Progressive reflections on the lectionary #6

John 2: 13-22

Progressive reflections on the lectionary #6

This week we hear an account from ‘John’ of Jesus in the temple. This story is told by all four evangelists, but there is one key difference between the the synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and John’s version: In John 2: 16 Jesus says that the traders are making the temple ‘a marketplace’. In the synoptics the phrase is often given as a ‘den of thieves’. One is a legitimate economic hub, the other is illegitimate.

This is important because unlike the other writers ‘John’ isn’t claiming that people are being cheated, just that the place is something it shouldn’t be.

Jesus makes a lot of visits to the temple in John - and in chapter 18 speaks of it as the place where he has spoken and taught ‘openly’ to the world. Jesus is, according to ‘John’, a temple kind of guy. People who use this story to make an antisemitic or supersessionist point are missing the mark, Jesus was an observant Jew.

Each of the four evangelists finds a way of establishing Jesus’ authority. ‘John’ does it by bringing this temple story right to the start of Jesus’ ministry, directly after the miracle at Cana, situating Jesus as one of the (observant Jewish) pilgrims to the temple. The synoptics have the tale at the end of Jesus’ ministry and show it as being one of the key instigators of his capture and trial. People desperate to prove the historicity of the texts sometimes choose to claim it actually happened twice.

Observant Jews at the time would have made up to three pilgrimages to Jerusalem each year, of these, Passover was the largest. Lots of people made these journeys, at least tens of thousands, probably more. As a result the temple building had to be vast, occupying a huge footprint.

We know the scale of this, partly, because the historian Josephus recorded ten thousand deaths in a stampede one year that was caused by a Roman soldier, on guard duty, breaking wind in a disrespectful manner. Josephus puts it like this: “one of the soldiers pulled back his garment, and couring down after an indecent manner, turned his breech to the Jews and spake such words as you might expect upon such a posture.” The Jews were (naturally) offended, a riot began, lots of people died.

Others estimate the amount of pilgrims in the millions, perhaps we might split the difference and guess at hundreds of thousands of people, all needing food to eat and perhaps even places to stay, and, crucially, animals to sacrifice. All of them paying the temple tax, and all bringing with them money or other tithes (some of which needed changing to local currency), such as those detailed in Tobit. In other words, the temple was an economic powerhouse - effectively the national bank.

When the Romans destroyed the temple in 70CE, they didn’t just rip the heart out of the cultural and spiritual fabric of the city, they also destroyed it’s economic base. This economic context would not have been lost on the original readers/listeners.

So John has Jesus theatrically disrupt the legitimate commerce that was taking place in the temple with a whip of ‘knotted cords’. Some use this story to justify violence, again this misses the mark, close attention to the text shows Jesus driving animals and causing general disruption, not attacking people. This is better understood as a theatrical piece of disruptive, non-violent, direct action, not unlike gluing oneself to a motorway. But why?

John has Jesus say: “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” This looks like a reference to the end of the prophecy of Zechariah which talks about ‘the last days’. The final verse says “And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.

Assuming, as many do, that Jesus did indeed carry out some sort of direct action ‘spectacular’ in the grounds of the temple, it is unlikely that this would have caused major disruption, simply because of the size of the place. More likely he was able to cause some symbolic disturbance in a particular area, more eye-catching theatre than revolution. Given that, according to ‘John’, he returned there many times, this would make sense. The story is one of Jesus making a provocative, prophetic, statement - similar to throwing soup at a painting I suppose.


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