The 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?