Reflection on John 2:13-22 & 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

by Joy Kingsbury-Aitken

The temple incident was so important in the life of Jesus that all four gospels recorded it.  However, John places this incident during the lead-up to a Passover at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, whereas the synoptic gospel writers put it at the approach to the Passover that marked the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry.   Of course, the synoptic gospellers didn’t have a choice, as they only recorded Jesus going to Jerusalem once.  John, on the other hand, has Jesus making numerous pilgrimages, accompanied by his disciples, to the holy city over a period of three years for the festivals that were held there. 

I agree with the minority of New Testament scholars who believe that the fourth gospel is not purely a theological document but one that records events that really happened in locations that really existed.  The latter is not so controversial any longer, as archaeologists have uncovered more and more remains of first-century Jerusalem and discovered the accuracy of John’s descriptions of locales within the holy city.  Seeing that John’s claim that the health spar known as Beth-zatha had five porticoes has proved correct, I hold that John’s account of the healing that occurred there is highly likely to be also accurate.[1]  So I am far less inclined to dismiss John’s chronology for the temple incident as purely theological.  It certainly has theological implications, but I see no reason to dismiss its historicity because of that.  One piece of evidence that supports the Johannine timetable is the statement by the Jewish leaders that the temple complex had been under construction for forty-six years.  Herod began the temple rebuild in the eighteenth year of his reign, which began in 20 BCE.  Remembering that there was no year zero between the eras, forty-six years later would take us to the year 27 CE, which is three years too early for the crucifixion.

The questions that beg to be answered is why this incident was so very important in the memory of the early church, and secondly why the gospel writers did not have a clear, consistent understanding of Jesus’ motivation.  According to John, Jesus objected to the trading that was occurring within the temple precinct because of his zeal for the house of God.  Mark (followed by Matthew and Luke) looks to the scriptures for an explanation.  “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? Jesus says, referring to a passage from Isaiah in which the prophet speaks of the Gentiles coming to the temple to worship,[2] and then Jesus asserts, “But you have made it a den of robbers,” referring to God saying to the unethical Jerusalem elite in Jeremiah’s day, “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight.”[3]  According to the prophet, the rich and powerful who exploit the poor and powerless are thieves, hence the temple where they assembled to worship had become a den of robbers. Their unrighteous behaviour made their worship worthless.   

The assumption has been made that because of the scriptural reference to robbers the money changers and the sellers of doves must have been charging exorbitantly for their services.  However, there is no independent evidence, for example from Josephus, that pilgrims were being exploited in this way.  The silver coins used for offerings were minted of Tyrian silver, because of the purity of the metal and because they did not feature an idolatrous image of Caesar, who claimed to be divine.  Pilgrims needed to exchange their native currencies for Tyrian half-shekels and would expect to pay a fee for this service.  How else would the money changers earn a living? Bronze coins, such as the widow’s mite, were of Jewish manufacture and probably readily available in Jerusalem.  Likewise, pilgrims from as far afield as Rome and Babylon, and places in between, would have found it extremely difficult and probably very expensive to bring their own sacrificial animals with them.  It was far less risky and probably cheaper to purchase, albeit at a premium price, sacrificial animals that were guaranteed as having met the required standard of being “without blemish”. 

The Jerusalem temple complex was the largest temple precinct in the Roman world.  Herod had extended the footprint of the outer courtyard of Solomon’s temple considerably, and it would have been on this outer edge near one of the gates giving access to the temple area where the trading occurred.  In other words, the trading was not only necessary for the operation of the temple, but it would have been undertaken above land that had not been consecrated, at a respectful distance from the sanctuary.  So what was Jesus’ issue; and how big a stir did he actually make?  John’s description of the event is highly dramatic. John adds cattle and sheep to the doves that the synoptic gospels mention.  “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.  He also poured out the coins of the money changers and those who were selling doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace,’”[4] he said to the traders. 

All this must have happened under the noses of the Romans occupying the fortress on the north-western edge of the temple, who kept a wary eye out for trouble in the temple courtyards below them, especially at festival times when nationalistic sentiments were heightened and disturbances anticipated.  We remember how quickly the Roman tribune had his troops intervene to quell a riot forming around Paul in those same temple courts.[5]  Of course, Jesus’ action could have been obscured from view by the porticoes on the north side. One imagines that the money changers set up their stalls under the shelter of a porch, and that the selling of animals took place close to the temple entrance aligned with the Sheep Gate, through which the sacrificial animals were brought.  These gates were to the east of the Antonio Fortress.  One explanation is that whatever Jesus did in the temple, it was a fairly small gesture full of symbolic significance involving only a small number of money changers and animal sellers, and so didn’t attract a lot of attention.  In the synoptic gospels, the temple incident leads to the crucifixion.  In John’s account, it seems to elicit more curiosity than animosity.  The Jewish leaders want to know what “sign” Jesus can show to justify his actions.  In John’s gospel “signs” point to Jesus’ divine identity.  The “sign” Jesus offers the Jewish leaders is his death and resurrection.

One theory that has gained traction in recent years is that Jesus was acting out a prophecy pointing to the coming destruction of the temple.  The Old Testament prophets occasionally did something bizarre to draw attention to their message, like Isaiah going naked for three years as a warning to Israel that the allies they were relying upon, the Egyptians and Ethiopians, would be defeated by the Assyrians.[6]  Jesus told his disciples that the temple complex would be destroyed.  When his disciples drew his attention to the magnificence of its buildings, Jesus is recorded as saying, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”[7] So Jesus clearly anticipated the coming destruction of the temple, but whether by overturning tables and releasing animals and birds he was foretelling that disaster is up for debate.  Jesus didn’t tell the religious leaders that the temple they treasured was doomed, which he could have done as an explanation for his actions. According to the synoptic gospels, Jesus was accused of saying that he would destroy the temple made by hands and in three days build another not made by hands,[8] although there was disagreement among the false witnesses on that point.  However, this aligns with John’s record of Jesus saying to the religious authorities, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body, John tells us.[9]  Therein, I think, lies the explanation of Jesus’ temple action. 

After Passover, and probably Pentecost, on his homeward journey to Galilee, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well, and has a theological discussion with her.  I get very frustrated with how commentators, particularly male commentators, interpret this story.  They focus on the woman’s tragic marital history and claim that the discussion about temples is her attempt to distract Jesus’ attention away from her presumed sordid past.  Nothing could be further from the truth. The discussion about the destroyed temple on Mount Gerizim in Samaria and the soon-to-be-destroyed temple on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem is central to this story.  Jesus tells the woman that the time is coming, and has in fact already arrived when God will seek worship from people in Spirit and Truth wherever they are, and not solely at some human-made “holy” location that attracts pilgrims who need the services of dove sellers and money changers to facilitate their worship. The focal point of true worship is moving from a building to a person, from the temple in Jerusalem to the One identified in the Christmas story as Emmanuel, God with us.  This leads to Jesus identifying himself as the Messiah to the Samaritan woman.  He is the source of living water gushing up to eternal life.  That is, the Holy Spirit is to be found in and through him, rather than be confined to the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem, where it was thought to reside.[10] John the Seer (probably not the same person as the John who wrote the gospel), makes this clear when describing his vision of the New Jerusalem.  He says, “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb.”[11]  Jesus became this new spiritual temple when three days after his death he was resurrected. As he said to the religious authorities, “Destroy this temple [which they did] and in three days I will raise it up.” In his first letter to the Christians in Corinth, Paul writes about the scandal of the cross.  The Greeks sought wisdom, and a crucified God seemed utter foolishness to them.  The Jews required signs as proof of God’s presence.  God did indeed provide them with a sign, the resurrection of Jesus, but many chose not to believe this had happened.  However, enough did, to bring the church into being, and because of them, we gather together as the church today to worship as Jesus said in Spirit and Truth.

[1] John 5:2

[2] Isaiah 56:7

[3] Jeremiah 7:11

[4] John 2:15-16

[5] Acts 22:22-24

[6] Isaiah 20:1-6

[7] Mark 13:2

[8] Mark 14:58

[9] John 2:20-21

[10] John 4:14, 21-26

[11] Revelation 21:22