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The Temple Incident in the Gospels

Did the historical Jesus overturn the tables of the money changers in the outer courts of the temple in protest of their practices? Or did this story originate with the author of Mark’s Gospel, rationalizing the Romans destruction of the temple in the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE as a divine judgment predicted by Jesus because the temple was not producing good fruit (cf. Mark 11:12-24), and the other Gospels elaborated on Mark’s account?

If Jesus did perform a symbolic demonstration in the Jerusalem temple, the meaning of the act is open to interpretation. Did Jesus oppose the sale of sacrificial animals and the exchanging of currency on sacred grounds? Was Jesus’ location in the court of the Gentiles the key to interpreting Jesus’ action, so that Jesus was reacting against the exclusion of non-Jews alongside the fomenting of nationalistic revolutionary zeal? Was Jesus protesting economic exploitative practices against the impoverished worshipers? Or should this act be viewed through the lens of a particular apocalyptic scenario in which the Jerusalem temple will be destroyed and replaced by a new eschatological temple (i.e. a literal temple building or the eschatological community itself)? Here are the different texts that must be factored in to any historical reconstruction:

And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves;and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”?  But you have made it a den of robbers.’ (Mark 11:15-17)

Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, ‘We heard him say, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.” But even on this point their testimony did not agree. (Mark 14:57-59, cf. Mark 15:29)

See, your house is left to you, desolate. (Matthew 23:38/Luke 13:35 = Q [?])

In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’… Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. (John 2:14-21)

Jesus said, “I will destroy [this] house, and no one will be able to build it […].” (Thomas, 71)

They set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man [Stephen] never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.’… Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands [part of Stephen’s defense for why building the Temple was not God’s intent] (Acts 6:14-15; 7:48)

They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship [temple cult], and the promises (Romans 9:4)

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; cf. Ephesians 2:21-22; replacing the Jerusalem temple [?])

“Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, cf. Mark 13:14)

Different Scholarly Judgments

“He did not wish to purify the temple, either of dishonest trading or of trading in contrast to ‘pure’ worship. Nor was he opposed to the temple sacrifices which God commanded Israel. He intended, rather, to indicate that the end was at hand and the temple would be destroyed, so that the new and perfect temple might arise.” – E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 75

“Mark’s fiction of an anti-temple messiahship (a contradiction in terms) could have worked only after the temple had already been destroyed.” – Burton Mack, A Myth of Innocence, p. 282

If Jesus had predicted the Temple’s destruction as a sign of the End of the Age… then it is at least odd, I think, that he [Paul] evinces no knowledge whatsoever of Jesus’ prophecy… Shrunk by the size of the Temple’s outer court, muffled by the density of the pilgrim crowds, Jesus’ gesture — had he made it — would simply have been swallowed up.” – Paula Fredriksen, “Gospel Chronologies, the Scene in the Temple, and the Crucifixion of Jesus”, pp. 11, 13

“… Jesus criticism of the financial and trading arrangements in the Temple was consistent with his rejection of oaths by the Temple, with his criticism of the Korban system, of tithing mint, dill and cumin, and of the observance of additional purity laws concerning vessels full from the proceeds of wealth acquired by the rich from the poor.” – Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, 415

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