Part 3: John Displaces and Rewrites the Cleansing of the Temple
All four evangelists recount Jesus’ cleansing of the temple at Jerusalem. The Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) place the event during the week before the crucifixion, while John sets it near the very start of Jesus’ ministry. In the ancient church, many, if not most, commentators assumed these accounts of disturbances at the temple described two different events. In fact, you can find apologists today who claim Jesus did it every time he went to Jerusalem, which — if we harmonize John with the other three — suggests that it happened three times or more.
At this point, we’re not going to cover all the detailed reasons that most scholars now believe the pericopae in John and the Synoptics refer to the same event. Nor will we dwell for long on the arguments concerning whether John knew Mark or a pre-Markan oral tradition. As I’ve said many times before, I maintain that John knew the written gospel of Mark. In this case, he used Mark’s account of the cleansing, but he moved it in time and changed it in form and substance for theological reasons.
John agrees with the Synoptics on several basic elements. Jesus arrives in Jerusalem during the time of the Passover, enters the temple’s outer courtyard, and begins to make a scene. We have similar vocabulary in both versions, including the words for “tables” [τράπεζα (trapeza)] and “money changers” [κολλυβιστῶν (kollybistōn)].
In the Johannine and Markan versions, Jesus is wholly successful. John says he drove them “all” [πάντας (pantas)] out, while Mark claims that nobody could carry a vessel through the temple. Both evangelists concur that for a period of time, just before Passover, Jesus single-handedly blocked all temple trade. On the other hand, parts of John’s story diverge from the Markan source. For example, in John’s version we have not just birds and money changers, but large, domesticated animals: sheep and oxen. Did you ever wonder whether they really had livestock pens in the temple courtyard? Andrew Lincoln, in his commentary on the Gospel ofJohn notes:
John’s addition of animals as large as cows has produced some questions about its verisimilitude. Jewish sources fail to mention such animals in the temple precincts and their excrement would have caused problems of pollution of the sacred site. (Lincoln, 2005, p. 137, emphasis mine)
For scholars who think John contains actual eyewitness material, these sorts of puzzles usually elicit a shrug and a “Why not?” However, those of us who are unencumbered by the anxiety of historicity may rightly ask: “Why did John embellish upon the legend? What is the significance behind Jesus’ driving out the sacrificial animals? Is it a portent of the passing of the age of sacrifice (post 70 CE) or is it something else?”
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.
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:
John Shelby Spong wrote Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes: Freeing Jesus from 2,000 Years of Misunderstanding to open the way for educated moderns to understand that the authors of the Gospels did not think they were writing literal history (e.g. Jesus did not literally walk on water, ascend to heaven, etc.), but rather that they were writing symbolic narratives based on Old Testament stories and sayings in order to convey what Jesus Christ meant to them. This form of writing was, Spong explains, a traditional method of Jewish storytelling. Expressing meaning through well-known images and episodes in earlier books was more important than recording literal history. (I explained this method in a little more detail in an earlier post.)
This post looks at Spong’s reasons for rejecting the historical details of most of the Gospel narrative about the last hours, or the Passion, of Jesus. I need to emphasize that Spong is not seeking to undermine faith, but to make faith more accessible to modern audiences who find (quite rightly, he says) a literal interpretation of the Bible to be in many ways offensive to modern knowledge and values.
My own interest has nothing to do with undermining or opening up faith. Such decisions are personal ones that go beyond intellectual exercises. Everyone has their own life to live, and we are all the products of our own genes and experiences. (I will be active if I think I can help minimize abuse or harm that some faiths bring about, but that is another matter again.) My interest is strictly in exploring and understanding Christian origins and sharing insights and information with others with similar interests. That sometimes includes exposing what I see are the fallacies of “knowledge falsely so-called” and of its public practitioners.
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 the 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 the 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 let 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?