§ 4. The cleansing of the temple and its justification


§ 4. The cleansing of the temple and its justification.



1) The expulsion of the merchants from the temple.

The evangelist is not allowed to let the Lord linger long in Galilee, just as only the invitation to the wedding had led Him there, so now a passover calls Him back to Judea after a few days, after He had hardly settled in Capernaum. Arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus immediately went to the Temple, but was offended by the commercial activity he found there and now forcibly expelled the merchants who desecrated the place of religious worship.


Since the Synoptics also know of such an expression of Jesus’ zeal, but place it in the last days, which preceded Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion, the question is whether the same thing happened twice, and if it did not, in which account we find the true position of the matter. Those commentators who find too much of the same in both accounts to assume a repetition of the action, which could not always have the same appearance, and who are more inclined to the fourth evangelist than to the others, declare themselves to be in favour of the two accounts being identical and find in the fourth gospel the true position and account of the incident. Thus Lücke and de Wette regard it as proof of the greater credibility and faithfulness of the account, when the Lord, according to the fourth evangelist, deals more mildly with the dove-dealers than with the money-changers and those who sold sheep and oxen. For while he forcibly expelled the latter with their cattle, and even overturned the tables of the changers, he only urged the dove-dealers with the mild words that they should put aside those (i.e. the doves) and not make his father’s house a house of sale. This view of the matter, however, is only outwardly connected with the sentimentality that one associates with the idea of the dove. What could have moved the Lord to deal more gently with the dove traders than with those who traded in oxen and sheep? Was it the fact that the doves were “necessary for the poor”? *) What casuistry! As if the poor – sentimentality plays a role here again – could not buy doves elsewhere, as if their need excused the desecration of the holy place! The Lord’s words are only addressed to the dove traders because he mentions them last and at the same time follows the urge to be specific, but not because they are more innocent than the others. Moreover, the evangelist was not at all fortunate in the singling out of particulars, for the words: do not make my father’s house a house of commerce, cannot originally have been addressed to the dove traders alone, but are meant to designate the offence of all wrongdoers as such. In addition, no impartial person will be able to accept that these words “are meant as a reference to the petty traders” *), for first of all, they are much too closely connected with the request addressed only to the dove traders: “Take that away!” and secondly, according to the report, the Lord has already done everything with the ox and sheep traders and with the money changers that he considered necessary against them when he had forcibly put an end to their trade. The vividness of the report is therefore only gained through an oversight in the words that applied to all. From the fact that the fourth evangelist gives the words with which the Lord punishes the profanation of the holy place only as an allusion to the OT, while the Synoptics have Jesus quote the passages of Scripture verbatim, it cannot be concluded that his account is accurate and authentic *”). It is just as easy for him to have turned into an allusion what was quoted in the mouth of Jesus.

*) This is how de Wette explains it.

**) As Lücke (Comm. I, 437) and Neander, Leben Jesu p. 38S think. De Wette is even so tragic, or rather so inquisitorial, that he says that the speech of Jesus is “distorted” in the Synoptics! (Explanation of the Gospel of John, p. 40).


And now the circumstance of Jesus weaving a scourge from ropes, how precise, how graphic! But it has long been said: how suspicious rather! If the violent character of Jesus’ action does not harm it, that very fact renders it more alarming; indeed, it drags it down into baseness. The merchants could be struck by the word and the reproof, so that they obeyed unconditionally; in the moment of surprise even the money-changers could get over the fact that their tables were turned over. But it would have been a challenge, and some of them might have resisted too much, if the master had used a scourge against them. They would then no longer have had to deal with the holy fierceness and indignation alone, with this spiritual greatness, thus no longer with a power against which they were not armed, but with an opponent to whom they were completely equal. The apologist, to whom this report of the swinging of the scourge is once absolute and eternal truth, must therefore endeavour either to keep this dangerous instrument in the background as much as possible or to withdraw it altogether from the game. The scourging of the people, says Tholuck*), was not so much the effect of the outward chastisement which Jesus gave him, but rather the effect of the holy prophetic earnestness and the punishing conscience. But then the scourge was not only a dangerous, but also a superfluous addition. Therefore – so we can make the transition, – therefore, because everything else is of no avail, Neander now says: **) “Of course, the abolition of the scourge – note! the abolition – could not be a sign of violence to be used here” but only “a symbolic sign of the impending divine judgment. “So not only is the scourge not used, and when it is wielded threateningly, not only does it have no meaning for the present moment, but, as the Lord is invading the people with it, wanting to punish them because of the desecration of the temple that has just been committed, the people are supposed to direct their thoughts to the distant judgment? If, then, not a single word of the Lord gives the people’s thoughts this direction away from the present towards the future, is this direction to be effected by the silent scourge? The report not only disdains this excessive artifice by directing the punishing words of Jesus against the temple violators without any reference to the future, but also by letting the scourge fulfil its entire purpose if it is the effective means of expelling the merchants from the temple. For only as this effective means does the report want to describe it when it says of the Lord: ποιήσας φραγέλλιον πάντας ἐξέβαλεν.

*) Comm. p. 86.

**) ibid.


Finally, it is declared to be a sign of the accuracy of our report that it has preserved the statement about the breaking down of the temple, to which the false witnesses later referred before the Sanhedrin. It is also clear from this point that the fourth evangelist correctly places the cleansing of the temple in the first time of Jesus’ appearance in Jerusalem, for only on this condition can it be explained that the false witnesses had such an easy time in court. But if malicious people remembered a saying of Jesus at such an opportune time after several years, then there were more attentive listeners to the Lord in Jerusalem than the evangelist would have us believe, when he otherwise lets all the speeches of the Lord be spoken into the void because of the hard-heartedness of the people. And years did not have to pass for those witnesses to have a better chance, since they could give a different meaning to Jesus’ words by a small, inconspicuous twist.


In the last point, we have already come to the question of which report is chronologically correct. However, since it is still possible that the event occurred twice and that it only turned out so similar both times because they caused quite similar or rather the same circumstances, we must first examine this possibility even more seriously.

“Why should not the fact, asks Tholuck *), have happened twice and each of the two relations be equally justified?” Assuming that the Johannine account is justified because of its “greater” but, as we have now seen, not happy “specificity”, he goes on to ask: “If Jesus thought it necessary to perform the action at the beginning of his teaching time, should he not have repeated it so often when the same profanation was particularly glaring, and how now, if this was only the case at the last Passover feast?” We must again surprise this commentator when we answer: not twice, but very often, the Lord ought to have repeated the action. For how and according to the law of what casuistry does the believing apologist want to excuse the Lord if, after intervening once, he again took hold of the sacrilege in the holy place only after it had become “particularly glaring”? Is it permissible to tolerate evil, once it has been fought, until it has overgrown the whole ground, and moreover the ground of the holy place? It would be worth the effort to examine more closely the principle which finds such a procedure – to speak in casuistic language – “probable”. But away with it! It is enough for that commentator to take the trouble to point out that when the Lord once cleansed the temple, the success was not a lasting one, because it was based only on a momentary consternation of the sinners, and what has already become a popular custom is not forever suppressed by such means. As often as the Lord came to Jerusalem at a festival time, so often would he have had to cleanse the temple. But what should have been done so often, the Lord could only have done once, for only once was it a significant act, an accusation against the priests who did not take better care of the sanctity of the house of God, and a declaration that he had come to restore the integrity of the service, whereas if it had been repeated, the act would have appeared to be a purely police measure, which was always unsuccessful. The question as to which account of the cleansing of the temple, if it only happened once, is thus immediately decided. In the last period of Jesus’ activity, the significant character of the act became clear and the bold step that the Lord took with this violent act corresponded to the decisive break that had now happened and irrevocably brought about the catastrophe. But in the first period of his appearance, the act would have seemed pointless if it had not been repeated every time he went on a festive trip, and then it would have taken on that false police air.

*) Comm. p. 88.


The fourth evangelist knows nothing of a repetition of the action, otherwise he would have indicated it in the same way as in the account of the miracle at Cana, where he already hints that it was the first and that even afterwards miracles were still performed by the Lord. However, he had placed this act at the beginning of Jesus’ activity, because it seemed to be a fitting symbol of the entire Messianic activity.

2) The new temple.

The Jews demanded a sign in relation to the fact that the Lord had risen up against the desecration of the Holy Place. But why a sign? The act of Jesus was not such as would necessarily have had to be proved by a sign of its authority, since it could have proceeded from any other who felt impelled in holy zeal. At the most, the Jews could have asked the Lord about his authority to interfere in the sacred ordinances.

The words of Jesus, “Break down this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again,” are interpreted in two ways: one which immediately presented itself to the Jews, and the other which only became clear to the disciples after the Lord’s death. The Jews understood the words as referring to the visible temple, the disciples understood them as referring to the body of the Lord and His resurrection.

The Jews would not have come to their understanding if the Lord had not pointed to the temple with his hand. If, on the other hand, the Lord had intended to speak of his body, he would have had to point to it: then, of course, the misunderstanding of the Jews would have been impossible, but at the same time they would not have been able to think of anything under those words. For the figurative conception of the whole temple only arose later in Christian consciousness, namely, when the congregation had broken away from the temple service. Only then did it regard itself as the temple in which the divine spirit dwelt in an appropriate manner, whereas in the time of the law the divinity had dwelt in a temple of stone. Now the congregation saw itself as the body of which Christ was the head and could therefore also call itself the body of the Lord, the body that was born in the death of Christ. Finally, because everyone in the congregation knew himself to be partaker of the Holy Spirit and regarded himself as the dwelling place of the same, the body of each one could be called a temple, and only from this individual version of the image could an understanding of the words of Jesus, as developed by the fourth evangelist, arise. But in order for this view, the basic features of which are given in the Pauline theory, to come into being, historical conditions were necessary which were not present in the circle to which Jesus was speaking *). The evangelist therefore speaks quite correctly when he says that this understanding did not dawn on him and the disciples until later, but it is not an understanding which understands the words in their historical relationship, but speculates about them and places them in a completely different relationship than they originally had. The evangelist’s remark that the disciples believed the Scriptures when the understanding of the Lord’s words dawned on them leads us to the later point of view of comparative reflection: they believed the prophecies of the O.T. about the suffering and resurrection of the Anointed One.

*) Philo (de opiif. mundi §. 47) calls the body οιχος τις η νεως ιερος ψυχης λογιχης. The corresponding view in the New Testament is not borrowed from him, but rather a similar conception of the body developed in his consciousness in a similar situation and distance from the temple service. To him, the body is the temple of the Logos, and to the community it is the temple of the Holy Spirit.


In part, the Jews understood the Lord’s words correctly; on the other hand, they also misunderstood them in part: for even if Jesus pointed with his hand to the temple as it stood there physically, he did not mean merely the stones and the framework of it, but at the same time he understood the temple in its spiritual meaning as the centre of the cult. He therefore believed that he would found a new cult if the old one were to perish. But how does this justify the deed for which he was to prove his authority? The old and the new are not only in opposition, but also in an internal and historical connection; the old is the birthplace of the new and this has a side, according to which it is the purification and transfiguration of the old. The founder of the new must not allow the old to be stained by the unholy, and he must see to it that the birthplace of the new is kept pure.


The time definition: “in three days” I will raise the temple again seems to be original and to have conveyed the transformation of this statement into a prophecy of the resurrection of the Lord. Jesus himself, however, could not speak of his resurrection in a prophesying way, so that he might have meant: in three days after his future death he would establish the new service of God through his resurrection. For if he wanted to be understood, he would not only have to indicate the necessary intermediate steps, but also explain each step in detail due to their infinite difficulty for the understanding of the people. However, and this is decisive, the Lord does not want to say what he will do in the distant future, but rather something continuous, enduring, and permanent, namely, he wants to indicate the authority that is already given to him at all times and now, and that he can prove himself.

Nevertheless – “nevertheless” is what we usually have to say when we move from the explanation of a biblical view to an apologetic explanation – nevertheless Tholuck thinks that only the evangelist’s view is the right one *). The Lord could not have pointed to the temple, otherwise “he would necessarily have created the misunderstanding that he was speaking of the construction of the external temple.” However, the center of a cult can be used as a symbol of it without discomfort.

*) Comm. p. 90.


On this supposition, “the main idea that the temple is to be built anew is lacking. But the determination of the new is openly expressed when Jesus says: he, this single, weak-appearing individual, will in a short time rebuild the old when it falls, and through the contrast of this individual and such a great task, the renewal of the old is immediately elevated to its spiritual meaning. Furthermore, “in three days” cannot have the literal meaning of “in a short time”. But when Tholuck refers to Hos 6:2, even to our use of language, he contradicts himself. For if, like Hosea, we say: in two, three days, we want to indicate by the fluctuation of the expression that we want to define the short time only approximately: “in two days” is intended to mark the first possible boundary, but the addition of “in three days” is intended to indicate that another boundary point is also possible, even if it can only possibly be the outermost one. In Hosea, however, the formulas: “after a few days, – מִיֹּמָ֑יִם is the indefinite expression – on the third day” are alternate determinations of one and the same. The first indefinite expression, “in a few days,” however, betrays the fact that when it is said, “on the third day,” this provision is only intended to mark the next possible boundary.

Finally, Tholuck *) helps himself with the assumption “that the Jews, if Christ referred to his body, could still misunderstand him, since that interpretation of the body was too remote for them.” *) But if it remained inaccessible to them even in spite of the physical certainty brought about by the pointing, the Lord was not allowed to speak of such things to them at all. It is to be admitted and goes without saying that the Lord spoke many a word whose full content was only revealed to later consciousness, but then it must nevertheless have been of such a nature and forcefulness that it involuntarily seized even the first hearers, opened up to them the perception of a new world, and even at the first moment presented a comprehensible core which developed into a fruit corresponding to it – but it could not have been spoken into the blue.

*) Ibid. p. 91.

*) Happy times of innocence and comfort, the apologist would have to sigh, where one only had to assume, without all anguish and anxiety, as e.g. Bengel did, that the Jews had not noticed the pointing movement of Jesus, which was directed towards the body.


If all else does not help, Olshausen resorts to the assumption of a double sense. “In addition to the ostensible sense, the words have an inner sense for the crowd, which only became apparent to the disciples themselves after the resurrection” **). No one will want to eliminate the double sense from language in general, but it will always have to be acknowledged only where it is found in the same direction that word and thought have once taken. Here, therefore, once one has reached the one point of the sense, the ostensible, i.e., the temple, one would have to come in the same direction to the second sense. But does this unity of direction take place when the Lord, with one movement of the hand, with the One τουτον, and at the same moment backwards and forwards, forwards to the temple and from the temple, is not to point in the same line further or deeper into the midpoint, but back towards his body?

**) Comm, p. 81.


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