January 21: John 2:13-22 (continued)

(For the first three sections of this extended discussion of the “Cleansing of the Temple” in John 2:13-22, see the previous day’s note)

4. The Gospel Tradition of the “Cleansing”. As mentioned above, all four Gospel accounts appear to be based on a single historical tradition. 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)

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, which will be discussed below.

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. 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).

5. The Johannine Passage (Jn 2:13-22). The structure of the passage overall should first be noted, for it supplies the framework necessary for interpretation:

  • The Temple action (vv. 13-16)
    • Parenthesis (v. 17): “His disciples remembered…”—citation of Psalm 69:9
  • The Question (v. 18): “What sign do you show us…?”
  • The Temple saying (vv. 19-20[21])
    • Parenthesis (v. 21-22): “His disciples remembered…”—in between (1) interpretation of the saying, and (2) a statement of the disciples’ later belief

The Temple action (vv. 13-17). The account of the “cleansing” derives from the same historical tradition that underlies the Synoptic version. This has been discussed above; there is little indication that the episode itself has a fundamentally different meaning here. If the quotation of Isa 56:7/Jer 7:11 was part of the common tradition, the Gospel writer has omitted it—replacing it with different/historical words of Jesus, or, perhaps, ‘explaining’ the quotation. Another Scripture appears in the parenthesis, 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.

The Question (v. 18). The highlighting of this verse is based, in part, on the theory that the Gospel writer has joined together separate traditions. However, even looking at the narrative (2:13-22) as a whole, the question the “Jews” ask remains central. It is similar to the question asked by the religious authorities in Mark 11:28 par.—”In (what) such authority [e)cousi/a] are you doing these (things)?”—but the difference in wording here is especially significant:

Therefore the Judeans {Jews} judged from (this) [i.e. responded back] and said to him:
“What sign [shmei=on] do you show [deiknu/ei$] that you (should) do these (things)?”

The noun shmei=on and verb deiknu/w (which occur in sequence in the Greek of v. 18) are both important words in the Gospel of John, carrying theological-christological meaning. With regard to deiknu/w, the closely related (and more common) verb dei/knumi is used in reference to what the Father shows the Son, and, in turn, what the Son shows (the world) from the Father (Jn 5:20; 14:8-9; also note 10:32; 20:20). Shmei=on (pl. shmei=a) is used frequently in John—Jesus’ symbolic actions (particularly the miracles) are called “signs” (Jn 2:23; 3:2; 4:48; 6:2, 14, 26, 30; 7:31; 9:16; 11:47; 12:18, 37; 20:30); on the basis of the references in Jn 2:11; 4:54, chapters 2-12, with their alternation of miracle and dialogue/discourse, are sometimes referred to as the “Book of Signs”. The use of shmei=on and deiknu/w here serve to transition from the traditional “cleansing” action to the deeper meaning of the Temple saying.

The Temple saying (vv. 19-22). What remains is to treat this powerful and provocative saying of Jesus (v. 19):

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

(This saying will be discussed in detail in a concluding note.)

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