A “Den of Thieves”?

When Jesus condemns the Temple as a “den of thieves,” is he launching an attack on the aristocratic priests who ran the Temple? Were the priests actually corrupt in the Second Temple Period? The commentary on Habakkuk from the Qumran Community refers to the high priest as the “Wicked Priest” (1QpHab 1:13, 8:9. 9:9, 11:4). This high priest appears to have used the Temple to increase his own wealth. (1QpHab 12:8-9).

1QpHab 8:9-13. Its interpretation concerns the Wicked Priest, who was called loyal at the start of his office. However, when he ruled over Israel his heart became proud, he deserted God and betrayed the laws for the sake of riches. And he robbed and hoarded wealth from the violent men who had rebelled against God. And he seized public money, incurring additional serious sin. And he performed re[pul]sive acts by every type of defiling impurity.

1QpHab 12:8-9 Its interpretation: the city is Jerusalem in which the /Wicked/ Priest performed repulsive acts and defiled the Sanctuary of God. The violence (done to) the country are the cities of Judah which he plundered of the possessions of the poor.

Testament of Moses 7:6-10 But really they consume the goods of the (poor), saying their acts are according to justice, (while in fact they are simply) exterminators, deceitfully seeking to conceal themselves so that they will not be known as completely godless because of their criminal deeds (committed) all the day long, saying, ‘We shall have feasts, even luxurious winings and dinings. Indeed, we shall behave ourselves as princes.’ They, with hand and mind, will touch impure things, yet their mouths will speak enormous things, and they will even say, 10 ‘Do not touch me, lest you pollute me in the position I occupy …’

The Testament of Moses was probably written about A.D. 30, and the Habakkuk scroll from Qumran dates more than 100 years prior to that. Josephus accuses the priests of bribery (Antiq. 20.9.4) and violence (Antiq. 20.8.8). There is therefore evidence from before and after the time of Jesus that at least some Jews thought the priesthood was corrupt. When Jesus called the Temple aristocracy a “den of thieves,” he was not the only voice calling the priesthood corrupt.

jesus-whipE. P. Sanders, however, considers all of the evidence as a “polemic” against the Temple and perhaps not the best description of the average priest. There probably were some corrupt priests, but the average priest was probably diligent about keeping the Law. When we read about uprisings and rebellions in Josephus, it seems as though any time the Temple is disrespected (either by Rome or Jews) a riot breaks out and people die. If there were corrupt priests who were known to be stealing from the offerings or creating laws for the purpose of profit, then there would have been a popular response.

Sanders illustrates his point with a story from Babylon at the time of Alexander’s conquest.  Temples were destroyed and priests returned to their own land.  Tithes and offerings were gathered to re-build the temples but the priests never did the work.  They kept the money and spent it on their own pleasure rather than to rebuild the temples. This sort of corruption is nowhere found among the Jewish priesthood.  As a final argument, Sanders points out it was the ordinary priest who declared war on Rome when Florus stole from the Temple treasury.  Whatever we might say about Jewish religion in the first century, the priesthood remained loyal to the greatest symbol of their religion – the Temple.

Bibliography. Martı́nez and Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition (Translations). Leiden: Brill, 1997–1998; James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. New York: Yale University Press, 1983; E. P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 BCE – 66 CE. Philadelphia: Trinity Press, 1992.

8 thoughts on “A “Den of Thieves”?

  1. Based on what is presented in just this blog, and of what I read in Luke and Strauss’ book, Jesus certainly did clear the temple of those who were buying and selling in it (Luke 19:45-46). But this act, whatever it really meant, was very intentional. Jesus did everything intentionally. As Strauss pointed out, it was normal for someone to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem on foot. Yet Jesus went out of His way to secure a donkey, a young colt to ride on when He arrived at Jerusalem (Strauss, 480). There are obviously many other examples of His intentionality in the Gospels, especially when we consider His life altogether; His life was purposeful and centered around His mission to bring knowledge of the Kingdom of God. With this in mind it seems to me that perhaps His driving out of those who sold in the temple was as dramatic as it needed to be. If a defilement of the temple would have been noticeable and highly controversial, this one must have been sneaky. Jesus probably acted in this way to wake the people up from their complacency about the sin behind this act.

  2. I would agree with Jessica that how Jesus reacted was purposeful. I do not think that there needs to be argument that if Jesus said they were thieves, or were corrupt then they were. The question posed is not necessarily for this story but brings up suspicion that if the priests in this temple were corrupt then were there others like them? It seems to me that Sanders is probably on the right track in saying that there were possibly some corrupt priests but most were not. It would be the same today, there are many pastors or church members who are corrupt, but that doesn’t mean that we should assume all are like those who are corrupt. You could make this argument with many things, for example, just because there are Muslims who are terrorists it would be wrong to assume that all Muslims are terrorists. 2 Peter 2:19 says, “They promise freedom, but they themselves are slaves of sin and corruption. For you are a slave to whatever controls you.” This verse tells that many fall into corruption because it is tempting, and it makes it very plausible that many priests could have been corrupted. But with God’s power one could overcome and there is a chance that many were not corrupt.

  3. I think that perhaps the last sentence of the blog is perhaps the most important, “the priesthood remained loyal to the greatest symbol of their religion – the Temple”. If perhaps the high priest was corrupt, than being loyal to the temple would include being loyal to corruption. If, then, that is the case, perhaps Jesus calling the temple a “den of thieves” is intended to open the eyes of the followers with blind loyalty to the temple. It reminds me of the way that people can find a way to be loyal to governments and leaders even though they are obviously doing awful things. However, i agree that perhaps the story is a somewhat exaggerated depiction of how corrupt the temple society actually was. Regardless of any exaggeration, I think that Jesus’ intent was still to display the corruption, however severe, and call out the people who needed to see the error of their way.

  4. I think I like E.P. Sanders perspective. As Jes pointed out and Megan echoed, Jesus was very intentional about everything that the gospels record him doing. I have been learning just how intentional he really was. I like what Strauss says about the cleansing of the temple: “It seems likely that Jesus’ actions in the temple were not only a cleansing but a symbolic act of judgment, and enacted parable of its destruction” (Strauss 481). I agree with Strauss (again on page 481) in saying that I think Jesus’ point was more that the arrival of the Kingdom of God would permanently replace the temple than an accusation of terrible corruption.

  5. What Zac pointed out about the loyalty of the priests was interesting take on why the Priests seemed to be corrupt. He said in his comment, “If perhaps the high priest was corrupt, than being loyal to the temple would include being loyal to corruption”. This idea would explain why the Priests allowed selling in their temple courts, because they were used to this behavior in the Second Temple Period. However, Jesus came and turned the tables and with it reformed temple worship and also symbolized the destruction of the temple. “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). It is not so much a matter as to whether the Priests were corrupt themselves, but more that the way temple worship by the Jews was corrupt and Priests were loyal to what they knew.

  6. Thanks for the quotes from the Dead Sea Scroll’s. The input from there is pertinent and valuable (and not familiar to most of us). Also Josephus (who is a pain to read at length, so so far I’ve let summaries suffice… but then I’m “sliding” a bit as a lay scholar).

    As to your opening q.” When Jesus condemns the Temple as a “den of thieves,” is he launching an attack on the aristocratic priests who ran the Temple?” Bingo! Basically that makes the most sense when one looks thoroughly at the background involved and what the texts both reveal and partially conceal. Otherwise it is hard to find it logical and sensible that Jesus was quickly arrested and crucified by the ROMANS (not Jews) for sedition – rebellion against Rome (not for blasphemy).

    His words and actions were a direct challenge… not to the entire priesthood (as you point out), but to those in control of the system, headed by the High Priest. (Generally, the further from the “top”, the less likely one would be to be part of corruption and collaboration, then as now, and per NT and other evidence.)

    The point was probably not just some financial “skimming off the top”, nor theological issues, but collaboration with Rome (!), the offending and oppressing foreign power keeping Israel from being sovereign, and from the institution of the Kingdom of God. (It was a very concrete, earthy, territorial as well as spiritual thing to Jews of the time, including Jesus, as far as we can tell.)

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