Where is the beauty of the temple for the disciples of Jesus?

Thomas O’Loughlin

We talk a great deal about ‘beauty’ when we discuss the liturgy, but is this just a matter of aesthetics? If so, then we are in danger of it becoming just a matter of personal taste and disputes over ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’. Perhaps liturgical beauty is a more complex matter, writes Thomas O’Loughlin, Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham.

One of the few items on which the majority, but not all, of Jesus’ fellow Jews were agreed upon was that the temple in Jerusalem was not only the place where heaven and earth touched each other, where the Creator made his Presence available and accessible, but that it was the most beautiful building in the world. This belief in its beauty is found in Psalms (e.g. 96.6), echoed in the Gospels (e.g. Mk. 13.1) and described in numerous other sources.1 If there was ever a religious ‘centre,’ it was Jerusalem. There were, however, other voices. For the Samaritans – retaining a tradition of several temples prior to the ‘official’ canonization of Jerusalem – there was the temple on Mount Gerizim; for many of the Greek-speaking Jews of Egypt there was another temple there; and for Essenes (located not only in Qumran but more widely in Palestine) and similar communities, such as those in the Nile delta, the temple had been replaced by their common dining hall, their dinner tables replaced the temple’s altar, and their song of thanksgiving at their weekly main meal was seen as replacing songs of praise uttered by the priests in Jerusalem.2

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