Over the past several weeks there seems to have been a resurgence of conversations on social media surrounding pacifism, just war theory, and the notion of Christian violence,1 no doubt due in part to the recent release of the film American Sniper. And it seems that in these sorts of discussions, sooner or later, someone appeals to Jesus flipping tables in the temple as justification, if not for outright violence then at least for “righteous anger”. After all, if Jesus can lose his cool and start beating people with a whip, then surely his followers can find occasion to get angry and attack our enemies as well.
The problem with this way of thinking, however, is that it completely misrepresents what actually happened on that fateful day when our Lord and Savior rolled up into the Temple in Jerusalem. Admittedly, when viewed solely through our modern, Western, American, fallen human eyes, it can appear as though Jesus is simply throwing a fit. However, when viewed through the proper first century historical-cultural, literary, Jewish lens, we find that something very different (and much more meaningful) is going on. But before we can talk about what Jesus was doing in the Temple that day, we need to talk about what another man of God was doing a few centuries earlier.
In the second half of the sixth century (B.C.E.), a prophet from Judah by the name of Jeremiah grabbed a clay jar, gathered some of the religious leaders of the Temple, and took them out to the city gate that faced the valley of Ben-hinnom. There he pronounced the judgement of God against Judah, saying that because of their idolatry their enemies would come and bring slaughter and desolation. He then emphasizes and illustrated his point by smashing the clay pot, and then going to the Temple and giving the same declaration of destruction there (Jer 19).
As it turns out, just a few decades later the Babylonian armies besieged the city of Jerusalem, slaughtered many of the inhabitants, and destroyed the Temple in 586 B.C.E. This effectually fulfilled Jeremiah’s warning that the city would be “a desolation and an object of hissing; everyone who passes by it will be astonished and hiss because of all its disasters” (19:8).
Now, fast forward to the first century C.E. The Jews have returned from the Babylonian exile, they’ve rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, the Romans have taken control of the land, and into the Temple walks a carpenter-turned-rabbi from Galilee by the name of Jesus. Having scouted out the place the day before (Mk 11:11), he then approaches the city and weeps over it, bemoaning a forthcoming attack upon the city (Lk 19:41-44). After entering the Temple again he begins overturning the tables of the money changers and driving people out (Mk 11:15–18: Mt 21:12–16; Lk 19:45–47). John’s Gospel describes him using a whip made of cords to drive out the merchants along with the animals (Jn 2:13-16). Then after teaching in the Temple, Jesus and his followers are leaving when his disciples begin to marvel at the architecture. Jesus then responds to this by proclaiming the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (Mk 13:1-23).
As it turns out, just a few decades later the Roman armies besieged the city of Jerusalem, slaughtered many of the inhabitants, and destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E., effectually fulfilling Jesus’ prediction of destruction. As the Jewish historian Josephus described it, “The slaughter within was even more dreadful than the spectacle from without. Men and women, old and young, insurgents and priests, those who fought and those who entreated mercy, were hewn down in indiscriminate carnage.”2 Elsewhere, he wrote that “there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe [Jerusalem] had ever been inhabited.”3
So, that’s what Jesus was doing when he started causing a ruckus in the Temple courtyard, he was performing a prophetic act in the same vein as prophetic acts from prophets all throughout Israelite history, essentially acting out the destruction that he was forewarning. In fact, the similarities between Jesus and Jeremiah at this point are telling:
Not only do we have good reason to believe that Jesus was performing a prophetic act, but we also have equally valid reasons for not believing that he was losing his temper in a violent rage:
Last of all, none of the Gospels give an explanation for Jesus’ actions that have anything to do with anger, let alone violence. The closest thing that could be said was that “the disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for Your house will consume me.’” (Jn 2:17). But, zeal does not equal rage. For instance, I am zealous about eating healthy. But I’m not angry about it. In fact, if I was you’d think that there might be something a little screwy about my thinking (and rightfully so).
Well, there you have it, my friends, and in as simple of terms as I can think of. Jesus’ so-called “cleansing of the Temple” was in truth a well thought out execution of a very powerful and provocative prophetic act demonstrating the coming destruction of Jerusalem because of the corruption of its religious elite. A destruction, I remind you, that actually did happen. So, this incident is not an example of the peace-loving Jesus being angry and violent, and it certainly is not justification for Christians being violent either. If anything this incident should serve as a reminder to us to not succumb to anger and violence, since after all (in good ol’ Maccabean style) it was the attempt by the Jews to solve their problems with violence that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple not too long after Jesus.
P.S. – If you ever hear someone on social media use “Jesus cleansing the Temple” as justification Christians being either angry or violent, do us all a favor and point them to this blog post.
1: or maybe that's just my social media circles
2: Milman, The History of the Jews, book 16. http://goo.gl/HlGZwy
3: Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews or History of the Destruction of Jerusalem, BOOK VI. Containing The Interval Of About One Month. From The Great Extremity To Which The Jews Were Reduced To The Taking Of Jerusalem By Titus, Book VI. Chapter 1.1. http://goo.gl/NfMzuw
4: Thank you, Left Behind.
5: Not to mention the non-violent teachings of the rest of the New Testament (cf. Rom 12:17-21; Eph 6:12; Jas 3:17-18; 1 Pet 2:21-23; 3:9).