“And Entering the Temple”
Monday was Holy Monday in the Western-Christian liturgical calendar, and my thoughts went to one of the most consequential events in Jesus’s life. The final Monday of his life, Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychanges and dove vendors and forced them out of the temple courtyards. The event is one of the relative few that all four gospels preserve, and within the larger Passion sequence, is presented as critically important to the conspiracy among Jerusalem elites to have Jesus killed. Whereas Jesus’s entry the day before into the city riding a stock animal through the gates to the Hosannas and makeshift processional carpet of blankets and leaves resembled the retinue procession of Caesar—a performance certain to have offended the sensibilities of the Latin residents of Jerusalem—Jesus’s forceful behavior to expel profiteers from the temple, condemn the usury, business, and riches of the temple priests at the temple treasury, and invite commoners into the temple to be taught and healed offended Judaean elites. Condemning Jesus for blasphemy (the Judaean charge to ruin Jesus) and for sedition (the Roman criminal charge to punish Jesus) converge in the Passion narratives as the critical causes for Jesus’s scourging and crucifixion. The pivotal act that sparked their ire was Jesus reclaiming the temple and delivering the strongest jeremiads of his ministry to the same crowds who had shouted Hosanna the day before.
The pericope of this episode looks primarily the product of the Markan community. Both Matthew and Luke nearly directly quote Mark in telling the story with practically no expansion. John’s account disagrees with the synoptics in two critical respects: it places the event sequentially early, when Jesus had barely launched a public ministry; and it also has Jesus fashioning a stockwhip to drive out oxen, sheep, and doves from the temple courts, whereas the Synoptics only have Jesus throwing out the moneychangers and dove vendors and overturning their tables.
Here’s a consolidated version of the pericope with Mark 11:15–17 as the control text and Matthew 21:12–13 and Luke 19:45–46 interposed (in regular type) and John 2:13–17 in italics. I’ve used the original Greek for the composite and then rendered the English from David Bentley Hart’s translation:
And they come to Jerusalem. And entering the Temple he found men selling oxen and sheep and doves, as well as installed moneychangers, and, having fashioned a stockwhip out of cords, he drove all of both the sheep and the oxen out of the Temple; he began to throw out those selling and buying in the Temple, and he spilled out the coins and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those selling the doves, and said to those selling doves, “Take these away from here; do not make my Father’s house a house for merchandise,” and did not permit anyone to carry a container through the Temple, and he taught and said to them, “Has it not been written that ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a robbers’ den.” His disciples remembered that it is written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” In reply, then, the Judaeans said to him, “What signs do you show us, since you do these things?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this sanctuary, and in three days I shall raise it.” So the Judaeans said, “This sanctuary was built over forty-six years, and you will raise it in three days?” But he was speaking about the sanctuary of his body. Thus when he was raised from the dead his disciples remembered that he said this, and they believed the scriptures and this saying that Jesus had uttered.
The pericope takes an excursus in John’s telling right after Jesus cites Isaiah 56:7 (“My house shall be called a house of prayer…”). (John leaves out the Isaiah reference and alludes to Zachariah 14:21, “Do not make my Father’s house a house for merchandise.”) Here, the excursus references a later realization by disciples and not a direct allusion made by Jesus to Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” It makes a clear rhetorical pivot from narrating Jesus’s actions at the temple to explaining how this occasion fulfilled Psalm 69:9. In the earliest texts of John 2, we can see clear evidence of lectionary material interposed with narrative text, meaning, the earliest writers of John used whatever source material they had in church assemblies and added their own commentaries to the text; later copyists did not distinguish between lectionaries and earlier source narrations, and so the gospel of John runs many voices together, what textual critics and historians call “multivocal” text. We ought to interpret this Johannine excursus, then, as a commentary by 2nd-century Syrian church assembly lecturers and not the collective memories of people who observed Jesus force out moneychangers and vendors from the temple.
The excursus presents Jesus responding to an interrogation about his actions by promising to rebuild “this temple” in three days. Since the interrogation and Jesus’s reply are used within the context of validating later disciples’ association of the cleansing of the temple with Hebrew prophecy, it’s likely this interlude could have occurred independently of the episode; the lecturer probably cross-referenced another question-and-answer episode in describing why the temple-cleansing event constituted Jesus being consumed with zeal for God’s house. It funcions within the excursus as a proof-text, not a historical report of what Jesus did immediately after overturning the tables.
Keeping these aspects of the excursus in mind—that this constitutes a commentary and therefore an actual literary departure from the historical narration—we can limit the event to a few important details: Jesus came to the temple in Jerusalem and confronted the men exchanging currency and selling ceremonial doves, expelled them from the courtyard, prevented anyone from conveying any other items into the temple, and accused the priests of the temple treasury of turning the House of God into a robbers’ den. What follows immediately from these actions? “And the chief priests and the scribes heard, and sought a way by which they might destroy him; for they were afraid of him, for all the crowd was awestruck at his teaching.”
On this Holy Week, I celebrate Jesus’s bravery in reclaiming the temple from men who had stolen the widow’s mite to enrich themselves, the moneychangers who saw an opportunity in the limited supply of Judaean shekel coins relative to Roman denarii and charged exchange fees for worshipers coming to offer sacrifice at the temple. We speak often (and correctly!) about Jesus giving his life for us; the pericope of the cleansing of the temple demonstrates his willingness to give his life for the temple—for it to be opened and available to the poor, for it to be a place of teaching and healing “the blind and the lame.” Whatever barriers keep people from the edifying and healing holiness of the temple, we ought to remember it was money and socioeconomic status that ignited Jesus’s zeal for God’s House.