Note: In response to a thoughtful but critical comment on this article, I wrote a followup piece called Blessed are the Poor to clarify some of my thoughts on nonviolent resistance and how it aligns with the Sermon on the Mount.
We’re living in some crazy times. In this season of mass protests and even riots over injustice, both in the United States and Lebanon (where I currently live), it seems like there is no better time to sit back and do a brief but serious look at the famous episode of Jesus’ “cleansing of the temple”.*
First, I want to take a look at what was actually going on during Jesus’ time and what he was most likely trying to accomplish when he drove out the money changers and sellers of doves.
Second, I'll close with seven practical observations that might help us as we struggle to wrap our minds around the seemingly senseless violence and rage happening across our nation and across the world.
What was going on in the Temple?
First, we have to understand what exactly was going on at the temple in Jerusalem. Growing up, I heard this story taught in a singular way: Jesus was shocked when he showed up at the Temple and found it had become a place of commerce. Changing money and selling sacrifices was irreverent and disrespectful, and these things had no place in a house of worship. Therefore, he cleared it all out to make it a more “sacred space”.
That sounds nice, but it’s simply not accurate. That interpretation comes by looking at the 1st century temple through the lens of a 21st century understanding of a church building. Jesus would not have been surprised in the slightest to find money changers and sellers of sacrificial offerings in the outer courts of the Temple. The Jerusalem temple, like all other ancient temples, had developed and was more than a religious building or house of worship. It was “fundamentally an economic institution, and indeed dominated the city’s commercial life” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 300).
During festivals and pilgrimages, visitors to the temple would be required to pay the annual half-shekel tax. Obviously, currency exchange stations and collection stations would have been essential to making this happen. The mere presence of the money changers’ booths wasn’t anything shocking or offensive.
Pilgrims would also come to make required sacrifices, which they would need to purchase since they couldn’t exactly carry all their own animals with them - especially since there were purity requirements on those animals. So again, the mere presence of the tables selling doves and other sacrifices wasn’t anything shocking or offensive.
Because of the mass accumulation of wealth, the temple became something like a bank and broker for the people of Jerusalem, especially the ruling elite. Its economic power would have been used and manipulated by the establishment, and there is some evidence to indicate that it would have offered small loans to Judean peasant farmers - loans which, most likely, ended up being exploitative and resulting in foreclosure of their land.
The temple also would have been a large client or even employer of local businesses: “curtain makers, barbers, incense manufacturers, goldsmiths, trench diggers, bakers, and countless others.” We even have a record of shewbread bakers (who made the Sabbath loaves for the temple) going on strike for higher pay. (Myers, 300)
Lastly, the temple would have been the primary center of Jewish political power in the city. In that sense, it was more like the Vatican of the Middle Ages than just “a big church”, like I thought when I was growing up. The high priest was a major political leader, usually allied with the Romans or even set up by them. The Sanhedrin, kind of like the Jewish version of the Supreme Court, were all part of the ruling class and met in the temple. Political leaders, both the Romans and their puppet kings (like the Herodian dynasty) would have known that good favor with the temple was mutually beneficial for both of them, which is one reason to explain why Herod invested enormous amounts of money and labor in expanding and upgrading the temple building during his reign.
Here's the clincher:
All of this was taking place in a world where the poor people of Judah, including those from Jesus’ native Galilee, were being oppressed, marginalized, and burdened with taxation to a near breaking point. Most of them were living at subsistence level, barely able to afford the necessities, to the point that one year of a bad harvest could potentially ruin them (hence the need for loans from the temple).
An act of protest and resistance
With that in mind, it’s very telling (but not surprising) that the primary focus of Jesus’ anger in all of the accounts are the money changers and “those selling doves”. John’s Gospel is the only one to even mention other animals at the scene, and he still makes it clear that Jesus’ primary rebuke was to the bird-sellers.
The question is: why? Doves would have been the primary sacrifice bought by the poor, who were routinely exploited by the systems of the religious aristocracy at the temple.** Whatever worship through sacrifices meant to honor God had originally meant, it had become twisted in many ways. It was a business now - a predatory monopoly, in fact, since the Jerusalem temple was the only place to offer legitimate worship. The money changers and the dove sellers “represented the concrete mechanisms of oppression within a political economy that doubly exploited the poor and the unclean.” (Myers, 301)
So what did Jesus do? He marched in and disrupted the proceedings. He flipped the tables, cleared the courts, and “would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts” (Mark 11:16). It’s hard to know the scope of this protest, but it was definitely a protest. I picture his disciples helping him in an image not too far removed from crowds of people marching and shutting down major intersections or places of commerce in today’s world.
Jesus’ disruption of the temple market wasn’t about people selling things in a house of worship. It was an act of resistance against a corrupt and exploitative system which he called “a den of thieves”. (Mark 11:17)
A prophetic declaration
The clearing of the temple was also much more than just a simple protest. If it were only a protest, how do we explain that this one provocative (but relatively minor) act set in motion the plot to kill him once and for all? How do we explain that he was crucified that very week? The reason was that his demonstration was actually a prophetic declaration against the whole system, echoing back to Hebrew prophets from centuries earlier. There’s so much that could be said about this, but I want to highlight just a few key points from context.
First, it’s important to note that in Matthew, Mark, and Luke*** this incident is directly after the “Triumphal Entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday, where he famously rode a donkey into the city to the shouts of “Hosanna!” (“Save us!”) from the crowds. Why were they shouting save us? It certainly wasn’t about a quest for personal salvation by “asking Jesus into their hearts”. In context, the Gospel writers are much more interested in the work Jesus is doing to dismantle the corrupt and oppressive establishment, which makes a lot more sense of the hosanna cry.
The Gospels cite Zechariah 9:9 as a prophetic proof-text for Jesus’ entry as king on a donkey. Note that riding a donkey wasn’t as unusual as it sounds. It was a pretty standard sign of royalty in the Judean world. In the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), we have numerous instances of kings riding donkeys, including King David. His son, Solomon, even rode a donkey to his coronation ceremony (1 Kings 1:38-40)! The donkey does communicate something important, though: Kings rode war horses when they came in conquest, but they rode donkeys when they came in peace.
But it’s far more important to consider the context of the Zechariah passage rather than view it as a prophecy of something extremely unusual happening (because again, it wasn’t at all strange to speak of a king riding donkey). Just take a look at the verse that comes directly before the cited one:
But I will encamp at my temple
to guard it against marauding forces.
Never again will an oppressor overrun my people,
for now I am keeping watch.
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:8-9)
In the context of verse eight, it makes perfect sense that Jesus would move from his triumphal entry into the temple to clear it out and prophetically denounce the “den of thieves” occupying the positions of power. The final third of the book of Zechariah is about a coming king who would set Israel free from oppression, bring peace to all of the nations, and become the true shepherd the people needed because their own shepherds were failing. By quoting this part of the prophetic tradition (and many others throughout Israel’s history), the Gospel authors are illustrating that Jesus’ act was both a protest and a prophetic proclamation against the establishment. The temple would fall; the leaders would be deposed; and a new era, a new age, a new kingdom was coming on the scene.****
Was Jesus being “violent”?
Every time I speak about Jesus’ radical teachings of nonviolence, someone brings up this story.
“Jesus made a whip and drove out all those people. You think that’s nonviolent?”
Well, I do and I don’t, depending on how you want to define “violent”. First, let's set something straight, because this bugs me: none of the Gospel authors describe Jesus committing any act of physical violence. Only John even mentions that there was a whip, and he seems very clear that it was for herding the animals out, not striking the people (John 2:15). In that sense, I do not think Jesus’ actions here were anything but an act of nonviolent resistance.
If you want to define violence to include disrupting the system, vandalizing property, or blocking the flow of traffic, then sure, I guess this was violent.
How does this relate to what’s happening today?
This whole article, and especially that last sentence, leads us into the question that I think Christians need to consider right now: is there any way this is analogous to what certain protesters are seeking to do today?
I don’t want to say it is a parallel. We’re talking about a cultural and historical situation that is two thousand years removed from us. I think it can be dangerous when we take Biblical narratives and make them exact parallels that are applicable to our own times. However, I think it is perfectly reasonable to find some touch-points between what is happening across our country and today and what happened that day in Jerusalem somewhere around the year 30 AD.
So here’s what I propose. Rather than writing a whole detailed analysis of how we should protest Jesus style, I’m just going to end with a list of observations about Jesus' style of protest that might provide a good framework for analyzing the protests and riots that are happening even as I write this article.
Clearing the temple was disruptive and highly controversial. It was not a “peaceful protest” in the sense of just standing outside the temple holding signs and chanting. This was a total direct intervention to halt commerce and traffic flow and business of any sort.
The “businesses” targeted were those of the establishment, not the lay people or the poor. This should be clear at this point in the article. This is far from a perfect parallel, but Jesus’ actions are much more comparable to burning a police station in protesting a corrupt system than they are to burning a Target to express anger and prove a point.
Jesus never physically harmed anyone. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The common image of him whipping the moneychangers in a white-hot fury are not grounded in any of the texts. Again, only one of the four even mentions a whip, and the whip is specifically said to be used for the sheep and cattle. (John 2:15)
The anger Jesus felt and the harsh words he said came from prayerful contemplation of the prophetic critique of injustice that filled Israel’s scriptures. It was more than just, “F*** the system!” It was, “Stop turning my father’s house into a market!” (John 2:16) And even more importantly, it was, “God’s house should be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it into a den of thieves/bandits/robbers.” (Mark 11:17)
The incident was followed by numerous teachings explaining how the establishment had misused its authority, including the parable of the tenants mentioned in a footnote below. It was more than just an outburst; it was part of a calculated program of prophetically pulling the pants down on the whole system.
Jesus was not a man of privilege. He was one of the poor and oppressed people he was fighting for! We often forget this with our whitewashed, spotless, unblemished portraits of Jesus or our high theology. He came from a backwater town in Galilee, home of many of the overburdened peasants described above. He was a victim of discrimination. One of his own disciples scoffed at him at first, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46) He and his disciples had a distinctive regional accent, and people in Jerusalem knew where they were from just by hearing it (Matthew 26:73).
This protest got Jesus killed. Well, at least in part it did. All of the events of that week, including the entry on the donkey, the popularity with the people, and the strong teachings against the establishment also played a part in this. But for Mark and Luke, this is the moment where they start looking for a way to kill him (Mark 11:18, Luke 19:47).
I’m sure there’s more to be said, but seven is a good Biblical number, so I’ll stop there for now. I’m not writing this article to explain racial conflict, to justify (or unjustify) the riots, or to try to provide a blueprint for moving forward. Still, I find all of this content to be helpful and illuminating as we seek to understand how to move forward in the Spirit of Christ in a world that is very different from the one in which he taught.
I don’t normally do this, but I’ll end with a question in need of a response: What do you think? I invite you to click the contact button above and shoot me a message with your thoughts. I promise I will respond.
* I’ve chosen to drop the “cleansing” language (which implies certain theological assumptions about what’s going on) and step back and look at the event itself, which I’d prefer to call more straightforwardly the clearing of the Temple.
** We have at least one record from Rabbi Simeon of the Sanhedrin, son of Gamaliel (the Apostle Paul’s teacher), strongly criticizing the absurdly high prices of doves and passing “legislation” to reduce the price by something like 99%. (Myers, 301)
*** I’ll leave John out here, since he does something really strange with this event and places it at the beginning of his Gospel. Scholars are divided and many literalists have tried to prove that there could have been two temple demonstrations, but the general consensus is that there’s no possible way there could have been more than one. I once asked my professor, Scot McKnight, if we might consider John’s repositioning of the story to the beginning as similar to the opening of a film in which we are given a scene from the end at the very beginning of the movie and then it flashes back to tell the story. Scot thought that was a pretty good metaphor.
**** If this wasn’t already clear enough, all three of these Gospel accounts have Jesus’ famous parable of the tenants very closely following his temple demonstration. In this parable, God entrusts his vineyard (symbolic for Israel) to some tenant farmers, who then repeatedly kill the servants he sends (probably symbolic the prophets) in order to stay in control and milk the vineyard’s profits for themselves. After killing many of them, he finally sends his son - and they kill him too. When we read it today, we might not immediately pick up on the fact that this was a strong - and dangerous! - prophetic denouncement of the ruling aristocracy of Jerusalem, but they sure did: “Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them.” (Mark 12:12)