Part Three: The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord
It is hard to over-estimate the power and significance of the Jerusalem Temple for Jews in the time of Jesus. “The Temple was the most important factor in the commerce of Jerusalem,” writes Joachim Jeremias in Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. “By means of the Temple treasury, to which every Jew had to pay his annual dues,” Jeremias continues, “the whole of world-wide Jewry contributed to the commerce of Jerusalem.” Malina and Rohrbaugh writes, “While the temple was obviously a religious center in ancient Israel, it was also the central economic and political reality in the society…It was the center of a redistributive economy in which the economic surplus was effectively drained from rural areas” (page 74).
The Temple was the only real “industry” in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. The city hosted many other types of economic activity, but nothing compared in scale and scope with the operations of the Temple. The revenue included the annual dues from all over the world mentioned above. In addition, there was the revenue from pilgrims during the four great annual feasts. The largest of these crowds came at Passover, so it’s no surprise that the financial operations of the Temple were most visible and business-like at such a time.
“Every good Jews was committed to spending a tenth of the produce of his land in Jerusalem” during such pilgrimages,” according to Jeremias. “The system of taxation and tribute [in the temple] looks to the well-being of elites,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write. “It would be hard to overestimate the import of the temple as the center of a redistributive political economy. With large treasuries and storehouses for material of all sorts, the temple function somewhat like a national bank and storage depot. It became,” they conclude, “a repository of large quantities of money and goods extracted from the surplus product of the peasant economy” (pages 78-79).
The Temple, therefore, was responsible for the accumulation and concentration of huge amounts of wealth among those Jerusalem elites. These elites engaged in conspicuous consumption and were detested by the peasants and impoverished. The merchants and traders certainly catered to those elites and were therefor included in the cast of despised characters. “Whether temple trade was dishonest or not has often been debated by modern scholars,” Malina and Rohrbaugh notes, “but the different terms used in Mark and John would have been synonymous and unambiguous in the minds of ancient peasants. For many peasants, all traders or merchants were dishonorable extortioners and presumed to be dishonest” (page 74).
It was not only the Priestly pockets that were lined by the Temple offerings. The Romans took their cut as well. “Roman coffers benefited from the marketplace that supported sacrificial rites,” Marilyn Salmon writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “A disruption at the marketplace at one of the temple courts during a festival season like Passover affected Rome’s revenues. During the Roman occupation, they controlled the temple. We cannot know what Jesus had in mind by his angry demonstration, but he could not have been unaware that it would get the attention of Roman authorities. A reasonable speculation,” Salmon concludes, “is that his anger was related to the complicity of Roman bureaucracy and temple authorities.”
We can imagine that Jesus’ action against the Temple and its commercial system might have evoked cheers and jeers from the impoverished peasants standing in line to be squeezed once again for their offering of pigeons.
We return, therefore, to an earlier question. What did Jesus do here? Was it a demonstration, a protest, a riot, an insurrection? Was it something else? “Scholars have been unable to decide,” write Malina and Rohrbaugh, “whether this incident represents an attempt at reforming the temple…or a prophetic action symbolizing the temple’s destruction” (page 73). We have noted above that it appears in John to be a clear demonstration that Jesus replaces the Temple as the location of God’s presence in the world.
That doesn’t clear up the nature of what Jesus did. One of Jesus’ primary public acts in John is an act of civil disobedience. Jesus’ action is a prophetic provocation. But was it violent? In a time when some Christians are engaging in public demonstrations of civil disobedience, comments on the theology of protest could be helpful.
Clayton Croy walks through this question in terms of vocabulary, grammar, and social dynamics in his JBL article. He notes that some commentators use the Temple Incident to make the case for Jesus as a social revolutionary who was willing to use violence when the situation warranted. This cuts against the pacifism evident in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Passion Narratives.
Croy’s article is playful, not only in the title, but in its content as well. “What would Jesus whip?” he wonders, tongue firmly planted in cheek. His conclusion, however, is not whimsical. Based on his linguistic analysis, he concludes that Jesus improvised some sort of switch or goad with which he drove the larger animals from the scene.
Croy quotes the work of Cosmas Indiocopleustes, “an Egyptian merchant, monk, and geographer” from the sixth century after Christ, who wrote “a remarkably astute exposition of John 2:15-16.” Cosmas described Jesus’ Temple Incident strategy in three steps: (1) expel the large livestock with the whip, (2) toss over the coinage and tables by hand, and (3) chew out the human beings rather than chastising them physically. “I agree with Cosmas’s reading of John,” Croy concludes, “that Jesus did not apply the whip to persons in the temple precincts.” Croy further concludes that there is no conflict between this action and “the broadly attested tradition of a non-violent Jesus.”
So, Jesus doesn’t whip any human beings during the Temple Incident. But he does seem to cause property damage and commercial interruption. What shall we make of that?
William Domeris describes this event as an “intervention,” relying on the Latin meaning of the word as a “coming into.” He writes, “Intervention as a neutral term leaves open the degree of physical force involved, and the actual intention of the primary actor.” That being said, he notes that what Jesus “finds” (verse 14) in the Temple may be the result of fairly recent innovations by Caiaphas. In John’s account, Jesus orders the merchants to leave, rather than the dove-sellers (as we read in Mark’s account). The quotation from Zechariah reinforces this emphasis in John.
Domeris quotes Richard Horsley who asserts that the Temple Incident was an attack on the financial activities operated and controlled by the priestly aristocracy and used to exploit and extract wealth from the lower classes. The Temple had become, as Domeris quotes Borg and Crossan, the locus of the tax system both for Jerusalem and for the Roman provincial administration. Moreover, the Temple was sort of the Judean “Fort Knox” and “IRS” where the collected taxes were stored, and the taxation documentation was maintained. It should come as no surprise that during times of rebellion, the first items to be destroyed by the rebels were those tax records.
The Temple Incident has much in common with the “Occupy Wallstreet” actions of a few years ago. It is what Ben Witherington calls “a prophetic sign act.” Witherington suggests that the Temple Incident demonstrated the need for reform of the system and God’s coming judgment on Herod’s temple. The act was likely popular with the exploited. It also likely precipitated the final confrontation with both Jewish religious and Roman civil authorities that led to the trial and crucifixion.
What does this say about Christians and involvement in civil disobedience? Clearly, based on the Temple Incident, there is a place for such action on behalf of and in solidarity with exploited and oppressed people. This is especially the case in terms of extractive systems and structures. Jesus engages in some property damage, disruption of business, and defying of rules and regulations. He does not attack persons physically but has no problem with other types of confrontation.
We can see that the Temple Incident was effective in several ways. It is targeted to specific practices and structures. It really does create difficulties for the people in power. It is highly visible and clearly interpreted. The impact on those who are the beneficiaries of the action is mostly positive. The action gets the attention both of the public and the authorities. And the meaning seems clear.
Jesus certainly also understands that one result may be a violent response from the authorities. In fact, he may have had this action (among others) in mind as he made his “passion predictions” in the Synoptic gospels. Nowhere does he indicate that he will “deserve” this violent response for his actions. It is rather “necessary” in the sense of being the expected response of the system under attack. Jesus is prepared to risk and endure this response for the sake of the mission, the “Good News of the Kingdom of God.”
Most of us white Christians these days have no experience with such civil disobedience and demonstration. In fact, we likely regard such displays as illegal and offensive. Yet, here in the gospels is our affirmative model for such behavior. Perhaps we can learn a bit from our Black, Brown, Native, Asian, Pacific Islander, female, LGBTQIA+, and other oppressed sisters and brothers about the necessity for such actions. And when we decide to join in, we should be clear – as are they – about the likely response. Taking up one’s cross is not only symbolic.
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, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25610203?seq=1. 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.
Lewis, Karoline. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-213-22-3.
Malina, Bruce J., and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.
Myers, Alicia D. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-213-22-5.
Ruiz, Gilberto. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/cleansing-the-temple/commentary-on-john-213-25-2.
Salmon, Marilyn. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-213-22.
Shore, Mary Hinkle. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-213-22-4.
Witherington, Ben. “Jesus and the Temple Tantrum (A Study of John 2:13-17).” https://www.seedbed.com/jesus-and-the-temple-tantrum-a-study-of-john-213-17/.