Business of the temple

jesus-cleanses-the-templeCommentary 13 Since the Passover of the Jews was near, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money-changers seated there.

From Josepheus, a Jewish historian who wrote in the later part of the 1st century AD, we know that in this period the temple functions were under the control of the Sadducees and the high priest Annas. As high priest he also served as the Treasurer of the temple with his sons as assistant treasurers. Their avarice and greed for money lead this spectacle to be called the “bazaar of the sons of Annas”. They used the ritual of Temple religious life to implement a scam on the people of Israel: temple sacrifices brought from home were inspected for blemish, for a fee. Blemish was always found. But a pre-inspected, blemish-free sacrifice could be purchased in the temple compound, for an exorbitant price, but not with Roman coinage (the images violated the law). The money changers exchanges Roman coin into specially minted temple coins, at a profit. It is against this background that Jesus cleanses the temple.

Cleansing the Temple. 15 He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables, 16 and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

Jesus’ actions in the Temple are narrated in one long complex sentence in the Greek text (vv. 14–16), which creates a mood of urgency and haste, thereby underscoring the intensity of Jesus’ actions. Just as Jesus never hesitates as he moves through the Temple, so, too, vv. 14–16 never hesitate. John alone among the Gospels mentions sheep and cattle and the detail of Jesus’ whip. John’s picture of Jesus in the Temple is large and dramatic, as Jesus herds animals and people out of the temple court, pouring out money and overturning tables as he goes.

Christian interpretations that see this story principally as an illustration of the extortionist practices of the Jewish temple authorities are disregarding the realities of temple worship in Jesus’ day: cattle, sheep, and doves were required for burnt offerings in the Temple (see Leviticus 1 and 3). It was commanded in the Law. There were inevitable abuses of the temple system, but in vv. 14–16 Jesus confronts the system itself, not simply its abuses. This is apparent in the words he speaks to the dove sellers (v. 16). In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus quotes Isa 56:7 and Jer 7:11 (see Matt 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46), verses that focus on the distortion of a place of worship into a “den of robbers.” These OT verses are absent from John, however, and Jesus may allude instead to Zech 14:21 (“And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the LORD of hosts on that day”). In a play on the word for “house” (oikos), Jesus complains that his Father’s house has become a “house of trade.” Since this trade was necessary to maintain the cultic system of sacrifice and tithes, Jesus’ charge is a much more radical accusation in John than in the Synoptics. Jesus issues a powerful challenge to the very authority of the Temple and its worship (cf. 4:23–24).

23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. 24 God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.”

Which Temple? 17 His disciples recalled the words of scripture, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

In v. 17, the focus shifts to the disciples and their recollection of these events. They are interpretive witnesses (see v. 22). John, like many other NT writes sees Psalm 69:10 as pointing to Jesus’ death (e.g., Matt 27:34, 48; Mark 15:23, 36; John 19:28; Rom 15:3). Verse 17 alters Ps 69:10 slightly, however, and that alteration is theologically significant. In the Hebrew and Greek versions of Ps 69:10, the verb “consume” refers to past events, but in the disciples’ recollection of the verse, the verb is translated as a future tense (“will consume me”). Psalm 69:10 thus functions as a prophecy of the time when Jesus will be consumed—that is, his crucifixion. This use of Ps 69:10 gives the temple cleansing a christological emphasis. In the synoptic Gospels, the OT quotations draw attention to the Temple, but Ps 69:9 fixes the reader’s attention on Jesus. John’s temple story is ultimately about Jesus’ fate, not the Temple’s.

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