January 20: John 2:13-22

The second episode in John 2 is the “cleansing” of the Temple (for the first [the miracle at Cana] see the previous day’s note), which here is comprised of two parts: (1) the action in the Temple (2:13-17) and (2) the saying about the Temple (2:18-22). A proper treatment of this passage requires that one touch upon historical-critical questions more than I would normally do in these notes and articles. I will briefly discuss each relevant point, in sequence.

    1. The Chronology of the Passage
    2. The Relation between Temple Action (Sign) and Saying
    3. Significance of the Temple Action (at the Historical level)
    4. The Gospel Tradition regarding the Temple Action
    5. The Johannine Narrative

1. The Chronology of the Passage. In the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 11:15-19; Matthew 21:12-16; Luke 19:45-47), 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.

2. Relation between Temple Action (Sign) and Saying. Most critical scholars would hold that the historical “cleansing” episode (2:13-17) and the saying in 2:18-22 likely took place on separate occasions, or, at least, reflect separate traditions which the Gospel writer has joined together here. I think that this is quite possible. The Temple setting would be enough to bring them together, which could be done simply by way of adding verse 18 (cf. Mark 11:28 par. for a similar question). The Synoptic accounts of the “cleansing” make no mention of such a statement by Jesus, which is curious, considering that a similar saying is brought up as an accusation in the ‘trial’ before the Sanhedrin narrated just a few chapters later (cf. Mark 14:58; Matt 26:61, also Mark 15:29 par). However, it clear enough from these references (by multiple attestation between John and the Synoptics) that Jesus must have made some statement which involved destroying and rebuilding the Temple. Indeed, that he predicted the destruction of the Temple is virtually certain (on purely objective grounds), cf. the references above and Mark 13:1-2 par. [esp. Lk 21:5-6].

3. 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:

a. 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. See the earlier Christmas season article on the Temple.
    • 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. For more on this view in relation to the Gospel accounts, see down below.

b. 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)

(To be continued in the next day’s note)

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