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.
The 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?