Selling in the Temple?

It seems strange that there were vendors set up in the Temple courts selling animals.  Usually Christians think of these people in a very negative light, since Jesus does run them out of the place and calls then a bunch of thieves.  Christian preachers sometimes over-emphasize that the sellers were taking a very high profit from the Passover visitor who must by an animal at the Temple.  I myself am guilty of drawing an analogy to buying food at an airport, it is always more expensive since there is no free market.

But is this a fair reading of these “sellers and money changers”?   Who are these people selling animals and changing money in the Temple?

It was very difficult to travel to Jerusalem with a lamb for the Passover sacrifice. If it was injured or found to be in some way unclean, then the worshiper would not have a sacrifice for the festival. To assist people in their Temple authorities sold “pre-approved” lambs for people traveling from the Diaspora for the Passover Festival.

The sellers are vending oxen and pigeons along with sheep. These might be thought of as the high and low end of the sacrifice scale. A wealthy man may choose to sacrifice an ox while a poor person could only afford a pigeon. Doves were required for women making a cleansing sacrifice, only the High Priest was required to make a sacrifice of a bovine. Both of these types of sacrifices would be difficult to deliver to Jerusalem, especially if the worshiper was traveling from a distant city such as Ephesus or Rome. It would be virtually impossible to bring an ox that distance, a pigeon might not last the whole trip!

These sellers are therefore providing a reasonable service to travelers arriving at the Temple. The pilgrim could be sure that they could purchase an acceptable animal once they arrived at the Temple.

Why would they sell the animals in the Temple courts? Ed Sanders questions whether anyone would sell animals in the court of Gentiles since there would be a great deal of straw, excrement, and noise – all of which would be offensive to the worshipers entering the Temple. There were shops outside the Temple which could be used to sell animals and change money.

Von Wahlde, however, points out that Sanders may be correct for normal times in the Temple service, but during Passover such a huge number of sacrifices were required that it is possible that booths were allowed in the court of the Gentiles in order to handle the crowds. None of the Gospels imply the whole Gentile court was given over to the selling of animals.  Perhaps a larger area was open for sales during the Passover, at other times sales were prohibited.  Either way, for the most part these sellers were providing a service most people found helpful.

If this is true, what was Jesus problem with the sellers and money changers?

The Parable of the Vineyard and Rabbinic Parallels

In the Parable of the Vineyard, God is the land owner, the vineyard is once again the world that God has created and placed his people in, or more specifically, the city of Jerusalem. It is often observed that there are several rabbinic parables that are close to what we read here in Mark. Craig Evans collects a number of these parallels in his excellent commentary on Mark (WBC).

Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai (ca. AD 140) said: “Why was Israel likened to a vineyard? In the case of a vineyard, in the beginning one must hoe it, then weed it, and then erect supports when he sees the clusters [forming]. Then he must return to pluck the grapes and press them in order to extract the wine from them. So also Israel—each and every shepherd who oversees them must tend them [as he would tend a vineyard]. Where [in Scripture] is Israel called a vineyard? In the verse, ‘For the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts is the House of Israel, and the seedlings he lovingly tended are the men of Judah’ [Isa 5:7].” (Midr. Prov. 19:21; translation based on B. L. Visotzky, The Midrash on Proverbs, YJS 27 [New Haven, CT; London: Yale UP, 1992] 89).

What we are probably seeing here are common parabolic expansions on Isaiah 5:1-7, a prophetic passage describing Israel as God’s vineyard.  Evans also comments that the idea of Israel as God’s vineyard and the leadership of the nation failing to respond to the owner of the vineyard are “stock images, drawn from what Evans calls a common Jewish religious ‘thesaurus.’” The workers in the vineyard are in fact the leadership of Israel, the elders who are in charge of the spiritual well-being of God’s people.

Bunch of GrapesIn the synoptic gospels, this parable is clearly aimed at the leadership of the Jews that have question Jesus authority. This is obvious even to the teachers of the Law that here the parable, since they look for a way to arrest Jesus after he is finished. They would undoubtedly be away of the Isaiah 5 parallels and perhaps even the rabbinic interpretations of the parable. There are a number of Old Testament passages that refer to the nation of Israel as a vine that has been planted by God, and a larger number that describe the judgement of the nation as a desolate (unfruitful) place! (Isa 27:2-3; Jer 2:21; Psa 44:1-4; 80:8-9)

What Jesus has done is to take a common metaphor from the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic teaching and turn it around into a prophecy of judgment. The ones who are the keeps of the vineyard are about to be replaced because the killed the Son of the Owner. Two observations are necessary about this prophetic parable.

First, Jesus puts himself into the position of the son who was killed by the tenants. If the Vineyard owner is God, then this is an explicit claim to be the “Son of God.” This is significant for later Christian theology, but he may not be claiming divinity in the parable.  Rather, he is claiming to be the long-awaited Messiah, the “Son of God” in the same sense as Psalm 2.

Second, who are the replacement tenants? If the leadership of Israel are under judgment in the parable, who are they replaced with? For me, Jesus has already replaced the tenants with 12 men who will rule 12 new tribes. Jesus’ current following is a new Israel following the real Messiah. The rejection of Jesus has already happened and a new people are being formed around Jesus. Like the other parables in this final week of Jesus’ life, this parable intends to show that Jesus has already begun to establish a new Kingdom around his own Kingship.

Are there other elements of this parable which need to be explored?  How does the context of the attacks on Jesus’ authority effect the way we read the parable?

Mark 11:15-19 – Selling in the Temple?

It seems strange that there were vendors set up in the Temple courts selling animals.  Usually Christians think of these people in a very negative light, since Jesus does run them out of the place and calls then a bunch of thieves.  Christian preachers sometimes over-emphasize that the sellers were taking a very high profit from the Passover visitor who must by an animal at the Temple.  I myself am guilty of drawing an analogy to buying food at an airport, it is always more expensive since there is no free market.

But is this a fair reading of these “sellers and money changers”?   Who are these people selling animals and changing money in the Temple?

It was very difficult to travel to Jerusalem with a lamb for the Passover sacrifice. If it was injured or found to be in some way unclean, then the worshiper would not have a sacrifice for the festival. To assist people in their Temple authorities sold “pre-approved” lambs for people traveling from the Diaspora for the Passover Festival.

The sellers are vending oxen and pigeons along with sheep. These might be thought of as the high and low end of the sacrifice scale. A wealthy man may choose to sacrifice an ox while a poor person could only afford a pigeon. Doves were required for women making a cleansing sacrifice, only the High Priest was required to make a sacrifice of a bovine. Both of these types of sacrifices would be difficult to deliver to Jerusalem, especially if the worshiper was traveling from a distant city such as Ephesus or Rome. It would be virtually impossible to bring an ox that distance, a pigeon might not last the whole trip!

These sellers are therefore providing a reasonable service to travelers arriving at the Temple. The pilgrim could be sure that they could purchase an acceptable animal once they arrived at the Temple.

Why would they sell the animals in the Temple courts? Ed Sanders questions whether anyone would sell animals in the court of Gentiles since there would be a great deal of straw, excrement, and noise – all of which would be offensive to the worshipers entering the Temple. There were shops outside the Temple which could be used to sell animals and change money.

Von Wahlde, however, points out that Sanders may be correct for normal times in the Temple service, but during Passover such a huge number of sacrifices were required that it is possible that booths were allowed in the court of the Gentiles in order to handle the crowds.

None of the Gospels imply that the whole Gentile court was given over to the selling of animals.  Perhaps a larger area was open for sales during the Passover, at other times sales were prohibited.  Either way, for the most part these sellers were providing a service most people found helpful.

If this is true, what was Jesus problem with the sellers and money changers?