The text of these warning signs was preserved by the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, and two of the actual signs still survive today in museums in Jerusalem and in Istanbul – so there is no doubt about what they said or the threatened punishment for any foreigner who attempted to enter the temple. The apostle Paul refers to this well-known “dividing wall” as a wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles in Ephesians 2:14. But was this the way the temple of God was originally organized with strict limits placed on Gentiles, no matter what their dedication to God?
The answer – which is somewhat surprising to many people – is a definite “no!” Although the Hebrew Bible states that only the descendants of Aaron could function in a priestly role within the temple (Numbers 18:7), there was no “Court of the Gentiles” in the original Tabernacle Israel was instructed to set up. Gentiles were permitted to pray and sacrifice to God in the same way Israelites did:
For the generations to come, whenever a foreigner or anyone else living among you presents a food offering as an aroma pleasing to the Lord, they must do exactly as you do. The community is to have the same rules for you and for the foreigner residing among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the foreigner shall be the same before the Lord: The same laws and regulations will apply both to you and to the foreigner residing among you (Numbers 15:14-16).
At the dedication of the first temple, in the tenth century BC, King Solomon prayed:
As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm — when they come and pray toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name (2 Chronicles 6:32-33).
And the prophet Isaiah records the words of God regarding the Gentiles and the temple:
… foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant — these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations (Isaiah 56:6-7).
By the third century B.C., however, the Jews began to exclude Gentiles from the Temple enclosure. By the time of King Herod the Great (immediately before the life of Jesus), when he rebuilt the temple, Herod even had priests trained in masonry so that they could carry out the construction of the sacred precincts rather than the Gentile builders he had used in other projects (Josephus, Antiquities 15.390).
As a result of this distancing of the Gentiles, throughout the life and ministry of Jesus, foreigners were allowed only into the specially added outermost court of the temple – the “Court of the Gentiles.”
This situation was doubly sad. The outer court was also where the animals that would be sacrificed were kept, and the noise, stench, and excrement of the many animals hardly made the court a place conducive to prayer. Gentiles were permitted, if not encouraged, to donate animals for sacrifice in the temple, but Roman coinage was not accepted, and so money changers conducted a lucrative business exchanging the foreign currency for Hebrew coins which could then be used to purchase sacrificial animals (very likely at inflated prices).
It was this situation, of course, to which Jesus reacted so violently when he drove the money changers and animal sellers out of the Court of the Gentiles, quoting Isaiah in saying: “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). But while we tend to focus on Jesus’ words about the den of robbers or thieves, we may miss his equal stress on the fact that the temple of God was to be a house of prayer “for all nations” – for Gentiles as well as for Jews. Jesus’ anger was clearly directed just as much at the exclusion and mistreatment of the Gentiles as it was at the financial gauging being perpetrated in the temple.
Perhaps it is not surprising then, that after the death of Jesus, when the temple curtain or screen blocking the view of the inner temple was torn in two by a great earthquake, Matthew’s Gospel (the Gospel originally written for a primarily Jewish audience) states that it was not a Jew, but a Gentile – the centurion who beheld Christ’s death – who was inspired to state: “"Surely he was the Son of God!" (Matthew 27:54).
The tearing of the temple curtain signified the opening up of access of mankind to God through the death of Christ, and the access was of course one given to Jew and Gentile alike. With the granting of the Holy Spirit to the Gentles (Acts 10:44-46), God’s inclusion of non-Jews – as was always his intent – was made doubly clear.
So it was that the apostle Paul could write of Christ (referring to the wall with its warning signs between the court of the Gentiles and the inner temple): “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). Although the Gentiles were excluded from the temple proper during the life of Christ, God’s intent was always to include all peoples.