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Jesus and the Law, Part 6: The Temple

Jesus’ relationship to the Jerusalem Temple is sometimes treated separately from his view of the Law (Torah); however, the Temple ritual is an important part of the commands and ordinances in the Law, so it will be discussed appropriately within the series “Jesus and the Law”. This article will proceed according to the following outline:

  1. Jesus’ “cleansing” of the Temple
  2. The “Temple saying” of Jesus
  3. Other sayings and teachings related to the Temple

1. The “Cleansing” of the Temple

I have discussed this episode in some detail in earlier notes, and here will primarily repeat or summarize the results of those studies.

a. The Synoptic Accounts (Mark 1:15-19; Matthew 21:12-16; Luke 19:45-47)

Luke provides the simplest version (Lk 19:45-46):

45And coming into the sacred place he began to cast out the (ones) selling, 46saying to them, “It has been written: ‘My house will be a house for speaking-out toward (God) [i.e. prayer], and you have made it a cavern for plunderers’.”

Additional details found in Mark and Matthew (Mk 11:15; Matt 21:12):

  • Jesus casts out the (ones) selling and the (ones) buying
  • He overturns (lit. turns [upside] down) the tables of the coin-changers and seats of the (ones) selling doves

Additional details found only in Mark:

  • He did not allow (any)one to carry a vessel through the sacred-place (v. 16)
  • The quotation from Isa 56:7 is extended: “…will be called a house of prayer to/for all the nations” (v. 17)

There can be no doubt that the compound Scripture citation is the key to interpreting the Synoptic accounts as they stand. The first portion comes from Isaiah 56:7: “…My House will be called a house of petition/prayer [hL*p!T=] for all the peoples”. The message of Isa 56:1-8 is that all people who adhere to the Law of God (including Gentiles and foreigners) will become part of God’s people gathered in from exile. It is interesting to note the difference of emphasis:

  • Jesus: “My house will be (called) a house of prayer
  • Isa 56:7: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples

Mark does include the last phrase, but, it would seem, with any special emphasis. However, considering that the commerce would have likely been taking place in the outer Court of the Gentiles (implied by the use of i(ero/n and not nao/$), the Isaian context of foreigners (Gentiles) joining to become part of the (Messianic) restoration of Israel is surely significant. Primarily though, Jesus contrasts “house of prayer” with “cavern of thieves/plunderers”. This portion comes from Jeremiah 7:11, which also has something of a different meaning in its original context. Jer 7:1-29 is a lengthy oracle condemning the evils committed throughout Judah (delivered by the prophet while standing in the gate of the Temple, v. 2); this includes a familiar prophetic denunciation of those who commit evil and yet come to the Temple to participate in the sacred ritual (vv. 8ff). The bitter question is asked in verse 11:

“Has it become a cave of violent (men), this house of which My Name is called upon it, in your eyes?”

The Septuagint (LXX) renders the Hebrew literally, using the approximate phrase “cavern of plunderers” (sph/laion lh|stw=n); Jesus’ quotation follows the LXX phrase. By way of dramatic hyperbole, any “profane” business, even that associated with maintaining the Temple, was tantamount to turning the sacred place into a “cave of violent robbers”! In all four Gospels, but especially in John (v. 16b), Jesus seems to be objecting to commerce taking place anywhere within the Temple precincts (see below). This also would be confirmed by the curious detail in Mark (v. 16),  that Jesus “did not allow (any)one to carry a vessel through the sacred-place”. This probably is an echo of Zech 14:20-21, a passage which almost certainly colors the Gospel account, even as Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem (as the coming/Anointed King) is shaped by Zech 9:9ff. Another relevant (Messianic) passage would be Mal 3:1ff, which speaks of the Lord coming suddenly to His Temple, where he will purify the priests and their offerings (vv. 3-4). That Mal 3:1 was understood to apply to Jesus (with John the Baptist as his messenger) in Gospel Tradition is clear from Mark 1:2 (cf. also Matt 11:10ff and Luke 1:76).

b. The Johannine Account (Jn 2:14-17)

In the Synoptic Gospels, the “cleansing” episode is narrated near the end of Jesus’ public ministry, just after the Entry into Jerusalem; in John, on the other hand, it appears to take place at the beginning of his ministry. Some traditional-conservative commentators, taking the apparent chronologies literally, harmonize by positing two separate “cleansing” incidents. This is highly unlikely. The narratives (in the Synoptics and John) are close enough that we can be relatively certain that a single historical tradition underlies both accounts. If this is so, then which ‘chronology’ is more accurate? The Synoptics really only record one visit of Jesus to Jerusalem (at the end of his ministry); on the basis of this arrangement, various traditions which take place within a Jerusalem setting, might naturally be included as part of this last visit. Many scholars would view the multiple visits to Jerusalem (with three different Passover settings) as technically and historically more accurate, and thus favor an earlier date for the “cleansing”. On the other hand, the dramatic nature of the episode, which (at the historical level) must have greatly increased opposition to Jesus from the religious authorities, fits better a time closer to his death. If the saying in 2:18-22 was actually uttered at the time of the “cleansing” (on this see below), then again a moment nearer to his trial and crucifixion is to be preferred.

The Johannine account (2:14-17), on the one hand, creates a more vivid and dramatic scene with the inclusion of several details:

  • The mention of cattle and sheep in the Temple precincts (v. 14f)
  • Jesus’ use of a whip made of cords (v. 15)—it is not entirely clear whether he uses it to drive out the sellers, the cattle/sheep, or both.
  • In overturning (lit. upturning) the coin-changers tables, the coin-pieces pour out (v. 15)

On the other hand, instead of the Scripture citation (from Isa 56:7 and Jer 7:11), Jesus replies more matter-of-factly (to the ones selling doves): “Take up/away these (things from here) on this (side and that)! do not make the house of my Father a house of commerce!” (v. 16). Is the Synoptic quotation an ‘exposition’ of Jesus’ words as recorded here in John? Or does John’s account ‘explain’ the quotation? A (different) Scripture passage is cited in John, from Psalm 69:9: “The ‘zeal’ of [i.e. for] your house has eaten me (up)”. The word usually translated “zeal/jealousy” (ha*n+q!) has the basic sense of “(burning) red”, the Greek word zh=lo$ properly “heat/fervor”. The Septuagint (LXX) renders the Hebrew quite literally, and the quotation in John follows the LXX (B), reading the future tense (katefa/getai “will eat me down [i.e. devour me]”). The future form, of course, betters suited the verse as a prophecy related to Jesus; indeed, reflection on Psalm 69 helped shape the Gospel tradition of his Passion (as indicated in v. 17a), and is doubtless one of the key texts used to show that the Messiah must suffer and die (see especially Luke 24:25-27, 44-46). There is a slight ambiguity here in the Psalm: while the ‘zeal’ is generally understood of the protagonist (or Psalmist)—that he is consumed with (righteous) fervor—it could also be taken to mean, in the overall context of suffering, that his righteous zeal has caused him to be “eaten up” by his enemies. The citation in the Gospel could be interpreted, or made to apply, either way. Since it is associated with Jesus’ “cleansing” action, the image primarily would be the intense nature (all-consuming fire) of his ‘zeal’ for God’s house; but it is also possible that a bit of wordplay is involved—a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death that connects with the Temple saying in vv. 19-22.

c. Significance of the “Cleansing” (at the Historical level)

On the basis of an objective analysis of the Gospel accounts, there would seem to be two main possibilities with regard to what Jesus intended to convey by his action:

  1. Cleansing/Purifying the Temple. This is the most common interpretation, and is suggested particularly by the Synoptic accounts (see below). But cleansing in what sense? It can be understood several ways:
  • Jesus was focusing on the presence of the sellers of animals and money-changers in the Temple precincts. The general language used in the Synoptic accounts would suggest that he was targeting any commerce taking place in the Temple precincts (“the [ones] selling and the [ones] buying” Mark 11:15 par). Even though these transactions would have occurred in the outer court (of the Gentiles), and not the sanctuary, Jesus may have objected to their taking place in the Temple precincts at all. The symbolism might be understood in terms that the entire Temple (complex) should be holy.
  • Jesus was targeting not the Temple commerce per se, but rather the corruption and profiteering which was taking place. This is a popular view, but there is little evidence for it in the texts beyond a superficial reading of the second part of the saying in Mark 11:17 par (from Jer 7:11). More plausibly, Jesus is targeting the burden which the Temple commerce places upon the poor—cf. the emphasis on overturning the tables of the money-changers and sellers-of-doves (the sacrificial animal of the poor).
  • Jesus’ emphasis was on the Temple ritual as a whole. Since the system of sacrifice, and the tax to fund the Temple, could not exist without the purchase of animals and exchange of coinage, Jesus’ driving out the sellers and money-changers could be viewed as an attack on the Temple ritual itself. However, apart from this episode, there it little evidence in the Gospels for such an explicit attack on the Temple. It will become more prominent later on (cf. the speech of Stephen in Acts 7 [esp. vv. 38-50], the epistle to the Hebrews, and, possibly, within the Gospel of John [see below]). Still, the quotation of Isa 56:7 in Mark 11:17 par. could indicate that Jesus had a different role for the Temple in mind.
  • Jesus was attacking the current Temple administration. This was characteristic of the Community of the Qumran texts, which did not oppose the Temple as such, but rather the illegitimacy and corruption of the ruling Priesthood that oversaw the Temple machinery. In the Gospels certainly we find more instances of Jesus speaking out against the current religious authorities than against the Temple; however, it is hard to find much evidence of that in the episode here.
  • It was a general symbol of cleansing related to the idea of the Temple’s holiness. In other words, the Temple as symbolic of the place where people encounter the Presence of God, requires (at its fundamental religious and spiritual level) the removal of anything profane. I think it quite possible that this is closer to Jesus’ intention than the other interpretations mentioned above.
  1. Destruction of the Temple. Here more emphasis is placed on the overturning of tables, etc. as a symbol of judgment. We have additional evidence that Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple on more than one occastion (Mark 14:58; Matt 26:61, also Mark 15:29 par.; Mark 13:1-2 par. [esp. Lk 21:5-6]). As mentioned above, if the saying in Jn 2:18-22 originally took place at the time of the the Temple action, then it makes this interpretation more likely. Again, one may consider several different aspects to the theme of judgment/destruction:
  • The corruption of the current Temple/priesthood. This view is similar to several of the “cleansing” interpretations offered above. The current apparatus will be destroyed and replaced with a new, pure Temple (whether real or symbolic).
  • The Restoration of Israel. In the exilic and post-exilic Prophets, as well as in later Judaism, a new (ideal) Temple is part of the (Messianic) restoration of Israel. See the Temple description in Ezekiel 40-48, and especially Isa 56:1-8 and Zech 14:16-21, both of which are reflected in the Gospel accounts. Also, note that Mark, in particular, connects the Temple episode with the withering of the fig tree (an Old Testament symbol for Israel), Mk 11:12-14, 20-21.
  • Jesus himself replaces the Temple (cult). This is more appropriate as an early Christian interpretation (which will be discussed); however, it is noteworthy in the Synoptic accounts that, after this episode, Jesus spends much of the time teaching within the Temple precincts. At the historical level, Jesus appears to have consciously identified himself with the (Messianic) king of Zech 9-14 (cf. Mark 11:1-11 par.), and may have intentionally tied his presence in Jerusalem (and the Temple) to Zech 14:16-21 (see the curious detail found only in Mk 11:16).

Is it possible that symbolism both of cleansing and destruction apply equally to the event? If we take the Gospel accounts at face value, there are two elements to Jesus’ action (Luke only mentioned the first of these):

  • Driving out the buyers and sellers
  • Overturning the tables of the money-changers (and sellers of doves)

2. The “Temple-saying” of Jesus

This is known in two forms: (a) as a (false) charge against Jesus at his “trial”, and (b) in John 2:19ff.

a. The charge made during the “trial” of Jesus

According to the accounts in Mark and Matthew (Luke does not include this part), false witnesses came forward to testify that Jesus had claimed he would destroy the Temple. Here the statements are presented side by side, along with Jn 2:19 for comparison (cf. below):

Mark 14:58

We heard him saying that
“I will loose down [katalu/sw] this shrine th(at is) made-with-hands and through [i.e. by/within] three days I will build another (house) made-without-hands”

Matthew 26:61

This (man) said
“I have power [i.e. am able] to loose down [katalu=sai] the shrine of God and through [i.e. by/within] three days to build (it again).”

John 2:19

Jesus answered and said to them
“Loose [lu/sate] this shrine and in three days I will raise it (up again).”

Even though the account in Mark/Matthew states that these were false and/or contradictory witnesses, most critical scholars would hold that Jesus made some declaration or prophecy along these lines. The charge was reasonably widespread (cf. also Mark 15:30 par, and Acts 6:14), and all three Synoptics record a prediction that the Temple would be destroyed (Mark 13:1-3 par.). And, of course, it would seem to be confirmed by the saying in Jn 2:19. What is the relationship between the Johannine saying and the Synoptic (false) saying? There are several possibilities:

  • They reflect separate sayings or traditions
  • It is the same saying—John records the exact form, the Synoptics show how it was misrepresented at the ‘trial’
  • It is the same saying, recorded by the Synoptic ‘witnesses’ with general accuracy, and modified slightly in John

The second option is probably closer to being correct, though critical arguments could be (and have been) made for the third. What do the Synoptics (Matthew/Mark) mean when they state that the saying as reported is “false” witness (Mk 14:57; Matt 26:60)? Do they deny that Jesus ever made such a statement (contrary to Jn 2:19)? Or is it a matter of misrepresenting what Jesus said? How then was it misrepresented? There are only a few ways this could have been done:

  • Altering the saying so that Jesus said he would destroy the Temple (“I will destroy/dissolve…”). By comparison, in John the imperative is used, directed at the Judeans (“[Go ahead and] destroy/dissolve…”). Interestingly, the version in Matthew (“I have power to destroy/dissolve…”), while differing in vocabulary, is not so different in meaning from the saying in John.
  • The reference to destroying the Temple that is made with hands (xeiropoi/hto$) and building in its place one made without hands (a)xeiropoi/hto$). These qualifiers are absent from the versions of the saying in Matthew and John. However, the sort of spiritual replacement of the Temple suggested by the terms is consonant with later New Testament theology, and could have originated with Jesus. For a somewhat comparable interpretation in the Gospel of John itself, see below; and note my discussion of the motif in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7.
  • There are two other small differences between the Synoptic and Johannine sayings: (1) the trial witnesses use the phrase “dia/ [through, i.e. by/within] three days”, while Jesus says “e)n [in] three days”; and (2) the trial witnesses use the verb oi)kodome/w (“build [a house]”), while Jesus uses the verb e)gei/rw (“raise”). It is hard to know how far these differences alter the meaning, other than that the language in John better fits the interpretation of the saying given in Jn 2:21 (see below).

b. The Saying in John 2:19

“Loose [i.e. dissolve] this shrine and in three days I will raise it (up again).”

Connection to the question in verse 18. There is a parallel structure between the two verses:

  • Introduction: “Therefore the Judeans judged from (this) [a)pekri/qhsan] and said [ei@pan] to him”
    • Question: “What sign are you showing that you (should) do these (things)?” (v. 18)
  • Introduction: “Jesus judged from (this) [a)pekri/qh] and said [ei@pen] to them”
    • Answer: “Loose this shrine and in three days I will raise it” (v. 19)

The verb a)pokri/nomai indicates responding back to something one has considered (“judged”); in simple narrative, as here, we would say “answered/responded and said…”.  It is possible that the saying in verse 19 was originally separate from the “cleansing” episode, and that the Gospel writer has joined the two traditions together. Whether or not this is the case, the parallelism indicated above demonstrates precise, careful handling of the material; one might extend the structure, by considering v. 18-19a as a chiasm introducing the saying:

  • The Judeans answered/responded and said
    • “What sign are you showing…?”
  • Jesus answered/responded and said…

It is a bit difficult to determine just how the saying relates to the Judeans’ question (whether at the historical level or in the Gospel narrative). In spite of the different (Johannine) vocabulary, the question would be similar to that in Mark 11:28 par (“in what authority are you doing these things?”). Jesus’ response could then be paraphrased as “I have authority/power even to (destroy and) rebuild the Temple”. The imperative lu/sate seems to put the challenge to the Judeans—i.e. “(Even) if you were to destroy/dissolve this Temple…” or perhaps “Go ahead and destroy this Temple…”—but there is some uncertainty that this represents the original form of the saying.

The Reaction to the Saying in v. 20. One common element of the references to the Temple saying (with the possible exception of Mark 14:58) is that those who heard it assumed that Jesus meant he would destroy the actual (Herodian) Temple. The Synoptic Gospels record that Jesus, in fact, did predict its destruction (Mk 13:1-2 par). How people understood the second half of the saying is not as clear: the Markan version presented at the ‘trial’ indicates that Jesus would build a Temple “made without hands”, by which probably was meant a real (physical) building, but one produced miraculously (possibly coming down out of Heaven). In John, the Judeans naturally question how Jesus could rebuild something comparable to the Herodian Temple (which took “forty-six years to build”) in just three days. This is an example of the wordplay, and theme of misunderstanding, which appear frequently in the Fourth Gospel—Jesus’ audience takes his words at the (superficial) level of their apparent meaning, and miss their deeper (true, spiritual) significance. This is clear from the Johannine interpretation which follows in vv. 21-22.

It is worth noting that many critical scholars believe that (the historical) Jesus meant the words literally (more or less as presented in the Synoptic ‘trial’ narrative)—that he said he would destroy (or that God would destroy) the Herodian Temple, and a new (miraculous) Temple would rise in its place. A new/rebuilt Temple was certainly part of the exilic/post-exilic prophecies (already found in so-called Deutero-Trito-Isaiah [cf. Isa 44:28; 56:1-8; 60:3-14; 66:18-24], and see especially in Ezek 40-48), tied to the idea of the restoration of Israel and, in post-exilic Jewish writings, to the dawn of the Messianic age (e.g., Tobit 14:5ff; 1 Enoch 89-90; and the Qumran Temple Scroll). It is also certain that the Herodian Temple was far from the idealized Temple of the new age—witness the critiques of the Qumran sectarians, and the “Cleansing” by Jesus—and, therefore, the coming of the Messiah would require the rebuilding of a pure new Temple. While some of Jesus’ followers may have expected this of him, there is precious little evidence for such a conventional “Messianic” emphasis in the Gospel narratives as they stand. Indeed, by the time the later New Testament books were written (including, it would seem, the Gospels of Luke and John, c. 75-90 A.D.), there is hardly a trace to be found of expectation for a rebuilt Temple.

The Johannine Interpretation (vv. 21-22). These verses, by the Gospel writer, finally determine how one must interpret the saying in the text as it stands. This interpretation is summarized first in v. 21—

But that one [i.e. Jesus] related/spoke about the shrine [nao/$] of his body

and then is expounded (parallel with verse 17) in v. 22—

Therefore when he was raised [h)ge/rqh] out of [i.e. from] the dead (ones), his learners [i.e. disciples] remembered that he had said/related this, and they trusted in the Writing and the account [i.e. word] which Yeshua {Jesus} had said.

The Temple saying as recorded by the Synoptics (at the ‘trial’) also uses the word nao/$ (“shrine”), presumably for the Temple as a whole (also in v. 20 here), even though the word more properly applies to the inner Sanctuary (“Holy Place”). Similarly the term i(ero/n (“sacred-place”), though it also could be used for the entire Temple (precincts), in the “cleansing” episode almost certainly it refers to the outer court (i.e. of the Gentiles). By bringing these two traditions together, the Gospel writer here creates an important juxtaposition between i(ero/n and nao/$—the nao/$ Jesus was speaking of was the (inner) sanctuary/shrine of his body. In this regard, the significance in his use of e)gei/rw (“raise”) in v. 19 is obvious. Here, too, we see the Johannine theme of Jesus replacing, or fulfilling, the Old Testament religious types and symbols—the focus moves away from the physical Jerusalem Temple (both sacred-precincts and shrine) to the Person of Jesus. This will be discussed in more detail in an upcoming article on “The Law in the Gospel of John” (part of the series on “Jesus and the Law”).

The remainder of this article—presenting additional sayings by Jesus related to the Temple, and concluding with an interpretive summary—will be found in the next part in this series.

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