Cleansing the temple (Palm Sunday)

As readers of the New Testament, we are blessed to have four separate accounts of the life of Jesus. Let’s face it: no one could possibly tell the whole story, as John himself reminds us (John 20:30; 21:25). Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each had to decide which episodes of Jesus’ life and ministry to include and which to leave out. Each had to decide how to arrange and tell the tale to teach the right theological and moral lessons to the right audience. Having four gospels enriches our understanding and broadens our perspective.

But, of course, having four accounts also complicates things, especially when we’re trying to understand “what really happened” historically. I put that phrase in scare quotes because it is at best an unattainable ideal. We may strive to be as accurate as possible about the facts of who, what, when, and where; that in itself is difficult from a distance of two thousand years. But we also want to know the why, and this always involves reconstruction and conjecture.

Consider, for example, Jesus’ so-called “cleansing of the temple” in Jerusalem. When did it happen?

Luke’s description is the sparsest, a mere two verses:

Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.” (Luke 19:45-46, NRSV).

The context is Passover. Jews from around the empire are making pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice in the temple. Instead of bringing the animals for sacrifice with them, they rely on being able to exchange their local currency at the temple and buy what they need. But the money changers and the sellers are probably gouging the people for profit.

All four accounts agree: at Passover time in Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple and began shouting and driving people out. Matthew, Mark, and John add a detail that Luke takes for granted: the sellers are selling animals, not just “things.” They also add that the money changers are targets of Jesus’ wrath, and that he began overturning tables. John doesn’t have the quote from the prophet Jeremiah about a “den of robbers”; instead, Jesus complains that they have turned the temple into a “marketplace” (John 2:16). And there are other added details: only John, for example, tells us that Jesus drove people out with a “whip of cords” (John 2:15).

But the question that has most plagued readers is, When did this happen? Mark clearly says that it happened the day after Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, while Matthew and Luke tell the story as if it happened on the same day. We might say that they just decided to leave this detail out, but if they wrote their accounts with Mark’s gospel in hand (as is generally believed), the omission is a bit puzzling.

Most confusing of all, John narrates this episode at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, in just the second chapter of his story, rather than at the end. Some people reconcile the matter simply, by saying Jesus must have cleansed the temple twice: What, this again? Didn’t I tell you guys before to stop doing this?

Here, we must note that John does something the other three gospel writers do not: throughout his story, Jesus routinely appears in Jerusalem on feast days, as did other faithful Jews. That is surely right, even though Matthew, Mark, and Luke omit these appearances in their stories, as if Jesus only went to Jerusalem at the end of his ministry, to suffer and die. But if Jesus was in Jerusalem every year at Passover, he must have experienced the same frustration with the temple system each time. Did he therefore cleanse the temple every year? Hmm.

Ultimately, there’s no way to know for certain which reading is correct. On balance, I believe it’s best to say the cleansing only happened once, at the end of Jesus’ ministry, and that John is wanting to teach us something else by the way he’s written his story, something that his Jewish readers would have picked up more easily than we.

And what might that be? We’ll explore that in the next post.