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“Did He Do It Again?” Jesus’s Actions in the Temple

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One of the most fascinating events that happens during Holy Week is Jesus’s “cleansing” of the temple when he drives out those who were buying and selling, overturning the tables of the money changers and pigeon vendors. It is an event that seems to go against how people typically think about Jesus – he doesn’t seem meek and mild at that moment! In fact, even scholars who question whether the gospels accurately portray Jesus’s life affirm that this event happened (of course, I think there are very good reasons to believe that the gospels are authentic and truthful as noted in this post). 

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record this incident but in their own way (Matthew 21:12-16; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46). For example, only Mark mentions that Jesus didn’t allow anyone to carry anything through the temple (11:16), and Matthew alone notes that Jesus healed the blind  and lame in Matthew 21:13. (Luke’s account is the shortest and includes the fewest details.) The Gospel of John also records Jesus going to the temple and driving out those who were selling animals and exchanging money (John 2:13-22), but it places this incident at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry rather than towards the end like the other three accounts. Therefore, instead of it coming on the heels of Jesus’s triumphant entry to Jerusalem that is remembered on Palm Sunday and connected to Jesus’s cursing of the fig tree (see Matthew 21:18-22, Mark 11:12-14, 20-26), it follows the event of Jesus turning water into wine (John 2:1-11). 

The differing placements of this incident have led to much debate, seeking to figure out if Jesus did this twice or if it is the same incident simply recorded more than once. Scholars and pastors I know and respect have reached different conclusions, so I’ll lay out some of the arguments for each position and then share with you where I land.

Why It May Be the Same Event
While we expect history and biographies to be told in chronological order (arrangement of events according to the time they occurred), that was not necessarily true of ancient writings as they could, and often did, group stories together for various reasons other than chronology. In light of that, many scholars who believe the Bible is the Word of God and the Gospels’ are accurate accounts of Jesus’s life think John speaks about the same incident as Matthew, Mark, and Luke. When you examine the story in the Gospel of John, we see that it is after Jesus turns water into wine, but it is not directly linked to that story; this tells us that Jesus did this when he was in Jerusalem for the Passover (which is also when the account occurs in Holy Week). Therefore, this could describe the same incident as there is no contradiction about the timing of it within the Jewish calendar.

Scholars who conclude that John describes the same event as Matthew, Mark, and Luke typically argue that John moved this account from Holy Week to the beginning of Jesus’s ministry to introduce the idea of Jesus’s death and resurrection, as well as the opposition to Jesus, early in the book; this change in order also allows John to tell the events of Holy Week from a different angle than other gospels, as he seems interested in offering a different perspective on that week (for example, focusing on Jesus’s Farewell Discourse with his disciples that we find in John 14-16 rather than the Last Supper and establishment of communion).

A few scholars have argued that Matthew, Mark, and Luke moved the story from the start of Jesus’s ministry to the end of it to show the mounting opposition that Jesus encounters when he returns the week of the Passover in his final year of ministry. One support for it being early in Jesus’s ministry is the note in John that it took 46 years to build the temple – that would more likely be true at the start of Jesus’s ministry rather than at the end of it. In addition, the idea that the disciples remembered what happened after Jesus’s death (2:17, 22) makes more sense if there are years, not days, between the incident and Jesus’s death and resurrection. Another reason for viewing John as having the correct placement would be that John seems more interested in chronology than the other gospel writers. The idea that Jesus ministered for three years is actually derived from the Gospel of John since it describes three Passovers: the first is here in John 2, the second is the feeding of the 5,000 in John 6, and the final is the time of Jesus’s death and resurrection. (In fact, if John is describing the same incident but that it happened at the end of Jesus’s life, then we should probably no longer refer to Jesus’s three years of ministry as that is only found in John. Matthew, Mark, and Luke don’t mention a length of time and could reflect a one or one and one half year long ministry). 

The other reason some scholars think this is the same incident is because they have a hard time understanding why Jesus would do this twice within the span of three years of his ministry. If Jesus made a scene in the temple, why wasn’t he stopped from doing it at that point? Why didn’t people try to arrest him earlier for this act? And if this did happen twice, why do none of the gospels record both times? (For example, Jesus feeds the 5,000 and the 4,000 but we find both narratives in Matthew 14-15 and Mark 6-7). Therefore, there are both logical and literary reasons for seeing this as the same incident.

Why It May Not Be the Same Event
The traditional view (held by figures such as Augustine and John Calvin) is that this event did occur twice, and there are many contemporary scholars who continue to defend this position. One reason for this thinking is that there are some differences, albeit minor ones, between the two accounts. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the incident describes Jesus quoting from the Books of Isaiah and Jeremiah, discussing how the leaders made the temple a den of robbers when it should be a house of prayer (Mark highlights this house was for all the nations in Mark 11:17). In John, Jesus speaks about the vendors making the temple a house of trade, and what follows is a confrontation where the Jewish leaders ask Jesus if he will give a sign to show he was authorized to disrupt trade that was supporting the proscribed temple worship (John 2:18-22). We also see that Jesus makes a whip of cords and pours out the coins in John 2:15 – details not included in the account in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (but could just be left out). Therefore, the stories are not as similar as they appear at first glance. 

While many have a hard time believing Jesus did this twice, it is not completely implausible. If the accounts are different, then two years have passed between them. They did not have video camera footage or security notices with pictures saying “be on guard for this man,” so the idea the people would be on alert for Jesus to do it again is not as strong as you think. Furthermore, the first time Jesus did it, he may not have had much of a following and it may not have made a huge impact on some people (which might be why Matthew, Mark, and Luke don’t record it). Therefore, the people didn’t have him arrested as they figured he would go back to Galilee and never come back. But when Jesus returns and does it again – this time with a crowd following him (and maybe makes an even bigger impact, as noted in Mark 11:16), the religious leaders are galvanized. 

Something else to remember is that Jesus performed some miracles more than once (healing the blind, etc.) and sometimes repeated his sayings. Except for Jesus’s triumphant entry and his death and resurrection, there are few incidents that are recorded in all four gospels (essentially the feeding of the 5,000), and John seems to focus on stories that the other gospel writers left out (and there were quite a few!). In fact, Jesus repeating these actions in the temple might be why people were so appalled and why forces moved so quickly so that within a week he is on the cross (but also out of the grave!).

Interestingly, only John records Jesus’s words about tearing down the temple and building it up, which was actually a reference to Jesus’s death and resurrection (John 2:18-21), but this charge is found in the trials of Jesus in Matthew 26:61 and Mark 14:57-58. At first glance this might support the idea that this incident happened only once and at the end of Jesus’s life, with John including the words the other writers omitted, but on further examination, it could point to a large length of time between them. Why is that? When Mark mentions it, he then adds that the testimony of these witnesses did not agree (Mark 14:59). That seems more likely to be the case if it was two years ago, not a few days ago. Matthew similarly notes how the people had trouble finding witnesses and eventually some came forward (Matthew 26:59-61); you would think there would be more witnesses recalling this charge if it was in front of a group of Jewish leaders only a few days prior.

I also want to highlight a trend that may explain why more scholars are returning to the “traditional” view of two incidents. In the past, scholars have stressed that the Gospel of John was more theological and less interested in history than the other gospels. However, recent work has shown that John is not only interested in history, but includes numerous intriguing details that can be historically proven. I think this affects the debate in that many might have viewed John as moving the same incident to earlier in the gospel because he was not “interested in history,” but this deeper appreciation for his work as a historian is leading more to conclude that he placed the temple incident correctly, and thus it seems more likely there are, indeed, two occurrences.

What Do I Think?
After I lay out the strengths and weaknesses of the different sides in a debate, people often ask me what I think, so I figured I would let you know. I would lean towards the “two incidents” view, as I find that case to be more compelling than the single incident view. I’m not dogmatic about it and respect those who differ, as it definitely is not an essential or even major point of the faith. In some ways, I fear focusing on how many times it actually happened can cause us to forget why the event is so important. While many call the incident(s) “cleansing,” I am not a huge proponent of calling it that (I will at times because of its common use), as cleansing is more of what happens; for example at the establishment of Hanukkah when the temple had been polluted but was being purified to be used properly. Jesus is not just cleaning it from improper use, as the people buying and selling were doing something that was needed for people to worship God in the way that He commanded. In stopping the trade, Jesus was pointing to the changing of the age – that a new age had dawned and a new temple was here – Jesus himself. The context of both incidents point to this, as the turning water into wine shows that Jesus has brought the day God promised in which there would be joy and renewal. The cursing of the fig tree points to the end of this age and the temporary temple would end here because it was not really producing fruit. Jesus’s “demonstration,” whether done once or twice, was a way to reflect the truth of who he was, which was a threat to the people at the time and to us as well. Does it continue to challenge us today? 

Questions about the Bible or theology? Email them to Pastor Brian at Theology@WeAreFaith.org. You can also request to receive weekly emails with our blog posts by filling out the information on the right side.

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