Jesus and the Money Changers

5. A Symbolic Act

The traditional tale has Jesus disrupting all buying and selling of sacrificial animals during the Passover festival. More than 100,000 people celebrated Passover in the Jerusalem Temple, the vast majority of them pilgrims. They struggled to get there, and they were excitable. While celebrating ancient Jews’ freedom from Egypt, they occasionally got carried away and rioted against their current Roman rulers. As a result, thousands of Roman soldiers and Temple police were stationed there to prevent any disturbances.

The gospels say that Jesus was a one-man wrecking crew who blocked all buying and selling in the Temple. The same basic story appears in all four gospels. John added the use of whips, but all versions have Jesus overturning vendors’ tables and physically dominating operations in the outer Temple, the Court of the Gentiles. According to the gospels, neither the police, nor the army, nor the immense crowd of excitable pilgrims, so much as lifted a finger to quash Jesus and reinstate the normal commercial operations which were necessary for observing the sacred rites of Passover.

A Symbolic Act

E. P. Sanders in Jesus and Judaism - his most thorough treatment of the subject - admits that if Jesus had actually tried to disrupt operations in the Temple, he would have been immediately arrested. Instead, Sanders suggests that Jesus only overturned one or two tables as a symbolic threat. Sanders claimed this symbolized the destruction of the Temple. But after a trusted colleague failed to see the symbolic relation between an overturned table and the complete destruction of the Temple, Sanders agreed that it was an empirical question whether Jesus, the high priest, and other observers perceived such a symbolic relation.

Other New Testament scholars have adopted the theory that Jesus performed some symbolic action against the Temple. They discard the idea of his overturning a table or two, but none suggest what Jesus actually did. Yet they all insist, along with Sanders, that this symbolic act caused the high priest to seek Jesus’ death.

Symbolic acts are purely symbolic; their direct effect is of little consequence. Flag burning is a good example. Overturning the tables of vendors has a direct effect, and is a poor candidate for a symbolic act. If Jesus caused enough of a ruckus to attract the high priest’s attention, he was probably not performing a merely symbolic act.

More importantly, if Jesus created enough of a ruckus to arouse the high priest, he would have attracted the attention of the police as well. Keep in mind that the high priest was responsible for all the Temple’s operations. On Passover, he probably was more concerned with the sacred rites inside the Temple than non-sacred transactions in the Court of the Gentiles. There were hundreds of police in the outer Temple whose job it was to prevent any disturbances. As Sanders admitted, they would have arrested Jesus at once.

Proponents of a “symbolic act” theory have placed themselves on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, they insist that some symbolic act not only caught the attention of the high priest, but caused him to have Jesus killed. On the other hand, they claim the symbol act was so innocuous that the police and auxiliary soldiers ignored it.

What exactly is multiply-attested?

New Testament scholars have devised a number of principles for assessing whether some passage in the Bible is historically accurate. The reason Sanders and his colleagues insist that Jesus somehow “cleansed” the Temple, is that this story meets their gold standard for historical accuracy. It is attested by all four gospels. In addition, the appearance of the story in the Fourth Gospel (John) is assumed to be independent of the first three Gospels.

As journalists know, key facts of a story include “who, what, where, and why.” In the “cleansing” story, “who” and “where” are given. “Wherefore” is also given – whatever happened, it caused the high priest to pronounce a death sentence on Jesus. The only facts to be determined are “what” and “why.”

The multiply-attested answer to “Why?” is that commercial transactions converted the Temple into a “den of thieves.” E. P. Sanders explicitly rejects this. The other “symbolic” proponents implicitly reject it by ignoring the issue. That leaves “What?” Here Sanders appears to reaffirm the traditional story of overturning tables. But this is only superficial. The gospels state that Jesus overturned so many tables and attacked so many people that all buying and selling ceased. Sanders, on the other hand, claims Jesus made a purely symbolic act with no real impact on Temple operations.

The only meaningful questions to be answered are “What?” and “Why?” Both Sanders and his colleagues contradict the multiply- attested answers of the Gospels. They insist that Jesus did something in the Temple to enrage the high priest, but their explanations have little if any relation to the gospels’ accounts.

A note on independence

The highest levels of “historicity” for a theme require not only that it is multiply-attested, but that those attestations are independent. In practice, New Testament scholars focus on the literary dependence of different gospels or texts. That is, they try to determine whether or not the author of text A used text B in writing his version of a passage. These scholars generally conclude that the Gospel of John was not “literarily” dependent on any of the three earlier gospels.

But literary dependence is only one type of dependence. Two texts without any direct literary dependence are not necessarily independent. They both could be based on some third text, or on some meme that was prevalent at the time. Today, social media often transmit such memes. In ancient days, gossip and other forms of oral transmission were involved.

While New Testament scholars claim that the “cleansing” of the Temple in John was independent of the accounts in the earlier gospels, I think they are wrong. While there is no direct literary dependence, I think they all reflect a common meme about Jesus attacking the Temple.

More on symbolic acts

The “symbolic act” theory assumes the high priest was so sensitive to such symbolic acts that he treated some as capital crimes. But adherents of this theory cannot even guess what symbolic action Jesus might have taken in the Temple to trigger the high priest’s murderous wrath while failing to trigger any reaction from the police or pilgrims. Sanders simply assumed that Jesus overturned a table or two.

These scholars overlook the fact that Jesus (reportedly) made a far more important symbolic statement when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Anyone familiar with the prophets, especially Zechariah, would have immediately recognized this as a declaration that Jesus is the Messiah - a son of David and future king of Israel. If the high priest were sensitive to symbolic acts, he would have had Jesus arrested for his “triumphant entry” and charged with sedition for being “king of the Jews.” Jesus never would have had the chance to enter the Temple.


Either explicitly or implicitly, New Testament scholars acknowledge that if Jesus disrupted the buying and selling of sacrificial animals in the Temple, he would have been immediately arrested. The multiply-attested “cleansing” described in all four gospels could not have taken place. Similarly, many scholars acknowledge that the multiply-attested reason for Jesus’ purported action – that commerce in sacrificial goods was sinful – is also invalid.

But even though the relevant components of the traditional “cleansing” story are invalid, New Testament scholars somehow assume that the story as a whole is factual. This is a failure of logic and reason. Some of the scholars assume instead that Jesus took some symbolic action – which is almost never specified and which necessarily contradicts the gospel accounts. Any purported symbolic act had to have contradictory effects on the high priest and virtually everyone else in the Temple, especially the police. In short, neither the gospel accounts nor the “symbolic act” theory is historically plausible.


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