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.)

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)