The Temple and the Old Testament Canon
The Priest/Historian Josephus said that the books of the Holy Scriptures were deposited with the chief priests and those who had prophetic rank. 1 This was not only for preservation, but also as a sign of the great authority these 22 books were accorded by the Jewish people. Josephus was certainly speaking about the sacred books of the Holy Scriptures when he said that documents were preserved in the Temple. 2 It was Ezra who placed the 22 books in the hands of the Sopherim (counters of letters in books, priests who performed their functions at the Temple in Jerusalem). They were the 120 priests who became known as the “Great Assembly” (an earlier form of the later Sanhedrin) who governed the nation from their supreme court headquarters. This court was not quite like our courts today. The Sopherim dealt not only with judicial matters, but legislative powers also were invested in them. In time, these Sopherim finally gave their authority to a judicial and legislative council known as the Gerusia, which finally developed into the regular Sanhedrin of seventy members (priests and laymen) plus the High Priest (making seventy-one altogether). In the time of Christ, this Sanhedrin was considered by Christ to be sitting in Moses’ Seat (Matthew 23:2).
Since the Sanhedrin was the supreme railing body of the nation under the king, all the law books and codes for the nation (notably the 22 books of the canon acting as a type of “constitution”) were deposited with the Sanhedrin in their official chambers. This is so any member of the Sanhedrin could refer to the books for any legal matter at any time. There were actually two chambers where the Sanhedrin assembled for their judicial and legislative duties. One chamber (the main one) was in the Temple just south and east of the Altar of Burnt Offering. This was in a vaulted building known as the Chamber of Hewn Stones. It was designed in theater style (that is, the chamber was built as half a circle with concentric rows of benches and chairs for the members of the Sanhedrin to sit). This semi-circle was itself divided in half. The western portion was situated within the priestly section of the Temple, and priests sat there, while the eastern half was located within the Court of the Israelites and laymen who were members of the Sanhedrin sat there.
The other official site for the Sanhedrin to convene at special times was at a village called Bethphage just east of the outer camp of Jerusalem on the mount of Olives. 3 This walled village of Bethphage (where Jesus obtained the donkey he sat on during his triumphal entry into Jerusalem), was a very important priestly center that had special duties to perform in the time of Jesus. This is where decisions were made about the limits of the city of Jerusalem, the limits of the Temple, matters concerning the Red Heifer, the calendar, pedigrees, censuses, and where the decision for executing a rebellious elder described in Deuteronomy 17:6–9 could be dispensed.
At this place on the Mount of Olives, as well as at the main Sanhedrin at the Chamber of Hewn Stones in the Ternple, there were archival rooms (which we would call libraries) for housing the judicial books (plus other official documents). Of the 22 books of the Old Testament canon, it appears that most were preserved in the main library on the Temple Mount, but three of the books in particular (as I will show) were kept for special reasons at the Sanhedrin library at Bethphage.
Let us look at the relationship of the Old Testament canon to the Temple and its functions. There is a definite analogy between the three main divisions of the Temple with the three divisions of the Old Testament.
1. In the first compartment of the Temple there were 5 items of ritualistic furniture. 4 Going on, the apostle Paul mentioned these 5 items which were found in the Holy of Holies (Hebrews 9:4–5). Further, there were 5 books in the Law of Moses which were deposited within the Holy of Holies (Deuteronomy 31:9–11, 26).
2. In the second area of the Temple (the priestly compartment) there were 6 pieces of ritualistic furniture (the Golden Altar of Incense, the Menorah, the laver, the Altar Burnt Offering, the Slaughter area, and the Table of Shewbread). There were also 6 books in the Prophets Division of the Old Testament.
3. The third compartment of the Temple (called the Court of the Israelites) was divided into two parts: the western section was reserved for the men, and the eastern section for the women. There was no furniture in this compartment, but there were 15 steps that led up to the Court of the Israelites (the men’s portion) which was the spot where the 15 degree Psalms of Hezekiah (as we will see) were read and sung (Middoth 2:5).
It appears that the books of the biblical canon for this Third Division of the Temple were designed to provide religious and patriotic musical themes for the nation, the teaching of wisdom and knowledge to the men, and examples and customs for the women, were located in the Sanhedrin library within the Chamber of Hewn Stones. This was where the Sanhedrin could consult with them, but they could also teach from them to the men and to the women. This could be done within the two sections of the Court of the Israelites (the men’s and the women’s). I will have more to say on this in a moment.
Remember that the Temple was known to be a duplicate (in physical form) of what God’s House (or His palace) was like in heaven (Hebrews 8:5; 9:23). Since God is depicted in the Old Testament as having the form of a human, it would seem reasonable to humans to imagine that God had a house to live in just like we humans do on earth. And this is the case.
The Holy of Holies in the Temple at Jerusalem represented His throne room in heaven. “The Lord’s is in his holy temple, the Lord’s throne is in heaven” (Psalm 11:3). And the outer Holy Place in the Temple answered to His room in heaven where He holds council with his representatives who rule the universe under him (Job 1:6, 2:1). The Altar of Burnt Offering is shown by Malachi (who was a title for Ezra the priest) to be a table of the Lord where “he ate” His food with those He invited to be His dining guests (Malachi 1:7). The outer courts are where His people (that is, His subjects, since God is a great king) would come to present themselves before Him in His house. Even further east, the place of Bethphage on the Mount of Olives was the sentinel house (so to speak) to the Temple where people could be cleared of impurities before entering the House of God, or prevented altogether from entering God’s House if their pedigrees were not to God’s liking.
What we see depicted by the Temple in Jerusalem was a representation of God’s palace in heaven. God has in heaven a house (palace) with various rooms and pieces of furniture that any earthly king would have to accommodate his earthly palace. And what king on earth would not have in his palace libraries for the books that contain his laws and directions for his subjects? When Ezra the priest went to Jerusalem, he went for the express purpose to “beautify” (which in Hebrew means to “adorn”) the House of God (Ezra 7:27). Ezra did not come to build the House of God (it was already constructed). He came to be what we call today an interior decorator. He made and furnished the various libraries and associated the furniture of the Temple with decorations that made God’s House to be a very livable and a workable environment for God and His household. And, indeed, when Ezra got through, there was a full functioning House of God (a beautiful royal palace) for God on earth which contained all the amenities (libraries, etc.) that any other royal house on earth would contain. And Ezra provided 22 official books that acted like a “constitution” to govern the people whom God ruled in a personal way.
In the next chapter we will look at some of the furniture in this House of God that Ezra came to decorate. It needs to be recognized that there were 5 pieces of furniture in the Holy of Holies, and Ezra also selected 5 books of the Law to be associated with that area. Indeed, the actual autographs of these 5 books of Moses were placed in the Holy of Holies (Deuteronomy 31:9–13, 20). Following this same theme, there were also 6 pieces of furniture in the priestly section, and Ezra selected 6 books of the prophets analogous to that area.
1 Josephus, Contra Apion 1.6 ¶29.
2 See Josephus, Antiquities 5.1.17 ¶61, with Antiquities 3.1.7 ¶38; 4.8.44 ¶303.
3 Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 14a,b; Sotah 44b; 45a.
4 Note that I am shifting to using a number instead of writing out the figures. This is to provide an emphasis that is often not observed.
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