Jesus and the Money Changers
3. Passover was a Huge Deal
Part 2 discussed some implications of the estimate that 300,000 people celebrated Passover in the Jerusalem temple. The Torah required Jews to celebrate three festivals each year in the Jerusalem temple. But in Jesus’ day, over 99% of Jews lived outside of Jerusalem and could not attend all three festivals. Passover was the most popular.
Passover celebrated God’s freeing the Jews from slavery in Egypt, and then delivering their long-awaited homeland, Israel. But in Jesus’ day, the Romans controlled Israel. Earlier, the Persians and the Greeks controlled it. Most Jews wanted a free Israel, and Passover strengthened their desire. Packed together in the Temple celebrating God's deliverance of freedom and the Promised Land, on several Passovers people rioted and tried once more to be free. Sanders said, “Passover was a prime time for trouble-makers to incite the crowd, and both the high priest and the Roman prefect were alert to the danger” (p. 254).
The Romans also took other precautions. They had a fortress beside the Temple which normally held about 4000 auxiliaries. But on Passover the Romans brought in an additional 2000 soldiers. The auxiliaries monitored the Temple proceedings from the roof of their fortress, looking for any disturbance. The Temple also had about 4000 police of its own. Thus on Passover there were about 10,000 armed men were stationed in and around the Temple, intent on keeping the peace. This was described by Josephus, and is well-known to New Testament scholars.
New Testament scholars, priests, pastors, and many millions of pious Christians would have us believe that during the Passover festival, Jesus went in the Temple and whipped untold numbers of buyers and sellers while overturning tables of money changers and others, yet none of these 10,000 soldiers and cops so much as lifted a finger. That is what all four gospels say. According to the principles used to establish the truth or falsity of scriptural claims, the “cleansing” is one of the best attested “historical facts” of Christianity, far more certain than the virgin birth and other widely accepted claims. But this story is patently false. It is inconceivable that the police would make no attempt to restrain and arrest Jesus if the purported “cleansing” actually took place.
The High Cost of Attendance
The vast majority of Jews could not afford to attend any of the Temple festivals. About 90% of the Roman Empire had little money and lived relatively close to the subsistence level. Even if you lived in Galilee, about 100 miles from Jerusalem, attending a temple festival meant taking a month off from work – one week to walk to Jerusalem, one week to achieve ritual purity before entering the Temple, one week to celebrate the festival, and a week to walk home again. If you lived in the Diaspora, it generally took longer and cost more – much more if sea travel was involved. Either way, travel also required much higher expenditures than normal. If you’re living near subsistence, you couldn’t afford the loss in pay and increase in costs.
Attending a Temple festival required a major investment. People had to save for years. The Pharisees, usually caricatured as being ultra-strict interpreters of the Bible, proclaimed that Jews only had to attend a Temple festival once in their lifetime – much as Muslims would later be required to make the hajj to Mecca once in their lifetime. In both cases, attending the festival was a very big deal. Some Jews saved for it nearly all their life, and then retired in Jerusalem, saving the cost of a return trip.
Pilgrims were Highly Motivated
The relative poverty of people has another implication. During the year, most people rarely if ever could afford meat. But Passover requires eating lamb, as well as drinking wine. Not only were pilgrims fulfilling sacred requirements, they were also feasting and partying. Pilgrims were tremendously motivated.
There were literally hundreds of thousands of these pilgrims attending the festival. They were changing their money and purchasing sacrificial animals. They had no other way to fulfill their sacred duties. Just imagine if some madman came along and tried to stop them. Do you really they would just look on passively? These are the same people that were prone to rioting with much less provocation.
The multiply attested “cleansing” of the Temple that is so widely accepted and celebrated is patently false. If Jesus tried anything like that, the pilgrims would quickly overpower him, and the Temple cops would cart what was left of him away. Conceivably Jesus could have used his divine superpowers, but that is not part of any known version of this story, and this is the wrong time to create one.