Now here's a commentary that might test your Sunday school beliefs — and one that might even trigger a sustained debate amongst Biblical scholars. There are really two questions up for consideration: Did Jesus get angry (fullstop)? And, did he get angry as depicted in the cleansing of the Temple scene described by Mark? The focus of Dr Ian Elmer's, commentary today is on the second question rather than the first but if his arguments carry weight perhaps the first question becomes the more important one and throws open to debate the big moral questions of "righteous anger" and "just war" theory.
Did Jesus Ever Get Angry? (Mark 11:15-19)
Did Jesus ever get angry? Well! The short answer is "Yes!" We must assume a priori that like all humans Jesus could get angry. A posteriori, there are a number of incidents in the Gospels that picture Jesus "spitting the dummy", the most often quoted of which is the so-called "Temple Act" or the "Cleansing of the Temple". When this story is cited we usually find Jesus' outburst described as "righteous anger", but I have some real difficulties with that view.
There is a long tradition in Catholic moral theology that seeks to determine the conditions under which one might resort violence in defense of a just cause or even a "just war". Discussion of these subjects raises a fundamental question about "justifiable violence" and, not surprisingly, the Gospel story of Jesus cleansing the Temple is often quoted to substantiate the possibility of such actions based on "righteous anger".
I am going to go out on a limb here (meaning few other biblical scholars would go there) and say that I suspect very strongly that the story of Jesus' "Temple Act" is not historical and, if it were, Jesus certainly wasn't acting "righteously". The evidence to support this suspicion is difficult to encapsulate into a few sentences, but I will try to note some of the problems.
To begin, it would seem to me that Jesus' temple act is out of character with Jesus' usual non-violent and pacifist behaviour — especially towards the institutions of Israel. It is remarkable that the first instance of this story appears in Mark (11:15-19) who alone amongst the Gospel writers presents Jesus as a Law-breaker, antinomian and dismissive of the Jewish purity codes — the existence of which is related to the Temple cult.
The other Gospel writers are careful to stress that Jesus fulfilled the Law (Matthew and John), or that Jesus was critical of a "legalism" (characteristic of the Pharisees) that placed the "letter" of the Law above the "spirit" of the Law (Luke and Matthew).
Even more significant is the fact that Mark alone seems to be the source of this story. He is followed by all three other Evangelists, and there seems no other parallel version from say the Q document, and even John's version is clearly dependent on Mark. On this basis the story fails to meet the criteria of "multiple attestations". It derives from a single source, which has proven historically unreliable in the past (in terms of Jesus' attitudes to the Jewish cult).
Second, we should not overlook the context of Mark 11 where the author has used one of his favourite literary strategies, "sandwiching" the Temple Act in the middle of the story of the fig tree and, thereby, using the Temple Act symbolically to represent the "withering" of ancient dispensation of the Jewish cult.
On the one hand, this heavy-handed treatment suggests a high degree of artifice and, on the other hand, its thematic content and intent further suggests that it is most likely the product of a "Gentile" Law-free Christian community.
The scriptural passage (that we will refer to presently) used by Mark (11:17) to highlight the story makes explicit reference to the Temple being "a house of prayer for all peoples", thereby stressing the universal character of Christianity. Such a view would have been foreign to both Jesus and his initial Christian Jewish followers and, indeed, as I will point out below, the passage itself is as artificial as most other aspects of the story.
Third, the other three Evangelists who, as noted above, adopted the Markan story also changed it radically before incorporating it into their Gospels. John (2:14-16), for example, places the story early in Jesus' career; whereas Matthew (21:12-13) and Luke (19:45-46) follow Mark in suggesting that it was this incident occurred during Jesus' final days in Jerusalem.
To follow this line of thought further, we note that all three subsequent versions extract the Temple Act story from its context within the Fig Tree story, and they all conflate both the details and the significance of the event. No longer does it appear as a judgment upon the Jewish cult. Rather it is presented as a prophetic act foretelling and prefiguring the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. Of course, this is what we might expect from authors writing after the year 70 (of the four Gospels only Mark is pre-70). Nevertheless, the adept editorial work suggests that even Mark's most ardent admirers were uncomfortable with his story and felt that it required some serious rewriting — which brings us to our fourth point.
The Markan story is so replete with curious anomalies and inherent difficulties that one might wonder why Jesus sought to target the "moneychangers" (11:15)? After all the Moneychangers performed a legitimate cultic function exchanging Roman and Greek coins that bore unacceptable "images" (of pagan Gods and the Emperor) for acceptable Jewish and Tyrian coins. One could not make a donation to the Temple or buy sacrificial animals with pagan coinage.
It is significant that Luke describes Jesus' victims not as "moneychangers" but as "those who were selling things" (19:45); the implication being that these were shopkeepers who were carrying on an illicit trade (that is one that was not sanctioned by the Law or Cultic practice). Luke understands rightly that Jesus could not have been justified in attacking the moneychangers.
Similarly, the "vessels" that Jesus targets that were being carried across the Court of the Gentiles (Mk 11:16) contained votive offerings. It seems highly unlikely that Jesus would have found anything wrong with this action. And, again, all three subsequent versions of the story omit mention of the vessels. This should not surprise us.
Mark consistently demonstrates a very poor understanding of Jewish beliefs and practices. He often gets the details wrong. And the Temple Act story is no exception. Even the scripture quote that he draws on to explain Jesus' actions is a strange amalgam of Is 56:7 and Jer 7:11. Some scholars have suggested that it may in fact be drawn from a similar verse in the apocryphal Psalms of Solomon (17:30), which speaks of the Davidic Messiah as "cleansing the cult". Indeed, Mark may have built his entire story on that single flimsy reference.
Was the Markan Jesus' Criticism of the Temple Cult Justified?
It has been argued that Jesus was not attacking the Temple cult per se; but rather the corruption of the temple priesthood. I am willing to concede that archaeology has revealed that some small number of aristocratic families associated with the High Priests did live comfortably. However, the vast majority of priests were simple farmers whose priestly duties required them to fulfill their ritual tasks according to a roster (cf. Luke's reference [Lk 1:8-9] to John the Baptist's father Zechariah fulfilling his appointed time of priestly service at the temple). There is simply no evidence from contemporary sources to suggest that the apparatchiks of the Temple grew wealthy through corruption. We can speculate about the possibility, but such would be an argument from silence.
It is certainly true that the Pharisees were critical of the laxity of the some of the Temple priests. Similarly, the Zealots accused them of being collaborators with the Roman occupation. But neither group ever accused them of defrauding the people.
One might cite the Matthean Jesus' criticisms of the Pharisees; but this has nothing to do with the Temple cult. Aside from the fact that Matthew's presentation of a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees may not be all-too-historical in itself, the Pharisees were a lay movement of lawyers, scribes and scripture scholars. They focused on the Law rather than the Temple cult as the locus of their faith practice. Their stronghold was in Galilee and rural Judea. There were very few Pharisees in Jerusalem. Indeed, the Markan Evangelist is probably historically correct in his presentation of the Pharisees as limited only to Galilee. In Mark there are no Pharisees among the opponents of Jesus in Jerusalem.
Most of our presupposition about the corruption of the Jewish cult is dependent upon an older and, dare I say anti-Semitic, reading of the New Testament. There is no doubt that Jesus' mission and ministry were opposed by some sections of Jewish society. But in the first century, Judaism was a highly sectarian phenomenon.
Jesus would have been acceptable to Pharisees — in fact I suspect that Jesus was a Pharisee — in that he believed in resurrection, angels and demons, and the necessity of interpreting the Law according to the exigencies of the situation. Jesus was into situational ethics.
Matthew, writing from a later period when Christian Jews and Pharisees were at loggerheads, presents a different and historically inaccurate picture. To cut a long story short, as a Pharisee Jesus may have been critical of the priesthood (even for any supposed corruption), but that did not mean that he would have gone so far as to attack the Temple.
Second-Temple Judaism was sectarian. But all the groups agreed on the basics including the importance and the centrality of the Temple. Jerusalem stood at heart of Jewish religious sentiment and observance. The whole system of sacrifice, atonement and forgiveness, and ritual purity so fundamental to Second Temple Judaism, was focused entirely on the Temple in Jerusalem.
Jewish authors from the period, like Josephus (himself a sympathizer with the Pharisees) and Philo (a Diaspora Jew with fairly liberal ideas) waxed lyrical about the Temple. Josephus called it one of the greatest wonders in the world. Philo spoke of it as dear to all Jews and as the symbol of Judaism — "one temple for the one people" was how he put it. Even the Qumran Covenanters, who had removed themselves from Jewish society in protest at the usurpation of the Temple cult by the Hasmonean appointed High priests (they claimed to be the true heirs to the positions), still sent votive offerings to the Temple.
If Jesus had ever attacked the Temple, he would have singled himself out as a very peculiar Jew indeed. In any event, the strongest evidence against seeing the Temple Act as historical comes from the earliest Jerusalem church. As I have noted on several occasions, the Christian Jews at Jerusalem (as best we can reconstruct their faith-practice from Acts and the Letters of Paul) were not as sectarian as other groups in Second Temple Judaism.
For instance, the Apostolic Community at Jerusalem saw no need to separate themselves from the wider Jewish society. Nor did they see themselves, like the Qumran Covenanters, as a priestly community established as an alternative to the corrupted temple-cult in Jerusalem. Throughout Acts, the picture Luke consistently paints of the earliest constituency of the Jerusalem church as a Jewish group who saw no conflict between their devotion to Jesus Messiah and their status as devout Jews; that is, as faithful adherents to Temple and the Torah (Acts 2:46; 3:1; 5:42; 10:14, 28, 45; 11:1-18; 15:1, 5; 21:23-24; cf. Lk 24:53).
The fact that the disciples of Jesus chose Jerusalem as the venue for their community indicates their continuing allegiance to the temple cult in Jerusalem, which must indicate a similar view on the part of Jesus. If Jesus had attacked the Temple we are left to wonder why his initial followers did not harbour similar negative views of the cult.
This is tough conundrum, but I think the simplest answer is to dismiss the Markan story of the Temple Act as a pure fabrication. It works well for Mark's community who belonged to Law-free Christianity, but it would have been viewed with shock and horror by Jesus' first followers. Of course, after the Temple fell in 70 even the Christian Jews like Matthew were forced to rethink the whole issue of the Temple cult. In that context the Temple Act story appeared more as a prophetic prefigurement of the destruction of the Temple, and the three Evangelists who wrote after that time did just that with Mark's original piece of fiction.
To return to the issue of justifiable violence, righteous anger or even just war theories, I have to say that "proof-texting" one's actions by recourse to Gospel stories that parallels is always fraught with danger. I am not sure that one can easily rationalise angry outbursts as "righteous" by quoting the story of the Temple Act.
Even if Mark's story is not entirely fabricated, it stands as uncharacteristic of Jesus' normal behaviour. Moreover, I suspect that if Jesus had acted regularly in this fashion he would have lost a great deal of his support. Nevertheless, if we would want to justify our behaviour by appeal to the Gospels, we probably need to read the "whole story" and not just lift a single aberrant incident out of context.
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2009Dr Ian Elmer