Cleansing the house: what clutters

Jesus-money-changers-giotto13 Since the Passover of the Jews was near, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money-changers seated there.

The Temple and Money Changers. The “temple” signifies the whole of the Temple precincts, including the various courts as well as the holy place. It is most certain that the area of action occurred in one of the courtyards. It is certain that the selling mentioned took place in the outer courtyard, the court of the Gentiles. The reason for the practice was, of course, the convenience of having at hand a supply of animals required for the prescribed sacrifices.

From Josepheus, a Jewish historian who wrote in the later part of the 1st century AD, we know that in this period the temple functions were under the control of the Sadducees and the high priest Annas. As high priest he also served as the Treasurer of the temple with his sons as assistant treasurers. Their avarice and greed for money lead this spectacle to be called the “bazaar of the sons of Annas.” They used the ritual of Temple religious life to implement a scam on the people of Israel: temple sacrifices brought from home were mandatorily inspected for blemish, for a fee. Blemish was always found. But a pre-inspected, blemish-free sacrifice could be purchased in the temple compound, for an exorbitant price, but not with Roman coinage (the images violated the law). The money changers exchanges Roman coin into specially minted temple coins, at a profit. It is against this background that Jesus cleanses the temple.

Those “exchanging money” plied their trade because it was permitted to make money offerings in the Temple only in the approved currency. People from other countries would bring all sorts of coinage with them and this had to be changed into acceptable coins. An astonishing number of commentators affirm that the reason for the unacceptability of other currencies was that the coins bore the Emperor’s image or some heathen symbol. Whatever the reason, people had to change their money before making their offerings and this required that money changers would be at work somewhere.

Cleansing the Temple 15 He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables, 16 and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

Jesus’ actions in the Temple are narrated in one long complex sentence in the Greek text (vv. 14–16), which creates a mood of urgency and haste, thereby underscoring the intensity of Jesus’ actions. Just as Jesus never hesitates as he moves through the Temple, so, too, vv. 14–16 never hesitate. John alone among the Gospels mentions sheep and cattle and the detail of Jesus’ whip. John’s picture of Jesus in the Temple is large and dramatic, as Jesus herds animals and people out of the temple court, pouring out money and overturning tables as he goes.

Given that these offerings of sheep, cattle and doves are prescribed and commanded in the Law (also see Leviticus 1 and 3), one can certainly argue that Jesus is not condemning the sacrificial offerings, but rather the location of the necessary market place in Temple precincts and the extorting monetary practices that surround it, enriching the priests and leaders of the Temple. But if one looks ahead in the Gospel of John (4:23-24) and the dialogue with the Samaritan woman at the well, could Jesus actions of cleansing the Temple simply be prologue to the powerful challenge made to the very authority of the Temple and its worship: 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. 24 God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.”

There were inevitable abuses of the temple system, but in vv. 14–16 Jesus confronts the system itself, not simply its abuses. This is apparent in the words he speaks to the dove sellers (“Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”) In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus quotes Isa 56:7 and Jer 7:11 (see Matt 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46), verses that focus on the distortion of a place of worship into a “den of robbers.” These OT verses are absent from John, however, and Jesus may allude instead to Zech 14:21 (“And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the LORD of hosts on that day”). In a play on the word for “house” (oikos), Jesus complains that his Father’s house has become a “house of trade.” Is Jesus’ appearance in the oikos a signal that it is no longer necessary to maintain the cultic system of sacrifice and tithes? If so, then Jesus’ charge is a much more radical accusation in the Gospel according to John than in the other gospels.

Notes

John 2:13 Since the Passover of the Jews was near, Jesus went up to Jerusalem: Jesus goes up to Jerusalem at Passover time at the beginning of his ministry. This stands in contrast to the other Gospels, in which Jesus goes to Jerusalem but once, and then at the very end of his ministry. With regard to multiple visits, John is probably more correct historically. Our author has considerably more interest in Jerusalem than the other evangelists, an indication that his roots are more oriented in Jerusalem than in Galilee. The temple purification, however, probably occurred toward the end of Jesus’ life, as the Synoptists (Matthew, Mark, Luke) indicate, serving as a final straw leading to Jesus’ condemnation. John may well have transferred the story to this initial phase in Jesus’ life because it fits so well into his “newness” theme and because he intends that Lazarus’ resurrection (ch. 11) be the incident leading to the crucifixion. Passover: this is the first Passover mentioned in John; a second is mentioned in Jn 6:4 a third in Jn 13:1. Taken literally, they point to a ministry of at least two years.

John 2:14 oxen, sheep, and doves: intended for sacrifice. The doves were the offerings of the poor (Lv 5:7). Money-changers: for a temple tax paid by every male Jew more than nineteen years of age, with a half-shekel coin (Ex 30:11–16), in Syrian currency. The festivals were times for “remembering”—that is, to liturgically recall and relive past events—as well as for feasting and celebrating. During all the pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles), huge crowds of pilgrims would congregate in Jerusalem (Josephus estimates as many as 2,700,000). Large numbers of animals were required, especially at Passover.

money changers: While the money changers served as the interface between Roman coinage (bearing the emperor’s image) and temple coinage, there are texts which describe certain image-bearing coins as being acceptable because of the constancy of their content of precious metals.

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