Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
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; John 2.13-17):

  • 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.

    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 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.

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. 

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.

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.

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