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What does it mean to “rob temples” in Romans 2:22?

In my book, I argue that the verb commonly translated as “rob temples” (the verb ἱεροσυλεῖν) is not referring to the robbery of pagan temples, but to the misappropriation of funds intended for the Jerusalem temple. This is understandable in light of a passage in Josephus (A.J. 18.81–84), which describes how a Jewish Law-teacher and his accomplices defrauded a Roman aristocratic woman of money intended for the Jerusalem temple.

This interpretation makes more sense of the verses in their context:

Paul and the Vocation of Israel: How Paul's Jewish Identity Informs his Apostolic Ministry, with Special Reference to Romans

At first glance, this list of charges against Jews [in Rom 2:21-22] appears to be arbitrary, exaggerated and unconvincing, especially if it is viewed as a blanket condemnation of the regular practices of the entire Jewish community. However, the charges are more comprehensible if we assume that Paul is seeking not to prove the universal sinfulness of Jews, nor to devalue the Law per se, but rather to demonstrate the failure of Jews—especially the Jewish teachers who acted as the exemplars of Jewish identity—in their divine vocation toward the Gentiles. (p. 164)

The conclusion of the argument is as follows:

Paul, therefore, is using ἱεροσυλεῖν in Rom 2:22 to imply that the misappropriation of funds for the holy temple in Jerusalem by Jews, such as that described by Josephus, is equivalent to desecration of the temple itself. This, of course, makes a mockery of the Jewish claim to “abhor idols,” since the abhorrence of idols and the upkeep of the worship in the Jerusalem temple were two sides of the same coin—negative and positive aspects, respectively, of Jewish worship (2 Kgs 23:19–25, 2 Chr 33:7–8; cf. 1 Macc 1:41–53). Paul’s charge is thus a prophetic indictment, equivalent to Jeremiah’s condemnation of his Israelite contemporaries. It places Paul’s Jewish interlocutor in the same moral position as the foolish Gentiles who worship idols and dishonour God himself (cf. Rom 1:21–23). In this way, the Law-teacher becomes a foil for Paul’s own prophetically informed apostolic ministry. In fact, Paul later claims that his own apostolic ministry will succeed at precisely the same point that his interlocutor’s preaching had failed: Paul himself fulfils this very task by bringing funds from the Gentiles to the “poor” in Jerusalem (Ἰερουσαλήμ, Rom 15:25–27). (p. 166)

Thus:

Paul’s pointed questions to his Jewish Lawteaching interlocutor are directly relevant to his entire engagement with the mainstream understanding of Jewish identity, for which a certain understanding of the normal operation of the Law of Moses is fundamental. Paul’s rhetorical questions demonstrate that the epistemological privilege which accrues to the mainstream Jewish community through their possession of the Law does not necessarily lead to an automatic ethical advantage (vv. 21–22). Paul, in other words, is demonstrating that Jews who have the Law are subject to the same anthropological realities as Gentiles who do not have the Law, by reminding his readers that even some of the most respected and knowledgeable Jewish Lawteachers have committed the most serious crimes.

The full details of the argument and further references may be found in chapter 5 of the book (pp. 164-168). The chapter is available from the publisher in electronic format:

Windsor, Lionel J. Paul and the Vocation of Israel: How Paul’s Jewish Identity Informs his Apostolic Ministry, with Special Reference to Romans. BZNW 205. Berlin / Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2014.

 

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