Court of the Gentiles in the Jewish Temple: clearing up misconceptions
It is often taught in some Christian circles that the “Court of the Gentiles” in the Second Jewish Temple was merely an instrument of separation of Jews from Gentiles. It is cited as a dividing barrier constructed by Jews, without authorization from G-d as some claim, a wall that was meant to keep non-Jews away from having full access to G-d and from freely worshiping alongside G-d’s people, Israel. Some even go on to link the “wall of hostility” of Ephesians 2:14 to the barrier that separated the area where Gentiles could enter from the rest of the Temple. Furthermore, it’s often taught by many “End-Time” teachers and various online prophecy enthusiasts that G-d will do away with this “Court of the Gentiles” in the rebuilt “Third” Temple. I will attempt to clear up some of these assumptions in this post.
What was the Court of the Gentiles?
Officially, there was no such thing as the “Court of the Gentiles”. That’s right, nowhere in the ancient literature, be it the Bible, the New Testament, the writing of Josephus or in Talmud does one find such a term. Instead, what one finds is an area called the “Outer Court”, by far the largest section of the Temple complex. Although there’s disagreement between scholars on the exact location of various Temple boundaries, this Outer Court was within the Temple grounds, but wasn’t within the Temple area reserved for Jews, which was surrounded by a very low wall/balustrade (sorek) that was only four feet high (so one could see over it), with large openings guarded by Levites. This court was not just for the Gentiles, however – it was open to anyone.
On the other hand, the inner Temple precincts were relatively small and could not contain all the visiting Jews at once (especially during high holy days), so most Jewish worshipers probably ended up in the Outer Court anyway. The sole reason it is known today as the “Court of the Gentiles” was simply because Gentiles could go no farther than this area, while Jews, provided they were ritually pure, could proceed across the balustrade to the next level.
The Temple and degrees of holiness
The Temple was subdivided into five different levels each according to a different degree of holiness, each one greater than the other:
- The Outer Court (i.e. the “Court of Gentiles), accessible to almost everyone.
- The Court of Israelites, reserved for all Jewish males who were ritually pure.
- The Court of Prayer, also known as the Court of Women, not because it was only reserved for women, but because women could proceed no farther. Both men and women could enter this court, talk to priests, pray, observe the proceedings, bring their sacrifices. Women had a balcony built for them to separate them from the men.
- The “Court of the Priests”, where only the priests could enter.
- And the “Holy of Holies”, accessible only once a year by the High Priest.
The various walls (soreks) that divided the various courts in the Temple were not the so called spiritual “wall of hostility” spoken of by Paul in Ephesians 2:14. Were that the case, one may also claim the High Priest was hostile against his fellow priests and Levites, priests were set against the Israelites, and male Israelites were hostile against Jewish women. Instead, the divisions in the Temple simply signified the different levels of holiness. Israelites could not go into the area where priests worked, and priests could not enter the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest could enter, but no one was intrinsically better than his or her fellow.
Jews and Gentiles both entered the Temple through the Court of the Gentiles
As already noted, the area known as the “Court of the Gentiles” was open to all, Jews and Gentiles, males or females, people of any class. Both Jews and Gentiles would congregate there. In fact, the only exception were women during their menstrual period. Many activities went on in there, including the selling of sacrificial animals, teaching, bathing for purification, even sleeping. No doubt, G-d-fearers/Gentile worshipers (or even just curious non-Jewish visitors) who entered the Court of the Gentiles had a chance to learn from the various Jewish teachers always present in the Temple. They could take in the holiness of the Temple, listen to the singing of Levites, see priests go about their duties, observe the various rituals, or simply pray to G-d and worship.
Yeshua (Jesus) was zealous for the Temple and the Court of the Gentiles in particular
While technically this area was outside of the Temple proper, Jesus appears to have considered the Court of the Gentiles to be part of the Temple. He thought of it as a very holy place. It is there, when driving out the money changers, that Jesus acknowledged the area’s proper use, that is as a place for all the nations to come and worship the G-d of Israel:
And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: “‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations‘? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Mark 11:17)
Jesus was angry that the holiness of the Temple was being violated by unscrupulousness money dealings, cheating and usury. Worshipers would come to the Temple with “pagan” money (i.e. money with images of pagan gods/emperors) to exchange it for the Temple currency which they could then present as a gift to G-d. And even though the Court of the Gentiles was very large, the Gentiles who came to worship G-d and to get a glimpse of the activities that went on in the Temple would find themselves crowded out by the various shops and tables of sellers peddling various items to visitors. One can imagine that this didn’t help get anyone into the proper worshipful mood, probably turned many Gentiles off to the G-d of Israel. Jesus was rightfully angry that the place where Gentiles could worship the Father was being desecrated.
Will there be the Court of the Gentiles in the Third Temple?
Reading the prophet Ezikiel one gets a great sense that the Gentile participation in the Temple would be far greater than it has ever been in Isreal’s history. Truly, the Temple will finally become what it was always meant to be: a house of prayer for all nations. Pilgrims from all around the world will worship there, they will come there during the high holy days, brings their sacrifices and offerings to G-d. Does this mean, however, that there will no longer be the Court of the Gentiles (a.k.a. the Outer Court), as some suppose, or that the different levels of holiness that were always part of the First or the Second Temple be abolished?
The book of Ezekiel spends much time describing the Outer Courts of the new Temple (Eze 40:17-19, 44:19). These courts will again cover by far the largest area of the Temple, to accommodate worshipers from all the nations. Ezekiel 46:23 describes the Outer Court area as having four places of fire for the cooking of sacrifices that worshipers will have brought to offer unto G-d. Nations will stream into Jerusalem and the Temple from all corners of the world to worship the G-d of Israel. Since G-d will never abolish Israel’s election and Temple worship privileges (Romans 9:4), nor will He ever suspend the Temple duties of the Levites or the priests (Jeremiah 33:18), I believe that this means that the various levels of holiness will also remain, including the differing level of holiness between priests, Levites, Israelites and the nations. We get evidence of these continuing different levels of holiness in Ezekiel 44:19:
And when they (priests) go out into the outer court to the people, they shall put off the garments in which they have been ministering and lay them in the holy chambers. And they shall put on other garments, lest they transmit holiness to the people with their garments. (Ezekiel 44:19)
Will the reign of Yeshua as Messiah mean that anyone who truly worships G-d, Jew or Gentile, could finally just waltz into the sanctuary of G-d in the new Temple, have the unfettered access anywhere, even if they are not priests? Does this mean, as some teach, the Gentiles will be selected to work as priests in the new Temple? Not at all!
They [that is "priests, who are Levites and descendants of Zadok" Ezekiel 44:14] alone are to enter my sanctuary; they alone are to come near my table to minister before me and perform my service. (Ezekiel 44:15)
Court of the Gentiles in the Book of Revelation
In the Book of Revelation will find an interesting verse that may give us a glimpse into the way the Third Temple will be laid out:
Go and measure the Temple of G-d and the altar, with its worshipers. But exclude the outer court; do not measure it, because it has been given to the Gentiles. (Revelation 11:2)
Couple of observations: First of all, the angel calls this edifice the “Temple of G-d”, acknowledging its holiness. Secondly, it appears that just as it was the case with Second Temple, the Outer Court area, which will be the largest area of the new Temple, will remain to be reserved for (non-exclusive) Gentile use.
The Temple will be a place where both Jews and Gentiles could worship the G-d of Israel, both together and in unique ways. All nations will come to learn from Israel because they will all know that G-d is with the Jewish people:
This is what the L-rd Almighty says: “In those days ten people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that G-d is with you.’” (Zechariah 8:23)