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.
E. 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.