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Doesn’t Jesus’ “Cleansing of the Temple” Show He Wanted a Military Uprising?

Did Jesus support of an armed uprising against Rome?  Yesterday I re-posted some comments I had made years ago on the blog about Aslan’s popular book Zealot, which advances that thesis.  I won’t be dealing with the entire book this time around: I’m just interested at this point in dealing with this vital question itself

Now I want to show how two data that are crucial for the “zealot hypothesis” actually make better sense with this apocalyptic understanding of Jesus.  The two data involve the temple cleansing and the crucifixion itself.

If one wants to establish – as Aslan very much does want to do – that Jesus favored violence, there is no better scene to focus on than the disruption he caused in the Temple upon arriving in Jerusalem in the last week of his life.  According to the earliest accounts, Jesus enters the temple, overturns the tables of those exchanging money, and drives out those who were selling sacrificial animals. In our first account, Mark’s, Jesus actually shuts down the operation of the entire temple.

The problem with using this as evidence for the historical Jesus himself is that, as critical scholars have long argued, Mark’s account simply cannot be accurate, in a literal sense, but is at best massively exaggerated.  How could it be right that Jesus not only overturned the moneychangers’ tables and drove out those selling sacrificial animals, but also shut down the entire Temple cult?

The Temple precincts were *enormous*.  Within the walls of the Temple you could fit 25 American football fields.  How exactly did Jesus stop all the activities in the Temple?  Are we to imagine that Jesus pulled this off by himself?  (Aslan indicates that his disciples were helping pull it off – but that’s not what any of our sources indicate.)   Moreover, it is important to note this time of year — during the Passover Festival — is precisely when the Roman prefect Pilate came to Jerusalem with troops that he stationed at pressure points — most especially the temple (as we know from the historian Josephus) in order to squash any unrest of any kind.  If Jesus had caused this kind of ruckus he would have been arrested on the spot.  Are we supposed to think he simply vanished into thin air?

True, it is almost certain that something happened at the Temple.  But what was it?  The best explanation – the one that has been most influential among scholars for the past 40 years or so – is …

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Weren’t Jesus’ Followers Armed and Eager to Fight in the Garden of Gethsemane?
Did Jesus Favor Armed Rebellion Against Rome?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    nicolausaldanha  June 16, 2020

    Is it not correct that most scholars believe that Mark was written during or shortly after the war? If so, do these more recent events not affect the way these stories are told?
    Particularly, when someone in the gospels talks about destroying the temple, would not the authors and the early readers immediately think about the actual destruction of the temple?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2020

      Yes indeed, on both scores. That’s why one needs to develop historical criteria for deciding what Jesus really said and did, since the fact that he says something in the Gospels may be something that has been put on his lips by the writer himself.

  2. Avatar
    darren  June 16, 2020

    Amazing analysis. I always pictured the scene on a much smaller scale, certainly not 25 football fields. Did the gospel writers also intend the story to shift some blame for Jesus’ arrest to the Jewish authorities and away from the Romans?

  3. Avatar
    tskorick  June 16, 2020

    The attitude of Jesus you describe might be a step toward that which Crossan and Reed describe in Excavating Jesus. The Romans’ quasi-Jewish proxies in Israel had departed from the Jewish monetary systems (“divine distributive justice”) and rules in a way that so marginalized the Israelites that, when confronted by the hordes of capitalists on the the grounds of the temple built by Herod, Jesus became full of righteous rage. Regardless of the scale of such a symbolic “cleansing of the temple” (not a term I like), the undertones of Jeremiah 7 are pretty clear.

  4. Avatar
    jhague  June 16, 2020

    “The Temple itself was going to be destroyed.”

    Why destroy the Temple? Why not destroy the people were making a profit off the holy religion of Israel and keep the Temple for all the children of God?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2020

      Not sure — but it’s a common theme among other Jews dissatisfied with the current state of affairs. Jeremiah railed agaisnt the temple and predicted its destruction, and so did the Essenes. Both, btw, were right!

      • Avatar
        dankoh  June 27, 2020

        What about this hypothesis: Like many other people, Jesus could see that the tensions between the Jews and the Romans in Judaea were going to boil over, and that the Jews would inevitably be the losers in any military contest. (Jerusalem only held out as long as it did because Vespasian put his attacks on pause after Nero died and he was waiting to see what would happen back in Rome.) After the Temple was in fact destroyed, the evangelists elaborated on his predictions to make Jesus the replacement for the Temple.

        I think the fact that Paul never speaks of the possible destruction of the Temple, and in fact gives every indication he expects it to continue, as suggestive that Jesus’s predictions of destruction did not attract that much attention at the time.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 28, 2020

          The problem is that Paul shows remarkably scant knowledge of Jesus’ words, so we wouldn’t expect him to know about hte predictions. he knows scarcely anything else about what jesus taught either.

  5. Avatar
    flshrP  June 16, 2020

    I know what physicists and engineers mean by “parabolic action” when applied to metal rods. What do biblical scholars like yourself mean by that term? Does it have a precise meaning or is it just a figure of speech?

    Does Jesus’ action in disrupting the moneychangers mean that he is protesting the exorbitant fees that they are charging for their services? That otherwise they are performing a necessary service to remove the necessity of the pilgrims to drag their sacrificial animals hundreds of miles to the Temple?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2020

      Ha! right, physicists! A “parabolic action” is an action that is parable that is enacted, a symbolic act that has a deeper meaning. It’s not clear if Jesus is mainly upset that peopel have turned Temple worship into a commercial enterprise, but that’s a common view.

  6. Avatar
    Zak1010  June 16, 2020

    Dr Ehrman,

    When reading and pondering the life of messengers sent or appointed by God, I notice a common denominator. They got angry or agitated when there was clear disobedience to God.
    1 ) Noah’s people although evil and wicked, Noah was angered not because they were wicked, its because the disbelieved and would not repent.. clear disobedience to God.
    2 ) Abraham was described as quiet and calm, showed anger towards his people and father for worshiping idols… clear disobedience to God
    3 ) Moses showed anger when his people took up idolatry after being shown the straight path….. clear disobedience to God. just to list a few.
    So it does not surprise me that Jesus was angered by the people who practiced Usury and Interest because it was also a clear disobedience to God.
    In common, is the disobedience to God. Forming a military force was not commanded. They are prophets/messengers and were Warners. They understood that wrath and punishment came from God. That is why there were angry. They did not want the wrath and punishment of God Almighty on their respective people. Following God’s instructions does not lead to his wrath. Follow human whims and desires……. are consequences. We’ve been warned.

  7. Avatar
    J.J.  June 16, 2020

    Mostly agree, Bart… except I think Jesus’ words about the Temple are even more apocalyptic than most scholars realize. I think we’ve been overlooking the obvious. There is an important textual variant at the end of Mark 13:2 in which *ALL* the Western witnesses say, “Not a stone upon a stone will be left here which will not be thrown down… and in three days another [stone] will be raised without hands.” It’s not a harmonization to Mk 14:58 (or Jn 2:19). The wording is based on Daniel 2:34-35, 44-45… which is characteristic of the author of Mark (dependence on Daniel). The words are not predicting another “temple” will be raised… grammatically, it’s saying a “stone” will be raised… the stone in Dan 2, which is the kingdom of God. The words are predicting the kingdom of God is impending (just like Mk 1:15; 9:1; 13:30; 14:62; etc). I published about this in 2018. I might take you up on your offer yesterday to explain more. Early on, I think scribes shortened Mark 13:2 to harmonize to Matt 24:2 (which lacks the words) and to avoid the difficulty of that apocalyptic prediction.

  8. Robert
    Robert  June 16, 2020

    Bart: “So what’s to object? The most common answer, of course, is that Jesus was offended that people were making a profit off the holy religion of Israel. That may be right. It is worth noting that this objection to the Temple cult was not unique to Jesus. Centuries earlier the prophet Jeremiah had similar objections and voiced them rather emphatically, leading to his arrest and persecution; and the Essenes who were responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls were harsh in their criticisms of the temple and its cult. ”

    Closer to the time of Jesus, the Mishnah recounts Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel angrily protesting the rise in price of a couple of sacrificial birds in the temple up to a golden denar. He expressed anger and taught in the temple to reduce the burden on women and the price went down to a quarter silver denar, one hundredth of the previously inflated price.

    Simeon was a contemporary of Jesus ben Ananias, who prophesied the coming destruction of the temple and against the people of Jerusalem, who the Jewish rulers brought before Albinus, the Roman procurator who had him scourged, and before whom he was silent. Hmmm.

  9. Avatar
    AstaKask  June 16, 2020

    The cleansing of the temple in Mark is intertwined with the parable of the fig tree. Why?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2020

      The fig tree is probably a symbol for the nation of Israel. It has been cursed and its end is soon.

  10. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  June 16, 2020

    To me, it seems like an act that can be expected to be done by an Essene, or perhaps a rebellious Pharasee, (leaning to Hillel the Elder “branch of the Pharasee sect) against the” Jews “who in this case would (perhaps) be the Sadducees that I have understood were those who were associated with the temple administration.

    Regarding the incident in the temple, the ritual and purification process was (is) a long and holy ritual, and in that case, I am sure that such a disturbance in the middle of this ritual would have made a mess for the high priest (I suppose a sadducees) to perform it.

    At least I guess this guy (High priest) would have gone crazy like h ,,,,,,. and then I’m not surprised that they (the Sadducees who at least had a “line” to the Romans) managed to get this lawsuit through so quickly.

    Well, that’s at least my unscholared assumptions.

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 16, 2020

    Hmm? But I thought the temple destruction story was added to the Gospels after the temple was actually destroyed and, hence, was not really predicted by the historical Jesus????.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2020

      My view is that Jesus actually predicted it, as did Jeremiah long before. Nothing too weird about it; some people are predicting doom in our time! But the Gospels almost certainly containted the predictions originally.

      • Avatar
        Truncated  June 18, 2020

        Bart, you wrote: “My view is that Jesus actually predicted it, as did Jeremiah long before. Nothing too weird about it; some people are predicting doom in our time! But the Gospels almost certainly containted the predictions originally.”

        “Containted” – I think you just coined a new word that might be particularly useful when discussing stories in the gospels!

        • Bart
          Bart  June 19, 2020

          Hey, it’s a nice word, now that you point it out! Rather apt!

  12. Avatar
    Silver  June 16, 2020

    I believe it has been said that the Greek of Mark’s gospel is rough and ready (compared with that of John’s for example). In the ‘Learn NT Greek’ course book I am following I have just read “Mark’s Greek is Greek written by someone who was thinking in Hebrew.” Is this a position that you have encountered before and is it reasonable, please?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2020

      None of the NT writers is at the high-end of literary Greek. But yes, Mark is rough and ready. Completely understandable, but not particularly elegant or sophisticated. John has some beautiful passages, but again nothing particularly impressive from a literary perspective.

  13. Lev
    Lev  June 16, 2020

    “the Essenes who were responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls”

    I’ve heard that some sections of scholarship (although I’ve yet to locate them) are now cautious about linking the Essenes to the DSS, and simply refer to the those who preserved them as the ‘Qumran Community’. What’s your view over this?

    I suppose the Essenes could have produced the DSS texts, and a later community preserved them, but then if the later community held to the same beliefs and practices as the Essenes (as one might expect if they treasured and preserved the texts), then what’s the difference? If they walked like an Essene, talked like an Essene…

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2020

      It’s not a recent debate but a long-standing one. There are still scholars who doubt the scrolls belong to the Essenes, but they are on the margins.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2020

      It’s not a recent debate but a long-standing one. There are still scholars who doubt the scrolls belong to the Essenes, but they are have been on the margins for a long time.

  14. Avatar
    DaveD  June 16, 2020

    Jesus’ objection was because the money changers were WITHIN the temple grounds. Such activity should have been outside of it.

  15. Avatar
    forthfading  June 16, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    How would attacking the Jewish temple even be a sign of anything negative against Rome? Did Rome count on money earned in the temple as a source of revenue for the Roman Empire?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  June 17, 2020

      It wouldn’t be religious problem. The problem is that it could create riots and protests and uprisings — and that’s precisely what the Romans didn’t want. The Romans did require taxes to be paid, but I don’t think those were levied against institutions like the TEmple. But maybe someone could correct me on that.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  June 27, 2020

        The Romans did not, so far as I am aware, try to tax the Temple. There was a famous incident where Pilate tried to appropriate Temple funds to build an aqueduct in Jerusalem, and when thousands of Jews protested, he had his soldiers sneak in among them and then slaughter them. (One more reason to doubt the story that the crowd intimidated Pilate into releasing Barabbas.)

        All Jews around the world were supposed to pay a half-shekel annual tax for the Temple’s upkeep, and I believe the Roman authorities assisted in its collection. I haven’t heard that they attempted to help themselves to any of it (there would have been a huge uproar if they had), so that also argues against their trying to tax the Temple.

  16. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  June 17, 2020

    The cleansing of the temple incident also lends itself to the ‘Jesus was a proto-Marxist’ theory. I would be very surprised if the money changers weren’t making huge profits from their arbitrary currency exchange rates (we’ve all seen that as tourists) and that is what really annoyed Jesus. I once had a brief exchange of views with a very religious lady who tried to say that Jesus never got angry. When I pointed out the temple cleansing incident, she at first tried to bluff it out but then conceded that I was right. I nearly suggested that she might be a ‘docetist’ by suggesting that Jesus did not have ordinary human emotions, but decided to quit while I was ahead.

  17. Avatar
    moose  June 17, 2020

    Wasn’t the Temple cleansing something a Son of David, a Son of God, or a Messiah was intended, or supposed to do?
    I mean, Temple Purification was something that was expected according to some messianic prophecies. At the same time, it was, to some extent, a tradition for a new king to cleanse the Temple according to biblical traditions.
    Wasn’t this Temple cleansing just fulfilling prophecy?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2020

      I’m not aware of any prophecies about it, no, other than the fact that some of the prophets were also anti-Temple.

      • Avatar
        Bwana  June 23, 2020

        Zechariah 14:21, And there will be no longer a trader in the house of Yahweh of hosts on that day.

        This is in the chapter where Zechariah is describing his “end times” scenario. So just like with his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt, Jesus is signalling that Zechariah’s apocalyptic vision is about to unfold.

  18. Avatar
    Shawnmrmsh  June 17, 2020

    I’ve watched all the lectures and debates on your YouTube channel, and read many of your books, (I’m currently reading “How Jesus became God”). One point you’ve made many times is that Pontius Pilate had no considerations or respect for Jewish laws and customs. I’m curious if the incident in the temple was a factor in Pilates decision to have Jesus executed? From Pilates point of view was it a major factor indicating insurrection? Or was it relatively minor like disturbing the peace? Or was it a non-issue for Pilate and the claims of kingship enough?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2020

      Possibly; in the trial before Pilate it isn’t mentioned. The main problem is that he called himself the king of the jews.

  19. Avatar
    dankoh  June 17, 2020

    It is possible that the gospel reports of Jesus predicting the destruction of the temple are a case of ex eventu? One reason I doubt that Jesus said this is because Paul, who wrote pre-destruction, never mentions it and in fact assumes the temple’s continued existence.

    The Essenes had a quarrel with the temple priesthood, but not with the temple itself. Could not Jesus’s “cleansing of the temple” (if it really happened) be seen in that same light?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2020

      Often is!

      • Avatar
        dankoh  June 18, 2020

        I think I understand that answer – it goes to my thought that Jesus’s issue was with the priesthood, not the Temple. But I’m really more interested in whether Jesus’s predictions in the gospels of the Temple’s destruction are prophecies after the fact (ex eventu), particularly given that Paul writes as though he expects nothing to happen to the Temple.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 19, 2020

          They are so widely attested in multiple sources that understand them in different ways that usually they are thought to go back to jesus himself. Paul, of course, shows almost no evidence of knowing the teachings of Jesus in general. (He quotes only a couple)

  20. Avatar
    zebrowski@charter.net  June 17, 2020

    In all 4 Gospels, Jesus quotes from Jeremiah 7, as you pointed out! Jeremiah was not allowed in the temple and people wanted to kill Jeremiah for these statements…(Jer. 26, 7,11; 36:5; 36:7-11) and he predicted the destruction of Solomon’s temple. In Jer. 7:6, Jeremiah says God is against shedding innocent blood in the temple. Obviously this was the animal’s blood! This is clear in verse 7: 21-22. Animal and human sacrifice did not originate with YHWH, and I think this is what Jesus was against. I hear the early Christians we’re vegetarians. Ecc. 3 says man and animal are both alike. It is wrong to kill any sentient being, what kind of God would want that? It gross and pointless. What do you think?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2020

      It appears that most early Christians were omnivores. Some Jews/Jewish Christians may have been vegetarians, to avoid the problem of eating animals that had been sacrificed to pagan deities. But the Bible itself has no problem with killing and eating animals. It actually requires it!

    • Avatar
      Vegan  June 21, 2020

      The Nazarenes: “they would not offer sacrifice or eat meat; in their eyes it was unlawful to eat meat or make sacrifices with it. They claimed that these books are forgeries and that none of these customs were instituted by the fathers.” Epiphanius Panarion 18.1.4

      “As their so-called Gospel says, “I came to abolish sacrifices, and if you cease not from sacrificing, wrath will not cease from you” Epiphanius Panarion 30.16.5

      “that He has not ordained that God should be honoured with sacrifices of bulls or the slaughter of unreasoning beasts, or by blood” in Eusbius, Proof of Gospels, ch.3

      “John never ate meat.” (Hegesipp according to Eusebius, Ecc. 3 2:3)
      “James the Just never ate meat” Eusebius Ecc. 23:142

      “Be on guard, so that your hearts do not become heavy with the eating of flesh and with the intoxication of wine and with the anxiety of the world” Luke 21:34, Evangelion Da-Mepharreshe — Syriac-Aramaic-Gospel

      ‘It is mercy that I want, not animal sacrifices.’” Matthew: 9:13

      “The unnatural eating of the Flesh of Animals is as polluting as the Heathen Worship of Devils, with its Sacrifices and its impure Feasts, man becomes a fellow eater with Devils.” ClementineHomilies

      Matthew partook […] without flesh.”Clement ofAlexandria, Instructor, 2:1

      ThenIcameacrossaremarkablebookcalledTheLostReligionofJesus:SimpleLivingandNonviolenceinEarlyChristianitybyKeithAkers,whichpositsashockingthesis–thatthecentraleventoftheChristianfaith,theCrucifixion,waspredicateduponChrist’swillingnesstofightforanimalrights,itwaslikethis:
      whenigotomeccaandpreachagainstanimalsacrificetheywouldkillme.
      GoVegan

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