Jesus and the Temple

In Mark, the Temple incident 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. He begins his final week with a dramatic disruption in the area used for selling sacrificial animals.

wwjd-whipThe Temple complex was huge. The area with buying and selling was approximately 450×300 meters! Craig Evans suggests it is unlikely that Jesus completely disrupted all commerce in the area, and most people would not have been 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.

Jesus performs a symbolic action like classic prophet from the Hebrew Bible. The prophets regularly criticized the Temple leadership, especially in Jeremiah (7:14, 34; 12:7; 22:5; 22:5; 26:9). Since Jeremiah is a favorite text of Jesus, it is no surprise Jesus would allude to Jer 7:11 in his critique of the Temple. 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 with the Temple incident. The conflict with the Temple aristocracy continues in his teaching in the courts during his final week.

  • 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?

20 thoughts on “Jesus and the Temple

  1. Jesus’ actions agains the Temple did not call for separation from the Temple in totality, but rather separation from how the Temple currently was. I think it is more accurate to say that He was calling for a reformation of the Temple, like you’ve said. The Temple, itself, although important to Jesus was not the reason that He came. He came to save sinners and redeem them back to God. The Temple and the religious leaders got in the way of people truly knowing who God is and what Jesus had come to do. He cleansed the Temple because He wanted to cleanse the people’s hearts, which had grown covetous for riches and status, instead of the one true God. As a result of this, we can decipher that Jesus’ actions against the Temple would have naturally caused the reactions that they did. People generally don’t like it when they are told they are wrong, especially in matters of the heart. Strauss states that, “Jesus’ actions in the temple were not only a cleansing but a symbolic act of judgment, an enacted parable of its destruction” (481). In other words, Jesus was warning the people if they did not change their hearts’ focus then their destruction was coming. And this changed of the heart, by believing on Jesus and what he would do, is what would lead them dismiss the temple and embrace themselves as the temple of the Holy Spirit and their place in the church of Christ.

  2. Matt. 16:13    When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, *Jeremiah* or one of the prophets.”

    Assuming that the words of Jesus as recorded in Matt 16:14 were spoken in the context of His visit near Caesarea Philippi, say one year plus before the Temple Incident that you are commenting on, it seems that people were already aware of His critique of the current Temple and Authorities was somewhat similar to that of Jeremiah that you reference in your post.

    • Excellent, thanks for that. I have been tracking with Mark for the most part during this series of posts, and I notice only Matthew adds Jeremiah; Mark and Luke just has “one of the prophets.” I find this interesting since Jeremiah was not associated with ministry in Galilee, but only in Jerusalem. I wonder if this is a Matthean hint of some ministry in Jerusalem, as in the Gospel of John.

  3. I would say that He is not telling the people to separate from the temple because it was originally made to glorify the Lord and to be used as a place of sacrifice. I would say that Jesus challenges the people in the temple like he challenges the Pharisees to do good, even on the Sabbath, or how he challenges the way people treat gentiles. I would also say that Jesus actions were somewhat prophesied because of the words of Jeremiah. But I think Jeremiah’s words were meant for rebuking the people that were using the temple as a place of business and thievery. Like we discussed in class in previous weeks, the temple was a focal point to this culture and was used for all kinds of things. It is the central hub of businesses in that culture and during that time period. So it was fairly obvious that over time, the original intent for the temple was; Therefore, Jesus’ actions were necessary in order to get the people’s attention.

    • Good, and I agree. But why would he want to “get people’s attention” in this rather politically charged way if he knows he will be executed by the end of the week? If that was the goal, he either failed or sent the wrong message.

  4. I don’t believe that Jesus was trying to make a separation of the temple at all. I believe that back then the temple was corrupted with the tax payers, and people selling animals for sacrifices. Strauss even says, “Jesus objects that the money changers and sellers are changing God’s house from a house of prayer into “a den of robbers.”” (Strauss 480). Reading that I think Jesus is just cleaning the temple out so people could have a chance to clean their hearts and turn more to God than trying to get through the tax payers and animal sellers. It is not because the temple was bad to go to, it was just more of bad things were going on in the temple instead of the temple itself. It wasn’t Jesus trying to abolish the temple all together but to clean it up a bit.

  5. There are a number of important things to say about the meaning (and proper interpretation) of the “Temple cleansing” accounts. I can’t do justice to them, offering support, and be realistically brief, too. But a few things:

    Like much in the Gospels, it’s very tough to decipher what Jesus may have actually done. There are a number of things that don’t line up well… just one being that G. of John clearly places the same incident right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when it’s right before his arrest in the Synoptics… in them, with him all along building up to GETTING to Jerusalem (not feasible it happened both at the beginning AND end, per the Gospel narratives’ structure, etc.). The Synoptics, besides concurring, have the more feasible timing and general description (with variations… one should compare them).

    It’s questionable IF the Synoptics are basically historical re. Jesus’ time in Jerusalem, arrest, trial, etc. (E.g., there are many problems in believing the trial details as able to be harmonized among the Gospels, or at all accurate, esp. the major point of almost exonerating Pilate [and Rome] and putting all the blame, eventually, on “the Jews” [and/or their official leaders].) But if taken as historical, then especially Mark makes it pretty clear that Jesus (necessarily with a lot of helpers) did actually take control over the entire courtyard and/or selling area… a vast area, as you point out, or a somewhat smaller but still large area for the kinds of crowds at Passover. This, it would appear, for at least a number of minutes if not hours!… IF mainly symbolic action (feasible), it was physically aggressive (violent even if no one was seriously injured… one of numerous vignettes into that aspect of Jesus’ disciples). It was something that not only the Jewish administrators well noted, but certainly the Roman garrison on-duty guards and their commander as well. (Their outpost, of necessity, overviewed the Temple courts.)

    In fact, if as large and disruptive as the Gospel descriptions, I think we can be nearly certain Roman soldiers DID get involved to restore order… they did not let disturbances go long or get large given the history and known intentions of many Zealots or others… they kept a “short leash” on crowd behavior. Jesus may or may not have been arrested at this time, but even the Gospel accounts clearly link the incident to his bit-later arrest, tho they make it sound like verbal, mostly theological, disputes were the cause, with a number of teachings, a key parable, incidents of parrying, etc. interjected (clearly as literary devices, not chronological reporting).

    Final of other potential points: There is “an insurrection” or “THE insurrection… in the city” (not rural area somewhere) connected to the Barabbas-release aspect of Jesus’ trial. There is, interestingly, NO explanation of what this was, but it involved (cf. the various Gospels for the variants) at least two murders as part of what must have been a significant event, and two or more arrested and no doubt crucified (apparently with Jesus), along with possibly Barabbas (as ringleader? or helper of Jesus?)… the veracity of him and his release is hard to establish.

    Was this uprising the Temple incident itself, or an offshoot of it? It sure begins to look like it if one reads carefully and analytically, with a little background on the times and the Romans’ control and style. But even if not, why do the Gospel writers bring up an “insurrection” (or similar noun, depending on the Bible version) but no explanation of it? Especially “the” insurrection in one Gospel (don’t recall which at the moment, but have checked the Greek for def. article before, which is there)? Clearly, there was more going on with the Temple incident than the Gospel writers want to let on to… our suspicions increased by the clear disguising effort by Mark, that one of Jesus’ close followers was known as “The Zealot” (Simon, but not Peter)… “Zealots”, as a group, being well, well documented as committed to armed rebellion; and our being informed that at least two disciples had swords, one apparently Peter, who DID, per the story, resist at Jesus’ arrest and almost killed a Temple servant.

    • Howard, I am going to punt on John’s placement of the incident for a few weeks, since I have a post queued on that when I start to cover John’s gospel. I am not sure it is impossible for it to happen twice, especially given frequency of double pronouncements in the Hebrew Bible to underscore the certainty of a prediction (Joseph’s dreams, double visions in Daniel, etc.)

      I am more open to a violent action from Jesus (although some want to make him all sunshine and lightness), and you are certainly correct he would have come to the attention of all the authorities. But Passover was a chaotic jumble of people who all looked alike (to the Romans), and Jesus could have easily melted into the crowds, especially since many were in agreement with his prophetic denouncing of the Temple hierarchy. At this moment, there are Palestinians rioting in and near the Old City of Jerusalem and not getting caught because they “all look alike” (to the Israelis) and they have a friendly crowd to slip behind. The pilgrimage feasts were often occasions of riots, Jesus turning over a few tables and creating a disturbance could have been one of several that week!

      As for the insurrection, there was a fair amount of instability since the time Herod the Great died, Pilate was inept at managing the Jewish people, and things just get worse from this time on. I would not say Jesus started a chain of events that ultimately resulted in the rebellion in AD 66, but he was certainly a part of the chain. I think you are right, at least some of his followers (Judas, Peter, many others int he larger crowds) thought a rebellion was about to start, but that does not seem to be Jesus’ intention given the predictions of his arrest and execution.

      • Thanks for the lengthy reply, Phillip. I have other pertinent things to say, but for now, I’ll limit to this: I don’t think melting into the crowds fits with the Mark description in which Jesus (with signif. help) would not let anyone pass through the courts (or at least large transaction area) would have been allowed to happen by Roman guards, and then let him and all the group suddenly disappear. Something is amiss.

  6. I believe Jesus is proposing a separation from the Temple and connecting what can be considered parallels to how many people today view their churches. When I look at Jeremiah 7:9-11, I see that comparison pointed out clearly in my ‘NIV: Study Bible’. They don’t make the temple part of their daily living; we go to beautiful churches well-prepared for worship, but often we don’t take the presence of God with us through the week. The image of the temple became more important than the substance of faith. The image of going to church and belonging to a group can become more important than a life changed for God. The people used their temple as a sanctuary. Many use religious affiliation as a hideout, thinking it will protect them from evil and problems. It should be a way of life and a life changed for God. As for a true separation from the temple, I look to Jeremiah 26:2-9. When Jeremiah said that Jerusalem, the city of God, would become an object of cursing and the temple would be destroyed, the priests and false prophets were infuriated. The temple was important to them because the peoples reverence for it brought them power. By saying that the temple would be destroyed, Jeremiah undermined their authority. Jesus also infuriated the religious leaders of his time by foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in Matthew 24:2. I think the reformation of the temple Jesus is calling for sounds more like a restoration. Nothing new in a sense, but the way it should be.

  7. I would agree with Benji in that Jesus was trying to get the peoples attention. I do not think it was entirely to get their attention but more in order to cleanse the Temple. Recognizing the fact that vendors were a normal attribute to the temple atmosphere, the idolized factor of money and other vendors was overwhelming in the era of Jesus. The fact that Jesus was dying at the end of the week, I think, was even more of the reason to capture their attention.

  8. I do not believe that Jesus is proposing that Israel separate from the temple. Jesus claims that the temple was made to be a house of prayer (Mark 11:17). Just because the purpose that the temple was serving was skewed doesn’t mean Jesus wanted Israel to abandon it. It was going to change with Jesus though. He was the beginning of a reformation for the temple, just like the prophets before Him. The reformation was not in the physical temple, but in the purpose of it. Sacrifices would no longer have to be made for the remission of sins. “In the new age of salvation, forgiveness of sins would no longer come through the temple and its sacrificial system but through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross” (Strauss 481). The individual body would later be referred to as the new temple (1 Corinthians 6:19). People would not have to come to Jerusalem or go to any certain place to worship God. The true worshipers worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:21) within their hearts, the temple of the Holy Spirit.

  9. While Jesus’ actions at the temple may seem a little severe, He was trying to prove a point about the Temple being a place for worship rather than a “den of thieves”. So although he is calling for a reformation of temple worship, he is not proposing a separation from the temple. Strauss say, “Jesus’ actions are often identifies as a cleansing to remove defilement” (481). While Strauss agrees that Jesus turned the tables in order to reform the temple and get rid of the people selling animal sacrifices, Strauss also believes that Jesus’ actions were symbolic. He says, “…Jesus’ actions in the temple were not only a cleansing but a symbolic act of judgment, an enacted parable of its destruction” (Strauss, 481). Jesus turned the tables of the temple as symbol for the destruction of the temple in the future that he talks about in Mark 13:2. So he was calling for a reformation of the temple, even though he tells us it will be destroyed with Jesus’ death on the cross. Once Jesus dies, “forgiveness of sins would no longer come through the temple and its sacrificial system but through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross” (Strauss, 481).

  10. Most of the responders here are doing what most Christians, including a great many scholars do: Guessing at interpretations… intentions in the mind of Jesus. It’s very common practice to lean on “historicity” and “eyewitness accounts” (of which there ARE none, and probably none even 2nd hand) when it comes to the “bodily” Resurrection. Why not be consistent and look closely and long at the texts of Mark and the other Gospels, and try to rightly discern what Jesus’ “cleansing” action actually was and what effects it had, historically? (This is admittedly difficult, both for “higher criticism” and for a less analytical approach, but we don’t have a decent alternative.)

    When one reads both the “lines” of the Gospels and “between the lines” (with the help of related sources such as Josephus, for pertinent background and setting), the most simple (and likely correct) reading of the incident is this: Whether symbolic or not, it fits closely with the pattern of Jesus’ stance as an apocalyptic prophet. (And healer, etc. – messianic figure.) He stands IN A SUBSTANTIAL, long line of zealous (“zeal for God’s house…”) Kingdom of God agitators. These men had various visions of what it would take to “force The End”, or provoke/stimulate Yahweh into action to set up the New Covenant and “restore the Kingdom to Israel”… some more aggressive and violent than others. (Three in the NT are Judah the Galilean, Theudas and “The Egyptian”.)

    And in that “fitting the pattern”, WITHIN the descriptions in the Gospels, this incident was plenty of a disturbance, requiring substantial force and backed by some good portion of the crowds, to be a serious threat and lead directly to his arrest… then quickly to his trial and conviction for sedition. Among the powerful evidences of which is the inscription on his cross, “The King of the Jews” (even if written as derision or sick sarcasm).

    At least some aspects of the accounts represent historical events and we should be treating it historically, first… Only after getting confidently clear on that, as far as is reasonable, should we be making spiritual interpretations. (Granted, it takes some real homework… but isn’t the nature of our faith worth it?)

    • You are right, we are ‘mirror reading,” something generally frowned upon by scholars just before the engage in it themselves. By calling it mirror reading as opposed to a guess, there is some evidence for the guess (it is not a stab in the dark, it is a stab in the light?).

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