The man of lawlessness
What follows are some reasons I think it is preferable or at least possible to think of the “man of lawlessness” of 2 Thessalonians 2 as being the Jewish high priest, priesthood, or additionally some power behind them such as Herod or the former high priest Ananias.
First, we should be alert to the fact that God operates covenantally, and that “judgment [begins] at the household of God” (1 Pet. 4:17). God is concerned with all sin, but is most concerned with faithful worship. This is operative in the pattern of what the Bible calls the “abomination of desolation.” Often interpreters connect this abomination with actions of invading Gentile nations. But everywhere that God threatens to—and actually does—depart from his house, leaving it “desolate,” it is the apostasy of his own people that is the precipitating factor. The pattern is this: God’s people practice abominations, God leaves his house desolate, and then it is left unprotected for Gentile armies to attack. So we should look to identify these abominations as activities on the part of God’s people. We see this pattern in Ezekiel 8-10 where it is the idolatry of Israel that causes God to leave his house desolate. We see it again in Matthew 21 when Jesus cleanses the temple and then leaves it desolate of his presence. We should be prepared again to see it when Jesus vindicates his name in AD 70, understanding that the Jewish and Judaizing persecution of the church serves as the primary antagonist, with Rome playing a secondary role.
Second, there was already an essential element of disobedience to God in the second temple high priesthood. God had declared in the restoration covenant that only Zadokite priests could come near to serve him (Ezek. 40:46). Beginning at least with Menelaus in 172 BC, the high priests were no longer Zadokite, not even under the Hasmoneans. Although the New Testament does not call attention to this, it is likely that this disobedience, which included the murder of the high priest and the buying and selling of the priesthood, was the abomination that left God’s house desolate so that Antiochus Epiphanes could later walk right in. There were continuing abuses of the high priesthood after Jesus.
Third, there are some subtle hints elsewhere concerning the one who “takes his seat in the temple of God.” Hebrews 10 stresses that every priest “stands daily at his service,” and that Jesus is the only priest who has “sat down,” by virtue of his permanent and final sacrifice. By contrast, Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees for sitting in “Moses’ seat” (Matt. 23:2). Now, these are not all priests. And it is likely that this is speaking of their office of teaching and judging (as in Exodus 18:13), rather than a physical seat, and certainly not a seat in the temple. But it is a hint of an inappropriate “seatedness” on the part of the Jews, and the very context in which Jesus prophesies the final desolation of Jerusalem.
Fourth, very much of what is happening in the run-up to AD 70 is a sort of revival of Judaism, as the threat of Christianity catalyzes them, as the temple is completed and the last great Passover celebrated. This, I believe, also connects to 2 Thessalonians 2, in that the “false signs and wonders” were experienced by the Jews, and the “strong delusion” was a characteristically Jewish delusion: the thought that “God has blessed us with a great revival and will give us ultimate victory over the Romans and the Christians.” Again, it is the apostate house of God that is in focus, and the foremost representative of that house before God is the high priest.
Fifth, there are several senses in which we can identify the high priest as “proclaiming himself to be God.” First, in putting Jesus on trial and putting him to death, the Jews, and especially the priesthood, had exalted themselves over God and made themselves out to be the final arbiter, to be God. Second, in continuing to persecute Jesus’s body, the church, the Jews continued in this position. Third, in proclaiming “we have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15) but then revolting against Rome, the Jews revealed themselves to be aspiring to the same sort of idolatry of self-willed power exhibited by Rome.
Finally, we can understand the “one who restrains” the Jewish persecution of Christians as being the Roman rulers. Throughout the New Testament it is the Roman authorities who come to the aid of Christians over against Jewish persecution. It is only at the very end that Rome as well begins to turn upon the Christians, establishing the temporary unholy alliance of beasts (until Rome eventually devours Babylon-Jerusalem) that we see in Revelation.
James Jordan, to whom I am indebted for almost every single idea above, suggests that it is actually the church’s preaching that served as the restraint on lawlessness. Elsewhere Jordan suggests that the “mystery of lawlessness” is a sort of Girardian scapegoating mechanism, whereby the Jews were suppressing their own guilt (and ironically adding to it) by scapegoating Jesus and his church.