Good morning. Like many of us I have lived with this story all my life but never looked deeper …
It is acknowledged that Christ angrily cleared the temple of stalls and booths, sellers and re-sellers, money changers and no doubt a few con men amongst them - he knotted up a rope, turned their tables over and drove them all out.
The way I see it is that if there were fifty stalls in the temple then there were fifty stall owners paying rent for them and into the temple treasury. Business is business.
Do you think that perhaps this was the underlying reason for his actions, as well as dealing with the visible problem: open commerce in a place of worship?
Good morning. Like many of us I have lived with this story all my life but never looked deeper …
I think this instance can be taken at face value.
Whatever our LORD’s beef with the temple establishment, the temple proper was His Father’s house, and He did not want to see it put to profane use.
Also, the courtyard was to be used for people to pray, not for leading animals around and counting money.
The Second Temple complex took up 35 acres. In the center of it, 20 acres were walled off with limited access and that is where people prayed.
The commerce end of things was probably done in the roofed Royal Cloisters which probably took up several acres.
Not likely Jesus drove them all out. There were Roman guards everywhere and the merchants probably had their own guards with them.
When we say ‘place of worship’ today, we envision a quiet, tranquil area. But not so in the ancient world. The temple in Jerusalem was not out of the ordinary; just about every other temple in the ancient world was noisy, because prayer was vocal. And yes, there were animal sacrifices so there were the sound of animals and marketplaces too.
There are a number of possible reasons why Jesus drove the vendors out.
Some say that Jesus was protesting against the currency used in the temple market, the Tyrian shekel, which while was of enough and consistent silver content to be legally acceptable (compared to Roman coins) had pagan graven images - the god Melqart-Hercules and the eagle of Tyre - on it. In other words, Jesus was objecting to the presence of pagan images in the temple.
Others suggest that Jesus was objecting to the practice of the half-shekel tax paid by contemporary Jews yearly to the temple, when the Torah said that the half-shekel tax in support of the tabernacle was required to be given only once in a lifetime. In other words, Jesus was advocating not going beyond what the Law had said. Some will go further and say that Jesus was protesting against the temple establishment who levy these taxes on the already-oppressed and weary peasants. In other words, Jesus (in this idea) shows His concern for the poor and needy by advocating a literal interpretation of the Law (that the half-shekel tax be paid only once in a lifetime rather than on an annual basis).
You might notice that Jesus alludes to Jeremiah’s “den of robbers” prophecy: Jeremiah indicted the Jerusalem elite of his day:
Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD. Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel. And now, because you have done all these things, declares the LORD, and when I spoke to you persistently you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer, therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, and in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of my sight, as I cast out all your kinsmen, all the offspring of Ephraim.
In one interpretation, it is not so much the vendors themselves whom Jesus was targeting - it was the elite who run the temple and who were using the vendors for their gain. Just like Jeremiah, Jesus was indicting the Jerusalem elites (the “robbers”) for acting unjustly and then using the temple as their hideout - their “den” - to cover up their sins.
Then there’s also this line of interpretation - which is closer to the original spirit of Jeremiah’s sermon - which puts more emphasis on “den” than “robbers:” Jesus is not so much accusing the buyers and sellers of “robbery,” but of hypocrisy: here they are trying to acting religiously and fulfill their temple duties - they, who outside the temple were living immoral lives. They were using the temple as their refuge, their excuse so that they could continue living in sin outside it. The issue is not that of “den robbers” but of a “robber den:” Jesus was not so much calling the people ‘robbers’ as He was calling the temple a ‘den’. (After all, the hideout is where robbers hide after the robbery and share the loot - it is not the place where they steal.) In other words, the people - the priests, the buyers and the sellers - were indicted for thinking that since they were fulfilling their religious duties in the sanctuary it is now okay for them to commit sin outside.
Still another interpretation gives the demonstration an apocalyptic bent, in keeping with the idea of Jesus as an eschatological, apocalyptic prophet who taught that the arrival of God’s kingdom was imminent. Jesus upset the temple market in anticipation of the echatological denouement when the temple will be destroyed. In other words, by causing a disturbance on the temple market He symbolically acts out God’s impending judgment on the Jerusalem temple (which was probably in His view corrupt and in need of renewal). This is close to the way the gospels - especially Mark - portray the event (they present it as a sort of symbolic judgment upon the temple, and Jerusalem in general): you would notice that Mark and Matthew pair the event with the cursing of the fig tree that bore no fruit.
I personally think that all three interpretations could each be ‘correct’ in a way.
- That Jesus did this with anger is an assumption. The text says he did it out of zeal.
- The underlying reason was to fulfill the prophets who spoke of the Messiah’s zeal for his Father’s house.
Four gospels, four different perspectives.
Mark: Mark’s Jesus clears the temple, thereby pronouncing judgment on it and predicting its future destruction and replacement by the new temple, the Church. Jesus’ cursing the barren fig tree (remember that the OT prophets often used the fig tree in referring to Israel’s status before God; the destruction of the fig tree is thus associated with judgment) which sandwiches this account in Mark is the key to the story - something already noticed by the Fathers. (Victor of Antioch for example explicitly says that Jesus “used the fig tree to set forth the judgment that was about to fall on Jerusalem.”)
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching.
And when evening came they went out of the city. As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”
Matthew: Has the same perspective as Mark: the fig tree and the clearing of the temple are symbols of judgment upon Jerusalem. Matthew in fact has a more intensified portrayal than Mark because in his version, the fig tree withers up “at once.” That being said, there are also differences: note that Matthew doesn’t interconnect the two stories as Mark does, and unlike Mark’s “the old temple ‘made with hands’ will be replaced by the Church” theme, Matthew chooses instead to play up the “Israel rejects its Messiah” theme. In other words, the scene in Matthew is a symbolic indictment upon the Jewish authorities (and the people as a whole) for their failure to believe in Jesus. While Mark attacks the temple system itself, Matthew attacks the non-believing authorities who control the “temple of God.”
And Jesus entered the temple [of God] and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,
“‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies
you have prepared praise’?”
And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there. In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.
Notice that Matthew’s Jesus, the “son of David” who heals “the blind and the lame” in the temple, does the opposite of what the historical David did.
And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, but the blind and the lame will ward you off”—thinking, “David cannot come in here.” Nevertheless, David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the city of David. And David said on that day, “Whoever would strike the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack ‘the lame and the blind,’ who are hated by David’s soul.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.” (2 Samuel 5:6-8)
Jesus clears the temple and calls the Temple a “House of prayer.”
And Jesus entered the temple of God and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, `My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you make it a den of robbers.” (Matthew 21:12-13)
Jesus is citing a line from Isaiah 56.This is a very rabbinical way of teaching. He brings the mind of his audience to the theme in Isaiah 56 that all nations will worship God.
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
Jesus knew the temple would soon be destroyed. He is preparing the world so that all people, not just Jews, could offer acceptable sacrifice to God.
Luke: Doesn’t contain the story about the fig tree, but instead a prophetic lament by Jesus.
And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.” And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him, but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were hanging on his words.
Luke’s is the shortest version of the story, and the one that’s more complicated to understand. Unlike Mark and even Matthew (and somewhat ironically for a gentile) Luke generally has a mostly positive view of the temple. (Just note how many times Luke’s characters go to the temple and worship on it.) One scholar even suggested that Luke distinguished between the temple (the holy place) - which he treated positively - and the city itself (populated by the authorities hostile to Jesus) - which he usually spoke of in negative terms. So while Luke’s Jesus lamented over “the city” for “not [knowing] the time of its visitation,” Luke’s Jesus seems to clear the temple not so much as an attack or an indictment on it (as, say, Mark’s Jesus does), but more so that He could make it a base for His teaching. He clears out the bad - Luke, unlike Mark or Matthew, only mentions Jesus driving the vendors away - and restores the temple to its dignified state to make room for Himself, so that He could “be in His Father’s business.” While Mark’s clearing of the temple is a sign of judgment, Luke’s is a real ‘cleansing’.
John: The version in John is so completely different from the synoptics (it occurs at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry rather than at the end, for one) to the point that some people think these accounts (the synoptics and John) refer to two separate yet similar events. That being said, the clearing of the temple in John seems to serve the same purpose as in Mark: a sign of judgment upon the temple establishment and a prediction of the replacement of the old temple and the old sacrificial system (“And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen … And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away””) with a new one - in John’s case, “the temple of [Jesus’] body.” John’s is also the only gospel to give a cause for Jesus’ actions: zeal for God’s house.* In John’s case, the story of the wedding at Cana provides a clue to the interpretation of the cleansing scene just as the story of the fig tree does for the Markan cleansing.
“Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And rhis disciples believed in him.
For John, Jesus is the new temple, the ‘good wine’ that replaces the ‘poor wine’ (the old temple establishment).
- Note the quotation: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Does the verb ‘consume’ or ‘eat up’ double as a throwback to Jesus being called the ‘Lamb of God’ (lamb = consumed by the sacrificial fire)?
To sum (this is just a rough generalization):
Mark: Judgment upon the temple ‘made with hands’; prefiguring the replacement of the old temple with the new temple, the Church
Matthew: Indictment upon the temple authorities for choosing to reject Jesus
Luke: Cleansing to restore the temple to a dignified, holy place
John: Judgment upon the the temple; prefiguring the replacement of the old temple with the new “temple of Jesus’ body”
You’re right. People simply assume and infer Jesus was angry - even very, very angry - because of the quotation in John and the description of Jesus overturning the tables and driving away the merchants and whatnot. In some Jesus films, this is usually where the actor playing Jesus goes wild and causes ruckus with gusto. In fact, films such as The Greatest Story Ever Told, the play Son of Man, and Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (aka The Gospel according to St. Matthew) stand out - and IMHO, are much more effective portrayals - because in those films, Jesus manages to clear out the temple without going into excessive berserk mode.
On the other end of the extreme, the ‘pretty-much-berserk Jesus’:
Jesus of Nazareth: youtube.com/watch?v=kEtBs6j7QgU
Jesus Christ Superstar: youtu.be/QG1JWJFGfOU?t=1m20s (The berserk Jesus par excellence :D)
Jesus (1999): youtu.be/LKKpeDWwy1c?t=1h24m6s (Sorry, I could only find a French version)
The Gospel of John: youtube.com/watch?v=geferlpn_5A
How does Jesus killing the fig tree figure in to all this?
It’s pretty easy. The fig, the fig tree and the vine, in the Old Testament prophets, were symbols of Israel - Israel is often compared to an unfruitful fig tree or vine that will be withered (Jeremiah 8:13; 24:1-8; 29:17; Hosea 9:10, 16-17; Joel 1:7). In this case, Jesus’ cursing the fig tree and it withering foreshadows Jerusalem’s and the temple’s destruction.
You might notice that Mark uses the ‘sandwich’ technique for the two stories, which he does in the gospel when he wants to show that the events are related: the clearing of the temple (11:15-19) is sandwiched by the cursing of the fig tree (11:12-14) and by the subsequent discovery that it had withered (11:20-26).
Besides, what is the first parable Mark’s (and Matthew’s) Jesus teaches after He had cleared the temple?
A man planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a pit for the wine press, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country.
When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed.
Again he sent to them another servant, and they wounded him in the head, and treated him shamefully.
And he sent another, and him they killed; and so with many others, some they beat and some they killed.
He had still one other, a beloved son; finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him, and cast him out of the vineyard.
What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants, and give the vineyard to others. (12:1-9)
(Other instances where Mark sandwiches related accounts are 3:20-35, where the story of the scribes accusing Jesus of being in league with Beelzebul (3:22-30) is sandwiched by Jesus’ family coming (3:31-35) and thinking He was mad (3:19-21); 5:21-43, where the story of the woman with the issue of blood (3:25-34) is sandwiched by the healing of Jairus’ daughter (3:21-24; 35-43); and 6:7-31, where the death of John the Baptist (6:14-29) is sandwiched by Jesus sending the disciples out (6:7-13) and the disciples returning from their mission (6:30-31).)
In Mark 11, Jesus quotes Isaiah and Jeremiah: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations. But you have made it a den of thieves.” In the wider context of each verse put together, Jesus is saying: “Let me remind you Temple bigshots that Isaiah prophesied that someday strangers and foreigners, not just Sons of Abraham, would be welcome in God’s house. And Jeremiah says your disrespect for the Temple is so bad that God will abandon Jerusalem just as he abandoned Shiloh. Someday everyone will pray in God’s house, but his house won’t be here. And you lot will be out of a job.”
Ouch. No wonder “the chief priests and the scribes heard it and sought a way to destroy him.”
The interesting thing about it is that Matthew and Luke omit the phrase “for all the nations/ for all the gentiles.” Small change, but it does have big repercussions.
In Matthew’s case, it’s not a very big deal since he was writing from a Jewish perspective: Matthew does not have Mark’s gentile theme and instead emphasizes the temple as a place of prayer for the Jews. (cf. Zechariah 9:9 “I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim / and the war horse from Jerusalem; / and the battle bow shall be cut off, / and he shall command peace to the nations …”) In one interpretation, this was because in Matthew’s view it was the death and resurrection of Jesus - which has yet to happen at this point of the narrative - that makes possible the mission to all the nations.
As for Luke the gentile, at first the omission is surprising given his universalist focus, but perhaps this was because he thought that the temple was not the center of the gentile mission. Converted gentiles will not so much flock into the temple; rather, the gospel will go out to the gentiles, and the gentiles will worship elsewhere. It’s possible that Luke had the same idea as Matthew here and focused on a Jewish-only interpretation of the Isaiah passage. (Note: in the original Hebrew version of Isaiah, the word for “peoples” is not goy, often used for non-Israelite foreigners - cf. goyim - but 'am, the word usually used for Israel. The distinction is lost in Greek.)
Those who think that Matthew and Luke were writing after AD 70 think that they omitted the phrase because by the time they supposedly wrote, it has become redundant: the Jerusalem temple is no longer standing, so there’s no way it could be a literal “house of prayer for all nations” anymore.
I forget if I read it here or heard it in a homily or podcast…
But it turns out that some say that originally, sacrificial animals were sold outside the city, and money-changing was also done outside the city; and in fact, all this commercial activity had taken place somewhere up toward the Mount of Olives.
In Jesus’ time, all these activities had been moved inside the Temple, clogging up the Court of the Gentiles with commercial activities (and preventing Gentiles from being able to use it as a house of prayer for all the nations), and thus making the whole Temple a lot more like a marketplace than a house of prayer.
So this makes sense to me. It’s not that this stuff was unneeded; it was that putting it right there was misusing the only Temple area Gentiles could visit.
Steve already mentioned this, but much of the in-temple commerce actually took place inside the Royal Stoa (aka the Royal Portico or the Royal Cloisters or the Royal Colonnade, etc.), a Roman basilica-like structure located at the southern end of the temple.
It’s true that the Talmud refers to traditions about people not being allowed to bring any money - except for the temple tax - inside the temple mount (Berakot 62.2 “A man should not enter the Temple Mount with a stick in his hand … or with coins packed in his bag”). But the ‘Temple Mount’ there only really refers to the 500 × 500 cubit space that marked the boundary of the original Temple Mount and which was surrounded by a low wall or railing called the soreg. It was the space enclosed by the soreg that gentiles are not permitted to enter and which was considered to be holy; the space outside - which were mostly additions to the Temple Mount by Herod the Great - were considered less holy, and so the laws of purity do not apply there.
I should point out that ‘Court of the Gentiles’ was not known by that name back then (the name is not found in any ancient source, in fact): it’s just a modern designation for the outer court. The problem with the overemphasis on Jesus clearing space for the gentiles in the outer court implies that Jesus still upheld the Jew-gentile distinction for the temple: the outer court was where the gentiles belonged, while Israel would continue a fuller service inside the inner courts. But that doesn’t seem to be really the import of Jesus’ words: the eschatological image of Jews and gentiles worshiping in the temple together found in Isaiah (the scripture Jesus was quoting) assumes that non-Jews would share all the same privileges as Israel.
So there’s another possible level of interpretation here: Jesus was not so much clearing space for gentiles, but attacking the very idea of Jew-gentile separation present in the temple. In other words, Jesus was criticizing Herod’s temple for failing to become that prophesied eschatological “house of prayer for all the nations” where Jew and gentile had the same equal rights.
I’m commenting on your post again.
I’m thinking. Many of us seem to simply assume that the temple incident was a sort of spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment act: Jesus comes to the temple, is disturbed by what He (supposedly) sees, gets emotional, and just starts wrecking through the stalls. Most Jesus movies - at least the ones I know of - kinda reflect this view: most film Jesuses drive the moneychangers out seemingly by sheer impulse. (In a way this is kind of related to the ‘berserker Jesus’ I was talking about earlier.) Hey, after all, it makes for better drama.
But who knows? Maybe the temple incident was pre-planned all along by Jesus, a sort of ‘staged’ public demonstration to get people’s attention, if you will? We know the triumphal entry to Jerusalem - another public incident designed as an attention-grabbing fulfillment of OT prophecies and as a social critique of sorts - was also a sort of conscious fulfillment of prophecy planned in advance (hence the reason why Jesus wanted His disciples to get a donkey), so IMHO this suggestion isn’t too far-fetched. It still wouldn’t conflict with the idea that Jesus did this - whether pre-planned or not - out of righteous zeal.
Certainly this was not the first time that Jesus was exposed to the money changers etc. Was his zeal suddenly greater this year than in years past? Not likely.
Did the sight of this, after some number of years, finally make him snap? Again - not likely.
Much more likely that this was a carefully considered move on his part. Not one motivated by anger.
There are many instances of zeal in the Holy Scriptures.
For instance in Numbers 25 when Phinehas stabbed Cozbi and Zimri with a spear or in 1 Maccabees 2 when Matthias stabbed a Jew who offered sacrifice to an idol and then killed the officer who was forcing them to sacrifice.
Jesus had his rough edges.
He cursed a fig tree, and caused it to wither away. Questioned by the disciples, he showed no remorse.
Whipping the moneychangers in the Temple took real courage. It is not unreasonable to assume that people were more gentile in those days. There was no posturing- which we are used to in today’s society. Take an aggressive position towards anyone and you better have strong men to back you up.
BTW, being a carpenter was one of the most physically demanding jobs you could have back then. No Skil saws or power drills. Jesus had to be a very strong man and not to be trifled with.