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As a preface, I was talking with some good friends last night and this passage came up. On of my friends contributed an interpretation that made my blood boil. He was clearly wrong and clearly reading a foreign doctrine into the text. I kept my mouth shut, but as I thought of it, I realized I was reading my own doctrine into the text too. Before you answer, please take a moment and see if your answer would have any support if you took away whatever prior notions you carry into the text.


This story is present in all four gospels, so let's take just the account in John 2:13-17 (ESV):

The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father's house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

Clearly there was some sort of injustice going on in the temple that Jesus was responding to and, compared most of the other stories told about him, he was uncharacteristically aggressive. The disciples later related Jesus' action to "zeal", which had a number of overtones, then and now, of violence.

On the other hand, Jesus did not ever lead an armed revolt and seems to have done his best to avoid being caught up in such a thing. In John 6, the people are ready to crown him as king and he withdraws from them. While he did cause a disturbance, he really didn't cause any permanent harm. In the end, he was put to death for actions such as this and died without protest.

So two opposing views of this account are:

  1. Jesus demonstrated civil disobedience by disrupting commerce in the temple.
  2. Jesus demonstrated using appropriate force to correct an injustice.

Is this a false dichotomy? How should we interpret Jesus' actions?

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I didn't at all initiate the conversation despite trying to think about how the Bible talks about peace this week. –  Jon Ericson Nov 10 '11 at 18:54
    
To clarify, you're contrasting "civil disobedience" with "appropriate force"? –  GalacticCowboy Nov 10 '11 at 19:33
    
@GalacticCowboy: Right. I think both views would agree that Jesus was correcting injustice and disrupting commerce; those phrases could probably be swapped at will. (It's a hard question to ask neutrally and without bias. I tried not to use overly-loaded terms.) –  Jon Ericson Nov 10 '11 at 19:44
    
Related: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/q/591/208 –  Gone Quiet Feb 18 '13 at 14:18
    
Three of the four gospels place this event just days before Jesus was crucified, and they all hint that he went to Jerusalem believing he would soon die. So one factor in the temple cleansing may have been simply that he wanted to force an open confrontation with the authorities that would ultimately lead to his arrest. I'm not sure I can support this, so I'm leaving it as a comment rather than an answer. –  Bruce Alderman Dec 19 '13 at 21:37
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6 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Based purely on the text you quoted: it seems to be neither. He was upset at what he saw and took the law into his own hands, causing losses to those he attacked. (I'm talking only about the direct losses, like those coins and any animals that weren't recovered, and not indirect losses of sales.) The laws in place at the time called for him to instead take his complaint to a court, which could plausibly have ruled that the activity is inappropriate (if it was). If the incident came before the court after the face, it could plausibly have ruled that Jesus owed damages.

(Laws of torts and damages are covered throughout the talmud and later law codes. A good starting place to learn more is the tractate Bava Metzia.)


Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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Thanks for taking a risk to answer a New Testament question. Clearly the idea of "civil disobedience" is a couple thousand years anachronistic. ;-) Your answer brings up an interesting question: how much commerce was allowed in the temple? –  Jon Ericson Nov 11 '11 at 21:43
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@JonEricson, good question about usual practices. I have learned that sellers (and money-changers) were a necessary part of observing the festivals for people coming from far away -- instead of bringing the animals from home you bought when you got to Jerusalem. But as for where exactly this happened, I don't know. –  Gone Quiet Nov 11 '11 at 21:50
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This isn't really meant to answer your question; it is more me thinking out loud and trying to learn. I'm less than a layman when it comes to hermeneutics, but I thought it was an interesting question about a Biblical account that I love, and I'd like to get @Jon Ericson's comments on my thoughts. Poking around the board a bit, it seems like you really know your stuff.

I didn't even think you could be reading a "foreign doctrine" into this story-- so maybe I am, too, and I don't even know it. I'd be curious to know what your friend was reading into it.

I always thought that this uncharacteristic anger that Jesus expresses here (probably the angriest we see Him in the NT) was a [just] reaction to these sellers' sin of loving money more than God (idolatry; also 1 Timothy 6:10). As this answer said, "he was upset at what he saw"; the traders were making God's house a "den of robbers", when it's supposed to be a "house of prayer" (Mark 11:17).

Wouldn't part of this also be that He is fulfilling the prophecy of Psalm 69, as noted by the disciples' realization: "His disciples remembered that it was written, 'Zeal for your house will consume me.'"?

The Bible is clear that we are to follow man's law except when it conflicts with God's law (reference). So yes, Jesus was using appropriate force to correct a grave injustice (what makes God angrier than idolatry?), but I think there's more to it-- it's a false dichotomy because there are other possibilities besides the two you supplied; one would be fulfillment of prophecy.

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But were they making God's house a "den of robbers"? Are the specifics of their business recorded anywhere? I can't tell if Jesus was upset by price-gouging (which would be unjust and probably unlawful) or that business was being done in the temple at all. –  Gone Quiet Nov 13 '11 at 0:37
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@MonicaCellio - Since as a Christian I believe that Jesus is the Messiah promised by God in the Tanakh -- a physical incarnation of God Himself-- I can only guess that He knew the intentions of the sellers at the temple. Since He called them a "den of robbers" in Mark 11:17, I'd only be able to take His word for it. As far as I know, there weren't any other details about the actions of those particular people in the NT. –  transistor1 Nov 14 '11 at 16:55
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@transistor1, thanks -- I was hoping there might be some additional sources to help us out (Christian midrash? :-) ), but I see your point about why that would be unnecessary from a Christian perspective. –  Gone Quiet Nov 14 '11 at 16:58
    
@MonicaCellio, I wish there were some sort of Christian midrash. I think that Jewish perspectives got lost in Christian thinking at some point, which is really unfortunate (to say the least!). –  transistor1 Nov 14 '11 at 17:03
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@Monica Cellio: I've heard so many times that commerce at the Temple was corrupt that I assumed it was. But I'd like to have a source other then my Sunday School teachers (who are probably the best analogue in the Protestant tradition to midrash), but I haven't found any so far. I'll keep looking as I have time. –  Jon Ericson Nov 14 '11 at 17:04
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When Jesus cleaned the temple it was because he knew he was God and that it was his house. This is foretold in prophecy:

In sensus plenior, there is a hidden prophecy that Jesus would rebel at age 12:

Ge 14:4 Twelve years they served Chedorlaomer, and in the thirteenth year they rebelled. The kings of Chedloamer served him 12 years and then rebelled.

The five against four represent the flesh against the Word. Chedloamer means 'handful of sheaves' representing his parents as a small portion of the field of harvest.

According to sensus plenior the 'rebellion' at age 12 is linked by drash to Manassaeh as the 12 year old king:

2Ch 33:13 "And he prayed unto Him; and He was entreated of him, and heard his supplication, and brought him back to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD He was God."

SP says this passage tells us that Jesus knew he was God before he returned to Jerusalem because of perceived grammatical ambiguity in this verse. Riddles are made from the ambiguity of language.

The only thing that transpired in the scriptures between these two events was the wedding at Cana. Prior to removing judgement/axe from the word/water, it was not yet his time. But immediately after changing water/(the whole word) into wine(grace) he immediately began his ministry. "He knew he was God".

He claimed the temple as his own. There was no concept of social justice involved. And there was no crime. It was his Father's house, and his also directly by relation.

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discussion in chat –  Jon Ericson Nov 17 '11 at 18:02
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This really really needs a citation confirming the alleged connection with Gen 14. Answers should provide enough data that somebody else could follow the clues and reconstruct the 'how' of an interpretation even if they disagree with it. –  Caleb Dec 20 '13 at 10:05
    
That's been the problem from the beginning @Caleb. There has not been an easy way to set a foundation in the methods of the Sensus Plenior hermeneutic. Every answer requires a full explanation of the methods and its justification or it is undiscernible from free-for-allegory (which it is not). Though this forum wishes to be the repository of hermeneutic knowledge, without a place for a systematic presentation of a particular hermeneutic, it can only be a repository of what is commonly known. –  Bob Jones Feb 13 at 13:41
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@BobJones We're willing to adapt as long as each answer shows enough of the process that somebody who understands SP could verify that it is being done correctly. The problem is we don't have a anybody besides you here that claims to know the rules. That and the main point of this site is not to have a bunch of answers but to have a bunch of things that teach how to get answers. Your goal when posting here should not be to give somebody the answer, but to teach them how to find it. I realize that's a lot of work for SP, but –you judge– is it worth it? –  Caleb Feb 13 at 13:47
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@BobJones A lot has changed over the year you've been gone. Not everything is perfect but we have some more experience under our belt. While in some senses our posting guidelines have gotten more stringent, we've also learned to adapt them some for different hermeneutical approaches. If you were willing to work with us a little I think you'd find there are ways to address the problems that we saw before but didn't even have suggestions on how to resolve. –  Caleb Feb 13 at 14:14
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I believe the best way to interpret his actions concerning the house are found in the Torah and the Prophets. The act is a liturgical one. The reason is found in Leviticus, etc. which speaks of a leprous house. The commerce is just a symptom (Jesus ties worship to commerce in Revelation - fine gold). This also ties it to the sin of Miriam.

Jesus inspected the Temple for "scale disease" (not leprosy but "snakeskin" - that is, the offer of kingdom without priestly reference to God, tied to Moses' handling of the serpent). In Leviticus 14, the priest must inspect the house in the city (not in the Land) and cleanse it. He would return after 7 days for a second inspection, and if the disease had returned, the house would have to be torn down.

So, Jesus inspects the house around AD30. According to some Christian interpretations he returns "in like manner" around AD70 and finds the house entirely given over to evil. Now the house will be torn down. Her last state would be worse than the first (Matthew 12:45). For her sorcery, she would be stoned and burned with fire (Isaiah 47:9; Revelation 9:21).

There is also a reference to Ezekiel inspecting the Temple. And again, in the second Temple, Nehemiah throws Tobiah the Ammonite out of the Temple, restores the firstfruits to the Levites and locks the Tyrians out of the city to prevent trade on the Sabbath (Cainites in the Land), and then breaks of the intermarriage with unconverted women (daughters of men in the World). Thus, the entire world, as a three-level construct, is clean. This age is stage 3. Satan is currently bound from gathering a "united nations" against the church, and his influence is slowly being "circumcised."

Practically, God's house must be separate and holy to be a house for the nations.

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I'm really looking for a historical analysis of the incident, so this does not answer the question. Even so, the detail of why Jesus inspected the temple seems not to have been recorded, so I'm curious why you mention the "scale disease". Only Mark mentions that Jesus looked around the temple on the day of the triumphal entry and he makes no mention of what Jesus was looking for. My assumption was that it was related to the commerce that he rejected the next day. –  Jon Ericson Feb 18 '13 at 7:02
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Thanks Jon. Sure, I understand that approach. But I believe the best way to interpret his actions concerning the house are found in the Torah and the Prophets. The act is a liturgical one. The reason is found in Leviticus, etc. which speaks of a leprous house. The commerce is just a symptom (Jesus ties worship to commerce in Revelation - fine gold). This also ties it to the sin of Miriam. With all due respect (and I have a great deal for you) the modern approach has failed us and will continue to do so. The process is much easier than we think. If we think like a Hebrew, the answers are plain. –  Mike Bull Feb 18 '13 at 21:34
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Abstract

Neither of these views captures what Jesus was doing by clearing the temple. Rather, Jesus was acting as (more than) a prophet, judging the temple system and enacting a symbol of its coming destruction.


Mark's Account

In Mark 11, the story is told as a sandwich story:

 a. Jesus curses a fig tree.
 b. The narrative is interupted as Jesus enters the temple and clears it.
 a'. The first narrative is resumed when Peter notices that the fig tree has withered.

The inner story (the clearing of the temple) and the the outer story function to explain one another. In both cursing the fig tree1 and clearing the temple, Jesus has judged the system and announced, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again."2

His authority to do this is questioned in Mark 11:27-33. Despite his evasive answer, the claim Jesus makes about his authority to do such things should be obvious to the reader: his authority corresponds to that of John's baptism, being from heaven.

Luke's Account

Luke's account of the temple-clearing story doesn't come out of nowhere, but immediately follows his approach to Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44 NIV):

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, "If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you."

In Luke 19:46, while clearing the temple, Jesus to alludes Jeremiah 7:11, a passage wherein the prophet is also prophesying the coming destruction of the temple (cf. 7:14 especially). The context of the passage within Luke and the context of the quote in Jeremiah then lend to seeing Jesus' actions as symbolic.

John's Account

We see the same thing in John 2. Jesus clears the temple as a sign and in typical Johannine irony the Jews respond by asking him, "What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?" Jesus replies to them "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days." Which the narrator explains, "But the temple he had spoken of was his body." In other words, the significance of the event is that it foreshadows the replacement of the temple by Jesus as the true temple - a theme that John continues to develop throughout the gospel. (cf. 4:21, 9:38, 11:48, Rev. 21:22)

Not only so, but again we see that the authority he claims to do this is that of heaven. Jesus offers the sign of his resurrection as a vindication of his claims regarding the temple. Since it is God who raises the dead, Jesus is appealing to none other than the Father that what he says/does is in accordance with the Father (cf. 5:19, 8:28). Indeed, throughout the Fourth Gospel, Jesus makes clear that his authority to judge is given to him by the Father (cf. 5:22, 5:27, 17:2).3


1 The fig tree is to be identified with Israel. See for example Hosea 9:10 as well as many prophecies about the return from exile where each Israelite will sit under his own fig tree.

2 For further treatment, see work by James Edwards in Novum Testamentum XXXI, 3 (1989) on Markan Sandwiches. Section 5.3 in particular deals with this pericope.

3 Notice in John 5:27, that Jesus receives his authority to judge from the Father because he is the Son of Man. Hence, more than a prophet.

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I'm not sure how I missed this until now, but thanks for the answer. Out of curiousity, why did you skip Matthew? –  Jon Ericson May 6 '13 at 18:25
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@JonEricson Matthew's account is similar to Mark's and Luke's, but the literary structure doesn't make it quite as obvious and so it would take longer to explain. If you'd like I can add that in as well for completeness; I just thought it would stretch the length of the answer without adding much value. –  Soldarnal May 6 '13 at 18:30
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I agree with Soldarnal that Jesus is symbolically enacting the temple's coming destruction. But I disagree that his authority was simply from heaven. Jesus claimed to be like Solomon, the "Son of David" and thus the rightful builder of God's house. See my response to Did Jesus have the legal authority to cleanse the temple? for more.

But why did Jesus think the temple should be destroyed?

As he overturned the tables of the money changers, Jesus said,

Is is not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations?’ But you have made it a den of robbers.

We emphasize the connection between the money changers and “den of robbers” but fail to see the quotation to Isaiah 56:7 in between.

these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.

To whom is Isaiah 56:7 referring? The larger context concerns God's promise to the foreigner and the eunuch.

“Don’t let foreigners who commit themselves to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will never let me be part of his people.’ And don’t let the eunuchs say, ‘I’m a dried-up tree with no children and no future.’ For this is what the Lord says: I will bless those eunuchs who keep my Sabbath days holy and who choose to do what pleases me and commit their lives to me. I will give them—within the walls of my house— a memorial and a name far greater than sons and daughters could give. For the name I give them is an everlasting one. It will never disappear! “I will also bless the foreigners who commit themselves to the Lord, who serve him and love his name, who worship him and do not desecrate the Sabbath day of rest, and who hold fast to my covenant. I will bring them to my holy mountain of Jerusalem and will fill them with joy in my house of prayer. I will accept their burnt offerings and sacrifices, because my Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations.

The temple establishment is not robbing from men. It is robbing from the universal glory due to God’s Name.

Isaiah prophesied (Is. 2)

In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains. It will be raised above the hills, and all the nations will stream to it.

The word “nations” in this passages as well as the one quoted by Jesus is the word gentiles. But the gentiles by and large are not coming. Jesus is angry because rather than a bridge, the temple has become a barrier to the worship of God among pagans.

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+1. In addition, the money changers themselves (even if they were completely honest) would have been one of the barriers to worship for foreigners. Since the temple did not take foreign currencies, a person from a distant nation would have needed to take an extra step that a local would not have. The final quote from Isaiah 2 fits in well with the Mark version which includes the fig-tree miracle: "And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’..." (Mark 11:22-23a ESV) –  Jon Ericson May 6 '13 at 18:35
    
Exactly! Right on! –  Matthew Miller May 6 '13 at 18:38
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