Mark and the Historical Jesus: the Temple Incident

(HT Scott Bailey)

Most of these scenes come from the Gospel of John film with the title role by Lost actor Henry Ian Cusick; the main clue is that only in John’s Gospel does Jesus have a whip (Jn 2:15)

In a earlier post I argued the best interpretation of Mk 11:15-17 is Jesus protested the exploitive abuses of the leadership of the Temple and predicted its demise.  This fits overturning the tables of money changers and those who sold pigeons (the poor offering), calling the temple a “robber’s den”, prophetic symbolic actions like overturning tables and cursing the fig tree, and criticisms of power and wealth throughout the gospel (e.g., Mk 12:38-13:2 scribes devour widows’ houses followed by exemplary widow who puts her last coins in the treasury).  But there are other interpretations:  Jesus opposed sacrifice (some interpret the last supper as an alternative to the temple cult, but why is Mark silent on Jesus starting a counter-temple movement and why in Mark 1:44 did Jesus instruct the healed Leper to make the offer for his cleansing), Jesus was offended by selling within the sacred space of the Temple itself (this may have been a recent innovation and may work with John 2:16 complaint about turning the Father’s house into a market, but does this explain “den of robbers” and did not selling animals to pilgrims travelling long distance a convenience and enable the cult to function), Jesus protested the exclusion of Gentiles (this may work with “house of prayer for all nations” but Mark makes little of Jesus in the Court of the Gentiles which would be crowded with Jewish pilgrims for Passover) or Jesus opposed revolutionary violence (this may work if 11:17 λῃστής  translated “bandits” cf. Josephus, but it is a scriptural quotation).

But can this be attributed to the historical Jesus?  A wide consensus of scholars argue its authenticity, from Crossan to Casey to Sanders to Wright, though with differing interpretations.  However, a few challenge its historicity.  Burton Mack writes, “Mark’s fiction of an anti-temple messiahship (a contradiction in terms) could have worked only after the temple had already been destroyed” (Myth of Innocence, 282).  Paula Fredriksen agrees that the Temple destruction fits well with literary themes of Mark (and relying on Sanders dismisses Mk 11:17 as a later implausible interpretation), that Paul (pre-70) is unaware of a prediction against the temple and that the size of the outer court & density of pilgrim crowds would swallow up Jesus’ gesture (see “Gospel Chronologies, the Scene in the Temple, and the Crucifixion of Jesus”).

But there is a positive case to be made.  First, that Jesus made some sort of threat against the Temple or remembered that way seems to be abundantly multiply attested.  However, important to note that Jesus’ words in Mark 11:17 and Synoptic parallels are singly attestesd as John 2:16 ascribes to Jesus another sentiment, leading to contrary judgements on the historicity of Mark 11:17 - “He did not wish to purify the temple, either of dishonest trading or of trading in contrast to ‘pure’ worship.  Nor was he opposed to the temple sacrifices which God commanded Israel.  He intended, rather, to indicate that the end was at hand and the temple would be destroyed, so that the new and perfect temple might arise.” (Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, 75) or “… Jesus criticism of the financial and trading arrangements in the Temple was consistent with his rejection of oaths by the Temple, with his criticism of the Korban system, of tithing mint, dill and cumin, and of the observance of additional purity laws concerning vessels full from the proceeds of wealth acquired by the rich from the poor” (Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, 415).  Second, there may be a hint of embarrassment about the action, as there is the recurring mention that Jesus made some sort of prediction of the temple’s destruction and rebuilding in three days, which is attributed to false witnesses in Mark and allegorized in John (could the historical Jesus originally predicted the eschatological destruction and restoration of the Temple but that the latter part was suppressed by the evangelists?).  Third, this event can be understood in the context of Second Temple Judaism(s) and there are Jewish parallels (see CA Evans articles here and here).  It is also a plausible link to the events leading to Jesus’ crucifixion as a potential political threat.  Anyways, here are all the passages and the reader can weigh the arguments.

  • And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”?  But you have made it a den of robbers.’ (Mk 11:15-17)
  • Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, ‘We heard him say, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.”  But even on this point their testimony did not agree. (Mk 14:57-59, see also 15:29)
  • See, your house is left to you, desolate. (Matt 23:38/Luke 13:35= Q?)
  • In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’… Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body (Jn 2:14-21)
  • “This man [Stephen] never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place, and will change the customs which Moses delivered to us.” (Acts 6:13-14)
  • Jesus said, “I will destroy [this] house, and no one will be able to build it [...].” (Thomas, 71)
  • Paul: “They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Rom 9:4), “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; cf. Eph 2:21-22, an implicit critique of the old temple?), “Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thess 2:3-4, an allusion to Mark 13:14? But was Mk 13:14 itself influenced by the Caligula crisis and the authorship of 2 Thessalonians is debated).
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8 Responses to Mark and the Historical Jesus: the Temple Incident

  1. Brian S. says:

    This came in the nick of time, thank you for this insightful blogpost. I’ll check out Craig’s articles as soon as time allows. As for what I think about the whole temple incident. I believe that we should view it within the context of Jesus’ mission. His protest was probably the result of his eschatology, in the sense that he believed that the there would be a reversal of some sort and that the corrupt would have to answer for their exploitive tactics in some way. The parable about the workers in the vineyard can probably serve as an interpreting device for what follows. God has rejected the temple leaders and now resides in the midst of his choosen people the Anawim.
    William Herzog provides an interesting discussion in his book, “Jesus, justice, and the reign of God”, in which he provides a procacative and in my opinion convincing discussion on what Jesus meant by “a den of robbers”.

  2. [...] differing & conflicting memories in our varied sources and make specific judgments (did the temple incident happen, did Jesus speak of the apocalyptic Son of Man) then some sort of criteria is unavoidable [...]

  3. [...] Welcome to Ethiopian Christian Fellowship Church!I will Build My EkklesiaThe NewLife BlogPrayer for the Nations (days 22 & 23)Weekend Prayer Wall {Jan.14-15}Golden Jubilee of NCRC Begins in DimapurMark and the Historical Jesus: the Temple Incident [...]

  4. Paul D. says:

    I suspect that the event is not historical, but if it were, it would have required a lot more violence than I think most Christians would be comfortable with coming from Jesus. My understanding is that the temple was heavily guarded with temple guards, owing to the enormous amount of money and treasure on the site. To disarm the guard, chase out all the merchants who had legitimate business there, and then to control all the entrances would have required a sizeable force of armed men and significant use of violence.

    • Mike K. says:

      Thanks Paul D for commenting on this older post. SGF Brandon famously argued that Jesus was a Zealot and did attempt to take the Temple by force, but his thesis has not been widely accepted. My question for you is if it is possible that the event is historical and Mark exaggerated its significance (driving out all the merchants and not letting anyone bring anything through the temple). There is a literary tendency in Mark to exagerrate (e.g., “all” the country of Judea and “all” the people of Jerusalem went out to the wilderness to see John, the disciples immediately leaving everything at a word of Jesus, “all” the Jews do not eat without washing their hands, etc). Is it possible that Jesus came in and overturned a few tables in the outer court and made some prophetic denunciations of the Temple?

  5. [...] discussed in a past post why I think the historical Jesus likely uttered a threat against the Temple with a symbolic gesture [...]

  6. […] criteria approach, I have listed the reasons why I think Jesus might have performed such an action here.  Now, with the social memory theorists, I am willing to say we have no access to this event apart […]

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