Friday, July 13, 2012

The Beautiful Gate (Acts 3:2)

By what gate was the lame man begging when Peter and John met him? The Beautiful Gate of the Temple (Acts 3:2)

After Jesus’ Ascension, the disciples continue to visit the temple (Acts 3:1). In fact, it is while going up to the temple that the first Christian miracle after Pentecost occurs, as Peter and John heal an invalid (Acts 3:1-10). The man’s condition is congenital and he has a well established routine of begging at the temple (Acts 3:2). This very specific sign is set at a particular time, 3 PM (Acts 3:1), and a precise place, the Gate Beautiful (Acts 3:2, 10).

And a man who had been lame from his mother’s womb was being carried along, whom they used to set down every day at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, in order to beg alms of those who were entering the temple. (Acts 3:2 NASB)
The naming of the gate adds local flavor to a story whose audience would likely not have been intimately familiar with the temple. In fact the genitive clause “of the temple” is added so that those unfamiliar with the temple would understand that the Beautiful Gate was a specific temple portal.

Despite Acts’ intention of pinpointing the locale, scholars can only speculate as to which of the temple gates is in question. Though Hellenistic Jews typically used “the temple” (to hieron) to refer to the entire temple complex and reserved the names “Holy Place” and “Holy of Holies” for the temple proper, Luke-Acts does not always adhere to this distinction (Luke 2:37, 19:45). As such, the narrative’s looser terminology cannot be depended on to diagnose even whether the miracle happened in the inner or outer courts.

There is an even bigger problem in locating the gate. While “Beautiful” is a virtually universal translation of the gate’s name (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV), this identifier does not occur anywhere outside of Acts (Acts 3:2, 10). The two primary sources regarding the temple’s features are Josephus [37-100] and an extensive description in the tractate Middot (m. Midd. 1:3-5). Neither refers to the Beautiful Gate but both sources do provide clues as to its identity.

Josephus tallies ten gates which serviced the temple: four along the north, four along the south and two towards the east (Bellum Judaicum 5.5.2). I. Howard Marshall (b. 1934) reduces the potential candidates:

There are three possibilities: (1) The ‘Shushan’ Gate which was on the east side of the wall enclosing the whole of the temple; it gave access from outside the temple to the Court of Gentiles. (2) Within the Court of the Gentiles was the Court of Women, to which there was an access to the east side; only Israelite men and women were allowed within this court. Josephus tells us that the ‘Nicanor’ Gate (otherwise known as the Corinthian Gate, and made of bronze) was situated here, and most scholars regard this as the Beautiful Gate. (3) From the Court of Women a further gate led to the Court of Israel, into which only Jewish men were admitted. The rabbinic sources call this the Nicanor Gate, but there is some evidence that their picture of the temple is a confused one. Most scholars adopt view (2). Christian tradition from the fifth century favours...view (1), but it has been pointed out that the east gate of the temple complex would have been a poor place for collecting alms; far more people would enter the temple from the west side, direct from the city. (Marshall, Acts (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 87-88)
As Marshall states, traditionally the Beautiful Gate was connected with the Shushan Gate. This is problematic on several levels. Gerhard Krodel (1926-2005) demonstrates:
Christian tradition identified it with the Shushan gate, located on the east side of the Outer Court, opposite the Mount of Olives, permitting entry from Kidron Valley. Interpreters have pointed out that this gate would be a poor place to bring a lame beggar since the access is steep and most people would enter the temple area directly from the west side. (Krodel, Acts (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament), 96)
Included among the “most people” who would not enter from that gate are Peter and John.

The majority of scholars favor identifying the Nicanor Gate with the Beautiful Gate. A burial inscription found on the Mount of Olives attributes its endowment to an Alexandrian Jew named Nicanor. It is uncertain when Nicanor funded the gate’s construction, but presumably post-Herod. The Mishnah records a tradition of a “miracle” associated with the gate (Tosephta Sotah 2:4).

The Nicanor Gate served as the main eastern entrance to the Court of the Gentiles, the largest and busiest of the temple courts. It also separated the Court of Gentiles from the Court of Women, the place of assembly for services. This would provide a high traffic area for the beggar and for the purposes of the story, the widest publicity for the evangelists’ actions.

Its designation as “beautiful” indicates that the gate could be easily distinguished from others and the Nicanor Gate fits that bill. Its materials were different from its peers, massive (fifty cubits high, forty wide) and featured huge double doors. According to a note in t. Yoma 2.4, “it was as beautiful as gold.”

C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) explains:

Of the Temple gates Josephus writes that ‘nine were completely overlaid with gold and silver, as were also their door-posts; but one, that outside the sanctuary, was of Corinthian bronze, and far exceeded in value those plated with silver and set in gold’ (War 5.201). This gate is usually identified with the Nicanor Gate, see Middoth 2.3: ‘All the gates that were there had been changed [and overlaid] with gold, save only the doors of the Nicanor Gate, for with them a miracle...had happened; and some say, because their bronze shown like gold...This passage unfortunately is by no means clear; the gate in question may be ‘the gate between the court of the Gentiles and the court of the women, or between the court of the women and the court of the men’ (Lake, Beginnings of Christianity, 5.483). Kirsopp Lake [1872-1946]...prefers the former. But is the Nicanor, or Corinthian, Gate that which Luke means by the Beautiful Gate? The description given by both Josephus and the Rabbis seem to warrant the identification, but it is not explicit; and it is well to remember that ὡραιος does not normally mean beautiful...A traditional view is that Luke’s gate is to be identified with the Shushan Gate (so called because on it was portrayed the palace of Shushan; Middoth 1.3; Kelim 17.9), situated like the Nicanor Gate on the eastern side of the Temple...The tradition is not ancient, and the Shushan Gate was no place for a beggar to sit, since it would be used only by those entering the Temple from the Mount of Olives or from villages on the eastern side of the city and not by those who approached from the city itself. The fact is that no ancient source mentions the Beautiful Gate (even if ὡραια is a corruption of aurea, golden, we can do no better), and we do not know where it was located. The Nicanor Gate is probably the best guess (Barrett, Acts 1-14 (International Critical Commentary), 179-80)
Whatever gate is in question, the backdrop of the story sits in stark contrast to the man who has become a fixture at the Beautiful Gate. His was not considered a beautiful life. His nasty condition is incongruous with his opulent location where he is left to do the only thing he can: beg. The religious pilgrims might have viewed him as an eyesore to the site’s innate beauty; a beautiful gate lined with an ugly sight. In modern real estate terms, the beggar might have devalued the property.

For the unnamed beggar, the Beautiful Gate was a great spot for commerce, like a modern prostitute with the best street corner (not that I would know personally). His modern real estate appraisal of the Beautiful Gate might be summarized as, “Location, location, location.”

Robert H. Gundry (b. 1932) analyzes:

For several reasons the gate makes a good place to ask for them [alms]: (1) a large number of worshipers enter and exit the gate; (2) its being a gate of the temple puts the comers and goers in a religious frame of mind; and (3) charitable giving formed an important part of Jewish piety. Will Peter and John fulfill this religious obligation? (Gundry, Commentary on the New Testament)
John Phillips (b. 1927) envisions:
It would hope a place of bounty. The man sat there “to ask alms of them that entered into the temple.” If there was one place more than another where an able-bodied man might be presumed to have a generous feeling towards his less fortunate neighbor, surely it would be here. We note that the beggar’s eyes were fixed on those going into the temple. On the way in, a person’s thoughts would be more sharply focused on the nature and character of God, perhaps, than on the way out. The superstitious, hoping to propitiate God and secure His goodwill, might be more disposed to drop a coin or two in the beggar’s palm. Or so the approaching worshiper might think...If a man must beg, this man or his friends seem to have chosen a good spot. (Phillips, Exploring Acts: An Expository Commentary, 66)
Giving alms was a primary component of Jewish religious life and the pilgrims would have been extremely conscious of this duty, much like a patient brushing their teeth before frequenting the dentist (Sirach 3:20, 7:10, 29:12; Tobit 1:3, 16, 2:14, 4:7-11, 12:8-9, 14:8;11, II Enoch 63:1-2; Rabbinic: Mishnah Pe’ah 1.1; Pirke Aboth 1:2; Aboth de Rabbi Nathan 4; Babylonian Talmud Berakoth 5b, 8a; Babylonian Talmud Shabbath 156b; Babylonian Talmud Rosh ha Shanah 16b; Babylonian Talmud Gittin. 7a-b.) The belief that God honors this practice carried over to Christianity (Matthew 6:2-4; Luke 11:41, 12:33; Acts 3:3, 10, 9:36,10:2, 4, 31, 24:17). While there are references to alms being asked for at synagogues (Cleomedes, De motu circulari 2.1, 91; Artemidorus, Onirocritica 3.53) there are no other texts that show that this occurred at the temple. In more than one way this episode at the Beautiful Gate is one of a kind.

What goes on at the Beautiful Gate? Why does Acts present this miracle with such a precise setting? Why does it use an otherwise unknown name to identify the location? What is the biggest contrast you have seen between a tragedy and its context? What do you find yourself begging God for? If your life situation forced you to beg to survive, where would you go to do so? Would you want to beg in a beautiful spot? Would it even matter to you? What made this gate “Beautiful”?

The gate was not only as ideal location for begging, it represented the farthest point the beggar could go as invalids were not allowed to enter the temple beyond the precinct of the Gentiles (Leviticus 21:17-20; II Samuel 5:8). Tragically, the man could stop at the gate but never enter.

Derek W.H. Thomas (b. 1953) acknowledges:

He had never walked in his entire life—but more especially, he has never walked beyond this gate into the nearer presence of God! Probably, ever since he was young, he had been utterly dependent on the kindness of others to bring him to the temple to beg. Folks like him know the kindness that religious people often show. Thus, the crippled and indigent tend to show up around churches. There was no social security or government help of any kind. They were dependent on the generosity of these worshipers in the temple. (Thomas, Acts (Reformed Expository Commentary), 69)

Though he had no access to the Holy of Holies, the beggar at the Beautiful Gate had perhaps already unknowingly encountered God incarnate depending on how long he had held this spot. A minority tradition asserts that Jesus entered the temple through the Beautiful Gate.

Though there is no record of any encounter with Jesus, the beggar encounters Christ through the disciples who house his Spirit (Acts 3:6) and on this day, the beggar receives more than he bargains for: complete healing (Acts 3:6-10).

Charles W. Koller (1896-1983) reminds:

Like Peter and John, we probably pass men and women on our way to church every Sunday whose need for help is no less real and urgent than that of the lame man at the beautiful gate. There may not be poverty or physical infirmity, but needs that lie far deeper. The most obvious need of the man was for silver and gold. His deeper needs were not mentioned as he made his appeal for alms. And it was in terms of silver and gold that people were responding. Yet this was the kind of help with which the afflicted man might well dispense if given something better. Silver and gold, he had been receiving for forty years; but it left him as he was—a helpless, hopeless cripple, carried by others, begging for alms to hold body and soul together. Silver and god, anybody could give him; but it remained for Peter and John to provide him with something better. (Koller, How to Preach Without Notes, 240)
And this “something better” may be the “beautiful” that gave the Gate its moniker. Joseph A. Fitzmyer (b. 1920) speculates:
Perhaps the name of the gate is more important to the Lucan account than one normally realizes. It may be the “Beautiful” Gate because of what is going to happen to the cripple in the name of Jesus Christ. Luke depicts him carried into the Temple through the gate in order to stress the symbolic change that will come into his life. (Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles (The Anchor Yale Bible), 278)
And this beautiful story all occurred because Peter an John stopped and looked, really looked, at the man who was overshadowed by the Beautiful Gate (Acts 3:4).

Who do you pass en route to worship? Do you know any beggars? What, if anything, do you give them? What locations would you describe as beautiful? What locations do you associate with beautiful acts of God? What is beautiful in your life?

“The perception of beauty is a moral test.” - Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), Journal, June 21, 1852

1 comment:

  1. Chandler
    Loved reading your post.

    How do you see this scholarly view fitting in with the movement of the man and Peter and John away from the inner court back out to Solomons porch Acts 3:10?
    I have been wondering if, for the same reasons that it would better his chances as a beggar and on account of the above whether the gate was on the periphery of the court of the Gentiles in which case through the southern wall.

    Thanks for your feedback