Jesus and the Money Changers
2. A Very Crowded Temple
The usual depiction of Jesus’ cleansing has him making a small but intense disturbance, involving perhaps a dozen people. One or two tables are thrown over. Nothing is said about what is going on outside this narrow focus. The painting by El Greco shown below is an example. But if you look at the big picture, you can see that something is obviously very wrong with the story about “the cleansing.”
Sanders notes (Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 249) that Josephus says or implies that 2.5 to 3 million people attended the Passover festival. Sanders says this is a wild exaggeration, and suggests that Jerusalem and the Temple area could handle 300,000 – 400,000. Sanders carefully avoided estimating how many people actually did attend the Passover festival. Solely for the sake of argument, we’ll use his lower bound of 300,000.
All these celebrants had to eat lamb. Sanders tells us that one lamb can feed ten people, so this implies that 30,000 lambs were purchased and slaughtered. For simplicity, we’ll assume that 30,000 people had to change currency. In reality, some of those buying a lamb would already have Tyrian shekels. But on the other hand, a great many of the other 270,000 attendees needed to change currencies to purchase doves or other sacrificial items. Pilgrims coming to the Temple would almost certainly make an offering- the Bible actually requires it (you can't visit the House of God empty-handed). The assumption that only 30,000 people changed currency is intentionally a gross underestimate.
Let’s assume that the average time to convert currencies was 30 seconds. Given the volume of transactions and the likelihood that some customers will have some problems, this is again a conservative lower bound. Handling 30,000 currency transactions thus requires 250 man-hours. Keep in mind that changing currencies is just the beginning of a complete transaction of purchasing a sacrificial animal and having a priest perform the sacrifice for you. You need to allow a lot of time for activities other than currency conversion. You can’t have people standing in line all day just to convert their cash. To be conservative, let’s assume that all the currency transactions are completed within 6 hours. This requires over 40 people just to change money. In reality, there were probably many more money changers doing business on Passover.
Again, money changers were just the start. You needed people to prepare and sell the lambs, another group for the doves, and other groups for other animals and grain sacrifices. Furthermore, these other transactions would take longer than simply converting currencies, and would therefore require more manpower.
Recall that Mark said that Jesus attacked “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.” First of all, more than a hundred thousand people were “buying in the temple.” The idea that Jesus drove them out is totally ludicrous, so “scholars” simply pretend Mark never said it. Mark’s final claim that Jesus “would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple” is equally absurd, as you have to carry your sacrificial object from the outer court where you purchased it to the altar in the inner court. Scholars ignore this as well.
Even if you limit Jesus’ “cleansing” to money changers and dove vendors (why not lamb vendors and other vendors???), you probably have a group of almost a hundred, involving many tables. Throw in the other vendors and you have at least a couple of hundred people being directly attacked. Even if everyone else in the Temple ignored Jesus, one man, with or without a whip, would have a hard time controlling a couple of hundred people. These victims, who were being physically attacked and prevented from earning their living, supposedly just sat there passively.
Some will no doubt claim that Jesus had superhuman powers, enabling him to overpower hundreds. But recall that when he preached in Nazareth, “all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (Luke 4:28-30). His superpowers didn’t prevent his being manhandled and nearly killed by those in the synagogue. They just enabled a magical disappearing act.
Now the total population of Nazareth, including women and children, was about 250. The number of people driving Jesus from Nazareth’s synagogue and almost throwing him over a cliff was far less than the number of money changers and vendors he attacked in the Temple. Those victims would have had little trouble subduing Jesus. In any case, no one asks why the man who preached turning the other cheek would violently attack all those people. We will see he had little ground for doing so.