Why Did Jesus Attack the Temple Merchants?

One of the most fascinating events in the recorded life of Jesus occurred in Jerusalem and perhaps led to his death. I am referring to his actions in the temple with regard to the animal merchants and money changers. All four gospels report some version of the story in which Jesus drives out these functionaries from the temple precincts. The gospel authors attribute to Jesus quotations from the Hebrew prophets as part of his invective against the temple functionaries; he quotes Isaiah (56:7), Jeremiah (7:11), and Zechariah (14:21). Even Psalm 69:9 is cited though not actually spoken by Jesus; it was later remembered as a meaningful reference by his disciples. Let’s take a look at the objective that might lie behind Jesus’s actions.

Many reasons have been offered to explain Jesus’s violence at the temple. Some suggest that he was offended by the commercial activity located so close to sacred ground. Though not impossible, the gospels make no such claim. It was Passover when Jesus exploded against the vendors, one of the three most important Jewish feast times. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of Jews had traveled to the Temple from all over the Roman world and the near east to make sacrifices to God as well as to celebrate their standing as members of a divine covenant. These pilgrim Jews could hardly travel across the miles with beasts and fowl in tow. It was a virtual necessity that these celebrating Jews have access to animals once they arrived in Jerusalem, animals they could purchase and offer at the altar. Is there any evidence that Jesus opposed commercial activity in the temple? John 2:16 has Jesus say, “Do not make my Father’s house a house of merchants” (NET). Though this partial quotation of Zechariah 14:21 gets us close to what I think is the actual reason for Jesus’s behavior, I don’t believe that it had anything to do with commercial activity per se.  We will return to the reason Zechariah was quoted below.

Others suggest that unfair pricing lay behind Jesus’s action. They claim that the merchants, in league with the chief priests, were extorting from the pilgrims exorbitant amounts of money for the required animals. That may, of course, have been true. The quotation of Jeremiah, excerpted by Jesus, regarding turning God’s house into a “den of robbers” has been used to support this explanation. But did price gouging actually enrage Jesus to the point of violence? The evidence for temple price gouging at the time is not particularly impressive. Several passages from the later rabbinic texts allude to the possibility, however. Simeon ben Gamaliel apparently had an issue with overpriced doves (Mishnah Keritot 1.7K-L). Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 57a complains of priestly avarice in general. But Jesus is not on record railing against others who extorted money from hapless Jews. Toll or tax collectors were widely known to overcharge the taxes and tolls due in order to slice off a piece of the pie for themselves. However, Jesus goes out of his way to dine with such people (Matt 9:10-11, 11:19; Mark 2:15-16; Luke 5:29, 7:34, 19:2), extolled their behavior over against other Jews (Matt 24:31; Luke 18:10-14), and even called one of them to join his inner circle (Matt 9:9; Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27). It doesn’t seem, therefore, that merely the act of extortion motivated Jesus to physically drive out the merchants and money changers.

Other reasons have been given for Jesus’s temple tirade but I would like to focus on one possibility that seems quite evident from the prophetic citations in the text and yet is almost completely ignored in the commentaries. I think the explanation is best found by taking seriously the full extent of Jesus’s quotation of Isaiah 56:7: “My house will be called a house of prayer for the nations” (Mark and Luke have Jesus recite only the first part of the verse; Matthew’s Jesus quotes the verse in its entirety). Let’s see why Jesus might have been driven by that particular prophecy.

The Jerusalem Temple was an enormous complex. Herod the Great had greatly expanded the surface area of the 6th-century BCE complex, from about 17 acres to nearly 35 acres. The entire temple compound was arranged in concentric rings of ever-increasing holiness. Surrounding the sanctuary, for example, at the exterior limits was the Court of the Gentiles. Here, anyone could visit, even non-Jews. And it was here, presumably, where the sacrificial animals were sold and where pagan coinage was exchanged for acceptable Tyrian shekels. The sanctuary building itself was off limits to non-Jews, however. Within the gates of the sanctuary were, in ascending order of holiness: the Court of Women (all Jews), the Court of Israel (men only), and the Court of Priests. Each court led to more sacred ground until finally, within the main temple structure, the Holy of Holies was situated. Within it was the shekinah, the presence of God. Only the high priest could enter this place and only on one day a year: Yom Kippur.

Isaiah, and later Jesus, envisioned a time when the temple would be operated as a “house of prayer for all the nations.” In other words, the exclusionary restrictions with regard to the sanctuary would no longer be in force. The term “house of prayer” (oikos proseuchē), as with the term synagogue, implies that sacrificing would not necessarily take place. Boiled down to its essence, it was the sacrificial act itself that precluded Gentiles from entering the sanctuary; they could not personally make a sacrifice to the God of Israel.

But the ancient Hebrew prophets envisioned a day when the nations, that is, non-Jews, would join Israel in the proper worship of God.

In future days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will endure as the most important of mountains, and will be the most prominent of hills. All the nations will stream to it; many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the LORD’s mountain, to the temple of the God of Jacob, so he can teach us his requirements, and we can follow his standards.” (Isa 2:2-3; emphasis added)

In those days…the city of Jerusalem will be called the LORD’s throne. All nations will gather there in Jerusalem to honor the LORD’s name. They will no longer follow the stubborn inclinations of their own evil hearts. (Jer 3:16-17; emphasis added)

This future day was deemed to be the eschaton, the end of the present age and the beginning of a new one. This was the day that Jesus claimed was “near” (Mark 1:15) or had already “come upon” them (Matt 12:28). This was the day envisioned by Jesus when taking on the temple merchants. As Zechariah prophesied, “On that day there will no longer be a merchant (lit. “Canaanite”) in the house of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.” In other words, there would no longer be a sacrificial cult restricting access to the presence of God. Jesus was actively, if only symbolically, ridding the temple of the primary barrier that prevented the realization of these end-time prophecies. Sacrificing must cease and the temple must be open to all or God’s plan for the redemption of the entirety of humanity could not proceed.

Let’s be clear. I am not suggesting that Jesus was forecasting Paul’s or anyone else’s mission to the Gentiles. What I am suggesting is that Jesus was aware of what must happen in order to fulfill the end-time prophecies. Once these prophecies were fulfilled, God’s rule, God’s kingdom, could establish itself on earth for all God’s people, including those from the nations who wished to join. And even though Jesus did not conduct a mission of his own to the nations, he did, on occasion provide succor to non-Jews through healing (Matt 8:5-13, 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30; Luke 7:1-10), exorcising (Matt 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20), or preaching (John 4:4-30). This at least indicates that Jesus did foresee righteous Gentiles becoming part of God’s kingdom.

There is a thread of continuity for this theme of the abolition of sacrificing in early Christian writing though it is entangled with the need to reimagine religious practice without the temple which was destroyed by the Roman legions in 70 C.E. All of our Christian texts, with the exception of Paul’s letters, come from that post-temple period. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the cessation of sacrificing was an article of belief among at least some of Jesus’s early Jewish followers.

In the Acts of the Apostles, for example (written perhaps in the second century), the Hellenist Jew Stephen is hailed before a court and accused of “saying things against this holy place,” i.e., the temple, the only holy place in Judaism at the time (Acts 6:12-13). His accusers had heard Stephen say that “Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us” (Acts 6:14). In what sense was the temple to be destroyed and what were the Mosaic customs that were to be changed? Jesus himself is quoted as saying that not one stone of the Temple would be left standing on another (Matt 24:2). It is hard now to disentangle contemporary prophecy from post-70 “prophecy after-the-fact.” Did Jesus actually predict the physical destruction of the temple as wrought by the Romans? Or did he predict a radical change in its ritual proceedings? Did Stephen understand Jesus to have referred to physical destruction or to a destruction of current practice? Certainly the “customs of Moses” could, and probably did, include the rules for sacrifice. It is too much of a stretch to think that the nullification of Torah was in view.

In Stephen’s self-defense, he reviewed Israel’s history mentioning the golden calf episode. As is well known, the freed Hebrew slaves continued to worship idols in the fashion of their former Egyptian masters. To redirect this practice, as Stephen says, Moses gave the Israelites a powerful tabernacle, one that helped Israel conquer its enemies and take over the land that was promised to them. But after Solomon built the first temple, according to Stephen, things took a turn for the worse. This reference to the construction of the first temple that replaced the tabernacle likely refers to the exclusionary sacrificial rituals established to separate the nations from the Jews in the worship of God. Before the temple, it was not this way. In the days of the tabernacle, or tent of meeting, non-Jews were allowed to sacrifice to God.

Any man from the house of Israel or from the resident foreigners who live in their midst, who offers a burnt offering or a sacrifice but does not bring it to the entrance of the Meeting Tent to offer it to the LORD—that person will be cut off from his people. (Lev. 17:8-9)

If a resident foreigner is living with you—or whoever is among you in future generations —and prepares an offering made by fire as a pleasing aroma to the LORD, he must do it the same way you are to do it. One statute must apply to you who belong to the congregation and to the resident foreigner who is living among you, as a permanent statute for your future generations. You and the resident foreigner will be alike before the LORD. One law and one custom must apply to you and to the resident foreigner who lives alongside you. (Num. 15:14-16).

According to Torah, non-Jews were welcome to participate in at least two of Judaism’s three most important feast days: Shavuot or Pentecost (Deut. 16:11) and Sukkoth or Huts/Tabernacles (Deut. 16:14). (As Passover was a particularly Jewish festival commemorating the release of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, non-Jews may have not been mentioned with regard to that celebration; though they were not expressly prohibited either.) It appears, then, as if the construction of Solomon’s, and later Herod’s, temple created new boundaries that prevented non-Jews from participating alongside Jews in the worship of God.

Other Christian writings emphasize the prophets’ relativization or replacement of sacrifice in favor of obedience and moral behavior. The authors of these texts were certainly aware of the temple’s destruction in 70 as were non-Christ-believing Jews who were also adjusting to the new circumstances. An example of one Christian’s adjustment is the Letter to the Hebrews, a text possibly written by a post-70 Jewish believer in Jesus to other Jews. It foregrounds citations from the Tanakh that de-emphasize sacrificing.

When he (i.e., David, the putative author of the psalms) says above, “Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sin-offerings you did not desire nor did you take delight in them” (which are offered according to the law), then he says, “Here I am: I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first to establish the second. (Heb 10:8-9).

Of course, for the writer of Hebrews, the death of Christ became the last required (human) sacrifice—no further living sacrifice was needed (nor was one possible). But the substitution of Torah obedience for animal sacrifice is a decidedly Jewish notion. The Essenes, popularly considered responsible for the sectarian documents found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, abandoned the temple altogether and substituted good works and obedience as acceptable sacrifices to God. And they did this at least a century prior to Jesus.

After the Temple’s destruction in 70, Christ-followers of both Jewish and Gentile origin found it easier to speak against sacrificing since only pagans could now sacrifice. Some interpreted the destruction of the temple as God’s insistence that Jesus was the ultimate and only necessary sacrifice for atonement. Note in the next passage from the First Letter of John that Jesus was not only the sole acceptable sacrifice for Jewish sins but for the sins of non-Jews (“the whole world”) as well.

He himself [i.e., Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the whole world. (1 Jn 2:2)

Though our evidence for the beliefs and teachings of Jewish believers in Jesus from the ensuing centuries is scanty, the theological thread of objection to the sacrificial system continued and was traced back to Jesus. The so-called Gospel of the Ebionites, a text authored by Jewish believers in Jesus and quoted by Epiphanius, the fourth-century Gentile bishop of Salamis, features Jesus saying, “I came to do away with sacrifices, and if you don’t stop sacrificing, you won’t stop experiencing wrath” (Pan. 30.16.5; SV). Does this reflect Jesus’s attitude at the time of his driving out the merchants and money-changers from the temple?

We do not know the date of the origin of the Gospel of the Ebionites. We do not even know what the name of the gospel was (modern scholars refer to it the way they do because Epiphanius wrote that “Ebionites,” or Jewish believers in Jesus, used it). Some scholars believe that this gospel is a version of, if not the same as, the Gospel of the Hebrews known from an early period as the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew. Some suggest that this was a very early gospel, perhaps older than Mark. Others locate its origin in the second century.

Epiphanius also recorded traditions he found in another text he called the Ascents of James, apparently an alternate version of the Acts of the Apostles used by Jewish followers of Jesus. In the Ascents, James is referred to as “expounding against the temple and the sacrifices, and against the fire on the altar” (Pan. 30.16.7). Clearly, the object of James’s ire is the sacrifice itself, not necessarily the building or its utilization as a house of prayer.

In fact, although the New Testament book of Acts depicts Jesus’s chosen followers preaching in the temple compound, that is, in the Court of the Gentiles, they are never depicted offering sacrifice at the altar (Acts 2:46; 3:3, 8; 5:20, 25, 42; cf. 22:17). The closest Acts comes to validating sacrifice after the death of Jesus is when James suggests that Paul pay “the expenses” for four Jews who had to make a sacrifice to complete (or begin) their (probably Nazirite) vow (Acts 21:23). It is perhaps telling that James has sent Paul to do this, the same Paul that Jesus-following Jews have accused of teaching other Jews “to abandon Moses (i.e., Torah)” (Acts 21:21). Whether this constitutes an endorsement of sacrifice by followers of Jesus is at least debatable.

Additional evidence for the theme of intentional sacrificial cessation comes from two versions of a fourth-century Christian novel about Peter and Clement. These versions are traditionally referred to as the Homilies and the Recognitions and are attributed to “pseudo-Clement” since the actual author(s) is/are unknown. Though each version of the story is somewhat different, the basic narrative traces Clement’s journey from Rome to Palestine where he meets Peter and then follows the apostle up the Phoenician coast listening to and recording Peter’s sermons. The teaching expressed by Peter in these texts is remarkably tolerant of both Jewish and Gentile expressions of faith in Jesus. Neither is dismissed—both are acclaimed as acceptable to God. Even Jewish belief itself, devoid of faith in Christ, is acknowledged to be a valid path to salvation as long as such Jews do not “hate” Jesus (Hom. 8.7). Moses and Jesus, therefore, represent two sides of a coin in God’s plan for worldwide salvation—Moses for the Jews and Jesus for the Gentiles. But those who respect and follow both teachers are theologically superior.

According to the Recognitions, Moses was hindered in his work to break the Hebrews of their reliance on sacrificial forms of worship. They had become too indoctrinated by Egyptian practice to abandon it. So, Moses, upon witnessing the relapse of the Hebrews worshiping the calf idol, instituted forms of sacrificial worship that would not offend God. These would have to do until the time when another prophet like him would finish Moses’s work and stop the Jews from sacrificing altogether. That work was accomplished by Jesus. In these texts, Jesus did not become a substitute sacrifice. He was a divine prophet and messiah teaching the true way, a way that did not include sacrifice.

Both non-Jesus-following Jews and Jesus-following Jews had to cope with the loss of the Temple. As the Essenes had chosen to do long before, now all Jews were forced to adopt other means of obtaining atonement and practice other forms of worship that did not include animal sacrifice. While some Jesus-following Jews saw Jesus as the final sacrifice for atonement, not all did. Some did not see the necessity of characterizing Jesus as a substitute sacrifice. Certainly, non-Jesus-believing Jews promoted means of atonement and worship that did not include a dead messiah.

Remember that all the Christian texts we have surveyed, including the canonical gospels, are post-70, and thus post-temple, compositions. Did they only reflect post-70 attitudes to sacrifice, secure in the knowledge that sacrificing could no longer be practiced? Or did Jesus himself recognize that God’s plan for worldwide salvation in the Messianic age required that sacrificial barriers be broken down to allow the world’s non-Jewish population the opportunity to pray and worship Israel’s God alongside Israel? This explanation for Jesus’s actions in the temple does not require that Jesus foresaw any directed mission to the Gentiles. It only suggests that he was fully aware of prophecies already in place that spoke of the day when the nations would worship Israel’s God. Mainstream Gentile Christianity often simply rejected the temple outright and saw in its destruction proof of God’s rejection of the Jews and punishment of them for Jesus’s death. Jewish believers in Jesus saw things differently and perhaps their attitude toward sacrificing more accurately reflected the views of their once earthly master.

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