Tag Archives: temple

Quest for a Violent Jesus, Part 3: Temple Tantrum

In this series I’ve explored the question of Jesus and violence in the texts of the gospels. The first post was a fairly straightforward clarification regarding the centrality of nonviolence and non-retaliation in Jesus’ teaching. The second post was a little more complicated as I considered the strange and difficult sayings of Jesus on apocalypticism and judgment. My emphasis in this series is on the fundamental anti-violence of Jesus as a teacher and a person, and how this is often betrayed by Christian traditions that want to understand him as endorsing violent self-defense or even threatening harm against sinners and unbelievers.

Jesus of Nazareth and the Temple of Thieves

One of the favorite passages of Christians seeking to justify violence as a necessary response to wickedness is the story of Jesus “cleansing the temple,” told in all four gospels (in Matthew 21:12-15, Mark 11:15-18, Luke 19:45-46, and John 2:14-19). In each account, Jesus approaches the temple, throws out the merchants selling sacrificial animals to the worshipers and tourists, and then quotes scripture to explain his actions. In John’s gospel the details of the event are more colorful and Jesus quotes a different passage of scripture. And whereas the synoptic gospels place this event very late in the ministry and life of Jesus, it comes almost at the beginning of John’s gospel.

As is often the case with brief and sensational Bible passages, the “temple tantrum” has been the subject of a great deal of interpretive debate. Certain Christians have cherished this passage for the precedent of Jesus’ righteous anger and his apparent use of violence. Before we look more closely at the context and implications of the text, here are three common interpretations that miss the mark to varying degrees:

1. Open Carry Jesus

This might seem too ridiculous to be real, yet it has been proposed by prominent conservative voices in our own recent history. Some have actually claimed that Jesus was modeling armed self-defense, based on the detail (found only in John) that he fashioned a sort of whip with which to drive out the moneylenders. It hardly warrants a serious response, but this view imposes a foreign and incompatible modern agenda onto an ancient text that has something quite different to say. Jesus didn’t write the second amendment.

2. Jesus Hates Legalism

This is the interpretation that I grew up with: Jesus cleansed the temple because the people worshiping there believed they could earn their way to heaven by following laws instead of by believing in Jesus. It made Jesus angry to see people wasting their time on legalistic religion when they should have been worshiping him instead. Not only is this view anachronistic and revisionist, it borders on antisemitic. It certainly misrepresents the ministry and message of Jesus, ignoring his high view of the Torah law and framing his gospel in terms of “earning salvation” and “getting to heaven.” Those might be the concerns of modern day Christians, but not of Jesus according to the gospels.

3. Jesus Hates Commerce

This one gets us a bit closer to the heart of the matter, perhaps, but still ultimately misses the mark. It is true that Jesus saw wealth and material possessions as needless detriments to spirituality, and each of the gospel texts does make specific reference to “traders” or “sellers” in the temple, but it is not quite plausible to infer from this that Jesus must have been outraged to discover commercial activity in the temple complex. For one thing, without the merchants selling animals to the pilgrims and worshipers, there could be no temple and worship would cease. Jesus knew this, and so his beef would not necessarily be against the sellers but rather the entire temple enterprise. Rather than focusing on surface details, we would do well to look at this on a more fundamental, institutional level.

Jesus in the Temple: Holy Performance Art 

Jesus’ actions in the temple are better understood as a prophetic demonstration, a premeditated symbolic action rather than an impromptu expression of violence. Like Ezekiel laying on his side for a year or Isaiah giving his children weird names, Jesus is making a public show which invites onlookers to think new and radical thoughts. It’s like a parable told with behavior instead of words. In this case, Jesus stands against corruption and violence, and perhaps against the entire concept of sacrificial religion, by symbolically shutting down the temple.

It is unlikely that Jesus would have been able to completely interrupt all commercial and sacrificial activities in the entire sprawling temple complex, but by disrupting the buying and selling of animals in the most visible and populous area he would have arrested the attention of an enormous crowd. As to the meaning of his actions, as he does so often Jesus allows the Hebrew Bible to speak for him. Here (in the synoptics) he combines two passages, Isaiah 56 and Jeremiah 7.

Isaiah 56 comes from the third and final division of that book, an impassioned message of warning to those returning from exile not to repeat the mistakes of the past. The prophet implores the people not to exclude foreigners and outsiders from their religion, particularly from the community and activities of the temple. “For my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations!” (Isaiah 56:7)

Jesus then quotes Jeremiah 7, one of his go-to passages, a text about the futility of sacrifice and Israel’s deadly addiction to violence and injustice. “Has this house, which bears my name, become a cave of brigands in your eyes?” (Jeremiah 7:11) The traditional “den of thieves” seems to reinforce the Jesus-against-commerce interpretation, but the Hebrew term translated “brigand” really denotes a violent person or a troublemaker. The Greek equivalent in Jesus’ day described insurgents and those plotting harm against people and governments (we might call them “terrorists”).

And so it seems that Jesus had a twofold critique of the whole temple institution: it was exclusive when it should have been inclusive, and it was fueling hate and violence when it ought to have fostered peace and justice. Was this the house of God or just another religious institution where the elite went to bribe God into winning wars for them?

Jesus certainly expresses anger and indignation in this story. However, his actions in the temple did not constitute a violent physical assault on people or animals but the symbolic prophetic denouncement of a corrupt and dangerous system. It was a truly anti-violent demonstration, a public gesture meant to disrupt and expose an ostensibly religious institution which had been hijacked by the self-destructive ideologies of exclusion and retribution. The implications for our own time and world become obvious.


When Scholarship Reveals Jesus

fall of jerusalemPopular Christianity taught me to be dubious and careful in regard to scholarship. Liberals and atheists are crouching everywhere, I was told, waiting to undermine my faith with science and reason. Some evangelicals welcome a modicum of safe, authorized scholarship to provide “background” for Bible reading, but as a rule modern scientific criticism is to be avoided and even combatted when necessary. And by far the greatest scholarly boogeymen are the “Jesus scholars,” those professors and researchers who have made their careers exploring the historical imprint left by Jesus of Nazareth. They present the greatest danger, we are told, because they want to deny Jesus’ miracles and divinity, and convince us that he was “just a man,” a guru not a savior.

For my part I’ve learned that scholarship – balanced, diverse, and collaborative – can actually help to correct and deepen faith. When we push past the false dichotomy of “faith vs. scholarship,” we enter into an ongoing and fruitful conversation between smart and helpful people across all kinds of disciplines and perspectives. If we filter out the voices of scholars because we’re afraid of what they might say, it says more about us than it does about the scholars. And when it comes to Jesus scholarship, I think Christians put themselves at a serious disadvantage by shutting it out. In the context of their discipline, most Jesus scholars are not on a mission to deny or debunk anything about Jesus, they are simply committed to exploring the historically explorable aspects of Jesus and his life. I want to briefly demonstrate how their work can add startling dimension to our understanding of who Jesus was and is.

What Scholarship Says About Jesus

For the purposes of this post I want to focus on one aspect of Jesus scholarship, namely what it has to say about Jesus’ teaching. Even more precisely, what it says about the “Olivet Discourse,” the apocalyptic prophecy delivered by Jesus to his followers shortly before his death (recorded with variations in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21). Dense and cryptic compared with his ethical sayings, Jesus’ words in the Olivet have been a source of debate, distraction, and confusion for Christians of many stripes. Given its intensity and the eschatological fervor it has inspired, conservative believers might expect scholars to downplay Jesus’ “little apocalypse” in favor of his more palatable teachings about peace and brotherly love.

However, this is not the case. In fact, scholarly consensus identifies the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus as the authentic kernel of his public ministry. And while Christians may not need scholars to tell them what Jesus did or didn’t really say, consider what this tells us about the scholars and their willingness to draw conclusions apart from bias or agenda. Far from reducing Jesus to a mere teacher of moral self-help, they affirm that Jesus really did declare himself to be the Son of Man, and his self-identity and message were truly and primarily prophetic.

Going Deeper

But scholarship goes further than simply affirming the authenticity of Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings. It also places them in a corrective setting that illuminates them, challenges traditional assumptions, and (I believe) reveals something glorious about Jesus. Traditional churchly readings of the Olivet Discourse have interpreted Jesus’ words as a grim and cryptic warning about the end of the world in our own near-future. A careful reading, however, in dialogue with scholarship, takes Jesus’ words and their Jewish apocalyptic context seriously and sees instead an historically located prophecy which has already been fulfilled, thus punctuating his teaching and vindicating him as a true and prescient prophet, an unexpected and peaceable messiah. Scholarship cannot make these types of religious judgments, but it can equip us to interact with our ancient sources with intelligence and clarity.

Here is a quick overview of the Olivet Discourse from this perspective:

Jesus promised his followers that the Temple and Jerusalem itself would be destroyed, an inevitable judgment for the city’s addiction to violence and her political and spiritual rebellion. They asked him, “When will these things happen?,” and the Olivet was his answer. It is filled with specific predictions (“false messiahs will appear,“ “wars and rumors of war,” “one will be taken, the other left behind”) and bold apocalyptic images borrowed from the Hebrew Scriptures (“the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from the sky,” “you will see the son of man coming on the clouds”). Each one of Jesus’ sayings, according to a scholarly reading, pertains to the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in the Jewish War of 66-73 CE. False messiahs and failed revolutions? Check. Wars and rumors of war? Check. The Temple reduced to rubble? Check. Random murder and kidnapping by Roman forces? Check. The end of the Jewish world as they knew it? Check. Even the saying about the “son of man” in its original context in Daniel 7 is about the public vindication of God’s servant, not about rapture or second coming (the “coming” is upward, not downward, a possible analog to Jesus’ ascension?).

That is an all-too-brief breakdown of a very complex group of passages (explore more here  or here or here). There is much left to debate, to be sure. But there is one more crucial piece of evidence to consider. When Jesus finally gives an explicit answer to the disciples’ initial question (“When will these things happen?”) it is this: “I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away before these things take place.” The scholarly view, in addition to taking the Jewish and first century contexts of Jesus’ words seriously, has the distinction of making sense of this promise. I can’t tell you how many awkward explanations I’ve heard over the years of what Jesus really means here. “This generation” refers to the church. He’s talking about apostolic lineage. It’s a metaphor for the twentieth century. On and on. But when the full picture of Jesus’ vision comes together, with invaluable assistance from scholarship, it seems downright obvious. Modern Christians may not consider the fall of Jerusalem to be an epic catastrophe with cosmic significance, but Jesus the Jewish prophet clearly did.

Why Scholarship Matters

Where traditional readings of the Olivet have led to endless speculation, politicizing, gloom, doom, and fear/warmongering, a reading informed by scholarship reveals Jesus as a true prophet whose message of repentance and judgment was vindicated by historical events. This in no way means that Jesus remains a mere artifact of history, his words bereft of meaning for the present or future. Nor does it mute the salient biblical hope for parousia, for the long-awaited ultimate fruition of God’s kingdom on earth. But how does a refreshed and vibrant new understanding of this troublesome passage inform how we read the rest of the New Testament? How does our posture toward world and neighbor change when Jesus’ lordship is not bound up with a promise of inevitable war that must be fulfilled before God’s kingdom can be realized? What does the fate of Second Temple Jerusalem say about the chance for repentance and peace in our own day?

Scholarship is a partner and companion that helps to illuminate questions like these. It cannot have the final word on matters of faith, but what human voice can? Where scholarship can offer correction and illumination, we would do well to give it a voice. If we think that we have nothing to learn from history, or that God would not allow us to err because we have a special religious arrangement with Him, then we need to hear Jesus’ call to repentance more than ever.