§ 4. The cleansing of the temple and its justification

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Critique of the Gospel of John
by Bruno Bauer



§ 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.



§ 77. The cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Critique of the Gospel History of the Synoptics
by Bruno Bauer

Volume 3



§ 77.

The cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple.

Mark 11, 12-26.

Errors finally find – i.e. understood in their true purpose – the corpses that must first fall and fill up the deep chasm over which mankind must pass if it is to conquer the world. So honour the errors, for without them we cannot reach the truth! But shame on those who again hold up the dead corpses to us as the living and true, after we have long since passed over them and won the real, life-warm truth.

As in other cases, we do not enter into the question of whether the account of the cursing of the fig tree is based on a historical event or on the fact that Jesus once portrayed the fate of the Jewish people in a parable which later gave rise to that story. We will once again prove the origin and priority of Mark’ report.


On the day after the entry, Jesus goes from Bethany to the city, is hungry – early in the morning – and goes up to a fig tree that is leafy to see if it has fruit, and curses it because he finds none. The disciples heard. Arriving in the city and in the temple, he cleansed it of the abominations that had turned the place that was supposed to be “a house of prayer for all nations” into a den of thieves. The next morning, as the company returned to the city and “passed by”, they saw the fig tree withered to the root, Peter remembered the curse which the Lord had pronounced yesterday and drew his attention to the withered tree.

Mark has suffered much from the critics so far. It is easy to defend him.

It is only afterwards, in a later passage, that it must be noticed that the tree is withered, because Mark has formed the whole narrative according to that description of the fate of the wicked which the Psalmist describes. I have seen an ungodly man, defiant, spreading himself out like a fresh tree; when I passed by, behold, he was no more; I inquired for him, and he was nowhere to be found.” Ps. 37:35, 36.

But why must it be a fig tree? Why did Mark, when Jesus found no fruit on it, remark: “for it was not the season of figs?” Where did this addition come from, which seemed so crazy to the critics and gave the apologists so much cause for blasphemy *)?

*) If, for example, Hoffmann, p. 374, thinks that “Jesus’ intention to find figs was not quite so serious, perhaps not even his hunger, for he does not say that he was hungry,” we will leave it to him to consider how much blasphemy is contained in this opinion.

Answer: because Jehovah found Israel in the wilderness like the premature early branch on the fig tree.” Hos. 9, 10.

Jesus wants to see if he will also find Israel, but as He found nothing in the fig tree, so he finds the divine destiny of the people missed in Jerusalem. The house of prayer, which was supposed to be a point of unity for all peoples, has become a den of thieves. Just as the word was called to the fig tree, “No one shall eat any more of your fruit until eternity,” so Jerusalem too shall be barren and unfruitful from now on, and just as surely as the fig tree was withered the next morning, just as surely as this curse was not without power, so surely will Jerusalem not escape its fate.


It is certain: the cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple belong together, and here in Mark, where the development of the symbol so firmly and at the same time so threateningly encloses what is depicted, the whole was first created.

The fact that it is merchants whom Jesus drives out of the temple was, as Gfrörer has correctly found *), prompted by Zechariah’s prophecy C. 14, 21 , “there will no longer be an Canaanite in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day”. Of course we must not refer to the explanation of Jonathan, who translates Canaanite “merchant”, but it is very probable that the prophet himself wanted to designate the merchant under the Caananite, no it is certain, because immediately before it is said that on that day of completion every pot would be holy and the sacrificers would take from it, i.e. one will not first buy pots from merchants in the temple for the purpose of the sacrifice. Thus we do not need to refer to other passages in the OT in which the word Canaanite is used in the sense of merchant.

*) The Sacred and the Truth, p. 148. 149.

None of the three following copyists has included in the account of the cleansing of the temple the provision necessary for the sense and contrast that the temple should be a house of prayer “for all nations”.

That the Fourth placed the cleansing of the temple in a very wrong place will now be fully clear – even to the blind sighted. Matthew has inappropriately placed the cleansing of the temple and the cursing of the fig tree on different days, and must now let the disciples notice the success immediately when Jesus speaks the word about the tree. Luke treats the temple ritual very superficially (C. 19, 45. 46) and from the report of the cursing of the tree he has made a parable (C. 13, 6-9), in which only the remarkable thing seems to be that the owner says: he had already looked for fruit on his fig tree for three years in vain. Should the chronologist Luke have already dared to hypothesise that the Lord had been working among the people for three years, and have supplied the Fourth, who had learned so much from him, with some mortar for his giant chronological edifice? No! The master of the tree wants to wait another year before he cuts it down. Only the eternal holiness of the number of three brought Luke to this calculation, but we do not mean to say that this calculation did not give the fourth man some courage for the erection of that building.


Mark again gives us an example of how weak the art of evangelical historiography is in every respect. He believes that he has completely achieved the purpose of his composition as soon as Peter draws his master’s attention to the complete withering of the tree, and now he thinks that he can let the conversation drift off in any direction. This is followed by the conversation about the miraculous power of faith!




How John Used Mark: Investigating the Methods of the Fourth Evangelist (Part 3)

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by Tim Widowfield

Part 3: John Displaces and Rewrites the Cleansing of the Temple

Cleansing the Temple (Quarter from Augustinian...
Cleansing the Temple (Quarter from Augustinian polyptych). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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 of John 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?”

Continue reading “How John Used Mark: Investigating the Methods of the Fourth Evangelist (Part 3)”


Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple: Rationalizing a Miracle

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by Tim Widowfield

Christ Cleansing the Temple, c 1655 (J. Paul G...
Christ Cleansing the Temple, c 1655 (J. Paul Getty Museum) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Disorderly Conduct

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:

Continue reading “Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple: Rationalizing a Miracle”


Liberating Jesus from the letter of the Gospel narrative

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by Neil Godfrey

Christ's entry into Jerusalem
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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.

The Beginning of the End Continue reading “Liberating Jesus from the letter of the Gospel narrative”


Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical

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by Neil Godfrey

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

Image by djking via Flickr

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):

  1. there is neither firm agreement about the unity and integrity of the basic passages concerning the ‘cleansing of the temple’
  2. 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?

Continue reading “Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical”