It seems strange that there were vendors set up in the Temple courts selling animals. Usually Christians think of these people in a very negative light, since Jesus does run them out of the place and calls then a bunch of thieves. Christian preachers sometimes over-emphasize that the sellers were taking a very high profit from the Passover visitor who must by an animal at the Temple. I myself am guilty of drawing an analogy to buying food at an airport, it is always more expensive since there is no free market. (See this post on the Temple Incident in John 2)
It was very difficult to travel to Jerusalem with a lamb for the Passover sacrifice. If it was injured or found to be in some way unclean, then the worshiper would not have a sacrifice for the festival. To assist people in their Temple authorities sold “pre-approved” lambs for people traveling from the Diaspora for the Passover Festival.
The sellers are vending oxen and pigeons along with sheep. These might be thought of as the high and low end of the sacrifice scale. A wealthy man may choose to sacrifice an ox while a poor person could only afford a pigeon. Doves were required for women making a cleansing sacrifice, only the High Priest was required to make a sacrifice of a bovine. Both of these types of sacrifices would be difficult to deliver to Jerusalem, especially if the worshiper was traveling from a distant city such as Ephesus or Rome. It would be virtually impossible to bring an ox that distance, a pigeon might not last the whole trip!
These sellers are therefore providing a reasonable service to travelers arriving at the Temple. The pilgrim could be sure that they could purchase an acceptable animal once they arrived at the Temple.
Why would they sell the animals in the Temple courts? Ed Sanders questions whether anyone would sell animals in the court of Gentiles since there would be a great deal of straw, excrement, and noise – all of which would be offensive to the worshipers entering the Temple. There were shops outside the Temple which could be used to sell animals and change money.
Von Wahlde, however, points out that Sanders may be correct for normal times in the Temple service, but during Passover such a huge number of sacrifices were required that it is possible that booths were allowed in the court of the Gentiles in order to handle the crowds.
None of the Gospels imply that the whole Gentile court was given over to the selling of animals. Perhaps a larger area was open for sales during the Passover, at other times sales were prohibited. Either way, for the most part these sellers were providing a service most people found helpful.
If this is true, what was Jesus problem with the sellers and money changers?