In the so-called temple-cleansing, we have, apparently, prophetic demonstration or, one could say, provocation, in which it was not a matter of driving out all those who sold and the money changers – for such an action would not be possible without a large contingent of troops and a corresponding general riot, and would inevitably have led to intervention on the part of the temple guard and the Romans. We are dealing, rather, with a demonstrative condemnation of their trade, a condemnation which was directed at the same time against the ruling temple aristocracy, which derived profit from it…. Such an episode did not call forth further intervention on the part of the occupation forces, but it did make the hierarchy the deadly foes of Jesus. Martin Hengel, Was Jesus a Revolutionist?, 17-18.
In Mark, this event is framed by the curse of the Fig Tree and provides the clues we need to fully interpret that parabolic action. In fact, this action is also symbolic. Jesus arrives at the Temple as the messiah, inspects the Temple and finds it corrupt. Therefore begins that judgment by causing a disruption in the area used for selling sacrificial animals.
Note that the Temple area is huge, 450 meters by 300. Craig Evans (WBC) thinks that it is unlikely that Jesus completely disrupted all commerce in the area, most people were not even aware Jesus was making a demonstration in one area of the Temple. The action is symbolic. By overturning tables and causing the chaos that he does, he challenges the religious authorities to be obedient to scripture by making the Temple a house of prayer and not a den of thieves.
Is this an attack on a corrupt priesthood? Were the priests corrupt? The Qumran Community thought so, referring to the high priest as the Wicked Priest (1QpHab 1:13, 8:9. 9:9, 11:4). The high priest has gotten wealthy off the temple and defiled the sanctuary of God (1QpHab 12:8-9). Testament of Moses 7:6-10 is another condemnation of the first century priesthood. The Testament of Moses was probably written about A.D. 30, and the Habakkuk scroll from Qumran dates more than 100 years prior to that. Josephus accuses the priests of bribery (Antiq. 20.9.4) and violence (Antiq. 20.8.8).
Jesus is functioning here as a classic prophet from the Hebrew Bible. Criticism of the temple has a grand tradition in the prophets, especially in Jeremiah (7:14, 34; 12:7; 22:5; 22:5; 26:9). There seems to be a real parallel between Jeremiah 7:11 and Mark 11:17. As with Jeremiah, this confrontation with the temple authority can lead only to physical danger and arrest, but at this point the authorities cannot take Jesus for fear of the crowd.
Jesus’ criticism of the temple does not end here, the conflict with the Pharisees is entirely concerned with problems of the temple:
- The Parable of the Tenants has the priestly aristocracy losing their place of privilege
- The challenge to Jesus on paying taxes is radical – give to god what is God’s, not necessarily via the temple tax!
- Even the Widow’s mite is a condemnation of the giving of the wealthy.
The “Temple Action” is therefore a public sign of Jesus’ authority as a prophet of God. He stands in the tradition of Jeremiah and Ezekiel who condemned the priesthood and Temple authority for their half-hearted worship of God. Jesus is challenging the worshipers in the Temple to become True Israel, but is he proposing separation from the Temple? Does Jesus preform a symbolic action (like Jeremiah) which calls for the reformation of the Temple?