In the Synoptic Gospels, the Temple incident occurs in Jesus’s final week and is one of the main reasons for the arrest and execution of Jesus. But in the Gospel of John, Jesus goes to the Temple very early in his career, perhaps three years prior to the crucifixion. Is this story misplaced by John? Or were there two “Temple incidents”? There are several good reasons to see this as an early protest in the temple rather than the one just prior to the crucifixion. (See this post on Mark’s version of the Temple Incident and this post on the Temple in Mark’s Gospel.)
Most scholars think there was one temple clearing, at the end of Jesus’s ministry, resulting in the execution of Jesus. The synoptic gospels have the story in the right place, chronologically, John has moved the event based on theological motivations. What that motivation was varies from scholar to scholar, but it usually has something to do with foreshadowing the Passion at the beginning of the Gospel of John. This would be similar to Luke moving the rejection at Nazareth to the beginning of his gospel so that Jesus’s reading of Isaiah 61 becomes a “programmatic statement” for Jesus’s mission. In this view, the temple Incident sets the agenda for the rest of the Gospel, Jesus replaces the Temple as the focus of worship.
A growing minority of scholars, mostly evangelicals, think there were two separate events, an early clearing at the beginning of Jesus’s career and a second Temple Incident at the beginning of the Passion Week. As Leon Morris observes, aside from the central event (clearing the temple) there are only five words common to both the synoptic clearing story and the John clearing story (The Gospel According to John (Rev Ed.), 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” (The Gospel according to John, PNTC, 177).
Craig Blomberg discusses the Temple Incident in his Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel (IVP Academic, 2011) and concludes that there may have been two clearings of the temple. The Temple authorities overlooked the first protest since the selling in the temple was a new innovation. Jesus’s attack was on the buying and selling specifically, not the temple institution itself (as it is in his final week).
There is resistance to this view. Borchert thought the idea of two temple clearings is a “historiographical monstrosity that has no basis in the test of the Gospels” (John 1-11; NAC 25A, 160). C. 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 (John, 1:518-9).
A small minority of scholars such as J. A. T. Robinson argue there was only one clearing, and John has the timing right. The Synoptic gospels moved the event from the beginning of Jesus‘s career to the end in order to explain 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 thought Mark created the story based on Jewish messianic hopes for what the Messiah ought to do when he comes (“Symbolic Money-Changes in the Temple?” NTS 37 (1991): 284). I am not inclined to dismiss the story entirely since it provides a pretext for Jesus’s execution. An angry, whip-wielding Jesus is not an image the early church would readily create.
But does it make sense that there were two “Temple Incidents”? Is there really any problem with John shifting the story to the beginning of Jesus’s mission because it serves his theological agenda better?