R.G. Price on the “Temple Cleansing” by Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

R.G. Price has posted an article expanding on his argument he made in Deciphering the Gospels that the “cleansing the Temple” scene is derived from an imaginative interpretation of a passage in Hosea and has no basis in any sort of historical memory of anything Jesus ever did. Price goes beyond the argument itself, however, and believes it is strong enough to serve as a lever against the standards of mainstream studies of the historical Jesus. He concludes:

The relationship between the temple cleansing scene and Hosea 9 is real and it needs to be addressed by mainstream biblical scholars. It requires revising the models of mainstream scholarship and seriously reevaluating mainstream positions. The implications are vast and profound. The idea that it’s, “certain that Jesus did something that caused a disturbance in the Temple,” is no longer tenable. Anyone continuing to claim it is in light of this evidence should no longer be considered credible. Anyone who addresses the temple cleansing scene without addressing this literary dependency is either unaware of the most recent scholarship or intentionally ignoring it because they are unable to address it. From this point forward, addressing the temple cleansing without addressing its relationship to Hosea 9 is untenable.

That’s not how “mainstream biblical scholars” are going to respond, of course. Once they start with the “secure fact” that Jesus was crucified they need to find some grounds for that crucifixion that will not undermine whatever attributes he had that enabled his former followers to believe he was the messiah who had been raised to heaven. A misunderstood event in the temple serves that function. I think many of those scholars are well aware that the evangelists have culled words from the canonical Hebrew texts to colour the episode, but none of that seems to lead many to doubt the historicity of the event. The literary borrowings are said to reflect the deep meaning that the authors gave to the historical event that they are nonetheless sure must have happened.

Price has elaborated upon details in Hosea 9 that have surely inspired the three-fold steps of the gospel narrative:

  • The idea of seeing fruit on a fig tree (Jesus approaches the fig tree looking for fruit)
  • Driving sinners out of the temple (Jesus drives out the money-changers)
  • The withering of the fig tree (the fig tree is found to be withered)

I think the case can be made even stronger by adding the other passages that our evangelist author has drawn upon. In addition to Hosea 9 we have Isaiah and Jeremiah:

Mark 11:15-17 (New King James Version)

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]


  1. Isaiah 56:7
  2. Jeremiah 7:11

(From BibleGateway.com)

Toss in Zechariah 14:21 for good measure:

No trader shall be seen in the house of the Lord.

In an earlier post I did point to the same passage in Hosea (along with other passages expressing the fig tree metaphor) but without Price’s elaboration of how it fits the structure of the episode in Mark:

The same theme of being planted to bear good fruit and being cursed and uprooted for bearing bad, and the lesson to be godly at all times, is repeated in Jeremiah 8.13; 32:36-41; Hosea 9:10-14.

Michael Turton also referenced the Hosea 9:10 passage in his commentary on Mark.

It is that last passage, Hosea 9:10-14 that Price teases apart and highlighting the chiastic structure of Hosea’s matching the chiastic structure of Mark’s “fig tree – temple – fig tree” unit.

We can go farther, yet. So far we can claim that each scene and each sentence in the narrative of the cursing of the fig tree and cleansing of the temple can be sourced to Scriptural sources. That’s fine, but there is also the literary function of the double episode itself in the framework of the gospel’s plot. (Again, refer to that “earlier post” above for details.)

For further literary linkages see Michael Turton’s commentary on Mark.

Everything about the episode has been constructed from well-known canonical passages and constructed for narrative plot. The author of the Gospel of John presented a Jesus quite different from the one found in the Synoptic gospels and replaced the temple cleansing scene with the raising of Lazarus. It was the raising of Lazarus that prompted the Jewish authorities to do away with Jesus. The fourth evangelist treated the temple action as a theological or symbolic action that he was free to move to the beginning of the gospel. Tim has shown the reason for this move in one of his posts: it served as a replacement for the synoptic Jesus being tempted in the wilderness.

It is as clear that the story is a composite literary artifice. The only grounds for concluding that it does have some historical core are a belief that Jesus was crucified even though he was a righteous and good man consumed with zeal for God and purity of worship. That the theme of the righteous man being unjustly executed by authorities and becoming an atonement for others is another literary-cum-theological trope in literature (Jewish and Greek) is something to be discussed another day.

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43 thoughts on “R.G. Price on the “Temple Cleansing” by Jesus”

  1. Your link to Turton is still pointing to my post.

    Agreed, that there is even more to be dealt with in this scene than what I laid out in my post. What I find so fascination is how mainstream scholars either completely fail to address the literary references or only give them passing attention, without doing anything to delve into the implications of such constructs.

    I found Meier’s commentary quite amusing; how, with a straight face, he says that Jesus acted out a series of symbolic scriptural references. I mean, really? This is what we get from the “trusted authorities” on this subject?

    The issue is that the arguments of the mainstream scholars, particularly in regard to this scene, are so weak and so obviously ludicrous. And then we have Bart Ehrman basically just parroting Sanders and Meier, looking like all he’s done is read their works and copy what they said.

    I think that this scene in particular is a case where the mainstream position is particularity vulnerable because it is so obviously contrived and the evidence against it is so strong.

    And I didn’t even bring up the details of how it all fits into the larger narrative context. Mark 1:2 refers to Malachi 3:1 which reads:
    See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.”

    Mark 1:2 quotes the first part of that reference and leave the second part out, as the “hidden mystery” that the reader is to uncover. The very opening of Mark foreshadows the temple cleansing. This clarifies of course that the temple cleansing is central to the narrative.

    And then we have the references to the temple in the Crucifixion scene as well. So Sanders is right, everything really does hing on the temple scene. The whole narrative is built around it. It is the foundation upon which the entire Gospel narrative rests. Establishing that this scene is fictional (ahistorical) is absolutely a broadside against the historicity of the entire Gospel narrative. This scene is the lynch-pin.

    1. Regarding Meier’s commentary, I remember how I used to take apparent prophetic fulfillment. I reasoned that if God was actually all powerful he could presage what later would be unwittingly “acted out” by his son. It was a matter of which presupposition about God I started with.

      1. Certainly. I agree with much of what Goulder has put forward other than his starting supposition that Mark contains real information about Jesus. It is really possible to essentially take Goulder’s assessment from Mark on and you have Mythicism. All you have to do is put a fictional Mark into the starting point of Goulder and you essentially have the thesis laid out by Doherty, Carrier, myself, etc.

        1. It’s been a long time. I may be thinking of the way Bishop Spong made use of Goulder in “Liberating the Gospels.” What I remember is that Spong reached the point where virtually every incident in the life of Jesus was traceable back to an Old Testament analog, e.g., manna in the wilderness to loaves & fishes, resurrection of Elijah to that of Jesus, Suffering Servant of Isaiah to the Passion, etc. And Spong ends saying he “can’t conceive” that Jesus never existed. No reason given. He just can’t conceive it. And that’s the position of all those in the service of the church, including the university religion departments.

    2. Fixed the link, thanks.

      The failure to address consequences of the literary origins of gospel episodes seems to have come about, or is at least reinforced, by the conviction that literary analysis is a study of its own while the historian’s job is to get to the events “behind the text”. The literary critic studies the surface of the text, as it were.

      Of course this division is something I have only seen in biblical studies. One of the most fundamental principles of historical research normally is to begin by understanding the nature of the sources themselves, and that as a rule necessarily includes literary analysis.

  2. Probably just a coincidence, but I wonder I Matthew recognised the allusion and incorporated “Even if they bear children, I will slay their cherished offspring” into the slaughter of the Innocents. But I guess the parallels to Moses are explanation enough.

    1. I don’t think Matthew recognized this one. He defiantly recognized some of the scriptural references in Mark, but not this one. When he did recognize them he usually expanded on them in the immediate scene. Also, if he had recognized this he wouldn’t have restructured the scene in such a ways to ruin the reference, which is what he did when he re-ordered the cursing of the fig tree.

      1. “He defiantly recognized some of the scriptural references in Mark”
        should be
        “He definitely recognized some of the scriptural references in Mark”

  3. I am almost finished r g price’s book “Deciphering the Gospels”, and while I don’t think he “proved” that Jesus never existed, I found his argument and evidence very compelling.

    My concern is less with the factual accounts of Jesus’ (supposed) life, and more with the evolution of the moral model for humanity presented in the Gospels, and in Paul’s letters. It is this moral example, the command to love thy neighbor, the universality of the standards, defying tribal and ethnic divisions, the radical notion of human equality, the denunciation of the rich for oppressing and exploiting the poor, that has guided the moral evolution of western society for 2000 years.

    The attack on the money changers in the Temple is one of the enduring pillars of this moral edifice. I care less about whether it actually happened, or whether Jesus actually existed, than about the social and religious environment in which Paul, Mark, Matthew and other early Christians were led to such a powerful formulation of human moral obligations, and to successfully implement a movement that enshrined these values.

    I am aware that many of these moral teachings were derived from the Hebrew prophets, and probably influenced by Plato, the stoics and other elements of Greek thought. Can anyone direct me to scholarly works that examine the history and context of these moral developments?

    1. This is a good point. I think an important aspect of disproving the existence of Jesus and disproving the “divine truth” of biblical scriptures in general, is to focus attention back onto the human reality of these texts and their culture.

      I very much view the biblical writings as fascinating and noteworthy documents of important human achievement. I think that taking the divine element away from them allows their human origins to be much more richly appreciated an valued. I find the whole body of Jewish second temple writings absolutely fascinating and wonderful.

        1. Per Wikipedia, no silver Hasmonean coinage has ever been found.
          • So for what period did the temple priests only accept pagan Tyrian coinage?
          Given the dearth of roman coinage in the area until until Vespasian’s reign. Money changers were not dealing in roman coinage, but changing low grade coins for high grade.

      1. Me Price, what do you consider to be the Jewish second temple writings? Most of the prophets ostensibly wrote before the captivity. Are you thinking of Daniel, Nehemiah, Macabees? What else? There seems to be a growing consensus that much of the Torah was written during the second temple era, even after the Macedonian conquest, and greatly influenced by Greek thought. Is that what you have in mind? Any good secondary overviews to recommend?

        1. In particular I’m thinking of Enoch, and the various apocalypses, but yeah, 2nd temple essentially describes 4th century BCE – 2nd century CE, so it covers a lot.

          But I’m mostly thinking of the apocrypha. I think a lot of that material is some of the most fascinating writings of the ancient world (Not the best, or most astute, but certainly fascinating. I still hold writings of the Greek materialists in higher regard, but the apocalypses are more fun to read). There is also an interesting morality in these writings that I find appealing in terms of its support for the poor and oppressed against the rich and powerful.

    2. I would recommend “The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David” By Thomas L. Thompson. He goes into the background of the morals you find in Christianity and how you find them in other ANE relgions. I also recommend “Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt” by Jan Assmann. He goes into the morals of Egyptian religion and compares it to Christian morals. Here’s a quote from the book:

      “But Egyptian texts speak of the redemptive aspect of righteousness with an intensity that we cannot dismiss as ideological padding. What the norms of maat imposed on the individual in the way of selfcontrol and self-abnegation was based on the redemptive powers of these norms, which were believed to save human existence from transitoriness. This was an ethics conceived on the basis of death. Act always — so we can summarize the “categorical (or better: cultural) imperative” of the Egyptians — so that your actions need not fear examination in the Judgment
      of the Dead. Place your conduct of life and the style of your actions on a basis that has proved to be truly lasting in this life and also serves as a standard for lastingness in the next life… This point clarifies the statement that follows: the greedy one has no tomb. To have a tomb means to be saved forever from transitoriness. The reference is not to a tomb made by man from stone but to one made by dint of righteousness, as stated in the Instruction for Merikare.
      The individual thus appears before his divine judges and avers that he has lived according to maat:
      See, I have come to you —
      there is no wrong, no guilt in me,
      no evil in me, no witness against me,
      and there is no one I have wronged.
      (For) I live on truth, I nourish myself on truth.
      I have done that which men advise
      and with which the gods are pleased.
      I have pleased the god with what he loves.
      I gave bread to the hungry,
      water to the thirsty,
      clothing to the naked,
      a ferry to the boatless.”

      The parable of the rich and poor man in Luke is probably based on an Egyptian parable.

      “The sequence from Setna II in which Setna and his son Si-Osire travel to the underworld draws upon Greek mythology and influences later Christian scripture in the story of the rich and poor man in the afterlife.
      The contrast of the rich and poor man in life and death, later skillfully used by the author of the Book of Luke, illustrates the importance of the central value of ancient Egypt: observance of ma’at. There was nothing wrong, per se, in having riches. Pharaoh, after all, was quite wealthy and yet no one doubted the king would find himself justified in the afterlife and continue on to the Field of Reeds. The autobiographies and tomb inscriptions of plenty of wealthy ancient Egyptians, from different eras, express the same confidence.”

      “The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary” By Arland J. Hultgren:

      “Just as the misfortunes are typical of those that the unfortunates of the world experience, so there are texts that contain lists of typical acts of kindeness towards them–and which commend these acts–in various literatures of the world. In the eighth-century-B.C. Akkadian “Counsels of Wisdom” a sage teaches that one should give food, drink, and clothing to those in need. Other literatures include the Egyptian Book Of The Dead (125: A person being judged says, “I have given bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked and a boat to him who was boatless”), the Mandaean Ginza (2.36.13-17:”If you see one who hungers, feed him, someone who thirsts, give him to drink; if you see one naked, place a garment on him and clothe him. If you see a prisoner, who is believing and upright, obtain a ransom and free him”), and more…As indicated above, there is nothing particularly Christian about the six works of kindness that those on the right have done; they belong to the world of moral reflection and behavior in various cultures, including those prior to the ministry of Jesus.”

    3. As for “moral questions” I have found two studies of interest. In one, Stanley Stowers presents a case that the anger of Jesus in the temple was consistent with Stoic philosophy — contrary to popular notions that tell us Stoics should never display such emotions: Understanding the Emotional Jesus: temple tantrums, name-calling and grieving

      Then we have William Telford examining the fig tree curse and noting how in the Gospel of Luke the miracle is rewritten as a parable that teaches hearers how patient! Jesus is: Luke Makes Jesus More Patient with the Fig Tree

  4. No way the temple authorities would have allowed such actions to go unpunished, for that matter neither would the pious crowds whose sacrifices were required. None of the story is believable.

  5. Thanks folks for these great insights. Also for the recommendations of more books (Thompson & Assmann) I’ll search for and buy. My goal is firstly to live long enough to read them all !

    I’m at the point where I am trying to reflect on my “presuppositions” as Bob Moore puts it. RGP’s conclusion that “It is as clear that the story is a composite literary artifice” is as radical as his conclusion that the person of Jesus is “a composite literary artifice”. If we get to the point where we are convinced, like me, that the person of Jesus was a Roman political literary device, then much else follows on.

    But we must all ask ourselves if mythicism is our presupposition or our conclusion ?

  6. • How I outline events

    a. go to tree
    b. find tree fruitless
    c. curse tree

    a’ go to temple
    b’ find temple fruitless
    c’ curse temple

    d. find tree withered
    d’ [nudge nudge wink wink—in the future] find temple withered

    1. r.g.price, how would characterize: “b’ find temple fruitless”. I think it is finding Torah and Temple to be theologically barren, i.e. no longer required.

      1. I tend to read more into the references themselves than the narrative. In other words, I don’t see the structure itself as symbolic, I see it as referential. I think the real symbolic is in the reference. The passage being referenced (Hosea 9) is about God declaring that he no longer loves the Jews and will bring destruction down upon them. I think that’s the real meaning here and how this passage related to the First Jewish-Roman War.

  7. • They can’t see the forest for the trees.

    Telford, William (2015) [diss. 1976] [now formatted]. The Barren Temple and the Withered Tree: A Redaction-Critical Analysis of the Cursing of the Fig-Tree Pericope in Mark’s Gospel and Its Relation to the Cleansing of the Temple Tradition. Bloomsbury Publishing.

    [Per] doubt on Jesus’ reasonableness in expecting fruit from the tree when “it was not the season for figs”.

    In general four main solutions were advanced.
    • In the first Place, emendations to the text were made and different nuances for the words were suggested.
    • A second approach was to ascribe the words to a glossator.
    • In the third place, evidence was adduced to show that some form of edible figs could be found at this time of year, neglected figs of last season’s crop that had remained on the tree over the winter, or immature first-ripe figs, or green knops (פגים), which, though not ripe until May or June, may have been digestible, or even first-ripe figs themselves (בכורים), whose maturation had been hastened by exceptionally clement weather.
    • Other commentators, however, accepting the text as it stood, read the enigmatic and seemingly contradictory nature of this datum as a sign that the incident was to be regarded in a symbolic light. —(p. 2)

    1. So I made a post about this here: https://www.reddit.com/r/AcademicBiblical/

      I figured it would be a reasonable place to discuss the topic.

      Turns out no. My initial post just outlined the scene and comparison between Hosea 9 and Mark and left it at that and linked to my post.

      It was immediately met with : 1) doesn’t mean anything 2) you’re stupid

      The thread is now locked: https://www.reddit.com/r/AcademicBiblical/comments/afox4c/cleansing_of_the_temple_intertextuality_overturns/

      It appears that he’s removed all of my replies. I can’t tell exactly. I still see my comments, but there is a note that they have been removed, so I’m not sure they are really visible to anyone else.

      Oh well…

      1. r.g.price: I, who am on Reddit, cannot see any of your posts in that thread, excepting the remark about how you are not Robert M. price.

        With all due respect, given the undeserved hostility that Jesus mythicism has attracted from Biblical scholars, maybe you should have been more circumspect in presenting your arguments. Simply pointing out the intertextual possibilities between GMark and Hosea (and/or Malachi) would be interesting enough – and would not attract hostility for advancing mythicism. But saying that “the arguments of the mainstream scholars, particularly in regard to this scene, are so weak and so obviously ludicrous” is needlessly hostile and will provoke anger – especially when paired with mythicism.

          1. I am writing up a non-mythicist summary/presentation of your ideas. May I, with your permission, post such a summary upon Reddit’s Academic Biblical subreddit? The summary would explicitly deny that the parallels are automatically evidence for mythicism/its not happening, but would mention that at least one respected scholar has held that the Temple Cleansing did not happen.

            If you want, I could mention that your writings, which I truthfully do not agree with (because I favour Roger Parvus’s model) inspired me. However, this might be risky, because people might not believe me. I have been accused of lying by a mod there, who thought that my saying that something was less relevant was identical to my saying that it was irrelevant – meaning that my denial that I had said that something was irrelevant was a lie.

            If you are curious, the issue was how Jesus got to the mountain top when tempted by Satan. I said that a precise analysis of the verb used may have been less relevant for the author of the passage than the miraculous meeting with Satan upon a mountain top.

              1. R. G. Price: Just to clarify, then: the summary that I am preparing will not mention that you are the source of these ideas (which are based upon bible verses). If any ask me if I got it from another person, I will say that I got it from you but disagree with your use of the themes to support mythicism (which I disagree with). Is this all right with you?

            1. BTW, I sent a message to the moderators list of that group citing improper moderation. I didn’t say anything in that thread that violated any rules, he simply removed all my comments and closed it because he disagreed with what I had to say. One comment was just citing biblical scholars who had published papers and books on the topic without knowledge of this literary reference, making the point that it is a topic of relevance. He removed that saying I have no idea what I’m talking about. All it was was a listing and summary of papers related to the cleaning of the temple and fig tree. The guy was clearly overboard.

      2. It appears that he’s removed all of my replies. I can’t tell exactly. I still see my comments, but there is a note that they have been removed, so I’m not sure they are really visible to anyone else.

        • Your comments are not visible

        Per husky54, “r/AcademicBiblical – Cleansing of the Temple – Intertextuality Overturns the Consensus”. reddit. 15 January 2019 UTC.

        I’m removing this comment because you don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. You clearly have no knowledge of the field and your thoughts and methods are not derivative of the data but are clearly privileged by your assumptions.

      3. A few excerpts of your comments are still visible in a refutation. Hey, you’re in good company with Celsus!

        Removed for spam. OP doesn’t have the credentials to make these kinds of claims and the method is completely bankrupt.

        Curious, does that reddit/ require academic credentials of posters?

        This mythicist garbage isn’t academic. It’s vapid nonsense.

        The entire mythicist agenda is such vapid bull shit.

        It wouldn’t even bother me so much if any mythicists actually provided well-researched, methodologically-sound studies.

        With the definition of “well-researched, methodologically-sound” = ‘concludes that Jesus was an historical figure.’

        All but the most conservative biblical scholars will gladly agree that the historical Jesus and the biblical Jesus are two completely different things. They’ll have their own ways of reconciling their studies and their faith…

        Misses the point, that you can’t have a divine, incarnated Jesus without an historical Jesus.

  8. The fig tree is a dead giveaway to the OT connection.

    Jesus’ Temple cleansing scene is also likely inspired by Eleazar’s occupation of the Temple and rejection of foreign offerings.

  9. Is this correct?

    • R. G. Price asserts that the author of Gospel According to Matthew is the first person to actually write about Jesus as a fictional pseudo–historical figure.
    In contrast to the author of Gospel According to Mark, whose Jesus figure is solely an ahistorical, allegorical literary device.

      1. From me, I am trying to compose a short blurb for future use as needed.

        Do you hold that the author of Gospel According to Matthew, actually believed the Jesus figure he wrote about was historically real, or rather he knowingly converted the Gospel According to Mark into a pseudo–history?

        1. A summary of my thesis is:
          The Gospel of Mark is the first story of Jesus’ life that was written. All other accounts of Jesus’ life are derived from Mark. (same as Michael Goulder’s thesis). The author of Mark knew that Jesus wasn’t a real person and knew that the story he was putting forward was “fictional”. (Not the same as Goulder’s thesis, who believed that Mark was the only “true” account of them all).

          Exactly how and why the others were derived I don’t address or answer. I do propose that it seems that the author of Luke believed in the literal truth of the Markan narrative and thought he was writing a real biography of a real person. As for Matthew and John I offer no conclusion, saying that its not clear if whoever wrote those accounts believed that Jesus was a real person or understood that the story was “fictional”.

            1. A summary of my thesis is :
              The Roman church destroyed nearly all the historical evidence. Therefor it is most likely they have a lot to hide and have probably made a lot up. Therefor also also we must talk about big pictures and not get bogged down in speculation about details. The Gospels are not evidence of history but a story about evidence. The theory that best fits the scanty evidence available is that Jesus was not a real person.

  10. Ehrman, Sanders , Meier and many other Biblical scholars say there are multiple, independent attestations about the Temple scene- because it is mentioned in more than 1 book in the Bible, although the different versions put the event in different times.

    I don’t think they have a clue what independent means.

    They work independently of each other, but they are quite capable of knowing what each other have said and finding each other’s arguments persuasive enough to use in their own books.

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