Though specifics of the incident differ between the gospels, the core of the story remains relatively consistent: Jesus and his followers travel to Jerusalem for Passover, enter the Temple (the centre of Jewish religious and commercial life at the time), accuse those present of being "thieves" and disrupt commercial activity by overturning the tables of merchants. For many, the story paints relatively simple moral message concerning the need to avoid the corrupting influence of money and to show due deference to that which is holy. For others - particularly in European churches since the middle-ages - the story could be set forth as an example of Jesus' denunciation of Jewish avarice and the gratuity of the old Jewish sacrificial system, rendered obsolete by Jesus' ultimate sacrifice. Both of these interpretations are a little anachronistic though, and both fail to cut to the likely historical context of the incident. Before we turn to that question, though, we must pose a more immediate one: did this episode actually occur?
On the balance of probability I'd say this event was likely historical, even though I wouldn't be moved to place it among the most "certain" facts we have concerning Jesus (his birth and early mission in Gallilee, his crucifixion in Jerusalem etc.). Good cases have been made both for and against its historicity.
On the positive side:
- The event is attested by multiple sources,
including all four canonical gospels. There is also a strong tradition
both within the NT (gospels and Acts) and in external literature (Gospel
of Thomas etc.) linking Jesus to provocative sayings and deeds
concerning the Temple. Such a well-attested theme must have had begun
somewhere, and a memorable event like this would be as good a starting
point as any.
- The event explains why Jesus may have been targeted by both Jewish
and Roman officials during his ministry, and why he eventually came to be
executed (the fifth of J.P. Meier's "Criteria for the Historicity of Jesus". Trashing the Temple - the most sacred and important site in
Judaism at the time - would certainly have raised the ire of Jewish
officialdom and probably would have been viewed as valid grounds for the pacifying intervention of the Roman authorities.
- The event could be seen as embarrassing or provocative to the proto-Orthodox Christians, who were - remember - attempting to "convert" (for want of a better word) Jews in the Palestinian area. The Gospels were penned shortly after the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE (a singularly traumatic event in the history of Judaism), and the claim that Jesus was earlier involved in its ransacking would not have served as a terribly effective apologia. Similarly, the claim would not have done much to win the confidence of those who already viewed Christ's execution (and thus his criminality) as a "stumbling-block" or "foolishness" (1 Cor 1:23). The gospels go to great length at times to downplay Jesus' ultimate culpability in the crimes for which he was killed, and this episode (where Jesus clearly engages in "criminal" activity) does much to undermine this message. In short, there is no clear motivation for the authors of the gospels to have "invented" this story if there wasn't some clear memory of an actual historical event.
On the negative:
- Although it is cited in all four gospels, the
details of the incident in the latter three gospels all appear to be
drawn almost entirely from the account in gMark. None of the later
gospels include any credible detail not mentioned by Mark, which
indicates that there were no "parallel" or external traditions for these
authors to draw on. In other words, what at first glance appears to be a
reliable, multiply attested tradition may in fact just a single
tradition derived almost entirely from gMark.
- The episode may be recapitulating OT prophecy, and may
therefore have been created as a means of portraying Jesus as somehow
fulfilling said prophecy. In the text of gMark (and consequently
gMatthew and gLuke) Jesus cites Jeremiah 7:11 in denouncing the Temple
as having become a "den of theives" (Mk 11:17). Jeremiah is significant
in that it also depicts YHWH as driving his believers from the Temple
(Jer 7:15) which means the narrative follows the same trajectory as that
in gMark (Temple condemned as "den of theives", all are "cast out").
Jeremiah also contains allusions to "rotten figs" (Jer 24:3,8; 29:17
etc.) which must surely remind us of the peculiar fig-tree incident that
Mark prefigures the Temple cleaning event with (Mk 11:12-14). In other
words, could it be that Mark has just invented these events (the cursing
of the fig-tree and the Temple cleansing) to link Jesus with OT
(The alternative explanation would be the Mark simply used OT prophecy to whitewash, or contextualise, an otherwise unsavoury event in the ministry of Jesus. It was clear that the gospel authors used OT prophecy to explain events in Jesus life, even resorting (it seems) to inventing prophecy where no suitable prophecy could be found (cf. Mt 2:23). John, for instance, makes no reference to Jeremiah (neither the fig-tree nor the "den of theives" line), so is it possible that an independent tradition of the incident - one seemingly divorced from OT prophecy - circulated, that would lend greater credence to its historicity? Or has John just expurgated Mark's account to remove its "Jewishness", in keeping with his theological interests elsewhere in his gospel? Such competing ideas are difficult to assess reliably.)
So clearly the historicity of the Temple Cleansing incident is contested, which makes it difficult to make definitive historical claims about it with any confidence. If, however, we proceed with the assumption that it did happen (as I take to be the most probable assumption) we can then ask the pressing question as to why it happened. What was Jesus' motivation here? What message was he trying to send and to whom? The chronology presented in the Gospel of Mark - if it is accurate - may give us a clue.
Where the incident has been depicted in contemporary Christian film and literature, it is usually presented as a hot-headed act of passion: an otherwise placid and irenic man is driven to violence by the tragic sight of his holy Temple overrun with avaricious merchants. The evidence from gMark, however, points to something different. We are told that Jesus actually entered the Temple the day before and "looked around at everything" (Mk 11:11) before returning the next day to "overturn the tables" (v.15) and "teach" (v.17). The fact that the act succeeded is also an indication that it must have taken some degree of planning or forethought. The Temple complex was a seat of Roman power as much as it was Jewish, and during the often febrile atmosphere of the Passover holiday it must have been crawling with Roman guards ready to intervene at the first sign of trouble. The ability to cause such a memorable raucous there would surely have required group co-ordination: an individual acting impulsively would surely not have had the time or the power necessary to "drive out" merchants (v. 15) or the carry out an embargo on goods being carried through the Temple (v. 16) (to say nothing of his "teaching" there!).
Presuming this account contains kernels of genuinely remembered history, we cannot possibly classify the incident as an act of mere hot-headedness; a "crime of passion". We must - rather - view it as a deliberate and pre-meditated act: in short, as a political statement. The gospel authors (and subsequent generations of Christians, for that matter) were motivated to de-politicise the actions of Jesus in order to make his ministry more palatable to Gentiles within the Roman Empire, and - indeed - to avoid unwanted attention from the Empire itself, which may explain why Mark is hesitant to avoid any implication that Jesus had a wider political intention here. However, if this was a deliberate political statement, what could it mean? What was he protesting against?
The most obvious solution - that he was simply angered by the presence of merchants making a profit in a holy place - doesn't really square with the facts. The merchants played an important role in the day-to-day running of the Temple, by supplying pious pilgrims with the offerings they wished to give there (the money lenders would exchange foreign currency for the Hebrew shekels, the form of payment that all adult males were required to make there). They were not in the Temple proper, and there is little indication that their role was ever otherwise the subject of moral scrutiny. As J.D. Crossan points out, Jesus' line about "den of robbers" doesn't square particularly well with the idea that Jesus was angered by their role in the Temple either, as he doesn't seem to be accusing them of thieving at that moment: a "den of thieves" is where thieves would retreat and hide, after all, not where they would do the actual thieving!
Given that - and this is now my speculation more than anything else - Jesus was making a statement to the Jewish priestly class who were in charge of the operation of the Temple (especially the Sadducees), who were closely allied with the Romans and who abused this position of power to collaborate in the dispossession of the already impoverished classes of Judea and its surrounding areas. From the beginning, Jesus centred his ministry on concern for the poor and regularly denounced the accumulation of wealth ("Blessed are you who are poor... But woe to you who are rich" - Lk 6:20,24) and the exploitation of the poor in the context of Temple offerings (which were often exorbitant) would have been an issue in keeping with his wider concerns. The ruling classes "hid" in their "den" (the Temple) and - from behind this veil of piety - were able to collude in the further disenfranchisement of an already marginal class. This also explains the focus in the narrative on the "dove sellers (e.g. Mk. 11:15) - doves were offered as sacrificial animals to the poor who were unable to afford more substantive animals to offer up.
It's difficult in providing such an explanation to avoid the impression that I'm retrojecting modern left-wing politics into an ancient problem, but it is simply impossible to read the message of Jesus in the gospels - moderated as it often is - and come away with anything other than the conclusion that his primary concern lay with the lot of the poor. Given that, in lieu of more obvious explanations, it makes sense to try to fit otherwise troubling, inexplicable incidents like this into his wider philosophy: the Temple incident was a political protest on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised.