King of the Jews by Margaret Barker

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Book Review

Temple Theology: An Introduction and King of The Jews
Dr Margaret Barker

 

First, I must admit the charge of partiality.

My knowledge of the true origin of the Church has been guided by the wise, and sometimes humorous, scholarship and observations of Dr Barker. She came highly recommended, by no less an eminence than an Archbishop of Canterbury.  I could hardly ignore the implicit command to read her work. I did. It changed everything. All credit to His Grace, he was spot on.
But it’s easy to wax lyrical over the work of those we admire, more difficult to explain it to those whom it does not interest, but whom you know should be interested. This is life enhancing, life changing stuff for the very reason that our entire outlook on life and the world around us has been shaped by the themes that Dr Barker elaborates on and demystifies.
Of course, what I mean by this last point is that Christianity seems, to many of us, to be a world of riddles: we look at them – some of us have practiced them, some still do – and then occasionally, in a seemingly rational world, we get the entirely reasonable urge to dismiss the whole malarkey as hocus pocus or, as my American friends would say ‘woo woo.’

So forgive my enthusiasm but it might assure you to know that Dr Barker’s work is entirely founded upon the solid rock of surety; surety in the form of a common sense approach that throws aside the veil and allows us, just for one brief moment, to glimpse the entire mystical apparatus of Christian ritual and liturgy in such an obvious, but unexpected, way that you’ll laugh out loud at those whose form of reverence has clouded their ability to see that, when God created the universe, He created rational thought in the process. As Theophrastus once put it: ‘Superstition is cowardice in the Face of God.’
Couldn’t have said it better myself: from Adam and Eve to right here, right now we were supposed to be inquiring, rational and reasonable. The world around us is what it is a result of this amazing ability: ergo, the humble urge to give praise has always been driven by this fact.
Some of us were even created in order to attain wisdom. The idea that God could suspend His own physical laws to prove a miraculous point goes against all the democratic sense of nature as created by God. Thus the miracles are revealed, in Dr Barker’s work, as metaphors or as points of teaching by Jesus, who sought to supersede the religion introduced by Moses who himself had superseded the earlier cult of the feminine Wisdom.
It may come as a shock to realize that the older prophets, Isaiah and Ezekiel and others did not know Moses. The introduction of the Mosaic cult took place very late on when the ancient Solomonic temple became the target of sweeping reform in around 600 BCE.

Just this little point changes immediately our perception of what happened in the Middle East in that period. It was the period when the world became the domain of the masculine. ‘God without Goddess is spiritual insufficiency’ said the Greeks and they should know, for they too were the keepers of the flame of the older temple – a strand that runs throughout their mythology and tradition, at the forefront of which was the figure of Wisdom. It is fascinating to think that Pythagoras may well have encountered the Hebrew prophet, Ezekiel in Babylon – the dates coincide and later tradition suggests that such a meeting occurred.
 The figure of Wisdom was associated with all manner of things Pythagorean: Mathematics, Astronomy, Astrology and Geometry. There was an astronomical observation platform on the roof of the Ancient Temple in Jerusalem. That which Pythagoras accrued from Ezekiel must have been treasure indeed. Even the very gates of the city of Jerusalem were marker points in the observation of the sun at the solstices and equinoxes. These were the great days when religion was not sundered from science and Wisdom reigned.  

How interesting it is that Wisdom, in the ancient Hebrew system, was feminine. Thousands of years later it might still seem to be a man’s world, but such an observation only serves to outline the fundamental tragedy of the lost feminine in Christianity. 
Female scholars in this particular field are, and have been, given a very hard time. One thinks of the recent attacks on the Cambridge classicist Mary Beard or the ferocity of the attacks on Prof Karen King at Harvard for daring to suggest that a Coptic papyrus fragment might, only might, mention a marriage of Jesus and Mary. Wisdom brought civilization taught us to calm our benighted passions and to channel them into all that is good: into intellectual enquiry, into wise assessment and lucid conclusion and affirmation, where possible.

However, to chaps of a certain persuasion who just cannot help themselves this is a red rag to a bull (the bull in the Canaanite mythology was the son of the high god, El and his wife Asherah.) As Abraham Lincoln once said ‘better to be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.’ From the viewpoint of some of these voices you get the idea that the supernatural is not really so super after all: their idea of Jesus is straight out of DC comics, which is fine if you like your films overdone in the FX department, but this is to miss the point. The superhero comes to save, to rescue damsels from burning buildings and etc.
However, what if it is the damsel who is doing the saving? And what if she is doing it in the most magisterial way? By saving you from within. Just think of it, no need to doll yourself up in an expensive costume, no need to overdo the make up and the FX and to go around destroying all and sundry in a way that says ‘Hi, I‘m here to save you’ only to be saved, but to look around and, in seeing the utter devastation, think to yourself: ‘was it really worth it?’
A woman? They question. Bit embarrassing, what? But why should it be?
This is precisely the point Jesus was trying to reveal. And it has taken a woman to point it out. (At this point I would like to add that it is now odds on that some kind of abuse will be forthcoming – just wait and see; it’s as certain as death and taxes.)

These are works of great originality but they are also gently compelling, so much so that they begin to stick to you like glue. With quiet purpose Dr Barker unravels the voices of the past and re-engages them in a conversation with today. Here’s an example:

One thing has become quite clear: the original gospel message was about the temple, not the corrupted temple of Jesus’ own time, but the original temple which had been destroyed some six hundred years earlier. All that remained were memories, and the hope that one day the true temple and all it represented would be restored. Jesus was presented as the high priest from the first temple; Melchizedek returned to his people. The restoration of the first temple was the hope of the first Christians, and to set them, their writings and their presentation of Jesus anywhere else than in the temple setting distorts what they were preaching and misrepresents the original gospel.

This is from the Introduction and it is dynamic in the sense that the message is laid down loud and clear. This is extraordinary and you can see why Temple Studies is taking off in the USA. It gives, for the first time, a clear picture of the past. When you see the story of Jesus in this context suddenly it all begins to take on a clarity that was missing before and made some of what he says in the gospels strange reading. From this angle we can suddenly see why the Dead Sea Scrolls in this same context are documents of immeasurable importance. They too talk about the first temple, they too see the temple of Jesus’ time as impure and they too hark back to the days when the science of observation was not prone to religious literalism.
From this point on it is also easy to see aspects of this visionary sense of the old temple in the architecture of Christianity – who can possibly not be moved by the sight of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe? The New Testament, particularly the Book of Revelation is nothing if it is not architectural, as Dr Barker says, it is the key to understanding Christian imagery.
When I was working on my first book, a thesis on the sacred space and the nature of resonance I couldn’t help but be struck by the sheer mystical quality of Christian architecture at its best. The element of acoustics is particularly striking – it is what grabs you when, at particular times of the year and at particular times of the day, you enter in and, if you are in the right frame of mind, are struck by it. The reaction is an emotional one, as well as being deeply mystical. Have you heard the choirs singing the old hymns in these places come Christmas time? Dr Barker makes a series of good points in this context. For one thing she points out that the idea of ‘God created…’ is mistaken: it is ‘God creates…’, no past tense, it is an ongoing process. This is the sense of it in Church ritual. This must have been the sense of it in the ancient temple. What an extraordinary place it must have been.
If these aspects are what was present in the first temple then it is easy to see why the memory remains strong; but perhaps her most striking discovery is that John’s Gospel and the Book of Revelation are the key to Christian understanding. That Jesus entered the forbidden place, the Holy of Holies and there had a vision described by John in the last book of the Bible.
She also goes on to demonstrate that beyond all doubt that Jesus was crucified as Jesus the Nazorean – not Jesus of Nazareth. The Nazoreans were the guardians, the keepers of secrets, of the old ways. Jesus, as the last King of Israel was protecting those ways and seeking their restoration.  Nazareth very probably did not exist.
Again another bombshell: Jesus was resurrected at his baptism. The post-resurrection teachings are those that took place after this event. As the later Gospel of Philip states, you have to be resurrect before you die – it makes no logical sense that it can only take place after death, except, that is, if it is spiritual death.
Then there is the fact that Jesus began his ministry at the outset of a Great Jubilee. Every seven years was a Sabbath year. Every 49 years was a Jubilee year, a week of weeks. Every 490 years was the Great Jubilee in which the covenant with creation was renewed – inside the Holy of Holies: the very heart of the Ancient Solomonic Temple: you stepped inside there at your peril: the very Presence of God was said to be there.  The Great Jubilee lasted fifty years. Jesus renewed the covenant by becoming himself the sacrifice. His act of utter obedience to what he believed was there for the common good of all humanity was to leave a gift, the gift of self-awareness, making us aware of all around us, of its intrinsic miraculous nature. The Temple was heaven on earth and therefore, for Jesus as King/high priest death was but an illusion – his act was to become part of the phenomena of science by appealing to the science within us all. For two thousand years we have questioned this act and even gone to war on it, too many times to count, but if you also read the Gnostic texts after reading these works you will wonder anew at the Gnostic sense of the scientific and see that these are not the words of heretics but that they were, as Dr Barker acknowledges, part of the thinking during the time of Jesus. They are nothing less than the science of Wisdom.
What Margaret Barker does is to take away the unreasonable and then, seemingly, with a wave of her hand, apply reason to make distortion clear.  In an age of polarity when one must almost always seem to be at one extreme or another she represents the reasonable middle ground, the same ground that was inhabited by the early Christians.
I cannot recommend these and other of her works more earnestly if you want to really begin to appreciate the truth of the matter. At the end of the journey the sheer beauty of what happened two thousand years ago emerges – it is a tragedy that it remains but one rare naked singularity of human insight soon to be clothed in the distortions that humanity all too frequently insists upon. Perhaps this is why the timing is curious – the year after next coincides with the next Great Jubilee – we need to renew our covenant with our planet, let alone creation.
Now is the time to renew our interest in this matter.

David Elkington

 

 


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