I intend to demonstrate in a series of posts that there is legitimate room for informed, rational, scholarly debate over the historicity of certain events in the so-called life of Jesus. To disagree with E. P. Sanders and “mainstream scholarly opinion” is by no means to be equated with failing to engage the views and arguments of E. P. Sanders and other scholars sharing a majority viewpoint.
Yet public intellectuals from the field of biblical studies have disgraced themselves by declaring that if so-called “mythicists” disagree with the conclusions of the likes of E.P. Sanders and “the mainstream” they are comparable to “Young Earth Creationists”. (It is Intelligent Design advocates who misrepresent their opponents’ arguments and fail to engage directly with the substantial thrust of the literature they oppose, while “mythicists” do indeed engage seriously and with “mainstream literature”, while “historicists” have tended to remain apparently lazily ignorant and willing to distort and misrepresent mythicist arguments. So if the insulting comparison is to be made at all, it would seem to apply more to the “historicists” than to “mythicists”.) Associate Professor James McGrath inferred that the arguments of E.P. Sanders in chapter 1 of his book, Jesus and Judaism, are of sufficient strength and repute to justify ad hominem attacks on anyone who disagrees with the historicity they supposedly affirm. Hence this post as the first of a series.
Before beginning, for what it’s worth, I do not see myself as a “mythicist”. I cannot see the point of taking such a stand — either mythicist or historicist — in any debate. (I don’t like adversarial debates anyway. I’m more an exploration and testing type of guy.) What surely matters is the examination of the evidence in attempting to understand Christian origins. The point is to be as intellectually honest as we can wherever the evidence and out testing of our hypotheses lead.
E. P. Sanders on the historicity of the Temple Act of Jesus
I will not at this point address all the arguments of E. P. Sanders over what is more widely known as the “cleansing of the temple” scene. Most of his argument is, in effect, an analysis of various proposed reasons or motives for the temple act of Jesus. As such, it assumes historicity of Jesus. To the extent that his argument does address historicity, Sanders is arguing that Jesus must have done something in relation to the temple, otherwise we are left with no explanation for his subsequent arrest and crucifixion. I see this sort of analysis as an exercise in exposition of a literary narrative. It is misguided to assume without external supporting evidence that such an exercise necessarily yields up “evidence” of an “historical fact” external to that text. But for now, I will focus on the assumption of historicity per se, and not address each and every one of Sander’s “extremely common” ‘aprioristic’ points (i.e. ‘if Jesus did X, he must have done Y’) (p.9). I will reserve these for a future post when addressing Sander’s discussion of his method and the nature of a “good hypothesis”.
Sanders “establishes” the historicity of the Temple Act before commencing his attempt to explain its specific nature and motive. Indeed, it is its “indisputable” historicity that he claims is his justification for his chapter 1 discussion.
Sanders begins by noting the problems with gospel passages that narrate the temple incident (p. 9, my formatting):
- there is neither firm agreement about the unity and integrity of the basic passages concerning the ‘cleansing of the temple’
- nor is there absolute certainty of the authenticity of either or both of the sayings about the destruction of the temple.
Despite all this, it is overwhelmingly probable that Jesus did something in the temple and said something about its destruction. (p.9)
To justify his assertion that it is “overwhelmingly probable” that a real historical event lies behind the narratives, Sanders explains:
The accusation that Jesus threatened the temple is reflected in three other passages: the crucifixion scene (Matt. 27.39f.//Mark 15.29f.); Stephen’s speech (Acts 6.13f.); and with post-Easter interpretation, in John 2.18-22. The conflict over the temple seems deeply implanted in the tradition, and that there was such a conflict would seem to be indisputable. (p.9)
This is called in the literature an example of “multiple, independent attestation”. We have three sources (the synoptic gospels, Acts and John), all presumably independent of one another, saying something like the same thing. This, it is argued, strongly suggests that we have three independent witnesses to a tradition that must be traced back to something Jesus really did do or say.
Later, Sanders again writes (p. 73):
. . . the tradition contained in [John 2.19], Mark 14.58, Matt. 26.61, Mark 15.29, Matt. 27.40, and Acts 6.14: Jesus threatened the destruction of the temple (and perhaps predicted its rebuilding after three days).
We seem here to be in touch with a very firm historical tradition, but there is still uncertainty about precisely what it is.
I will unpack the assumption of the “tradition” as the common source below. For now, I will note only that it is by no means certain that the author of Acts who composed the speech of Stephen was unaware of the Gospel of Mark. Many scholars seem to think that this author also wrote Luke, and that he used Mark in composing his gospel. Nor is it certain that the author or redactor of the Gospel of John responsible for the temple incident in that gospel did not know Mark’s gospel. The common literary structure of the trial narrative in the two gospels is the most obvious point in common between the two. Overviews of modern scholarly discussions of the possibility of John’s knowledge of the synoptic gospels generally and Mark in particular can be found in D. Moody Smith’s John Among the Gospels, available in part online. See in particular chapter 6, The Dissolution of a Consensus.
So scarcely before we can begin a discussion of the historicity of the temple act, Sanders’ suggestion that we have three independent witnesses to a “tradition” is shown not to so secure if we allow the discussions among “mainstream scholars” be our guiding reference point.
Paula Fredriksen’s on the “scholarly consensus” in relation to the Temple Act
Paula Fredriksen certainly accepts some form of temple act as historical, but also has the honesty to write:
In research on the historical Jesus, however, no single consensus interpretation ever commands 100 percent of the scholarly opinion. . . . Other critics, rightly observing the crucial role played by the Temple incident in Mark’s rendition of Jesus’ story — without it, Mark would have difficulty bringing Jesus to the attention of the priests — question whether it ever happened at all. Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly: Perhaps the whole scene is Mark’s invention. (p. 210 of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews – my emphasis)
Fredriksen is not ignorant of E. P. Sanders’ views. She cites Jesus and Judaism in her biography and makes frequent use of his ideas throughout her work. I suspect she is thinking in particular of Burton Mack when she writes: “Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly: Perhaps the whole scene is Mark’s invention.” Mack’s A Myth of Innocence is also listed in her biography.
Burton Mack’s’ argument for the Temple Act being fiction
The act itself is contrived. Some gesture was required that could symbolize both casting out and taking charge with some level of legitimacy.
Demons would be too much, since Jesus is about to be taken. It would, in any case, have been implausible. But filthy lucre would do just fine. Taxes and the temple treasury had been hot political issues underlying much of the history of conflict between Jerusalem and Rome. The citations from Isaiah and Jeremiah could put Jesus on the safe side of the conflict, motivated by righteous indignation. Jewish authorities (scripture) could be used against Jewish practice. The subtheme of temple robbery, moreover, given with the citation from Jeremiah, was also most convenient. Temple robbery was a stock image of temple degredation in the popular imagination, combining criminal activity with impiety.
The first use of the theme in Mark is Jesus’ application of Jeremiah’s charge to those who brought and sold in the temple (that is, animals for offerings and money at foreign rates of exchange). This subtheme occurs at the arrest where Jesus chides the arresters coming after him as though he, not the money changers, were the temple robber (Mark 14:48). This develops the theme somewhat, playing on the symbolic significance of the temple act and putting the countercharge in his opponent’s mouth. At the trial the question of Jesus’ authority is the more important theme, but the temple act has not been forgotten. Jesus’ authority is related to the kingdom, the substitute for the temple, thus builds (sic) upon the temple act as symbolically having taken charge. The hearsay about destroying the temple pushes the symbolism of the act in the direction of an exorcism (casting out as destroying). And underlying the charge of blasphemy is desecration, also related allusively to the temple act. When Jesus is crucified then, he is positioned between two robbers, that is, as one who desecrated the temple (Mark 15:27). Thus the subtheme is carried through to the end. It is a fictional theme derived from the scriptural citations.
The temple act cannot be historical. If one deletes from the story those themes essential to the Markan plots, there is nothing left over for historical reminiscence. The anti-temple theme is clearly Markan and the reasons for it can be clearly explained. The lack of any evidence for an anti-temple attitude in the Jesus and Christ traditions prior to Mark fits with the incredible lack of incidence in the story itself. Nothing happens. Even the chief priests overhear his “instruction” and do nothing. The conclusion must be that the temple act is a Markan fabrication. (pp. 291-292, my emphasis. I have also broken up the first paragraph into three parts for easier web-reading.)
(Mack’s statement, “If one deletes from the story those themes essential to the Markan plots, there is nothing left over for historical reminiscence”, addresses a point too rarely absent from “historicist” discussions about Jesus. Remove the scriptural embellishments and other plot devices and there is no ‘person’ left for history to see. This is why it is fallacious to claim that, since mythical associations do not discredit the historicity of ancient characters like Alexander or the Caesars, so therefore they should not discredit the historicity of Jesus. This argument misses the point: remove the mythical associations from Alexander and the Caesars and there is still plenty of ‘historical person’ left over to see. This is not the case with Jesus. But I am addressing here the correct logic of Mack’s argument. Mack himself accepts that there was an historical Jesus. One wonders, however, how Fredriksen or other “mainstream scholars” might have reacted if it had been a “mythicist” who expressed the above argument.)
The Origin of the story: Historical Tradition or Textual Tradition?
Since the discussion of “historicity” versus “mythicism” is couched in assertions from historicists that mythicist arguments avoid the works of establishment scholars, I am consciously opting to rely heavily in this post on published works of reputable scholars. No doubt I am opening myself to the charge that I am not thinking for myself, or that I should instead be addressing the works of those who express the mainstream view, or that I am cherry-picking. I can only refer anyone who thinks the first to a range of other posts of mine on this blog, where I certainly have addressed these and similar arguments in depth in relation to a number of topics. My footnoting others with the same critical views here is a deliberate choice. As for the second potential charge, I must plead guilty. If I were to cite only the mainstream views I would not be involved in any discussion to begin with. As for cherry-picking, I endeavour to represent anyone I cite as honestly as possible. I have never, to my knowledge, given anyone reason to think that an author holds views I myself argue if they do not.
So on with the chase.
Of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Temple episode, there can be little doubt that they originated in the mind of the first narrator reflecting on passages in Jeremiah and Isaiah.
15 So they came to Jerusalem. Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 16 And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple. 17 Then He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’?[a] But you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’”[b]
- Isaiah 56:7
- Jeremiah 7:11
But what is less widely acknowledged is that these sayings are not the only words that link this story with a rich set of literary themes in the Hebrew scriptures (Thompson, 2005).
Mark sandwiches the Temple Act between a story of the cursing of the fig tree. The fig tree, and the related message of the need to bear godly fruit at all times, and the theme of judgment, was part of the warp and woof of the theological and literary clusters of “memes” of the gospel authors.
One basket had very good figs, like the figs that are first ripe; and the other basket had very bad figs which could not be eaten, they were so bad. 3 Then the LORD said to me, “What do you see, Jeremiah?”
And I said, “Figs, the good figs, very good; and the bad, very bad, which cannot be eaten, they are so bad.”
4 Again the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 5 “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: ‘Like these good figs, so will I acknowledge those who are carried away captive from Judah, whom I have sent out of this place for their own good, into the land of the Chaldeans. 6 For I will set My eyes on them for good, and I will bring them back to this land; I will build them and not pull them down, and I will plant them and not pluck them up. 7 Then I will give them a heart to know Me, that I am the LORD; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God, for they shall return to Me with their whole heart.
8 ‘And as the bad figs which cannot be eaten, they are so bad’—surely thus says the LORD—‘so will I give up Zedekiah the king of Judah, his princes, the residue of Jerusalem who remain in this land, and those who dwell in the land of Egypt. 9 I will deliver them to trouble into all the kingdoms of the earth, for their harm, to be a reproach and a byword, a taunt and a curse, in all places where I shall drive them.
He shall be like a tree
Planted by the rivers of water,
That brings forth its fruit in its season,
Whose leaf also shall not wither;
And whatever he does shall prosper.
4 The ungodly are not so,
But are like the chaff which the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
17 thus says the LORD of hosts: Behold, I will send on them the sword, the famine, and the pestilence, and will make them like rotten figs that cannot be eaten, they are so bad. 18 And I will pursue them with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence; and I will deliver them to trouble among all the kingdoms of the earth—to be a curse, an astonishment, a hissing, and a reproach among all the nations where I have driven them, 19 because they have not heeded My words, says the LORD, which I sent to them by My servants the prophets, rising up early and sending them; neither would you heed, says the LORD.
But look again at the source of that second saying from Jeremiah 7.11-15
. . . . Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” says the LORD.
“But go now to My place which was in Shiloh, where I set My name at the first, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel.
And now, because you have done all these works,” says the LORD, “and I spoke to you, rising up early and speaking, but you did not hear, and I called you, but you did not answer,
therefore I will do to the house which is called by My name, in which you trust, and to this place which I gave to you and your fathers, as I have done to Shiloh.
And I will cast you out of My sight, as I have cast out all your brethren . . . .
Here the words Jesus used when he began to drive out the traders from the temple are associated directly with God casting out his people for their desecration of his temple. (Thompson does not make this point, but one might also note that Mark’s use of “drive out” here brings to a readers’ mind — the same for a Greek reader — the earlier acts of God in driving Jesus into the wilderness, and Jesus driving out spirits.)
What did the author of Matthew’s gospel think of when he read Mark’s narrative of the temple cleansing? Historical tradition? Or a related ‘Old Testament’ passage?
Matthew 21:14-16 tells us:
12 Then Jesus went into the temple of God[a] and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’[b] but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’”[c]
14 Then the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that He did, and the children crying out in the temple and saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant 16 and said to Him, “Do You hear what these are saying?”
And Jesus said to them, “Yes. Have you never read,
‘ Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants
You have perfected praise’?” [d]
17 Then He left them and went out of the city to Bethany, and He lodged there.
Why does Matthew decide to expand this Temple story by having Jesus rebut the priests by pronouncing blessings on “the babes” who bear spiritual fruit? Because he was reminded of the source passage of Isaiah 56:7 that Jesus quoted:
1 Thus says the LORD:
“ Keep justice, and do righteousness,
For My salvation is about to come,
And My righteousness to be revealed.
2 Blessed is the man who does this,
And the son of man who lays hold on it;
Who keeps from defiling the Sabbath,
And keeps his hand from doing any evil.”
3 Do not let the son of the foreigner
Who has joined himself to the LORD
“ The LORD has utterly separated me from His people”;
Nor let the eunuch say,
“ Here I am, a dry tree.”
4 For thus says the LORD:
“ To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths,
And choose what pleases Me,
And hold fast My covenant,
5 Even to them I will give in My house
And within My walls a place and a name
Better than that of sons and daughters;
I will give them[a] an everlasting name
That shall not be cut off.
6 “ Also the sons of the foreigner
Who join themselves to the LORD, to serve Him,
And to love the name of the LORD, to be His servants—
Everyone who keeps from defiling the Sabbath,
And holds fast My covenant—
7 Even them I will bring to My holy mountain,
And make them joyful in My house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
Will be accepted on My altar;
For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
8 The Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, says,
“ Yet I will gather to him
Others besides those who are gathered to him.”
Matthew recasts Isaiah 56. Isaiah’s song called the one who keeps justice and does righteousness “blessed” . . . . His examples of such a man are the “foreigner who has joined himself to Yahweh” and the “eunuch who keeps my Sabbaths.” These he will “bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer . . . . Matthew’s story of Jesus in the temple closes on a cryptic scene of healing the lame and blind. They have come to Jesus (Mt 21:14), in obvious imitation of Isaiah’s foreigner and eunuch, those whom Isaiah declared should be brought back into the temple. Their identification with the lame and blind opens Matthew’s story to a much larger discourse about temple reforms in 1-2 Kings . . . (p.80)
This last allusion to 1-2 Kings is about how the triumphal entry of Jesus riding on an ass (Zech. 9:9-11, revising Isa. 62:10-12), and then proceeding to cleanse the temple, is drawn from the literary heritage of the good kings Asa, Jehoash, Hezekiah and Josiah “cleansing the temple”.
But note also Matthew’s treatment of the opposing chief priests and scribes and what they opposed. For Matthew, these opponents of Jesus are scarcely seem upset with his temple act. It is the miracles he performs in healing the blind and lame, and how those healed worshiped him as the son of David, that provokes their response:
It is not immediately obvious why our discerning children draw their conclusion from Matthew’s sketch of the double scene of temple cleansing and healing. Nor is it obvious why the high priests and scribes find the children’s recognition of Jesus as son of David objectionable. They do not seem angry at the cleansing of the temple but at “the wonders,” at the healing of the lame and blind. This is what the children’s shouts celebrate, as they recognize Jesus as son of David. What is it the children understand and the high priests and learned scribes do not? The brief encounter with the children captures one aspect of a discourse about the proud and humble that confirms the reversal of fortune and the good news (Mk 1:1), which the saving king brings about when he enters his kingdom. (p. 81)
The origin of the temple action of Jesus is to be found in the heritage of the themes and images of the Hebrew scriptures. Jesus enters Jerusalem like a king and, like the good kings of the past, cleanses the temple of God. He restores the corrupt den of thieves to a foretaste of the glory it has in Isaiah 56 – a house of prayer where all the outcasts come for salvation. The gospel authors draw on the images of fruit, particularly figs, flourishing in all seasons, an image of the righteous being reader at all times, in all seasons, for their king.
There is no need to postulate some unverifiable “tradition” going back to an historical event. The gospels are continuing the theological discussions of the Hebrew scriptures, and applying them to a new age, for a “new Israel” now that the temple has ceased to exist.
As Thompson explains of the concept of a “tradition” in another, but related, context:
While the scenario of an expanding oral tradition originating in Jesus’ teaching is necessary to the argument [of historicity], it is not direct evidence of such a tradition. . . . Little effort has been made to argue that in fact an oral tradition existed that collected Jesus’ sayings. However, whether or not one is inclined to allow Crossan’s argument as likely, his parade example of an authentic saying of Jesus [Mark 10:13-16] can be clearly falsified. It can be shown not to have originated in the teachings of Jesus. (p. 75)
The same can be shown for the temple act itself. It is an adaptation of a motif, indeed a cluster of motifs and sayings, from the Hebrew scriptures. The bracketing of the temple action with the fig tree narrative is Mark’s signal to think in terms of all that anyone familiar with the scriptures already knows: figs and the bearing fruit is an image associated with judgment, and in particular with judgment on the temple, and a judgment that results in a casting out. Jesus, having fulfilled the scriptures by entering like a lowly king on a donkey, next turns to cleanse the temple, the traditional act of a godly king. And the images that spring to mind in Mark and Matthew, are those of the lessons of piety (Mark’s teaching on the power of faith and prayer) and spiritual restoration (Matthew’s extension of the scene to embrace a healing of the outcasts).
This is the most direct, parsimonious explanation for the origin of the contents of the story. Burton Mack demonstrates, further, the narrative need for it, and why it had to be created to meet that need.