Cleansing of the Temple
Even the most sceptical of scholars are
reasonably certain that
[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
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.
This 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
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.
What 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 past.
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.
But 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.