While researching the similarities and differences between Mark’s and John’s account of the Cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem, I came across some fascinating observations by David Friedrich Strauss in The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. As you no doubt already know, the cleansing of, or what many Historical Jesus (HJ) scholars today often call a disturbance at, the Temple is an event recounted in all four gospels, which imagines a lone Jesus disrupting all business occurring in the outer courtyard.
HJ scholars who claim Jesus was some sort of apocalyptic prophet prefer to believe the event really happened, because it fits in with the eschatological message of their reconstructed Jesus. On the other hand, taking the stories at face value raises many issues. Bart Ehrman, in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, writes:
Most scholars recognize that some aspects of our accounts appear exaggerated, including Mark’s claim that Jesus completely shut down the operation of the Temple (if no one could carry any vessels, it would have been impossible to sacrifice and butcher the animals—which was after all what the Temple was for). As we have seen, the Temple complex was immense, and there would have been armed guards present to prevent any major disturbances. Moreover, if Jesus had actually created an enormous stir in the Temple, it’s nearly impossible to explain why he wasn’t arrested on the spot and taken out of the way before he could stir up the crowds. For these reasons, it looks as if Mark’s account represents an exaggeration of Jesus’ actions. But exaggerations aside, it is almost certain that Jesus did something that caused a disturbance in the Temple — for example, overturned some tables and made at least a bit of a ruckus. (Ehrman, p. 212, emphasis mine)
So for Ehrman, the Temple “disturbance” almost certainly happened, but not the way the gospels tell it. Instead, he would argue, the gospels contain a nugget of truth inside an otherwise unbelievable story.
Meanwhile, other NT scholars don’t buy into the historicity of the event. For example, in A Myth of Innocence Burton Mack called the story a “Markan fabrication.” (See p. 292.) For more on the historical aspects of the cleansing, read Neil’s excellent post: “Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical.”
Identifying the form
Before we go any further, let’s recall an often forgotten rule in biblical studies: To understand what a story means, you must first determine what it is. And so I come back to Strauss’s analysis of the alleged Temple event. With respect to Origen’s take on the Temple tantrum, he wrote:
As regards the nature of the event, Origen long ago thought it incredible, that so great a multitude should have unresistingly submitted to a single man, — one, too, whose claims had ever been obstinately contested: his only resource in this exigency is to appeal to the superhuman power of Jesus, by virtue of which he was able suddenly to extinguish the wrath of his enemies, or to render it impotent; and hence Origen ranks this expulsion among the greatest miracles of Jesus. (Strauss, p. 401, emphasis mine)
And we must give attention to whether casting out all those selling and buying in the temple would have been beyond the position of one thought to be the son of a carpenter, unless perhaps, as we also said there, he subjected them all by divine power, for according to the other evangelists, they heard harsher words than John uses. (Origen, p. 294, tr. by Ronald Heine, Origen: Commentary on the Gospel According to John, Books 1-10, emphasis mine)
It was certainly a manifestation of supernatural will — of “divine power” — if it happened. Both the Synoptics and John explicitly say that Jesus accomplished the purification alone. In John, it appears as if the disciples are hovering off-stage, not so much watching as remembering the event, trying to understand it through the lens of scripture. Both sources recount the incident as a complete success. In Mark, he stopped all traffic. In John, he drove out all the sheep and oxen with a homemade whip.
And even though Roman troops were watching from the Antonia Fortress, as were the priests, we presume, from the Temple steps, Jesus left the scene without a scratch. It’s as if you went to an NFL game in the Meadowlands and single-handedly cleared the parking lot of all tailgaters, turning over their barbecues, and dumping out their beer. If you got past the first group alive, it would be astonishing. If you finished the task unscathed and managed to keep from getting arrested, that would be a miracle.
Strauss cites the unusual features of the story, including the fact that the gospels normally depict Jesus as avoiding public displays and violent outbursts. Hence, “it is not easy either to reconcile this conduct with his usual aversion to everything revolutionary, or to explain the omission of his enemies to use it as an accusation against him.” (p. 402) By the time of the trial before the Sanhedrin, it would appear everyone had forgotten the demonstration at the Temple.
Origen suspected that we should understand the purification story as an allegory.
[I]t is not surprising that Origen casts a doubt on the historical value of this narrative, by the expression, εἴγε καὶ αὐτὴ γεγένηται (if it really happened), and at most admits that the Evangelist, in order to present an idea allegorically, καὶ γεγενημένῳ συωέχρήσατο πράγματι (also borrowed the form of an actual occurrence). (Strauss, p. 402, bold emphasis mine)
Take note: Borrowing the form of an actual occurrence means that the gospel writers used the form of an historical event to convey a religious truth by means of symbolic language. It is a parable masquerading as history.
Origen further suggested we should understand references to the Temple as referring to the body of Christ.
(239) What I have said is not unrelated to the temple and those who were driven out by the Savior who says of the event, “The zeal of your house will devour me.” Nor are my words unrelated to the Jews who ask for a sign to be shown to them, and the Lord’s response to them, when he joins a word about the temple with one about his own body, and declares, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”
(240) For these irrational and commercial things must be driven away from this temple which is the body of Christ, that it might no longer be a house of merchandise. (Origen/Heine, p. 308, emphasis mine)
Of course, for most Christians between Origen and Strauss, the story was simply a fact — a true, historical event, preserved in the gospels, taken on faith. But the Enlightenment gave rise to a group of interesting characters who tried to rationalize everything in the Bible. That is, they accepted scripture as true, but thought everything that looked miraculous could be explained rationally.
The poster boy for rationalism run amok, Heinrich Eberhard Gottlob Paulus, is easy to make fun of today.
Paulus’s explanations for the miracles of the Gospels—and he can explain them all!—may seem fairly outlandish to us today; but for many people of the Enlightenment, they made a lot of sense, at least, a lot better sense than the claim that the Gospels recorded miracles that actually happened. After all, anyone can make a mistake and we all know people who have been confused or misled or gullible. These are all among our everyday experiences. But how many of us know people who can multiply loaves, walk on water, or rise from the dead? (Ehrman, p. 27, italics his)
From what I can tell from reading Schweitzer, Strauss, and others, it doesn’t appear that Paulus had a particularly large number of followers. If anything, his work persists as a kind of anti-rationalist focus of ridicule.
Yet Paulus, like Origen, correctly saw the stories of Jesus clearing out the Temple and disrupting all traffic as a miracle. Jesus couldn’t have done it all by himself. Strauss remarks:
Hence Paulus is of opinion that a number of others, equally scandalized by the sacrilegious traffic, made common cause with Jesus, and that to their united strength the buyers and sellers were compelled to yield. (Strauss, p. 401-402)
But he rightly points out that Paulus’ rewriting of the story smothers it. It’s “fatal to the entire incident,” he writes, because “it makes Jesus the cause of an open tumult . . .” To put it more bluntly, it turns Jesus into a common rabble-rouser — the leader of a riot instead of a prophet acting on behalf of God.
So far we’ve covered three possible ways to understand the cleansing of the Temple.
- Accept it as completely true, i.e., as a public miracle with prophetic overtones.
- Take it as an allegorical story with historical trappings.
- Pick the parts of the story we like and invent other parts, using our own standards for plausibility.
In other words: believe it unconditionally, interpret it allegorically, or rewrite it arbitrarily. Today’s HJ scholars of the apocalyptic prophet persuasion don’t accept the first two options. Thus, ironically, the people who snicker at Paulus when it comes to the rationalization of Jesus’ walking on water or his resurrection do the same thing when it comes to the cleansing of the Temple. The only difference is what they consider plausible. “Surely, something must have happened,” they assert. And so they pick the few bits of the text that suit their purposes, and discard the rest.
Similarly, scholars who support the zealot theory of Jesus think the gospels are hiding something. Like Paulus, they insist that Jesus and his followers effectively staged a revolt, but the true story didn’t make the final edit. Reza Aslan writes:
As provocative as his entrance into Jerusalem may be, it pales in comparison to what Jesus does the following day. With his disciples and, one assumes, the praiseful multitude in tow, Jesus enters the Temple’s public courtyard — the Court of Gentiles — and sets about “cleansing” it. In a rage, he overturns the tables of the money changers and drives out the vendors hawking cheap food and souvenirs. He releases the sheep and cattle ready to be sold for sacrifice and breaks open the cages of the doves and pigeons, setting the birds to flight. “Take these things out of here!” he shouts. (bold emphasis mine)
Aslan, Reza (2013-07-16). Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Kindle Locations 1284-1288). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Notice the details that Aslan rejects and the ones he invents (cheap food and souvenirs?). Was Jesus acting alone? Not according to Aslan. It’s Paulus’ rabble-rouser Jesus all over again.
What did the evangelists say?
For a change, I suggest that today’s scholars look at stories in the gospels as they are presented and take them seriously. Is the story of the Temple cleansing historically true? Absolutely not. Origen was right — it has the form of history, but John and Mark are conveying theological “truths” of a different order. They’re not telling us what Jesus did so much as who Christ is.
Like Paulus before them, today’s scholars think they’re discovering historical evidence by rationalizing fiction. However, instead of bringing us greater understanding about the historical Jesus, their efforts do nothing but suck the life out of the New Testament. It’s history done by hacks. It’s exegesis with a meat-ax.