John 2:13-25 – The Temple Incident

Jesus with a WhipThe vast majority of scholars think there was one temple clearing, at the end of Jesus’ ministry, resulting in the execution of Jesus. The synoptic gospels have the story in the right place, chronologically and John has moved due to his theological motivations. What that motivation is varies from scholar to scholar, but usually it has something to do with foreshadowing the Passion from the beginning of the gospel. This would not be unlike Luke moving the rejection at Nazareth to the beginning of his gospel and making the reading of Isaiah 61 a “programmatic statement” for Jesus’ mission.

A growing minority of scholars, mostly evangelicals, consider that there were two separate events, an early clearing at the beginning of Jesus’ career and a late one during the passion week. As Leon Morris observes, aside form the central event (clearing the temple) there are only five words common to both the synoptic clearing story and the John clearing story. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Rev Ed.; NICNT, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995), 167, n. 55. But as D. A. Carson observes, “Against Morris, distinctiveness in detail and in vocabulary is so typical of John’s handling of any event reported both by Synoptists and John that the independence of narrative detail and locutions in the Fourth Gospel” (Matthew, PNTC, 177)

Yet there is resistance to this view. Borchert thought that the idea of two temple clearings is a “historiographical monstrosity that has no basis in the test of the Gospels.” G. L. Borchert, John 1-11 (NAC 25A; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 160. He goes on to say that the Temple incident was moved to point in Jesus’ ministry because of John’s theological agenda: “By letting John write from his own postresurrection perspective, we do not give up on history but allow the book to be what the author intended it to be—a testimony.”  Similarly, Craig Keener thinks it is historical implausible that Jesus would have over-tuned the tables then engage in public ministry for two or three years before being arrested (Keener, John 1:518-9).

A very small minority of scholars lead by J. A. T. Robinson argue that there was only one clearing, and it is John that got the timing right. The synoptic gospels have moved the even from the beginning of Jesus career to the end as an explanation for why the Jewish leadership wanted to kill Jesus.There are a few scholars that consider the story a creation of the early church. George Buchanan (“Symbolic Money-Changes in the Temple?” NTS 37 (1991): 280-90, 284) thought that the Gospel writer created the story out of the Jewish messianic hopes for what the Messiah ought to do when he comes.

Craig Blomberg discusses this in his Historicity of John’s Gospel and concludes that there may have been two clearings of the temple, the first was overlooked by the ruling Jews since the selling in the temple had only just begun, and Jesus; attack was on the buying and selling specifically, not the temple institution itself (as it is in the final week.) Beasley-Murray compares the shift of the temple incident to the beginning of the gospel to Luke’s shift of the rejection at Nazareth to the beginning for programmatic reasons.

As an evangelical who has a theological commitment to the truth of scripture, is there a problem with John “moving” a historical event from the end of Jesus’ life to the beginning?  Is he creating a false history?  Can an evangelical say that John was manipulating history for theological reasons and not open the door to all sorts of other less-than-orthodox possibilities?

13 thoughts on “John 2:13-25 – The Temple Incident

  1. Phil,

    I am not sure that there is a problem. John also eliminates Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist and exchanges communion with a foot washing , to name a few other examples. I think the gospel writers were not writing history but theology. However, they certainly incorporated history to promote that theology. It was not unusual to handle history this way as demonstrated in the way that Josephus changes details and events between the Jewish War and Antiquities. As an evangelical, I don’t find it troublesome at all.

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  2. While I have noticed in my readings of the gospels prior to this class that some stories are included in one gospel yet omitted in another, I had never really noticed that certain events such as the clearing of the temple are listed at a different time chronologically when comparing the different accounts. While I have always been taught and believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17) and is void of imperfections, it is things like this that make me wonder why exactly these differences are present throughout. While it isn’t necessarily a contradiction as the gospel writer just tells the story in a different place, it doesn’t match up with the other accounts. Although it seems that each gospel writer has his own unique theological message painted throughout his respective gospel, it would seem only fitting to me that the individual writer should stay within the limits of what is historically accurate rather than moving things around to better emphasize his point. Whether this was John’s motive in placing this event in a different context or there were simply two different occasions on which Jesus cleared the temple we cannot be certain. However, I cannot seem to reconcile the idea of having an inerrant gospel yet also having historical events moved around to cater to the desired theme of the gospel writer. I am not completely closed off to other interpretations or opinions on this matter and realize that I haven’t had time to give it much thought as I am just now within the last couple of months realizing some of these differences and beginning to question and challenge myself to discover why they are there. However, I believe that if God wanted a certain theological truth emphasized at a particular point in history, he would ordain the events to happen accordingly rather than prompt the gospel writer to create a different account of happenings.

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  3. I do not see a problem with John moving part of the historical event; everyone tells a story with a slight variance and this is one of John’s variances. John for whatever reason felt that it was necessary to place this story at the end of Jesus’ life. I think an evangelical can say that John moved it for theological reasons, but what can we really do about it now? John chose to tell his version of the story in that order so that he could make his point. It is like when people take a book and turn it into a movie; they take the story and all the events, and put them into the movie, most of the time in a different order than the book, but overall the same story is told and the same result and ending is the same it was just told in a different form.
    John places the temple clearing in John 2, where in Luke 19 it happens at the end of His life. John I believe was showing that it was not the reason in which the Pharisee’s went after Jesus, John was showing that it was an important part of Jesus life and it played a part in the reasons why they wanted to kill him, but John was making a theological statement that it was not THE reason.
    This is such a dramatic story, especially because Jesus is supposed to be so calm and loving. It in my opinion shows that He is fully human, and though He did not lose His temper He did react in a way that would minister to those who were onlookers. Showing that He had a true passion for how the house of the Lord was supposed to be treated. He was passionate about treating the place of the Lord as a holy place and not as a market.

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  4. I am at a loss, I read Maggie’s and then Kimmy’s comments and agreed with both as I read them. I believe that God could have and might have made things happen when he did historically if it was necessary theologically. And I don’t think that the writers would have manipulated history in order to fit their own theological aim. But every person tells the same story differently based on a number of things such as their personality, their experiences, and their own thoughts and mission in particular concerning Jesus. Being different, I think that allows them to tell the story differently, as Kimmy said. Being a big difference when we look closely, the story and result has the same effect. One thing that makes me glad about is that for the most part, this issue isn’t a hindrance to the gospel message of redemption and salvation as a whole. But for those of us who seek to know which is right and wrong, I don’t think that any of the accounts is wrong or even might I say moved, as Maggie cited 2 Timothy 3:16-17 would I have to agree and say that God wouldn’t have let it be necessary for any of the writers to manipulate history in their favor, but that God would have changed history, if the cause were that necessary. Perhaps the temple was cleared two different times, perhaps the others just didn’t include the both of them, and it could have been just one. As Maggie said, I can’t be certain of which account is the right one, but rather take faith in the inerrant word of God and ultimately that it is what it is. Whether one writer includes or omits what stories he chooses, the writing and those words are overseen and ordained by God.

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  5. In one of your previous blogs I remember reading about the argument for only one temple clearing on the basis of the magnitude of such a statement. The main point of the argument was the people who were making money in the Temple would not have let Jesus’ acts simply slide by. Although the initial Temple clearing may have been overlooked by Jewish leaders “since the selling had just begun”, it does not seem as though the people in position to make money would have been pleased with Jesus’ actions. The chronology of the Temple clearing (if there was only one) within the Gospel of John does not create a false history in my opinion. With all of the Gospel’s, especially John, the point was not to give an accurate account of Scripture as much as it was to tell the story of Jesus’ ministry. Retelling the story will of course give us some historical framework, this however is not the main thrust of the Gospel writers.

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  6. When I was first reading this the thought that popped in my head was “does this matter even in the slightest bit?” I can see how this could maybe matter a little bit when you look at it as “John “moving” a historical event from the end of Jesus’ life to the beginning” because then it could be said that John has his Gospel in all sorts of different order than the rest in order to prove his point that Christ is Messiah.
    That is where my amount of cares ends though. We know from the other three gospels that Christ is the Messiah, so why would it even matter if John changed the order of things a touch to add dramatic effect? Now, some of the above people have stated that God would not allow this to happen, or even go so far that He would change history to make it accurate. This seems a touch much. Sure He could easily do that, but again, why would He?

    Just an FYI as well, I am super tired and worn out from youth group as I am writing this, so my patience and sympathy is at -74 right now so it is quite possible that I am taking this much to far in the opposite direction. Also, its possible I am missing the entire point of this post and that is why I don’t see a reason as to why this matters.

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  7. I do not think of it as John “moving” a historical event. To be honest, I do not think it is important to be arguing whether or not there are two temples clearings or not. It doesn’t matter because we should be looking at the big picture. Each book is unique and different. They tell us different things about Jesus and his kingdom. I like seeing stories at different angles. I agree with Kimberly Haney that people tell stories differently. I believe that John put the story of Jesus clearing the temple in chapter 2 of John rather than before Jesus death like it is in Luke for a reason. The book of Luke and the book of John have different themes. This allows believer to see the story in a way we never saw it before. I don’t think that John is creating a false history because the story for the most part stays the same. Each author is telling the story of Christ from a different point of view. Each view is important and teaches believers about who Jesus was, how Jesus acted, and what he has done for us on the cross.

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  8. I don’t think there is anything wrong with John moving the placement of the temple incident. He had reasons for doing that and we just have to understand it the way he intended us to. I would also say that there was only one event. It seems out of character for Jesus, who had been trying to keep some what of a low profile in the early and middle stages of his ministry, telling people not to tell other of miracles he had performed. Why then would he do something near the beginning of his ministry that would cause so much attention to be directed his way?

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  9. While the Gospels are incredibly historical in nature, they are all deeply theological as well. It seems that on the spectrum, John gives up a bit of historical purpose in order to better serve his stronger purpose of theological persuasion and apology. I see nothing wrong in John shifting the temple incident to a different time that it happened. For all we know, the synoptic did the same thing. I don’t see that shift as proper excuse for dismisses John as historically accurate. We do this sort of thing everyday. When I do reports on book or articles I do not always (in fact I rarely) present the material in the order it was written. I quite freely reorganize the information to better suit my purposes. This does not make what was said any less said. It does not make any truth less true.

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  10. If there was only one clearing of the temple i do not find a problem with John moving it. He is not falsely presenting history, if it happened it happened, even if it was at a different time that it occurred. I am still unsure if this occurred once or twice, but it being moved to a different place in the timeline does not affect that this did happen and it did occur. If John did move this story he most likely had reasoning for it.

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  11. I’ve had a really hard time transitioning from Catholicism to Christianity, though there are many similarities between the two. And during my venture into Christianity, I was led to believe that scripture stood for something different than it actually meant. So it’s things like this, possibilities of altering or moving a date to accommodate someone’s needs that bother me a little. Though John probably doesn’t intent to deceive or trick people like I was deceived before, there’s still reason to believe that there might be an accidental error in the dates of the clearing of the temple. However, as Maggie stated in her comment, I too stand by the bible being “the inspired Word of God and is void of imperfections” but I can’t help but wonder why the confusion between the gospels on this given event? Wouldn’t it be easier and less chances of misinterpretations or called out on its honesty if it was clearly stated when it happened or if there was more than one clearing? As I said, though, I don’t believe that John is purposely creating a false story; I just think that the vagueness of dating on the event leaves room for many to disbelieve what he says.

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    • I do not have an issue with this possibly being moved around for dramatic effect. Like others have said, it does not take away from its importance and the magnitude of what Jesus did. The temple incident was a great example of the power Jesus possess and the wrath that should not be questioned. What a powerful example.

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  12. Understanding this is important. The importance of this is in the fact that if we do not find a way to understand why there are two accounts of a temple incident on at two different times between the synoptics and John, then there in an inherent contradiction that challenges the historicity of the Gospel accounts. One of the main arguments against Christianity from people is the apparent contradictions in the gospels. If we do not have an answer for these beyond just believing it because we believe it must be right, then we will struggle to explain the gospel to these people. I have no problem with John moving the time of the temple incident to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. John makes no claims to be giving a history of the life of Jesus. Rather it is as Borchert says, a “testimony”. “By letting John write from his own postresurrection perspective, we do not give up on history but allow the book to be what the author intended it to be—a testimony.” John is giving a testimony of Jesus for people to understand him, and why he came. This is not a contradiction, just a false expectation of a 21st century audience to the book. I think it is essential that we do not simply dismiss things as unimportant because we have a presupposed theology that overpowers an apparent contradiction.

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