Why did Jesus cleanse the temple? (part 1)

lego indiana jonesMost people who are familiar with the gospels remember the story of Jesus “cleansing” the Jerusalem temple. Thousands had made a pilgrimage to the city to offer sacrifices during Passover. They thronged the outer court of the temple, buying the animals they need. Money-changers had also set up shop, exchanging currency for pilgrims who had come from all over the Empire with foreign coin. Without the sellers and the money-changers, the whole system would have ground to a halt.

But then Jesus entered the temple; surveying the scene, he became angry. Brandishing a makeshift whip (we should probably think of something like a bundle of reeds rather than an Indiana Jones-style bullwhip), he drove out the sellers and overturned the tables of the money-changers.

It’s an electrifying scene.  But what was he mad about, and why did he do it?

And when?

All four gospels have some version of the story. But even a casual comparison of John to the other three gospels yields a conundrum. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all place the story after Jesus’ so-called Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, just days before his arrest and crucifixion — but John has Jesus clearing the temple as his first public act of ministry (John 2:13-25).

Various theories have been suggested. Instead of spelling out all the options, I’ll simply say this: what makes the most sense to me is that Jesus cleansed the temple twice, once at the beginning of his ministry, and once at the end.

The solution isn’t perfect. It still leaves open the question, for example, of why none of the gospel writers records two cleansings; surely, they would have known? But none of the writers records everything Jesus did (cf. John 21:25), and each has his own way of telling the story.

Most importantly, John’s gospel portrays Jesus as going back and forth from Galilee to Jerusalem, whereas the other gospels only have Jesus entering the city at the end of his ministry, knowing that he will shortly be killed. To be sure, the latter way of telling the story heightens the dramatic role of Jesus’ conflict with the Jews in Jerusalem.

But is it plausible to think that Jesus didn’t set foot in Jerusalem until the very end? John has him attending at least three Passovers, which seems more likely for a rabbi and his disciples. Moreover, if as John describes, Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19, NRSV) at the beginning of his ministry, it would explain why those same words came back to haunt him at his mockery of a trial (e.g., Mark 14:58); witnesses remembered him saying it, but couldn’t agree on what exactly was said (Mark 14:59).

And there’s nothing intrinsically improbable about the idea of two cleansings. Jesus didn’t just get mad: he put an entire religious system on notice. And systems don’t change overnight, if they change at all. Chances are that the first time, the city was abuzz with gossip for a few days. But nothing changed. What made Jesus angry once would make him angry again.

Which brings us back to our first question: what made him so angry? More on that in part 2 of this post.