Jesus and the Money Changers
4. Why did Jesus Lose his Temper?
No one wonders why Jesus, who preached nonviolence, turning the other cheek, and loving your enemy, allegedly whipped people and rioted in the Temple. What motivated Jesus to violate his central principles? According to Mark, while he was “cleansing” the Temple, he explained, “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.” In John’s version, Jesus says, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!’ In Mark he seems more concerned with unfair business practices, while in John he complains of all business practices.
The House of God
First, there is the issue of what is meant by “my Father’s house.” The Temple was indeed the House of God. God was thought to live in its innermost room, the Holy of Holies. But money changing and sales of sacrificial animals did not take place in the holy part of the Temple. In fact, before Herod’s massive renovation, that area was outside the Temple walls. In Jesus’ day, the area was called the Court of the Gentiles. Gentiles were allowed in it, as were Jews who were ritually impure and not allowed to enter the “real” Temple. No one thought of this area as sacred ground.
A Den of Robbers
God gave Moses very detailed specifications for the construction and operation of the Temple. Its central operations consisted of various sacrifices to God – the Temple was not primarily a house of prayer. It was more like a giant slaughterhouse and altar, offering God enormous volumes of burnt sacrifices. While some of these sacrifices were offered by the Temple on behalf of all Jews, most were private offerings to please God or to (help) atone for sins.
Any animal sacrificed to God had to be of the highest quality and without blemish. God said so. Anything less would piss Him off - the last thing you want to do in those circumstances. This meant that the Temple had to pre-certify animals. During Passover or any major festival, it was impossible for priests to inspect animals on demand from pilgrims. The option of pilgrims bringing their own animals is largely a non-issue, since animals would almost certainly get blemished in transit. The Temple provided an essential service in selling pre-certified animals. Without it, people could not observe the festival. Thus the charge raised in John about the inherent evil of the marketplace is without basis. While the Temple had its critics, none complained about the sale of sacrificial animals.
Now it is conceivable that Jesus complained that the Temple was ripping people off on exchange rates and on the price of animals. But while we know of many complaints against the Temple in this period, none involve questionable business practices against customers. Complaints virtually always were restricted to the high priest or the chief priests.
Follow the Money
The Temple was a very wealthy institution. Occupiers of Israel repeatedly tried to raid its treasury. Herod almost incited a revolt by using some Temple funds for rebuilding the Temple and related projects. Its main source of funds was the Temple “tax” of ½ shekel. This was only required of men living in Israel, but nearly all Jewish men in the Diaspora paid it, and many women did as well. A shekel was worth about 3 denarii in Jesus’ day; a denarius was the average daily wage. The Temple was raking in millions of denarii a year just from the Temple tax, mostly due to the good will of Jews in the Diaspora.
Herod’s renovation made the Temple one of the eight wonders of the world. Many gentile tourists went there. These tourists were well off. Visitors to a pagan temple always left a gift for its god, and temple priests were always compensated for their services. While pagans were not allowed inside the Temple proper, priests could bring their offerings to God, and were undoubtedly happy to do so. I suspect the tourist trade was highly profitable.
The Temple depended in large part on the good will of Diaspora Jews and tourists. In a region where many currencies were in use, people were sensitive to exchange rates. Rather than risk antagonizing customers, my guess is that currencies were exchanged with little mark-up - probably below the fully allocated costs. Similarly, people knew the approximate cost of a lamb or dove, and I suspect the Temple set its prices near the general market price, even though its costs for unblemished animals were higher. The Temple made its money elsewhere. The chief priests running the Temple may have been corrupt, but they weren’t petty chiselers or MBA’s. Apart from the gospel stories in question, there are no recorded complaints of the Temple overcharging on currencies or sacrificial animals.
What did Jesus (and Paul) Say?
Jesus celebrated Passover with the apostles by eating lamb, purchased from the Temple. Was he such a hypocrite that he “cleansed” the Temple, preventing others from buying lamb, and then sent one of his disciples to purchase lamb for supper?
Jesus did not object to the Temple. He paid the Temple tax, saying “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's”; the Temple was one of God’s things, not a den of thieves. After healing a leper, Jesus told him to go to the Temple have a priest complete the cleansing process. Jesus may well have disliked the chief priests, but he respected and revered the operations of the Temple.
Paul never made any statements against the Temple. He not only took Nazirite vows there, which required a series of sacrifices, Paul also paid for others to become Nazirites, at considerable expense. (No one asks where Paul, who repeatedly claimed to be impoverished, found the money for this.)
After Jesus’ death, the apostles based their ministry on the Temple grounds, and James is reputed to have spent most of time inside the Temple. None of Jesus’ disciples had problems with the operations of the Temple.
Jesus’ alleged motives for the “cleansing” do not hold up. Buying and selling were essential to the operations of the Temple, and were done outside the sacred part of the Temple. Jesus himself bought lamb there for the Passover dinner. There is no record of complaints regarding the money changers or vendors of sacrificial animals. The cleansing was a myth, adopted by all the gospel authors. Mark used it as the basis for Jesus’ arrest, while John placed it early in Jesus’ mission, and said it had no consequences.