In today’s climate of heightened political rancor, some believers use the cleansing of the temple gospel narrative to justify all manner of egregious and even violent behavior toward others–“After all, Jesus whipped people.”—sic. The cleansing of the temple account is one of the favorite proof texts of those who want to try to deflect the potency of Christ’s clear ethical commands to overcome evil with good and to love one’s enemies. Those who proof text this passage to justify their behavior are betraying the scriptures and the Lord they profess to serve.
The NEB version translates Psalm 69:9 as: The zeal for your house shall destroy me. According to the Synoptic Gospels, within one week of the cleansing of the temple, Jesus is dead. The Synoptic gospels make it clear that this event sealed his fate. His first (and last!) public sermon in the synagogue (Luke 4) and the cleansing of the temple stirred visceral human hatred unto murder. Why? What was it about both events that stirred such deep hatred among “normally decent” people? What was going on? How should we understand the cleansing of the temple narrative in the light of illegitimate attempts by so many to justify their violence and hatred by claiming Jesus as their model?
At the time of Christ, the institutions of religion, commerce/finance, and politics were not separate entities as they are in our day. They were embedded in each other in the Temple and operations associated with it: touch one and you touch them all. The cleansing of the temple was not just a dust-up over religious ritual. It was a confrontation with principalities associated with the order of their world: religious, commercial, and political. It was a cosmological statement. We know it was not just about zealotry for religious reform because there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that anything permanently changed. It was: “back to business as usual” the next day. Something else was going on.
The cleansing of the temple is a bit of a misnomer. It occurred in the outer court. This is the space that was specifically dedicated for the Gentiles. Gentiles could gather in the outer court for prayer, but they were not allowed elsewhere. Imagine a Gentile trying to pray in a space crowded with animals and their sellers! Hear the noise! Smell the odors! Be sure to watch your watch your step! At the very least we see here Jewish indifference, if not outright hostility, toward the Gentiles–“It is okay to defile your space, but not ours”– us versus them.
The phrase “den of robbers,” is not merely rhetorical flourish. The English “robbers” is the Greek lestes. The term refers to those who in their zeal for holiness had become freedom fighters for God (or terrorists if you will). There is an inferred association with violence that “thief” does not connote. In other words, not just thievery as in breaking and entering, but thievery plus violence against persons. Robbers stored their ill-gotten gain in their “den.” Jesus made a declarative and evaluative statement of who they were as people, and what they were doing. (So much for typical understanding of “do not judge others!”). Jesus accused the Temple authorities of being thieving zealots and specifically mentions poor widows as their victims. They had enriched themselves in exclusionary zealotry at the expense of the least among them. This is not “seeker sensitive” language and behavior!
Jesus specifically quotes Isaiah 56 regarding Yahweh’s concern for the ethnoi – the nations, the Gentiles. Where it was occurring (outer court of the Gentiles) was as significant as what was occurring (commerce associated with sacrifice): Just as when he quoted Isaiah 61 in the synagogue in a way that showed compassion for the non-Jewish world (God was not going to “even the score” with the Gentiles), so here, his concern for the welfare of those whom the religious establishment considered “less than,” precipitated his death.
Not only was Jesus dealing with the exclusionary practices of the sacrificial system and the rapacious greed associated with it, but he also suspended the sacrificial system itself. He forbade anyone to carry a “vessel” (skeuos) through the Temple courts. The NIV translates this term as “merchandise” as though he were stopping shoppers in a modern mall, but the term refers to vessels used in the sacrificial process. The entire sacrificial machinery temporarily ground to a stop. It is difficult for modern people to get our heads around how cosmically significant that act would have been. For Americans it would be like saying the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were frauds and we have been living a delusion for over 200 years. It was a foretaste of a cosmically altering act that would find its fulfillment at Calvary.
Up until Augustine, no one interpreted the cleansing of the temple account in John 2:15 to condone violence or even implied that Jesus had struck any human beings. In the first three hundred years in the life of the Church, Origen was the only person to comment on this passage, and he gave it a purely spiritual rather than literal reading. Cosmas Indicopleustes writing ca. 550 CE argued:
What is alleged is false, for he did not in any way strike a human being, but he adopted an admirable and becoming and appropriate course, for he struck the brute beasts only, as it is written: “And having made a whip of cords he expelled all from the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.” But the rational beings he neither struck nor pushed away, but chastised with speech, as it is written: “And to those who sold doves he said, ‘Take these things hence, and do not make my Father’s house a marketplace.’”
Augustine was the first to use this passage to justify force, including the just use of force in war. Was Augustine justified in doing so? A quick look at the grammar of the passage shows that he was not.
The question is: To what does pantas–“them all,” refer? Is Jesus whipping people and animals, or just animals? Without getting too technical, the writer is referring only to the sheep and oxen. The first obvious reason for this is that he clearly doesn’t drive out the doves and their owners since he tells them to leave in vs. 16. So the “them all” doesn’t include everyone mentioned in vs. 14.
Next, the use of a te . . . kai construction is important. Te . . . kai (used 90 times in the New Testament) always means “both . . . and.” It is also often used when it follows a plural noun as a partitive appositive. This means it is like a further adjective to break down the meaning of its referent. In this case, “both the sheep and the oxen” is in apposition to “all” placed there by the writer to clarify who exactly he means by “them all.”
Finally, the writer uses the masculine plural adjective pantas to refer to the sheep and oxen because he had no other option. If he had used the neuter panta, he would be referring only to the sheep, if the feminine, only the doves (who are not asked to leave until vs. 16). So his only option is a masculine plural, which can cover both the oxen and the sheep. While sheep is a neuter noun, it can be covered by a masculine pronoun since all of the sheep for sacrifice were required to be male.
Nathan W. O’Halloran’s reading of the Greek word pantas indicates that Jesus took some ropes he found lying around “to drive out the sheep and oxen, like any shepherd or cattle herder would do,” followed, no doubt, by their owners. He also notes that the Synoptics do not make mention of a whip; and that Mark uses the word “drove,” as it was used elsewhere for the spirit “driving” Jesus into the desert, or Jesus himself “driving” out demons. O’Halloran identifies the actions of Jesus with a calculated prophetic action evocative of the temple condemnation in Jeremiah 7:1-15.
In John’s account following the cleansing of the temple, the religious establishment challenges Jesus’s authority to do what he just did. They ask for a sign from him to validate his authority to behave the way that he did. The irony of the matter is that his actions were the sign. It is both fascinating and significant to me that in John’s account the issue the religious establishment has with Jesus is not what he did, but the authority claim he was making by doing it! It was not about what he did, but WHO was doing it, and by what authority.
John’s account then diverges into the well-known passage where Jesus makes the statement that was used against him as an insult at the cross: that he would tear down the Temple and rebuild it in three days. Of course we know that the temple he was referring to was His body, and the rebuilding of the cosmos along cruciform lines—the real power in the cosmos is a love that forgives and dies for offenders, not their corrupt collusion of money, religion, politics, power, and violence.
Therefore, we know that the cleansing of the temple is a unique, one-off, prophetic statement challenging authority structures of the cosmos: the unholiness of sacrificial religion in league with mammon, and by inevitable association in their culture, political power. In a sense, it is Jesus’s final public sermon and statement of his eternal antipathy toward the systems of this world and its values, including the practice of sacrificial religion. It is his confrontational swan song, not a passing pique of emotional irritation rooted in anger. It is thoughtful and purposeful action intended to be read by all.
In an interesting side note, in the cleansing of the temple account in John, Christ identifies the temple as his Father’s house. At the end of his ministry (Matt. 28) the pronoun has changed: “Your house is left desolate.” The establishment did not get the message—what goes on there no longer represented his Father. It’s over. Jesus is building something new.
What About Christ’s Severity Elsewhere?
We have established that the scripture doesn’t say specifically that Jesus used a whip on people. None-the-less, turning over the tables and driving out the animals and people is a severe/extreme act. When dealing with the establishment powers of His day, Jesus was often severe. He insults people, calls them names, withholds the truth from them, etc. These things were normal in interpersonal interchanges of his day, being the expression of the cultural practice known as challenge and riposte–insult and counter-insult. Understanding the cultural role of insults helps us unpack what can seem to us to be not only rude and insensitive, but also unloving behavior. It is not.
Even the basic understanding of what constitutes “love” is different for us than at the time of Christ. For us, love is fundamentally an individual, psychological, and subjective feeling. For Jews and Mediterranean basin people at the time of Christ, love was any action that resulted in the net benefit of the group, tribe, or clan. That is, love was not an individual subjective, inward feeling. It was an objective, corporate/group action. I can’t unpack all of the very significant implications here except to say that understanding the difference in the definition of love that every Jew would have taken for granted, helps explain some passages of scripture that seem difficult or “unloving” to us, the cleansing of the temple being a case in point.
So, behavior that to us may seem socially or culturally inappropriate is not necessarily unloving in the kingdom. Clearly, irritating people and making them unhappy is not outside of the love of God. Jesus made a career of it and was crucified for it. The point is that the love of God demonstrated in Jesus does not preclude stirring visceral negative emotions in others. Jesus is not Mr. Rogers with a beard!
Lastly, it helps to know that the scriptures use different words in Greek for the English: love. I can’t do a full word study here (I touch on it more thoroughly in my book on healing). The “unconditional love” that so many exhort us to, is the Greek agape. Early Christian writers took a common Greek word and adapted it for their use. Short version, it is: unmerited goodwill. To the matter at hand–it has no emotive connotation. That is, having good will toward others does not require feeling lovey-dovey or chummy toward them. Affectionate feeling is a different Greek word, phileo. Phileo has the connotation of commonality, and with it the warm feelings that come from shared interest. Interestingly, the scriptures never exhort us to have phileo toward the world (cosmos and its powers) and its corrupt systems manifested through people behaving corruptly.
So, I can be fully in agape and have all kinds of legitimate negative emotions: anger, dislike, distaste, distrust, etc., especially toward evil and those who practice it. Agape does not preclude confrontation. In the big picture, this is part of the prophetic function–to confront established power structures–individual, political, religious, and cultural. It is also why religious people prefer their prophets to be dead: they can claim allegiance to them while ignoring what they said while they were alive.
Now, this can be a precipitous slope–establishing a precedent to be a bully, literally or emotionally, and to think one’s self to be the instrument of God correcting the world. That is why a one-off example from Jesus’s life is not the norm for our behavior. Our norm is the greater body of Jesus’s ethical teachings. They may at times be punctuated by confrontational, peace making, truth-telling. The practice of agape does not preclude confrontation in our human interactions.
- Regardless of how some translations handle this passage, there is no exegetically definitive reason to believe that Jesus used a whip on people. At best, it is an inference, at worst, an illegitimate interpretation. Even if Christ did hit people with the whip (which I do not think he did), using that analogously as justification for war or other violent acts is absurd. It makes as much sense as saying because it is ok to kick a stray cat off my porch because I am tired of it peeing on my property that it is also ok for me to kill my neighbor if she upsets me. There is simply no rational comparative. Going from throwing crooks out of a building to dropping an incendiary bomb on people is not a rational leap. Ethical debates about just war theory can occur, but not with the cleansing of the temple narrative as a proof text.
- The cleansing of the temple incident is a one-off, prophetic statement, particularly regarding Yahweh’s concern for the poor, the widow, and the Gentiles all of whom at the time would have been the “less than, other-than,” disenfranchised classes.
- It is always an exegetical mistake to normalize a one-off and isolated passage. This passage is not normative interpersonal behavior for followers of Christ. Using it to justify outrageous and even violent behavior is exegetically lazy and interpersonally inexcusable.
- The first century Semitic understanding of the term love is not the same as ours as and does not preclude what we would consider to be rude, offensive, and yes, even “hateful” speech—you bastard seed of snakes, you empty tombs full of dead men’s bones, etc.
- Advocating God’s care for, and inclusive goodness to those that the establishment deems unworthy stirs the deepest hatred and violence in human hearts. This is the “doctrine” that got Jesus killed. Those who would desire to emulate him can expect similar treatment from the religious establishment.
 I am aware that there there seems to be two different accounts of the cleansing of the temple in the gospels. Some scholars, normally of a more conservative persuasion, hold to two events. I am not one of them. I am of the persuasion that John positioned his account in his gospel to suit his editorial purposes. This blog is written from the perspective that there is only one cleansing of the temple event.
 Michael Hardin, unpublished paper and private conversation.
 What follows is taken from, Andy Alexis-Baker, Biblical Interpretation Journal, https://www.academia.edu/1563662/Violence_Nonviolence_and_the_Temple_Incident_in_John_2_13-15
 Refer to credible social science commentaries for further explanation.
 Ibid. E.g. -That is one reason why they practiced “arranged marriages.” It had nothing to do with whether you had personal feelings of love or not. It had to do with what benefited the family. In our world we “fall in love and marry.” In their world, they “married and learned to love.” I am not making a superior value statement for either. I am simply pointing out very different cultural realities that affect our interpretation of scripture.
 That is what the sanitized KJV – “brood of vipers” really means.
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