Cleansing of the Temple
Even the most sceptical of scholars are reasonably certain
[a] Jesus did something unusual in the Jerusalem Temple and
[b] that he said something critical of what went on there. But it seems
improbable that he did exactly what the gospel authors say he did.
We're able to preserve some of the account as good history here despite
the difficulties posed by Mark11.15-19 (Matthew 21.12-17; Luke 1945-48;
Mark designed the time scheme of his Gospel so as to carry
forward certain theological teachings about Jesus. Because he - like
the other three gospel authors - changed events around to suit
himself, we can't be sure that the Temple incident and the entry into
the city took place during the same visit to Jerusalem which resulted
in his crucifixion, which is what Mark implies.
Although the gospels of Matthew and Luke seem to back up Mark's
account, most scholars agree that their versions are taken from that
of Mark (Matthew 21.12-17; Luke 19.45-48) . They have modified Mark to
for their own purposes. So we must revert to Mark's version when we
look for "what really happened".
The temple covered a huge area (more than 30 acres). It's improbable
that Jesus could have done exactly what was described here. There
would have been so many people and stalls in the area that he could
not have driven them all out. He may have made an example of a few.
But we can't be certain of that in historical terms because we don't
know enough about the incident.
The narrative is sandwiched between the two sections of the story of
the cursing of the fig tree. Mark uses the latter to stress that the Jewish
faith, having been cursed by God, would soon die. This seems very much like
early Christian polemic. It was aimed at those who gave early Jewish
Christians a tough time as a suspect sect of the Jewish religion. The quotation
in 11.17 is from Isaiah 56.7 and
Jeremiah 7.11 combined (and using an almost word-for-word version of
the Septuagint Bible, a Greek version of the Hebrew Bible produced
around around 250 BCE). It indicates that Mark was pointing to a fulfillment of prophecies in the Hebrew scriptures.
Whenever a gospel author does this, the historian is forced to be wary
about a passage's historicity.
Mark's readers would have been familiar with the second half of Zechariah
14.21: "And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the
Lord of hosts on that day" - that is, the day when the Messiah
conquers the enemies of Israel and God. Remember that the gospel
authors thought that the events of the life of Jesus had been
predicted by the Hebrew Bible. As a result they were not above
"writing up" events to match what had been foretold.
was Jesus' final visit to the Temple and his actions would have been
interpreted by the gospel writers as carrying out God's work in disrupting the activities there. This was the kind
of symbolic action an Old Testament prophet might have carried out to
convince Israel of its sins as a nation.
The history contained in the overall passage is too brief
and imprecise to be sure of what happened in detail. But we're able to
salvage the bare bones of history, somewhat contaminated by the teaching
of the gospel authors.
Their theological motive is very far from our
present-day concerns for good history. Our modern body of knowledge is
derived not from authorities in the past, but from facts of the present.
The gospel authors looked for the truth in the great figures and sayings
of the past. In contrast, we analyse as best we can the data we derive
from our environment and draw our conclusions about truth from them.
an action "means" depends in our modern perceptions on factors
such as the social background of an event, the intentions of those who are
directly involved in an event and the opinions of observers. But we don't
usually decide meaning by referring back in history to an authority from
The interpretative, theological icing on the cake of
history in this passage is reinforced by the different version given us in
the Gospel of John. The overall evidence of the gospels is that their
authors, rather than Jesus himself, used quotations from the Hebrew
Scriptures as "evidence" of the meaning of Jesus for the world
at large and Christians in particular. In John's Gospel the cleansing of
the Temple is related to Psalm 69.9:
It is zeal for your house that has consumed me;
the insults of those who insult you have fallen upon me
If we think of theology instead of history in relation to this account,
the reference is clearly an interpretation of Jesus' death on the cross.
Jesus is thought of as totally dedicated to God. He is the sacrificial
victim of those who hate the heavenly Father so central to John's Gospel.
the meaningful link with the Psalm isn't made here by Jesus. Instead, the
disciples "remember" it (John 2.17) and apply it to the
situation. They do so to justify and explain what Jesus did and said.