Newspaper columnists insist that my country, the United Kingdom, is a Christian country, while their counterparts at different papers rail against our military misadventures in Muslim lands. In parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland, particular streets or neighborhoods are thought of as Protestant or Roman Catholic, with flags, murals, or painted curbstones to mark the differences. Indeed, open and sometimes intractable conflict arises in the context of competing religious claims to land, as we have seen recently in the Balkans and in Israel.[1] Religion and geography are often thought to go together, and indeed, in many instances they do. A sense of rootedness, embodiment, affirmation of the physical creation, and (at least in the biblical tradition) the acting of God in history provide contributory factors for this connection. This can lead to a possessive attitude toward territory when the geographical becomes a first-order theological concern.

And yet those very same newspaper columnists may sometimes write of religion as completely non-geographical. They may view religion as a private affair concerned with spiritual, non-physical realities that have nothing to do with the concrete, the embodied, or the historical. Religion is thus relegated to that supposed realm of morals and timeless truths which could belong to anybody anywhere.

The New Testament offers us a theology that challenges both of these cultural assumptions. A particular example of this is in the theology of Ephesians, a letter with an expansive and majestic depiction of the church that places much of what geography, land, and temple mean in a new and interesting key. There, we encounter a number of striking images of the church: the “body” of Christ (Eph. 1:22–23, 4:4,11–16 NRSV), the “new humanity” (2:11–19a), a “holy temple” (2:19b–22), and the bride of Christ (5:22–32).

Some of this imagery bears a close resemblance to, and indeed probably draws upon, traditional Jewish imagery of the nation of Israel, the temple in Jerusalem, and the land of Israel. Although Paul wishes to make known a mystery “not revealed to former generations” (Eph. 3:5), the letter clearly operates in a world with a past that reaches back into the Hebrew Scriptures and the people of Israel.[2] In Ephesians he draws upon an existing, familiar idea of the people of God and an idea of Israel’s story According to at least some significant traditions of Jewish thought in this period, including Paul’s own Pharisaic background, God’s people were defined by their faithful existence in the land of Israel and their obedience to God’s commands while being present in the place he had chosen to bless.[3] I have dubbed this imagery conceptual geography, a pervasive technique throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, in an effort to evoke the way in which believers construe land and space as holding special theological significance. In this instance, the conceptual geography of Second Temple Jews centered upon the temple as the meeting place of God and his people, a space filled with holiness and theological significance. This significance “spread out in concentric circles” from the temple to Jerusalem and then to the rest of the land of Jerusalem.[4]

In Ephesians, however, we see this imagery reworked in creative and surprising ways; it is, as it were, transposed into a different key. This transposition corresponds to, and would seem to be driven by, the idea that the category of the people of God now encompasses the Gentiles who believe in Christ as well. Paul describes the “mystery” now disclosed of the Gentiles as “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6). In short, the redefinition of the people of God envisaged in Ephesians necessitates a reimagining of conceptual geography. It is not abandoned but rather transposed and put to new uses.

That major theme of the letter is the church, that is, the ekkl?sia. In Ephesians, every instance of ekkl?sia seems to refer to a wider, catholic body and not (only) to a specific congregation. While the idea that this term signifies election is remarkably persistent—an idea based upon a spurious etymology of ekkl?sia from the compound verb ek–kale? (to call out)—its use in the New Testament in fact derives from prior Jewish usage. In the Septuagint, ekkl?sia is the most frequent translation of the Hebrew qahal (“assembly”), and it is likely this background that informs the use of the term in Paul and the wider New Testament. Paul’s use of ekkl?sia(which in all probability originates not with him but with the earliest Christian communities) thus emphasizes his belief that the Christian communities he addresses are, despite being predominantly Gentile, manifestations of the “assembly of God” or “assembly of Israel” and, thus, in some sense come into the inheritance of Israel. The church, then, is viewed as the people of God in a way which transcends the local congregation—a conclusion borne by the imagery of the church used here.

Paul develops an architectural metaphor for the church as a holy temple (naos).[5] The word naos is used in the Septuagint to refer to the Jerusalem temple, but it is also, along with hieron, used to refer to structures used in worship of the Greco-Roman gods.[6] However, that Paul would have appropriated the language of a pagan temple to describe the church is improbable; nowhere in the Pauline letters does Paul speak positively concerning pagan religious rituals or practice.[7] If, for Paul, the church is to be considered the fulfillment of any religion, it is Judaism and emphatically not the Greco-Roman cults. This makes the language of a naos hagios much more likely to be an appropriation of Jerusalem temple imagery.

Astonishingly, Paul applies the temple imagery to the church, as he does in 1 Corinthians 3:17 and 2 Corinthians 6:16–18, while the Jerusalem temple is still standing.[8] The conceptual geography of the temple, envisaged in Jewish theology as the focal center of the people of God and the locus of God’s presence, the place where heaven and earth meet, is applied nongeographically to the church. Paul has already demonstrated he can work with a conceptuality of a nongeographical Jerusalem in Galatians 4:25–26 where he contrasts “the present Jerusalem” (h? nun Ierousal?m) with “the Jerusalem above” (h? an? Ierousal?m). Moving from the significance of Jerusalem as a whole to the temple specifically, might it be possible that Paul’s use of an architectural metaphor of the church as a holy temple is to be read as over against the physical (Herodian) temple then standing in Jerusalem? If the church is now a holy temple, then the Jerusalem temple is implicitly no longer viewed as the locus of God’s presence and of the offering of sacrifices to him. This dislocation carries significant implications for how we view the relationship between Judaism and Christianity when Ephesians was composed, which I view as before the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE. Paul lays the groundwork for this in Galatians with a distinction between the two Jerusalems and an apparent repudiation of the “present” for the Jerusalem “above.” It is plausible that this same philosophy may also be at work in Paul’s description of the church as the “temple of God” (ho naos tou theou) in 1 Corinthians 3:16–17.[9] In fact, if this idea were part of the early Christians’ theology prior to 70 CE, then it might help explain the lack of theological problems occasioned for Christians by this event, as noted by Ulrich Wilckens, especially when compared to the theological upheavals prompted in Judaism by the destruction of the temple.[10]

If, however, the church is now the temple, the language has been transposed into the nongeographical key of the Jerusalem above. This differs from some of the other geographic provisionalizations of the Jerusalem temple in first-century Judaism; the Pharisees may have put an emphasis on the synagogue or the private study of the Torah as alternate meeting places with God’s presence, out of dissatisfaction with the Sadducean party who controlled the temple, but the actual, physical temple still mattered.[11] Even for Philo, who saw numerous spiritual allegories at work in the temple, the actual site in Jerusalem held an enduring significance, and participation in its worship from afar (via payment of the temple tax) was urged by Philo for faithful diaspora Jews. The logic of Pauline theology, however, is different. The gospel requires a rethinking of conceptual geography, not because the Jerusalem temple was in the wrong hands, nor because it could be substituted for Torah-observance. Rather, the redefinition of the people of God in Ephesians requires a step away from a conceptual geography tied to the land, Jerusalem, and the temple.

The rationale for this rethinking unfolds in the expectations Paul holds for his Gentile converts. If Paul’s horticultural imagery in Romans 11, in which Gentiles are “grafted in” to the olive tree of Israel, were to be taken as the sole component of a Pauline theology of the church vis-à-vis Israel, then we might imagine that the inclusion of the Gentiles meant simply their becoming Jews. Instead, we discover that although the Gentile addressees in Ephesians are told they must “no longer live as the Gentiles do,” they are not being instructed to become Jews. Conversion to Judaism entailed circumcision (for males) and adherence to the Torah, neither of which Paul enjoins upon converts. In fact, Torah observance is “abolished” (Eph. 2:15), and circumcision is downgraded to a mere human act (the implication of en sarkiin Ephesians 2:11).[12] Paul’s addressees are converts then not to Judaism but to something new.

Conversion to Judaism was possible in the Second-Temple period.[13] Yet instead, we find that Paul’s Gentile converts have entered, together with Jewish Christians, into a “new covenant” which constitutes a genuinely new thing. Paul’s description of the Christian in 2 Corinthians 5:17 as a “new creation” and his claim in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek” both bear witness to the radical difference of the church. This Pauline idea of the church as a new humanity is a theme encountered in Ephesians, which might appropriately be described as the language of a “third race.”[14] This may derive from early Christian claims to move beyond the Jew-Gentile divide in constituting a new humanity, as Paul argues. The consequences for the issue of Israel’s relation to the church are profound. Despite the acknowledgement of a certain amount of privilege attributed to Israel here by Paul, both Jew and Gentile are shown to be in need of salvation in Christ, and the effect of this reconciliation is not only a vertical reconciliation to God but also a horizontal one in the breaking down of the hostility and separation between the groups. In Ephesians, we find a dichotomy of Jew and Gentile abolished in Christ. It is this elimination, the ending of the “hostility” (echthra) between Jew and Gentile, that necessitates a rethinking of Jewish conceptual geography. There is an implicit critique of the idea that the people of God are tied to the land and temple.

Within Ephesians, we see a move from a divided humanity to a unified one through reconciliation to Christ. This maneuver necessitates the creative reinterpretation of land and temple themes; Christ and his church now fulfill what the temple once was: the meeting place of heaven and earth and the locus of God’s presence.[15] The church in Ephesians, as we have seen, is viewed here in its catholic sense; individual congregations are not in view here, still less the structures in which they meet. In this connection, it is telling that the architecture of the earliest church buildings owes a greater debt to the synagogue and the Roman basilica than it does to the Jerusalem temple.[16] The church no longer needs the physical location of the Jerusalem temple; in fact, with its walls and written warnings to exclude Gentiles from the inner courts,[17] the Herodian temple is in many ways antithetical to the inclusion of Jew and Gentile on an equal footing. Since those in Christ have been “made alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:5), one can say that with the resurrection of Christ a new age has begun—an age of which the church is the expression. The church has been raised with Christ, and hence, Paul can now speak of it as located “in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3, 20; 2:6). This is a formulation that relies upon the characteristic Pauline “now-and-not-yet” schema. There is a present and a future aspect to union with Christ in Pauline thought. As Dunn puts it, there are “two tenses of salvation for Paul—the aorist and the continuous . . . grammatical signifiers of the two phases of salvation, the beginning and the ongoing.”[18] Given that this is the case, we begin to understand why the land, so prominent in the Hebrew Scriptures, does not seem to be an abiding theme in New Testament theology. The move from Jerusalem temple to catholic, transhistorical church as temple entails a provisionalization of geography. Land and territory are subsumed by a focus on the church’s union and location “in the heavenly places,” and the Jerusalem above replaces the earthly Jerusalem in Pauline conceptual geography. The inclusion of the Gentiles in the New Testament’s “people of God” is closely connected with this idea.

A cosmos centered on and reunited in Christ is the most significant theme toward which Pauline theology is oriented, but, far from being abstract or unqualified, this restoration finds concrete expression in the church, in the bringing together of a fractured humanity into one. In this transformation, the church functions as the locus of the reconciliatory activity of the gospel, and it thus performs not only the role of the temple but also the role of the land, becoming the space in which the faithful existence of God’s people takes place. The Hebrew Scriptures’ conceptual geography is, as a consequence, reinterpreted and in some ways inverted. As N. T. Wright puts it:

The replacement of Temple with Jesus and, secondarily and derivatively, with his people remains one of Paul’s central worldview-revisions, unnoticed in an earlier generation that chose to forget the significance of the Temple within Paul’s ancestral symbolic universe . . . Jerusalem itself, the focus of the longed-for centripetal pilgrimage of the nations, has been replaced by Jerusalem as the centrifugal originating point of the world mission. The redeemer does not now come to Zion but from Zion, going out into all the world to “gather the nations,” not by their coming to the central symbol of ancient Judaism, but by their becoming the central symbol, as we shall see, of the transformed worldview.[19]

This reimagined conceptual geography does not mean that geography becomes completely unimportant, but it does mean that it cannot become of first importance for Christian theology. Land and territory may be valid concerns for the Christian, particularly when they involve issues of justice, but in the light of the gospel, they are far from ultimate. Indeed, the church has managed to exist faithfully in lands where other religious traditions are politically dominant. However, a strong theological concern for possession of territory is to be abandoned, as such ownership partially constituted the hostility between Jew and Gentile, which Christ has eradicated.

It is important to note that this is not to be confused with Rudolf Bultmann’s argument in which Israel’s close connection to the land is this-worldly, unspiritual, and symptomatic of a lack of faith.[20] Bultmann claims an incompatibility between wanting both to be the people of God and a national entity, and he charges Israel with inconsistency on this point. This argument—which sometimes persists in the popular desire of Christian preachers to list as many ways as possible that the New Testament is superior to the Old Testament—relies on Bultmann’s conviction that what is this-worldly, historical, and physically located (Ortsgebunden) must be transcended by spiritually pure faith and reason.[21] By contrast, the perspective I am urging here suggests that while geography is not ultimate, neither is it an evil to be transcended. The Hebrew creation story given in Genesis 1 affirms the physical creation as “good” (tov). In Paul’s letters we find the hope that the physical creation will be liberated from its frustration by the power of sin (as opposed to the rather different Platonic idea that the human soul will be liberated from the prison of physicality). As Oscar Cullmann demonstrates in his 1955 Ingersoll lecture Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?,[22] the eschatological hope of the Christian, at least according to the witness of the New Testament, is one embodied in resurrection rather than disembodied in the immortality of the soul. The Christian can hold geographical, this-worldly concerns as non-ultimate and provisional, not because he or she has no country but because he or she has another country. However embarrassing in its unquestioning love for the British Empire many contemporary Britons may find the first two verses of Cecil Spring Rice’s hymn “I Vow to Thee, My Country” (even after Rice revised the more militaristic poem upon which the hymn was based in the aftermath of the First World War), the author cannot be faulted for relativizing his patriotism in the perspective of Christian hope in the third verse: “And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago.” The book of Ephesians bears witness to this in its reorientation of Hebrew categories of land and temple toward the church’s vocation in Christ and its nature as the meeting place between heaven and earth. As Paul teaches us, Christian theology can hold geography as a provisional concern: neither primary and nonnegotiable nor irrelevant and unspiritual.

[1] The Balkans and Israel are two among many possible examples given by Gary M. Burge, Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to “Holy Land” Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), ix–xiii.

[2]The theology of Ephesians coheres well with that of the undisputed Pauline letters and could be described as quintessentially Pauline (see Rudolf Schnackenburg, Ephesians: A Commentary [Edinburgh, UK: T&T Clark, 1991], 311). Although this remains a disputed issue in New Testament scholarship, I therefore refer to the author of Ephesians as Paul. Also note that like Harold W. Hoehner, I believe there is nothing in the letter to suggest an incompatibility with a composition date around 60 CE, well before the fall of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE (see Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002], 2–61).

[3] See David J. A. Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, 2nd ed. (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997); and Roland Deines, The Acts of God in History: Studies toward Recovering a Theological Historiography (Tübingen, DE: Mohr Siebeck, 2013), 159–61.

[4] I prefer conceptual geography to N. T. Wright’s term sacred geography in that it avoids unwanted associations to post-Enlightenment sacred/secular distinctions. See Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God(London, UK: SPCK, 2013), 95, 226–7.

[5] See Ephesians 2:20–22.

[6] Otto Michel, “naos,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), 4.882.

[7] See, for example, the negative contrast between pagan temples and the church as the “temple of the living God” in 2 Corinthians 6:14–18 or the discussion in 1 Corinthians 8–10. Some have seen Paul’s sermons, as reported by Luke in Acts 14 and 17, as more positive toward Gentile religion, though his concern in these sermons is still clearly that they must turn to Christ to receive salvation.

[8] See Wright, “Jerusalem in the New Testament,” 53–77, in Jerusalem Past and Present in the Purposes of God, ed. P. W. L. Walker (Cambridge, UK: Tyndale, 1992), 70.

[9] We might think, too, of Paul’s claim that “our citizenship (politeuma) is in heaven” in Philippians 3:20, although this is more likely contrasted against the background of Roman citizenship rather than membership in the people of Israel.

[10] Wilckens, Theologie des neuen Testaments:Die Theologie des Neuen Testaments als Grundlage kirchlicher Lehre, II/1 (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 2007), 31. That a dehistoricized, privatized form of piety only became prevalent among Jews after the Bar Kochba revolt (see Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 115) demonstrates further the significance of the physical Jerusalem temple for first-century Judaism. Some later Rabbinic teachers even held that studying the laws around temple worship was a substitute of sorts for particpation in the now-destroyed temple; see David Instone-Brewer, Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 35.

[11] On the synagogue and study of the Torah as worship, see Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 95–96. Many synagogues were oriented toward the Jerusalem temple, and this was increasingly the case with the growth of Christianity, where churches were oriented East-West or, in some ancient churches in Syria and Palestine, West-East, like the non-temple-facing synagogues. See Joan R. Brannon, “Sacred Space under Erasure in Ancient Synagogues and Early Churches,” The Art Bulletin 74 (1992): 375–94, 380.

[12] See Alan F. Segal, Rebecca’s Children: Judaism and Christianity in the Roman World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), 163: “The breakdown of ethnic boundaries in Christianity was a consequence of both its antinomianism and its emphasis on conversion.”

[13] The pseudoepigraphal text Joseph and Aseneth provides some interesting background to the desirability of conversion for the non-Jewish partner in a “mixed” marriage and the ritual procedures involved. Genesis 41:45 records Joseph marrying Pharoah’s daughter, Aseneth, and the (much later) author of Joseph and Aseneth is focused on demonstrating that this is halachically permissible through Aseneth’s supposed conversion to Judaism.

[14]Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians (Dallas, TX.: Word Books, 1990), 144. The term is also used by E. P. Sanders in Paul and Palestinian Judaism (London, UK: SCM, 1997), 472–73, but it dates at least back to the second-century CE: see Tertullian, Ad Nationes, 1.8; Aristides, Apology, 2. The emphasis on both Jewish and Gentile Christians constituting together a new group undermines the dichotomy between Israel and the church that is encountered in much post-Holocaust theological critiques of “Christian supersessionism.”

[15] See G. K. Beale’s study of the temple as a biblical motif, where he argues that the church fulfils the temple’s true purpose: The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling-place of God (Leicester, UK: IVP, 2004), 259–60.

[16] See Brannon, “Sacred Space Under Erasure,” 374–81; Allan Doig, Liturgy and Architecture from the Early Church to the Middle Ages (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008), 2–20.

[17] Archaeologists have discovered Greek inscriptions from this wall warning non-Jews not to enter the inner temple courts: “Let no foreigner [i.e., Gentile] enter within the partition and enclosure surrounding the Temple. Whoever is arrested will himself be responsible for his death which will follow” (Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World,trans. L. R. M. Strachan (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1978), 80. See Acts 21:28–29.

[18] James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Edinburgh, UK: T&T Clark, 1998), 461.

[19] Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 358.

[20] Bultmann, “Prophecy and Fulfilment,” in Essays in Old Testament Hermeneutics, ed. Claus Westermann (Richmond, VA: John Knox, 1963), 50–75, 64. This has affinity with Ernst Troelsch’s claim that (liberal, Protestant) Christianity was the highest form of religion, in part because it could detach itself from any historical particularities. See Deines, The Acts of God in History, 10–13.

[21] For a helpful critique of Bultmann’s approach, see Karolina De Valerio, Altes Testament Und Judentum Im Frühwerk Rudolf Bultmanns (Berlin, DE: De Gruyter, 1994), 6.

[22] Oscar Cullmann, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? The New Testament Witness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Divinity School, 1955).