Where does God meet us, and where do we meet God? Does that meeting happen in “all the old familiar places”? Or does Jesus challenge us to have a new imagination about that meeting?
The so-called “cleansing of the Temple” appears in all four gospels. That title, found nowhere in the text, carries assumptions, actions, and accusations which are not warranted by a close reading of the text. So, let’s refer to our subject by the more neutral title of the “Temple Incident.”
In the synoptics, the Temple Incident shows up at the beginning of Jesus’ final week, leading to the Crucifixion. We will refer to the report found in Mark 11:12-24. In John, this event is early in the book rather than late. This “difference” has provoked discussion and controversy over the centuries regarding the accuracy of one or another of the accounts.
I would suggest that this controversy is the result primarily of a misunderstanding of how John’s gospel “works.” As one commentator has noted, John begins where the Synoptics end. That’s true physically, in how the New Testament is constructed. But it is also true theologically. I think that John takes us to Holy Week almost immediately. He then expands his narrative by flashing back to a variety of events in Jesus’ ministry that illustrate the points John wishes to make.
One of the textual markers for this assessment can be found in the way Psalm 69 is employed and deployed in the Synoptic accounts and in John’s account. We will discuss Psalm 69 and its usage in greater detail in a later post. But for now, it is important to notice that Mark uses this Psalm in Mark 15:36, the offering of a sponge soaked in sour wine. John will use a different portion of Psalm 69:9 in his description of the Temple Incident.
I don’t believe that is accidental but is rather one of the ways John uses to signal his technique in telling the story. I conclude, therefore, that John is using what we would call “Holy Week” as the lens through which all of Jesus’ ministry is to be viewed, understood, and experienced. The so-called “difference” between the Synoptic timeline and that of John’s account is a matter of misunderstanding rather than contradiction.
The difference between John and the Synoptics is, at least, a difference in technique rather than a difference in remembrance. Before we dig into John’s text, however, we need to clear another hermeneutical hurdle. This text, among many, is used to reinforce the anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish beliefs and practices of historic Christianity. That is particularly the case when we focus on the “corruption” of the Temple leadership as the reason for Jesus’ public protest.
That emphasis on the corruption of the Temple leadership and system seems to be more at the heart of the Synoptic accounts than in John. John does not have the quotation from Jeremiah 7:11 – “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord” (NRSV). The verse comes from Jeremiah’s “temple sermon” in which the prophet criticizes the view that the first Jerusalem Temple (built by King Solomon) is a guarantee of God’s presence and Judah’s security.
Jeremiah’s sermon begins by identifying the social and economic injustices associated with the Temple establishment and practice (verses 5-15). The sermon continues by calling out abuses in worship practice and outright idolatry (verses 16-26). The prophet declares that the Temple shall suffer the fate of the sanctuary at Shiloh. That sanctuary in the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians a century or so previous. He asserts that people will hear his words but not listen to them, and the result will be devastation. The Lord will “will bring to an end the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land shall become a waste” (Jeremiah 7:34, NRSV).
The deployment of Jeremiah’s framework in Mark’s account of the Temple Incident reinforces the emphasis on the corruption of the Temple leadership and system. Mark’s account is the “meat” in an inter-textual sandwich, the “bread” of which is the Cursing of the Fig Tree in Mark 11:12-15 and the outcome of the Curse in Mark 11:20-24. Hurtado suggests that “Jesus’ disappointment with the fig tree is like his disappointment with Israel and the temple, her (sic) chief shrine” (page 180).
The Cursing of the Fig Tree may relate to one of the oracles in Jeremiah 8 that follow the Temple Sermon. In 8:11 (NRSV), the prophet accuses the leaders of soft-pedaling the crisis as they continue to exploit the vulnerable. They “have treated the wound of my people carelessly,” Jeremiah says, “saying, ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace.” The leaders have not born the fruit the Lord desires, whether that is grapes or figs. The fig trees are unproductive, he says, “even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them” (Jeremiah 8:13b, NRSV). The connection seems clear enough to me.
Therefore, in Mark’s account, the Temple is like the unproductive fig tree. “It is this that Jesus uses as a symbol for the temple,” Hurtado writes, “it has the appearance of dedication to God, but in substance falls short of doing his will” (Hurtado, page 181). On this basis, Jesus enters the Temple and disrupts the system for a short time. In the midst of that disruption, Jesus quotes the “den of robbers” verse from Jeremiah. Note that this quoted text comes from the lips of Jesus, not from the later remembrance of the disciples, as the scripture references happen in John’s account.
The Temple Incident is the last straw for the Jerusalem authorities, in Mark’s account. That is not the case in John, as we shall see later. Not only does Jesus interrupt the normal commercial activity in the Court of the Gentiles, but his protest “was also an allusion to the prediction of the prophet Jeremiah that the sinfulness of the priestly leadership in his own day would bring on the judgment of God” (Hurtado, page 182).
Some scholars wonder how Jesus could engage in such an action and then return to the Temple complex to teach later in the week. Mark explains this in quite simple terms. Jesus’ critique received the approval of the crowd to such a degree that the authorities had to come up with other plans to put a stop to Jesus’ public activity. Jesus was not the first to critique the Temple leadership and system, and that critique was bound to be popular with crowds who likely felt squeezed and cheated (whether that was the actual case or not). Jesus was protected in public by public opinion. That’s why he had to be “handed over” in the dark of night.
Even Mark’s account is misread if it is treated as an anti-Jewish report. After all, most of the folks in the account are Jews. This is an account of a Jewish critique of a Jewish institution, with Gentiles as – at most – spectators. A better use of this text is as a source of critique for leaders in our own religious institutions. There is no shortage of ways in which the Christian Church has made itself into a haven and sanctuary for thieves, robbers, adulterers, abusers, and tyrants. A glance at recent headlines, unfortunately, confirms this contention. Worse yet, the previous statement will be true regardless of when you might read it.
That being said, we can focus on what John actually reports and why. What did Jesus do here? Was it a demonstration, a protest, a riot, an insurrection? Was it something else? In any event, Jesus was not opposed to attacking the religious and commercial establishment. Jesus was not opposed to going after the money and property of the privileged and the rapacious. One of Jesus’ primary public acts in John is an act of civil disobedience – and this act is recorded in all four gospels. But here in John the target is not really the corrupt religious leadership and establishment.
Instead, Jesus engages in public theater, prophetic performance art. John takes advantage of that to make a different point. Jesus’ action is a provocation. It demands a response. If it is tolerated, who knows what other kinds of civil disobedience might break out. Malina and Rohrbaugh note that, “An action of the sort described in vv. 14-16 would have been a serious public challenge to persons in charge of the temple that could hardly be overlooked” (page 74).
Whatever Jesus intended in the moment, this was far more than a political protest. In the first-century Mediterranean world, temples “were heavily invested with social significance. In fact, they were personified and viewed as moral persons. They had ascribed honor just as did any family or individual and could be insulted, cursed, hated, and dishonored,” Malina and Rohrbaugh observe. “By dishonoring the temple, one also dishonored all of its personnel, from high priest down, including the One who commanded its construction and occasionally dwelled there – God” (page 79).
What did Jesus do here? “Jesus makes it impossible for people to buy animals for the required sacrifices,” Mary Hinkle Shore writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary, “and impossible for those who have come from all over the Empire to change their money and pay their tithes.” In Mark, Jesus accuses the buyers and money changers of turning the Temple into a den of robbers, Malina and Rohrbaugh note. In John, Jesus claims the Temple has been turned into an “emporium,” a house of trade. They suggest that the difference is not significant. Shore is not so sure, and I agree with her.
In the Synoptics, Shore points out, it seems that the issue is the corruption of the Temple system. “But in the gospel of John,” she writes, “this conflict in the temple takes on a different meaning. Jesus is not acting against corruption, or at least he is not only acting against corruption. He is involved in performance art. Jesus,” Shore asserts, “brings temple activity to a standstill in order to point to another holy place altogether” (my emphasis).
Karoline Lewis amplifies this in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “Jesus is not quibbling about maleficence or mismanagement but calls for a complete dismantling of the entire system. Underneath this critique,” Lewis continues, “lies also the intimation that the temple itself is not necessary. At the center of such theological statements is the fundamental question of God’s location, which will be confirmed in the dialogue between Jesus and the Jewish authorities.”
The location of that other holy place is his body – the real “dwelling place of God among us.” This is one of the questions raised in this text – where does God meet us, and where do we meet God? “The surprise in today’s gospel reading is that Jesus says that the transcendent is present in his body,” Shore writes. “The gospel of John makes this claim, that a human body — unique but also a lot like your body or mine — is the holy place of God.”
References and Resources
Croy, N. Clayton. “The Messianic Whippersnapper: Did Jesus Use a Whip on People in the Temple (John 2:15)?” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 128, no. 3, 2009, pp. 555–568. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25610203. Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.
Domeris, William. The ‘enigma of Jesus” temple intervention: Four essential keys. http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0259-94222015000200038.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1969.
Malina, Bruce J., and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.
Wecker, Menachem. “AOC’s favorite biblical story is mired in a dark, anti-Jewish past.” https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/aocs-favorite-biblical-story-mired-dark-anti-jewish-past