defiled due to problems with the ruling priesthood. Because of such defilement, they believed, a time of tribulation had begun. Each group took the caretaking of the poor upon themselves. Finally, the communities carried out the functions of the temple themselves as a provisional measure leading to the coming of the messiah and the judgment at the apocalypse. In a brief paragraph concluding the first chapter, Perrin argues that despite Jesus’ departure from John the Baptizer’s ministry, he nevertheless held on to some of the basic teachings and principles of his cousin’s sect.
The second chapter moves from counter-temple movements in ancient Judaism to the use of temple imagery in the early church. Here Perrin moves in reverse chronological order, beginning with the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, namely the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas, and ending with the genuine Pauline epistles. In between, he covers Johannine literature, 1 Peter, Hebrews, Matthew, and Luke/Acts. The scope in this chapter is much more ambitious than the previous one, and as a result, he never exceeds two pages of commentary on any given text. He argues that the use of temple imagery in the early church does not suggest that first-century Christians saw themselves either as being like the temple in Jerusalem or in some way supplanting it. Rather, they believed that the resurrection of Jesus Christ signaled the advent of the heavenly temple. He ends the second chapter by noting the ways in which the early Church shared the characteristics of Jewish counter-temple movements outlined in chapter one.
Having argued for John the Baptist and the early Church as counter-temple movements, Perrin logically moves in the third chapter to Jesus’ cleansing of the temple (Mk 11:15-17, eschewing the synoptic parallels). He addresses the questions of historicity, including whether there was a temple-action and what Jesus’ intentions were behind that action. After surveying the various non-eschatological and eschatological readings of Jesus’ temple cleansing, Perrin argues that there need not be any tension between the two views. Rather, the cleansing was a “parabolic gesture” (91), having multiple meanings that encompass both sides of the argument. Thus the cleansing of the temple is both triggered by the economic corruption of the temple administration and signifies the coming of the eschatological temple that has Jesus as its architect. Perrin further highlights the socio-economic element of Jesus’ temple-actions in very modern terms: “by being in a position to leverage usurious, high-risk loans, the temple financiers were then able to foreclose quickly and efficiently on landholders struggling to eke out an existence” (98).
Chapter four continues to highlight the socially radical nature of the Jesus movement by arguing that reversing socio-economic affairs was “paramount on Jesus’ high priestly agenda” (117); the movement did not stop merely at giving to the poor, but also insisted on being with the poor, and made such associations a “core value” (134). Here, Perrin focuses on Jesus’ encounter with a rich man (Mk 10.17-22) and the woman at Bethany (Mk 14.3-7). In the first pericope, Perrin identifies “the poor” as both the socio-economically disadvantaged as well as the “righteous remnant” within Israel. Jesus’ call thus has a strong socio-economic aspect, requiring a reorientation of one’s attitude towards wealth. The acceptance of the ascetic lifestyle was in essence an acceptance of social death and a rejection of the political advantages that come with wealth. In his analysis of the second pericope, Perrin argues that eschatological jubilee was the driving force behind Jesus’ mission to the poor. Jubilee gives a new light into Jesus’ forgiving of sins: since exile from the land is a sign of God’s wrath, forgiveness of sin will lead to a restitution of land. The coming of the heavenly temple, of which Perrin argued Jesus to be the chief architect in the previous chapter, would further signify a return from exile and a reunification of the Israelites with their land.
In the final chapter, Perrin turns to the two most characteristic activities of Jesus, referred to as “magic and meals” by John Dominic Crossan, that is, the practice of healing and exorcising demons and communal meals. Both actions relate to Israel by highlighting what was leaving (exorcism purifying the land of the unclean, including the Roman Empire) and what was arriving (communal meals creating a new society consisting of the transient, landless poor).
The greatest strength of Perrin’s work is his fusion of two major strands of historical Jesus research. The socio- political realities of first century Galilee are given the same weight as the theological concerns of Second Temple Judaism, resulting in a holistic picture of Jesus that demonstrates the coherence and interdependence of his social and theological agendas. There are, however, mechanical and stylistic issues with the book that detract from this contribution. There is a frustrating lack of citations, both to scholarly trends and views and to primary sources. For example, Perrin begins chapter three with a reference to Origen’s comments about Jesus’ temple-action but only gives a citation to secondary scholarship and not the original remarks made by Origen. In the next two pages, Perrin uses one metaphor after another to describe historical Jesus scholarship. Analogizing scholarship to things such as billiards can create a nice stylistic break from bland academic prose, but only in more limited amounts
Finally, Perrin begins the work by arguing for the coherence between the historical Jesus and Paul. This would be a welcome contribution, but discussion of this topic falls to the wayside. One can surmise from the thesis of the book, and in particular the discussion of the genuine Pauline epistles in chapter two, that the connection between the two figures is to be found in how they related their respective communities to the Jerusalem temple. However, Perrin undermines his argument when he admits that the temple is not central to Paul’s thought or necessarily a useful way of approaching his work.
These criticisms aside, Perrin’s monograph is persuasive and quite accessible. Perrin sets out to situate the historical Jesus’ temple-action within the theological and political climate of Second Temple Judaism. His Jesus is a social and economic revolutionary, one whose views seem particularly pertinent in the post-Occupy America.