Why did the author of the Gospel of John change the setting of Jesus driving out the money changers from the Temple from near the end of the gospel (where it is in all the other gospels) to place it near the very beginning of the ministry of Jesus? In those other gospels the episode serves as a plausible reason for the authorities to have Jesus arrested, tried and finally executed. But the Gospel of John has composed the account of the raising of Lazarus from the dead to provoke the religious authorities to capture and eliminate Jesus. The temple episode is shifted to near the beginning of the narrative. Why did the author do that?
Gary Greenberg in a 2018 publication, Proving Jesus’ Authority in Mark and John: Overlooked Evidence of a Synoptic Relationship, proposes an interesting explanation. I will touch on a few of Greenberg’s key points but not attempt a full coverage of his extended and somewhat complex argument. (You may find the complexities count against Greenberg’s interpretation. Maybe, or maybe not: I leave those details aside here.)
In a nutshell, Greenberg suggests that the author of the Gospel of John opposed the Gospel of Mark’s image of Jesus achieving his great authority and fame because of his miracles and wanted to present Jesus astonishing the crowds because of the authority of his teaching, not his powers. In the Gospel of Mark Jesus begins his public career with exorcisms and healing miracles that attract followers to him throughout Galilee. In the Gospel of John Jesus’ first miracle (turning water to wine at the wedding) is a private affair known only to his disciples. The Gospel of John replaces Mark’s public miracles (casting out demons) with the cleansing of the temple (casting out money-changers) in Jerusalem and that action, along with his declaration of authority, becomes known throughout Galilee. In John’s gospel, Jesus denounces belief in him because of the miracles whereas in Mark’s gospel a positive impression is given of the power of miracles to attract people to Jesus.
Let’s start with the first miracle that propelled Jesus to fame according to the Gospel of Mark, generally recognized as the earliest of our canonical gospels. Greenberg’s larger argument is that the author of the Fourth Gospel knows the Gospel of Mark and is rewriting it according to a theological perspective that he (“John”) believes is more appropriate. (I have expressed a similar view in the past largely on the basis that the Gospel of John can be interpreted as a step by step undertaking to turn the Gospel of Mark “inside out”, so to speak. The most prominent example would be the replacing of Mark’s “messianic secret” — the theme that Jesus keeps his messianic identity secret from the general public until the very end — with John’s Jesus who loudly and regularly proclaims to all and sundry his messianic and divine identity.) But we begin with the Gospel of Mark because we see how the first miracles of Jesus there may well help explain why the author of John’s Gospel has replaced them with the Temple cleansing.
Both the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John begin with an encounter with John the Baptist. John points to Jesus in both gospels (though in different ways). In Mark Jesus goes on to call two pairs of disciples: Simon (Peter) and his brother Andrew, and then James and John. In the Gospel of John Jesus also calls two pairs of disciples: Peter and Andrew, and then Philip and Nathanael.
In the Gospel of Mark we then read about Jesus entering a synagogue, casting out a demon from one possessed, and thereby astonishing all onlookers at his power and authority.
The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.
From that moment on Jesus’ fame spreads like wildfire. Look at the details of note as set out by Gary Greenberg (with my own bolded highlighting) on page 78:
- . . . At the beginning, we are told that the exorcism happened immediately after Jesus arrived at Capernaum. At the end, we are told that pursuant to this specific act, Jesus’ fame immediately began to spread throughout the Galilee for the first time. The exorcism takes place in between these two frames.
- The story takes place in a Jewish place of worship, the synagogue in Capernaum.
- The demon in this story is an “unclean spirit” that inhabits a human body. “Unclean” is the term used in the story. Although the nature of the infliction is not clearly spelled out, it appears that the body suffered from significant corrupting influences that need to be removed.
- The spirit challenges Jesus’ authority to deal with it. “What have you to do with us?”
- The demon knows who Jesus really is.
- Jesus chased the corrupting influence out of the host body and out of the house of worship.
- The story establishes Jesus’ authority to introduce “a new teaching.”
- It establishes Jesus’ authority over unclean spirits (although it is not clear that this is a special power unique to Jesus.)
- The crowds were amazed.
- Jesus’ reputation in Galilee soared because of this first exorcism.
Now when Gary Greenberg examines the Gospel of John’s temple cleansing event, he senses in the following details intimations of Mark’s first exorcism story (pp 84f):
- In both Mark and John, immediately after arriving in Capernaum for the first time, Jesus enters a Jewish house of worship. In Mark, this is the synagogue in Capernaum; in John, the Temple in Jerusalem [in John Jesus walks quickly through Capernaum on his way to Jerusalem]. (In John, this also fulfills Malachi’s prophecy about “the Lord” “suddenly” coming to the Temple.)
- In both Mark and John, Jesus finds corrupting influences inside a house of worship that need to be chased away. In Mark, it is the “unclean spirit”; In John, it is the merchants.
- In both Mark and John, the corrupting influence is associated with somebody’s body. In Mark, the “unclean spirit” inhabits a man’s body. In John, there is a gloss by the author saying that when Jesus referred to raising the Temple, “he was speaking of the temple of his body.” While John doesn’t precisely identify the Jerusalem Temple with Jesus’ body, he does create a literary situation in which the authorities mistakenly think that Jesus’ symbolic reference to his body is a direct reference to the Jerusalem Temple, which housed the corrupting influences.
- In both Mark and John, Jesus introduces a new teaching that challenges traditional beliefs. Mark doesn’t say what Jesus said, but the congregation says that it is “a new teaching—with authority.” But in John we do get the content of a new teaching, to wit: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” John’s new teaching challenges traditional Passover and religious practices in the Temple.
- In both Mark and John, the corruptors challenge the authority of Jesus to confront them. In Mark, the demon says, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” In John, the authorities ask, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” In John, the challenge is raised after the expulsion by authorities who do not know who Jesus is. In Mark the challenge is raised before the expulsion by a demon who knows who Jesus is.
- In both Mark and John, the corrupting influence was chased out of the house of worship. In Mark, it is the demon; in John, the merchants.
- In both Mark and John, the non-corrupt onlookers recognize the authority of Jesus to deliver a new teaching.
- In both Mark and John, immediately after the respective incidents, witnesses from Galilee spread word of Jesus’ actions, bringing him widespread fame and authority in Galilee for the first time.
- In Mark, the exorcism serves as proof of the authority to introduce a new teaching. In John, the words of his teaching prove his authority.
The author of the Gospel of John was not impressed by Jesus performing exorcisms. After all, Luke (Luke 11:19) pointed out that exorcisms could be and were performed by just about anyone.
No, no “common” exorcisms appear in the Gospel of John. For the author of the Fourth Gospel, though Jesus performed unparalleled signs, Jesus would not trust anyone who followed him simply because of those signs. One had to register the word of truth itself from Jesus. In the Gospel of John Jesus constantly admonishes the necessity of following him because of his teaching, not because of his miracles. And exorcisms did not even rate as worthy of signs for the Johannine Son of God.
The Temple cleansing in Jerusalem is framed by Capernaum events that parallel those in the Gospel of Mark. To illustrate the first part of that frame ….
|Gospel of Mark
|Gospel of John
|And they went into Capernaum (1:21)
|After this He went down to Capernaum (2:12)
|— First public act — exorcism of unclean spirit (1:22-26)
|— First public act — temple cleansing (2:13-22)
|— First public act made Jesus famous in Galilee for the first time (1:27-28)
And they were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? what new doctrine is this? for with authority commandeth he even the unclean spirits, and they do obey him. And immediately his fame spread abroad throughout all the region round about Galilee.
|— First public act made Jesus famous in Galilee for the first time (4:43-45)
When he arrived in Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him. They had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, for they also had been there.
I intend in this post to do nothing more than raise awareness of the possibility that the Gospel of John was using a counter-narrative to rebut the Gospel of Mark’s Jesus using miracles to demonstrate his authority and draw a following. In that context one might understand the fourth evangelist substituting the cleansing of the temple for the exorcism in the synagogue as Jesus’ first public act.
The first objection you probably have to the above is the fact that in John’s gospel the effect of the cleansing of the temple (described in chapter 2) on Jesus’ reputation in Galilee is not mentioned until chapter 4. Gary Greenberg answers that such readjustments were made in order to work a series of Jerusalem visits into the new account.