The narrative of Jesus' cleansing of the temple is present in all four gospels: Mark 11:15-17, Matthew 21:12-13, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:13-17. When He cleanses the temple, there does not seem to be any immediate legal ramification. No one seems to directly challenge this act; nor is He fined or arrested for the act. Furthermore it is mentioned:

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. (Mark 11:18 ESV)

It seems their fear for Him was used a motivator used to seek His destruction, but not legal reasoning, per se.

I have read that a rabbi is "a person sufficiently educated in halakhah (Jewish law) and tradition to instruct the community and to answer questions and resolve disputes regarding halakhah". Jesus is called a rabbi several times in the NT.

It has been pointed out that a certain amount of trade was allowed in/near the temple at the time; so legally speaking the money changers and sellers may have been in the right, according to the law at the time.

So would Jesus' status as rabbi have given Him any earthly legal authority at all in regard to the happenings at the temple; at that historical point in time? Would it have been legal according to Jewish law (and/or Roman law) for a rabbi to clear the temple, as a teacher of the Law-- or did that title simply not carry enough clout due to the existence of priests and scribes at the time? Was it simply that they were afraid to challenge Him at that time?

This question sprang out of "How should we understand the cleansing of the temple?".

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    This is a fine question, in my opinion. It's certainly different from my question, which just assumed Jesus would not have human authority to drive off the money changers and sellers. Commented Nov 14, 2011 at 18:42
  • I believe that the vote to close this question has received is based on the fact that this is a question regarding historical Jewish and Roman laws, rather than hermeneutics or exegesis of biblical texts. A meta post exists dealing with this subject, but has not really gathered much support that these are off-topic or on-topic.
    – Richard
    Commented Nov 15, 2011 at 20:29
  • Jesus was asserting his messianic authority over the temple so that prophecy would be fulfilled. After cleansing the temple he continued to show his authority in the Temple by healing the blind and lame.
    – user3861
    Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 19:42

5 Answers 5


My reading of the Gospels—especially Mark—is that Jesus operated in grey territory from the perspective of human authority. For instance, right at the beginning of his ministry, the people were amazed at his authority:

And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes. —Mark 1:22 (ESV)

My reading that is that:

  1. he did not have authority (semikhah) from some other rabbi and
  2. he taught as if he had that authority.

To us that might not seem like a big deal, but imagine if a person who served as their own lawyer stood before the court and argued the finer points of nulla poena sine lege with the judge. By the time Jesus reached Jerusalem, he was contending with the equivalent of the Supreme Court without having passed any bar examinations. The day after the incident in question, a cross-section of Jewish authorities asked Jesus how he thought he could get away with what he'd done:

And they came again to Jerusalem. And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘From man’?”—they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” —Mark 11:27-33 (ESV)

Now history is written by the victors, so you might imagine that the scene didn't go down exactly like this. But what is clear is that Jesus didn't say, "Oh. I was given this authority by Rabban Gamaliel." He does refer to John the Baptist (who might have been an Essene and wasn't likely a rabbi), but Jesus doesn't claim him as a mentor either. Rather he seems to allude to his own baptism:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” —Mark 1:9-11 (ESV)

So in the context of the gospels, Jesus' authority came from heaven and not from people.

There is a precedent for "cleaning house" in Nehemiah 13:4-9 (NJPS):

Earlier, the priest Eliashib, a relative of Tobiah, who had been appointed over the rooms in the House of our God, had assigned to him a large room where they used to store the meal offering, the frankincense, the equipment, the tithes of grain, wine, and oil, the dues of the Levites, singers and gatekeepers, and the gifts for the priests. During all this time, I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes of Babylon, I went to the king, and only after a while did I ask leave of the king [to return]. When I arrived in Jerusalem, I learned of the outrage perpetrated by Eliashib on behalf of Tobiah in assigning him a room in the courts of the House of God. I was greatly displeased, and had all the household gear of Tobiah thrown out of the room; I gave orders to purify the rooms, and had the equipment of the House of God and the meal offering and the frankincense put back.

2 Chronicles 29 tells a similar story about King Hezekiah. In both cases, the action was done by human authorities, not by some vigilante civilian. They were, therefore, legal actions. Now if Jesus was seen as a prophet who was given divine authority, it could be argued that he had the right and obligation to speak out against corruption in the temple and even take action against it. There is some evidence that people thought Jesus was either the second-coming of Elijah or a miracle-working prophet (see Mark 6:14-20), so they would have expected radical, counter-establishment actions like dumping money-changers' tables and driving people and animals out of the Temple. They would also expect the authorities to punish him, I would imagine.

Oddly, the charge against Jesus was not his action against commerce in the Temple, but a muddled claim that he had plotted to destroy the Temple (see Mark 14:53-65). And his conviction was based on a seemingly blasphemous statement he made at his own trial. Again, we only have half of the story, but it seems that the Sanhedrin did not accuse Jesus publicly because they were afraid of the people. Therefore, the crowds must have generally approved of Jesus' action—including this incident of disrupting the commerce at the Temple.

From the perspective of a Jew in his time, Jesus was potentially acting as a prophet.

  • WOW! What an exhaustive answer! Wish I could +10 that. Commented Nov 16, 2011 at 21:19
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    @transistor1: You (and only you) can +1.5 it. ;-) (But I actually prefer Monica's answer be accepted, so please don't do that.) Commented Nov 16, 2011 at 21:35

Though Jesus was called 'Rabbi' the term was used in it's primitive meaning of 'great' one. He was not formally educated as a Rabbi[1] and had no earthly credential to teach as one, and certainly no man made institution gave him authority. He claimed it as his own Father's house [2], and they were unwilling to challenge him on it.

[1] Joh 7:15 And the Jews marvelled, saying, How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?

[2] Joh 2:16 And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise.


Jesus had the legal authority to cleanse the temple not because he was a rabbi but because he claimed to be like Solomon, the "Son of David" and thus the builder of God's house (2 Samuel 7). This is evident from a careful reading of the gospels through the lens of the Hebrew Bible.

In the synoptics the temple cleansing is immediately preceded by Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. In this event Jesus symbolically replays a crucial moment in Israel's monarchy, the day Solomon was crowned king in Israel (1 Kings 1).

When David was old and enfeebled his eldest son, Adonijah, took advantage of his father’s weakness and united publically with the king’s men, declaring his intentions to the throne. But a few were troubled by this, among them Bathsheba who went to David and reminded him of the promise he made to her and her son. David swears an oath to her, saying, "Solomon your son shall be king after me and he will sit on my throne in my place." He then instructs them how to go about the coronation.

set Solomon my son on my own mule and take him down to the Gihon. There have Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anoint him king over Israel. Blow the trumpet and shout, ‘Long live King Solomon!’

And they did as he said.

Then they sounded the trumpet and all the people shouted, “Long live King Solomon. And all the people went up after him, playing flutes and rejoicing greatly, so that the ground shook with the sound.

But of course the news didn’t make everyone glad. Adonijah and his supporters fled from their feast in fear.

The fact that the elements of the coronation, most notably the riding into Jerusalem on mule, are repeated three times in 1 Kings 1(1:32-35; 38-40; 43-48) indicates that they were very important. This is the first dynastic transfer of power in Israel’s history. An event the nation could not easily forget. And while I do not know for certain, it would not surprise me to discover that these elements, including the entry into Jerusalem on a mule, became standard practice for all subsequent davidic coronations. Zechariah 9:9 could be hinting at this practice

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Certainly the people present at Jesus’ entry that day understood his actions. There interpretation of the events is evident from their cries recorded in each of the four gospels. In Matthew they shout,

Hosanna to the Son of David!

Mark records them saying,

Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!

In Luke we hear them say,

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!

And in John they cry,

Blessed is the King of Israel.

That the public recognizes Jesus’ claim to the throne is significant because no where in the gospels does Jesus openly declare himself king. Peter’s confession in Matthew 16:13-19, Mark 8:27-30 and Luke 9:18-21 is met by Jesus with a blessing as well as a command for silence. (Matthew 16:13-20). While it may be likely that some in the crowd remembered this small passage in Zachariah, Its more likely that they looked upon Jesus’ actions with one eye on the past and remembered how the first ‘son of David’ was crowned king in Jerusalem.

Jesus actions that day were symbolic. By riding a donkey into Jerusalem, Jesus declared himself to be like Solomon, the "Son of David."

We therefore need to read the subsequent events in the temple in light of this identification. In 2 Samuel 7 the promise of eternal dynasty or "house" for David is coupled with the building of a house for God. God says through the Nathan the prophet

When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father and he will be my son.

Of course David’s son Solomon built a temple. But Jesus by entering Jerusalem on a donkey and then cleansing the temple demonstrates that “one greater than Solomon is here (Matthew 12:42).” In the temple cleansing Jesus demonstrates how he has taken up the responsibility given to David’s son.

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    Hi Matthew and welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! This is an excellent answer and well argued. Since I wrote my answer, I've read The Challenge of Jesus by N. T. Wright. He suggests that Jesus' action in the temple was symbolic judgment against it along the lines of Jeremiah smashing clay jars or Ezekiel lying on his side. I don't think that view conflicts with the view that Jesus was taking on the role of King and son of David, however. Thanks again for the answer and I'm looking forward to more. :) Commented May 6, 2013 at 16:12
  • I absolutely agree that Jesus was symbolically acting out the coming judgement on the temple. The question here, however, revolved around Jesus' authority and so I limited my answer to that. Commented May 6, 2013 at 16:30
  • Hmmm... I suppose it depends a bit on how effective Jesus action was in reforming the Temple. My thought is that after a few hours, the tables had been set right, the money-changers were back in action and the animals (whether blemished or not) were waiting to be slaughtered. In other words, the action itself was not effective. In that scenario, Jesus' authority as builder of the temple would have been less immediate to his role as prophet. But ultimately, as you say, if Jesus saw himself as David's son, he had authority in the temple for that reason as well. Commented May 6, 2013 at 16:51
  • I don't think Jesus was reforming the temple. I think he was condemning it. See my comment on how-should-we-understand-the-cleansing-of-the-temple/4795#4795 Commented May 6, 2013 at 17:20
  • The house of God which Jesus is building is the Church. Commented May 6, 2013 at 17:33

Did Jesus have the legal authority to cleanse the temple?

Luke 19:46 Saying unto them, It is written, My house is the house of prayer: but ye have made it a den of thieves.

Jesus had the legal right of ownership.

However, no one in power would recognize this. People obeyed Roman law because they knew if they didn't they would be killed. In the final analysis human law is only supported by force.

The Jews could adjudicate legal problems (short of those requiring the death penalty) themselves. They chose not to charge Jesus for his actions in the temple because they were afraid of the reaction of the people.

Mark 11:18 And the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine.

The Jews might have had Jesus arrested for causing a public disturbance. However, they were pragmatic enough to see that if they did so, they would be causing a greater disturbance and it would draw them unwanted attention.


Legal authority was determined by the Sanhedrin, which interpreted Jewish law. So if Jesus had authority to cleanse the temple it was in his role as a prophet, demonstrated by his references to the "den of robbers" of Jeremiah 7:11

Of course the Sanhedrin did not recognize Jesus as having the authority a prophet.

The questioner states, "When He cleanses the temple, there does not seem to be any immediate legal ramification. No one seems to directly challenge this act; nor is He fined or arrested for the act."

It's true that Gospels do not record any direct challenge, but the quote from Mark refers to Jesus' opponents fearing him and wanting "to destroy him" immediately after the episode. Thus there was indeed an major ramification. Jesus had not only exposed whatever corruption there might have been in the Temple commerce, he violently disrupted the economic activity of the Temple. In John's account he even used a whip. These actions raised the specter of insurrection, even though he probably did not intend his acts in that way.

We can certainly defend Jesus' action as morally justifiable but not legally so. It is best understood as an act of civil disobedience, clearly illegal but necessary to bring attention to the cause of reforming the Temple. It resulted in the religious authorities' decision to arrest him a few days later and turn him over to Roman authority as a trouble-maker and a would-be "king."

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