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.