The Passion of Christ

The Cleansing of the Temple


  'And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves; And would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple. And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves. And the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine.' Mark 11  15- 18

As with the anointing of Jesus, there are chronological issues with this story. The synoptics make it a part of the events of the Passion, following the entry into Jerusalem,  but John has a temple cleansing story set very early in Christ's ministry. Some say John simply misplaced the story; others say that there were two separate incidents. Bart Ehrman, in Jesus Interrupted, takes the former view; He suggests, reasonably enough, that a young Jesus would hardly get away without being arrested for such an action. 
  I think there are other reasons for placing the single event in the week of the Passion.
  *  It beefs up the narrative and gives the high priests another good reason to 'destroy him'.
  * Had he done it before, the Synoptics would surely have mentioned it.
  * John's account does include significant details also included in the Synoptics - the pigeon sellers, for example; and does refer to the passion events to come.
    The modern take on the story is that Jesus discovered, within the temple, a cross between a local market and an airport currency exchange; as if St Peter's in Rome had set aside a chapel for Prada, Gucci, and so on, to open branches for tourists.  This isn't the case. The sellers of pigeons and lambs were providing animals for the Passover sacrifice; the visitors to Jerusalem could hardly bring them with them. And the currency exchange allowed people to change their own, perhaps Roman currency, into special, sacred coins that could be used to purchase the animals, or make donations to the temple for upkeep.  All perfectly above board, and in fact a requirement for Jewish observance as laid out in the Torah.  No more reprehensible, then,  than an English cathedral asking for a donation at the door or running a tea shop. 

  Theological speculations are many and various and I'm certainly not going in to them all here. The most common view is that the High Priests had 'sold out' to the Romans and Jesus wanted to metaphorically rebuild the temple, or perhaps return Jewish worship to its roots, and the cleansing was a form of enacted parable. Such a parable would also prefigure the forthcoming apocalypse of which he preached.   Another less exalted view was that the authorities were on the fiddle, keeping the money rather than making good use of it. None of these theories explain why the poor old traders had to take the rap.
  As with all Passion events, there are references to Old Testament prophecies, in particular Isaiah Ch 56 6 - 7  and Jeremiah Ch 7 v1, though some scholars feel these are rather forced. Perhaps more interesting is the account of the triumphal  recapture of Jerusalem by the Maccabbees in 164 BC, which was followed by a cleansing and rededication of the temple. This is recounted by Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews and in the OT apocrypha (1 Maccabees ch 4.) The parallels would hardly be lost on the history-conscious Jews of the time, and reinforces the idea of Christ as Messiah and liberator.

  This event is rarely found in early art; sadly, Duccio did not include it in his Maesta. Giotto's fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua,  is the only pre-fifteenth century example I've located. So why here? Change 'moneychangers' to 'moneylenders' and suddenly there is a relevance. Enrico Scrovegni built this 'new temple' to redeem the soul of his dead father Rinaldo, the notorious  usurer.

   Artists including Giotto used John as their inspiration:
  'And the Jews' passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem, And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers' money, and overthrew the tables; And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an house of merchandise.' (Ch 2  13 - 16)  
  Here are a few later images.


Jacopo Bassano: National Gallery, London

El Greco: National Gallery, London.
(A favourite theme of El Greco; this is one of five versions.)

Jacob Jordaens: The Louvre

Pieter Breugel the Elder: National Museum of Denmark

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