I got another comment from a
believer asking me about the gospels, and I answered it in place. On re-reading my answer, however, I realized that this would be a good addition to my series on Gospel Disproofs, so I’m re-posting it here.
[Update: Aly responded in the comments and writes, “I’m neither a ‘believer’ ~which provokes+implies so much contempt on this blog (I don’t think that’s fair, considering they’ve been lied to their entire lives); nor a ‘grumpyoldfart’. I’m just a teenager questioning my ‘faith’” — Apologies to Aly for jumping to a false conclusion.]
The original commenter, Aly, writes:
I’m curious about the complete lack of your explanation of Jesus’ proclamation that he would ‘rebuild the temple in three days’ after it was pulled down. If you say that this statement was not related to the resurrection, then why do you suppose he said so? I’m disinclined to think that he might have been boastful and arrogant about his abilities, because this isn’t evident in other writings on him. I’m under every impression that he was a humble man. However, if you are able to prove otherwise, then I am willing to accept that.
If you would say that someone might have planted that statement in, I do not think that possible. Mostly because many people have reported him saying that [something that appears in the books by Matthew, Mark, and John and the book of Acts; whereas like you say, the resurrection story et all is only in the one by Matthew which makes it questionable], and the different varieties of ‘tear (it) down and (it) will be rebuilt in three days’. Also because of the fact that the Jews were present during this declaration by Jesus and countered saying (paraphrase) ‘it took forty years to build it, what are you saying man’.
So, in effect my question is this: Why do you think Jesus said ‘I will rebuild my temple in three days’? What did he mean by this?
Here is my reply:
Hello, Aly, thanks for writing. I’m not sure why you would find it “curious” that I have not yet answered a question you haven’t asked until just now, but in any case I’m happy to do so now that you have.
You pick an interesting story to ask about. You seem to think multiple people report that Jesus said this, however I’m not sure you’ve looked up the actual references. The earliest reference to any such story is in Mark 14, where it is explicitly declared to be a false testimony.
Now the chief priests and the whole Council kept trying to obtain testimony against Jesus to put Him to death, and they were not finding any. For many were giving false testimony against Him, but their testimony was not consistent. Some stood up and began to give false testimony against Him, saying, “We heard Him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands, and in three days I will build another made without hands.’” Not even in this respect was their testimony consistent.
Mark’s gospel is the oldest surviving gospel of course, followed by Matthew and Luke, and lastly by the gospel attributed to John, which does not appear until almost the second century (if not later). Chronologically speaking, then, Mark’s report is the closest to any actual event which might have occurred, and Mark records it as an explicit lie told by the enemies of Jesus in order to find an excuse to put him to death.
Notice too that in Mark’s report, Jesus is not supposed to have said that someone else would destroy the temple of his body and then he would raise it in three days, but rather that he himself would destroy “this temple made with hands.” That’s clearly a reference to the temple building, which was made with hands, and not a reference to his own body, which was not. It might also be worth noting that the “temple made with hands” was neither destroyed by Jesus nor rebuilt 3 days after it was destroyed, so this is clearly a false prophecy even if we didn’t have Mark’s word for it.
Luke makes no mention of any such prophecy, but Matthew essentially echoes Mark’s report—with just a bit of evolution.
Now the chief priests and the whole Council kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus, so that they might put Him to death. They did not find any, even though many false witnesses came forward. But later on two came forward, and said, “This man stated, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to rebuild it in three days.’”
You can see how the story is gradually inching towards the traditional version. Mark knew it was a lie and said so, but the magical “three days” meme is just so…tempting. Not to mention the idea of “temple” being a metaphor for the body. Matthew isn’t quite ready to turn the lie into an authentic part of the Gospel just yet, but you can tell he’d like to, because he changes the bit about “this temple made with hands” into a more ambiguous reference to “the temple of God.” Notice, too, that though he follows Mark’s report about how the Sanhedrin was seeking false testimony against Jesus, he sets this story a little bit apart by saying, “…many false witnesses came forward. But later two men came…” You could read that as stating that after the false testimony was done, two men came and testified truly. In fact, Matthew seems to want us to read it that way, since he deletes Mark’s report that “Not even in this respect was their testimony consistent.”
Fast forwards to several decades later, when most or all of the original “false witnesses” would have been dead. In the late first or early second century, someone who never claims to be the Apostle John writes a gospel that the church would later designate as being the Gospel according to John. Now, at last, we have the first (and only) report that everyone is so familiar with.
The Jews then said to Him, “What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” But He was speaking of the temple of His body. So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.
Unlike Mark and Matthew, “John” moves the entire story from the end of Jesus’ ministry to the beginning. Now, it’s no longer a false testimony—and in fact, when “John” gives his version of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, he completely removes any reference to any false testimonies at all. Nor is it a reference to “this temple made with hands,” as in the original story, nor even an ambiguous “temple of God,” as in Matthew’s modified version. “John” tells us explicitly that Jesus is speaking of the “temple” of his body. The evolution is complete: what started out as a lie told by Jesus’ enemies has become Jesus’ own prophecy, and a fondly-recounted part of the Gospel.
This legend is a picture in miniature of the evolution of the whole gospel. In only a few decades, stories that started out as lies told by Jesus’ enemies became great and profound truths revealed by Jesus himself, driven by people’s fascination with mystical symbology, popular sensationalism, and the inherent human desire to have something transcendent to believe in. The only thing unusual about this story is the conciseness with which it allows us to see the process in action. I’m grateful to Aly for directing my attention to it.