Keith Reeves, professor of biblical studies, Azusa-Pacific University
The temple cleansing narrative, found in all four Gospels, is a fascinating story. And if popular appeals to the story are anything to go by, it appears to have contemporary relevance for the church. Given that a lot of Christians are talking about this passage and applying it to today’s issues, theological educators ought to help the church discern the significance of the narrative more fully.
These passages have been used by people across the theological and economic spectrum to justify a wide variety of views and activities. One popular conception is that Jesus cleanses the temple because of opposition to commercial activities. When I do a Google search for “cleansing of the temple,” the very first entry is the Wikipedia article on this story. It states: “In this Gospel episode Jesus and his disciples travel to Jerusalem for Passover, where he expels the money changers from the temple, accusing them of turning the temple into a den thieves through their commercial activities.” Many other websites echo this reading – sometimes framing it in terms of opposition to commercial activities simply as such, sometimes in terms of some particular corrupt or dishonest practices that were allegedly going on in the temple.
How well founded are such applications? Is the cleansing of the temple primarily about Jesus’ concern with commercial activities? Or is something else the primary thrust of the narrative?
As noted earlier, the narrative occurs in the synoptic Gospel s (Mark 11:15–19; Matthew 21:12–17; and Luke 19:45–48), as well as John (2:13-17). In John’s gospel it occurs at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry while in the synoptic gospels it occurs toward the end and is a catalyst for Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. I follow the scholarly consensus that there were not two cleansings but one, John having rearranged his chronology for theological reasons. I also follow the scholarly consensus holding that Mark was the earliest Gospel.
We should look at Mark first then, to ascertain as best we can what this act of Jesus signifies.
Mark 11:15–19 (NRSV)
Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and 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. He was teaching and saying, “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.”
And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
Mark frames this event inside of the parable of the fig tree, indicating how he interprets the actions of Jesus. Jesus initially walks into the temple and looks around and then leaves (11:11). The next day Jesus sees a fig tree with nothing but leaves – Mark adds that it was not the season for figs – and Jesus curses the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (11:14). Mark then narrates the events in the temple and immediately follows with his description of Jesus passing by the next morning with his disciples: “they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots” (11:20). This placement of the narrative clearly indicates the symbolic destruction of the temple.
This focus on God’s judgment against the temple indicates the story’s main point. Jesus does disrupt the temple’s commercial activity, but he does so in order to disrupt the temple itself. The commercial activity was necessary for the proper function of the temple. The sellers were selling pilgrims the animals they needed for sacrifices. The money changers were trading the pilgrims’ coins for the Tyrian coinage that had to be used in the temple and for paying the temple tax. Jesus targets these exchanges because he wants to shut down the temple, and they are the temple’s critical weak point. Overturn the tables and drive away the animals, and you close the whole temple, at least for a time.
There is no evidence in the narrative that Jesus is expressing disapproval of commerce as such. There is also no evidence that the people doing business in the temple were exploiting the pilgrims who came there. That view is often injected into the narrative, but it does not seem to be part of Mark’s theme.
Characteristically, the words of Jesus himself point us toward a more startling interpretation of his actions than the one we naturally expect. Jesus gives the interpretation of his own actions at 11:17: “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.” Jesus here quotes from Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11.
A detailed analysis of those passages is beyond the scope of this article, but one can ask the simple question: Do robbers conduct their business in their dens? The simple answer is no. Robbers use their dens after they have completed their violent acts. The den is the place robbers retreat to, seeking shelter and safety. The den is not the place of actual robbery; it is a place that provides support to the robbers in order to help them maintain robbery as their ongoing lifestyle.
In shutting down the temple, Jesus is targeting those who commit sins (metaphorically, “robberies”) in their everyday lives, outside the temple, and then attempt find religious consolation in the temple (the “den”). Jesus is bringing this abuse of the temple system to a halt. This is clear from the response of the temple guardians – they wanted to kill Jesus (11:18).
This reading is strengthened by its similarity to other scriptural instances of prophetic witness. Jesus’ prophetic condemnation of the temple is similar to that of many of the Old Testament prophets. Amos, for example, condemns those who would commit unjust acts and then use the temple system to assuage their guilt.
Amos 5:21–24 (NRSV)
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
The cleaning of the temple is not a condemnation on commercial activities as such, either in general or focused on particular commercial injustices. It is a condemnation of those who would do evil and then seek justification through religious practices as a means of appeasing God. As Jack Kingsbury notes, “Through his teaching, Jesus charges that the authorities have profaned the temple by perverting the purpose God intended the court of the gentiles to serve – to be a place of prayer for gentiles – and turning into a safe haven for their own corrupt practices” (“Conflict in Mark,” 78).