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The “Temple of God” in 2 Thessalonians 2:4: Literal or Metaphorical?

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In 2 Thess 2:4, Paul speaks of the antichrist as follows: “He1 opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, and as a result he takes his seat2 in God’s temple, displaying himself as God3” (NET NT).

The question that concerns us is: What exactly is “God’s temple”—the ναὸς θεοῦ. The expression is used in the LXX only a handful of times (Daniel 5:3; 1 Esdras 5:52, 55; Judith 4:2; 5:18).4 The broader idiom of οἶκος θεοῦ (or κυρίου), however, occurs more frequently (e.g., 1 Chron 28:12, 21; 29:2, 7; 2 Chron 3:3; 4:11; 5:14; 7:5; 15:18; 22:12; 23:3, 9; 24:5, 7, 13; 25:24; 28:24; 31:13; 32:21; 34:9; 36:18; Ezra 1:4, 7; 3:9; 6:3, 5, 7, 17; 8:17, 25, 30, 33; 9:9; Neh 10:33, 34). The underlying Hebrew is typically בית אלהימ. As near as I can tell (from a cursory observation), every time either expression is used the literal sense is meant.

In the NT, the situation at first glance seems decidedly different. Matthew 26:21 is the only undisputed reference to a literal temple, though even here the apparently dislocated parallel in John 2:21 turns the statement into a reference to the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I would argue that in Matthew the referent is still literal, for the Synoptics are far more pedestrian in their descriptive powers than is the fourth evangelist.

My Accordance/Gramcord search revealed altogether ten places in which ναὸς θεοῦ occurred (Matt 26:61; 1 Cor 3:16, 17 [bis]; 2 Cor 6:16 [bis]; 2 Thess 2:4; Rev 3:12; 11:1, 19).

As well, there are another six instances of οἶκος θεοῦ, and here again a similar development occurs: The gospels refer to the literal temple (Mark 2:26 and pars. in Matt 12:4 and Luke 6:4), while the referential value of the expression has been transferred to the church by the 60s (1 Tim 3:15;5 Heb 6:21; 1 Pet 4:17).6

What are we to make of these data? It seems that by 63 CE (the date I would assign to 1 Timothy),7 the idiom had shifted in Christian usage sufficiently that a metaphorical nuance had become the norm. However, it is equally significant that all of the references in the Corinthian correspondence seem to require an explanation (readily supplied by Paul) in order to make the metaphorical sense clear.  Thus, for Paul at least, one might chart his development as follows:

  • 50 CE—literal notion is still in view (2 Thess 2:4)
  • mid-50s—metaphorical notion is developed, but the shift has to be made explicit
  • 60s—metaphorical notion is clearly in place, requiring no explicit referential clue for this meaning.

To sum up the evidence so far: it’s not that 2 Thess 2:4 cannot have the metaphorical notion in view, but rather that on a trajectory of Pauline thought such a possibility seems less likely than a literal temple.

At the same time, the triple reference to the Thessalonians’ knowledge in this ‘little apocalypse’ (2 Thess 2:1-12)—i.e., in 2:5 and 6 where Paul ‘reminds’ them of what he had ‘told’ them and that they ‘know’—may well imply that they were privy to some information that outsiders were not. Certainly the oblique reference to the ‘restraining thing/restrainer’ in vv. 6-7 fits well with such a view and opens up the possibility that Paul had given further information to the church—perhaps even that the ‘temple’ was metaphorical—that is now only guessed at.

Since Paul does not use ναός outside of 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, and 1-2 Corinthians, it is difficult to assess whether there was any theological development in this area or not. However, I would argue that there is an analogous development in Paul’s thought that supports the literal notion in 2 Thess 2:4. Paul’s use of κεφαλή with reference to the church is quite different between Ephesians and 1 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 12:21 κεφαλή is used metaphorically of a member of the church (“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ Nor the head to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’”). But within a decade, Paul had begun to use κεφαλή in such collocations exclusively of Christ (cf. Eph 1:22; 4:15; 5:23; Col 1:18). My guess is that as he dwelt on Christ’s authority over the man (1 Cor 11), he began to see broader implications. This then developed in terms of the scope of Christ’s authority (over the church and even over the whole cosmos [Col 2:10]) and in terms of metaphorical identification of the “head” in relation to the body. Even though Paul would again speak of κεφαλή in relation to the body of Christ and in relation to spiritual gifts (thus paralleling 1 Cor 12), he now used the term deliberately and consciously of Christ alone.

What does this have to do with “temple of God”? Three things: (1) There seem to be lines of development within the corpus Paulinum of referential transference in Paul’s ecclesiological terminology;8 (2) the key period for such development is the mid-50s; (3) once Paul applied such metaphorical language to the rich and complex realities of ἐν Χριστῷ, he did not return to his former referential values.

I have not yet looked at the intertestamental literature on “temple of God,” nor Judaica, Philo, etc. I suspect that even if such sources used the phrase literally, it would prove nothing because the NT has some distinctive developments as to where God’s glory resides (from the templeChristbody of Christ). Patristic usage, however, is full of illustrations—from Ignatius to Chrysostom—of metaphorical values (see Lampe’s Patristic Lexicon).

In conclusion, we are on much surer ground if we see the literal temple referenced in 2 Thess 2:4. If so, then it seems that such may well be rebuilt. Thus, when the antichrist sits on the mercy seat, claiming to be God, he will have culminated a long line of multiple and partial fulfillments of Daniel's prophecy, beginning with Antiochus Epiphanes. Let the reader beware.

1tn Grk “the one who opposes,” describing the figure in v. 3. A new sentence was started here in the translation by supplying the personal pronoun (“he”) and translating the participle ἀντικείμενος as a finite verb.

2sn Allusions to Isa 14:13-14; Dan 11:36; Ezek 28:2-9.

3tn Grk “that he is God.”

4 The rare variant forms ναίως or νεώς do not occur with θεοῦ.

5 An interesting connection involves μυστήριον with “temple of God” in 2 Thess 2:4; a similar collocation occurs in 1 Tim 3:15-16. Whether both these texts are discussing something similar is a different matter.

6 Cf. also 2 Cor 5:1 where οἰκία is used in close proximity to θεοῦ, though this expression never occurs in the LXX. Incidentally, I found no instances of ἱερὸν θεοῦ/κυρίου in either the LXX or the NT.

7 If we count the usage of ναός in Eph 2:21—and if this is a genuinely Pauline letter (which I would affirm)—then a date as early as 60 CE is suggested. But even this reference is self-consciously metaphorical.

8 This, of course, can also be seen in his ascription of ἅγιος to believers in his salutations—something not done until his Corinthian correspondence. There are other trajectories that one can see in Paul as well, but these examples will have to suffice for now.

Related Topics: Eschatology (Things to Come)