For this season leading up to Good Friday and Easter, I am reading David Seccombe’s The King of God’s Kingdom. I am just blogging about the part that leads up to Jesus’s death.
Many Jesus scholars have argued that Jesus precipitated the crisis that led to his crucifixion by his attack on the temple, usually called The Cleansing of the Temple.
Now John’s gospel has such an event in chapter 2 at an earlier Passover. But all the other gospels have a story about the driving out of the money changers and overturning their tables during the last week of his life.
As to what actually happened there are three options.
First the cleansing occurred at an earlier feast as John has it and the other gospels put it in at the end because that is the only visit to Jerusalem they report.
Second, it occurred during the last week of Jesus life, but John puts it earlier for theological reasons. The attempts to reconstruct a “signs source” behind John’s gospel usually have that source putting the cleansing near the end. So the John’s source would have agreed with the synoptics.
Third, there were two cleansings, one at an earlier feast and one during the last week.
Seccombe opts for this third solution. He claims that John’s account is different enough from the others that it seems like a different action.
He does not seem to me to make a coherent argument for this claim. The main difference seems to be in what Jesus said. In John he told the sellers of doves to take their business away from the temple and not make it a marketplace. In the other gospels he contrasts the temple as a “den of thieves” with the temple as a “house of prayer”.
In Mark’s gospel it does say that Jesus would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts (Mark 11:16). In Seccombe’s reading this gives the impression that during the last week of his life, Jesus basically took over the temple and used it as the seat of his teaching! He also argues that the public would have seen Jesus’ action as pro-temple.
“The authorities would have been paralyzed to know what to do until they received unexpected help from Judas. Thus it is most unlikely that Jesus would not have ‘cleansed’ the temple, if he had done it on the former occasion. It is not the desire to harmonize the gospels at all costs which draws me to this conclusion, but the believable picture which emerges” (p. 508).
I take Seccombe at his word about harmonization. But I just don’t see the “believable picture” that he does. I do not see any reason not to hold to the first option, that the cleansing happened once at an earlier Passover.
I do agree with him that those scholars who see the cleansing as the main factor that brought about Jesus’ execution are wrong. He points out that apparently the worst that any of Jesus’ accusers could say was that he had spoken mysteriously about destroying the temple and rebuilding it in three days (Mark 14:56-59). If he had just made a frontal attack on the temple and its economic support system, surely that would have been a charge against him.
Seccombe points out E.P. Sanders’ work where he shows that selling sacrificial animals in the outer courts of the temple would not have been outrageous or offensive to the sensibilities of most Jews.
Paula Frederiksen has argued that amid the crowded and bustling atmosphere of the temple during Passover week, an episode involving a few tables and a few merchants might not have been much noticed. So I wonder if the cleansing was just a small symbolic action influenced by Jeremiah 7:11 and 14.
Anyway, Seccombe does not need it as a motive for Jesus’ crucifixion. The events in Bethany involving the resurrection of Lazarus and the response of the crowds as Jesus entered Jerusalem provide plenty of motive. There are several examples from Roman-era Palestine of prophets being put to death for drawing a crowd.