Jesus Throwing the Money Changers out of the Temple
1. Overview of What Allegedly Happened
While rereading E. P. Sanders’ Historical Figure of Jesus, I was struck by his treatment of Jesus’ “cleansing” of the Temple. It has always amazed me that New Testament scholars accept this as basically historical, even though most acknowledge that many aspects of the cleansing are probably unhistorical. Sanders is a leading expert on the history of Israel in this era, including its cultural and religious history. His treatment of the historical veracity of this alleged event illustrates the way these scholars privilege faith over facts and reason.
The “cleansing” is anything but a minor detail. According to the first three gospels, this was the event that precipitated the arrest and subsequent execution of Jesus. Had he not cleansed the Temple, Jesus could have continued his mission of healing and preaching. The cleansing deserves our scrutiny. While it is relatively straightforward to describe, understanding it in its historical context is far from straightforward. I will use several articles to discuss it. The present article examines the basic description of the cleansing.
All four accounts agree that this “cleansing” occurred during the celebration of Passover. Part of that celebration involves the eating of a sacrificial lamb, which was purchased at the Temple. Purchases of lambs and other sacrificial animals and services could only be made using a single currency, the Tyrian shekel. Money-changers were provided to convert all other currencies to Tyrian shekels.
I will use the gospel of Mark to represent the first three gospels. It is the oldest gospel, and the primary source for Matthew and Luke’s discussion of the cleansing. While there are significant differences among these three accounts, for our purposes, they are relatively minor. In all three accounts, the “cleansing” takes place at the very end of Jesus’ mission.
Then they came to Jerusalem. And [Jesus] entered the temple and began to drive out those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “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 when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (Mark 15-18).
In short, Jesus blocked many of the operations of the temple. As a result, the chief priests of the temple decided to kill him. The gospel of John tells a very different story. In John, the “cleansing” occurs near the beginning of Jesus’ mission, shortly after he was baptized by John.
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, He drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!’ His disciples remembered that it was written ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?’”
In John’s gospel, Jesus’ attack was even more violent. Instead of simply overturning some tables, he made a whip and made much use of it. But even though the chief priests judged the lesser attacks of the first three gospels to be capital crimes, John claims they just ignored Jesus’ action. Some of “the Jews” held a brief philosophical conversation with Jesus, but other than that, there were absolutely no consequences. Jesus continued his mission as if nothing at all happened.
As Sanders notes, we have historical records of several riots or disturbances during Passover celebrations in the Temple. None bore even a remote resemblance to Jesus’ “cleansing.” Unlike the cleansing, all those disturbances had serious consequences, both in the short and the long term. The accounts of the cleansing in John and the first three gospels are obviously incompatible. Yet neither Mr. Sanders nor his colleagues say much about this; no one attempts to explain the lack of official response in John’s story. Sanders presents evidence suggesting that temple officials would not ignore such violent attacks, but neither he nor his colleagues draw any conclusions from this.