John (Part 7): Temple Cleansing (Ch 2:13-2:22)
Following the wedding in Cana, John states in 2:13 that the Passover was near. He uses that statement to transition to the incident in which Jesus cleanses the temple. But is his transition a connection of chronology or merely one to switch scenes? The reason for the question is that every other Gospel writer places this incident at the beginning of the Passion week—the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. John has it here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry—almost three and a half years earlier. The odd placement has caused much speculation. Perhaps the most common explanation among conservative scholars is that there were two cleansings—two times that Jesus overthrew tables and drove out animals at Passover time. I don’t think this is the right solution, but let’s examine its defense.
Craig Blomberg, a usually conservative scholar, wrote a book called The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. In it he presents six reasons or defense points for the idea of two cleansings. His first point is that the details of John’s account are, according to him, “completely different” from the details of the Synoptics. But the Synoptics mention (1) Jesus went into the temple complex (all), (2) Jesus drove or threw out those buying and/or selling (all), (3) Jesus overturned tables (Matthew and Mark), (4) he overturned chairs of those selling doves (Matthew and Mark), and (5) he would not permit anyone to carry goods through the temple complex (Mark). In John, we read of 1, 2, and 3 but no mention of 4 and 5. Plus, in John we read that Jesus made a whip out of cords. Blomberg’s statement that details are completely different, then, doesn’t really pertain. John does add the detail of the whip and leaves out the detail of chairs overturning, but these are not different details; they are added or deleted details. We can well imagine that in the scene from the Synoptics Jesus made a whip. And we can imagine that in John, chairs were overturned. For Blomberg’s statement to carry weight, details would have to oppose each other. But they don’t.
Next Blomberg tells us that if Jesus felt like doing this once, he surely could feel like doing it another time—in another year. Well, yes, that’s true. But that doesn’t prove a second cleansing. Jesus could have felt that way on every trip to Jerusalem since the trip we read of in Luke when he was 12. But that doesn’t mean he turned tables over every year for 18 years.
Blomberg’s third reason is more a defense against those who claim that Jesus would have been arrested if he had done this early in his ministry. Blomberg says no he wouldn’t have been because the crowds were protecting him in their hope for a Messiah. This reason ignores (1) that if this occurred just after the wedding in Cana, there would be no crowds yet believing Jesus was the Messiah (Jesus had not done anything yet to start the rumors of his messiahship), and (2) the cleansing of the temple was an activity that turned people against him, not for him.
Blomberg notes that Jesus’ statement in John about rebuilding the temple (2:19) is remembered only vaguely in Mark 14:58-59, suggesting that years had passed since the incident. But, of course, eyewitness statements after only a few days often difference—especially one as puzzling to them as that one.
Blomberg also tells us that Jesus complained of the temple becoming a den of thieves in the Synoptics while in John he sees them making the temple a marketplace. This difference is really no difference at all. The Jeremiah 7 passage that Jesus quotes about the den of robbers highlights the selfish attitude of the Jews who lived their lives as they chose while using the temple for only outward ritual requirement. That attitude was Jesus complaint in both the Synoptics and John.
Finally, Blomberg points to the statement by the Pharisees that the temple had already been under construction for 46 years. Since we learn from Josephus that the temple began in the 18th year of King Herod, Blomberg calculates the cleansing as occurring in AD 27 or 28. But, I believe his timing is off.
It had been generally thought that Herod began his reign in Jerusalem in 37 BC. This is due in part to a reference by Josephus of Herod’s capture of Jerusalem in the 185th Olympiad (the 4 year periods calculated from the start of the Olympic games in 776 BC). But Josephus also gives detail as to the capture being a challenge because of food shortage since the year was a sabbatical year. The sabbatical year in that time period occurred in 36 BC. Further scholarship has indicted that 36 BC is a more reliable date.
Josephus used the Post-Dating method of counting the years of rule. This means that unlike the ascension method used by the Egyptians for Pharoahs, the first year of reign was the first full year of reign. In other words, if one king reigned during the first half of a year and another king reigned during the second half, that year would be counted for the first king while Year 1 of the second king’s reign would be the next year. Thus, although Herod captured Jerusalem in 36 BC, Year 1 of his reign there would be 35 BC. Therefore, the 18th year of his reign—the year he began temple construction—would have been 18 BC. Counting forward from that point (and remembering that there is no year 0 between 1 BC and AD 1), we have 46 years of completed temple construction in AD 29. Jesus was crucified in Nisan of AD 30. This means that the Jews’ statement in John 2:20 concerning 46 years of temple construction had to be at the end of Jesus’ ministry, not at the beginning.
But why does John include an incident that takes place at the end of Jesus’ ministry at the beginning of his Gospel? The reason is for thematic purpose. Jesus had been baptized—an act of purification. Jesus changed the water to wine using the water pots of purification to move from old covenant purification to new covenant purification. And then John relates the purification of the temple to round out Jesus’ purifying work as John prepares for the new birth discussion with Nicodemus in chapter 3. John is not presenting a chronological biography of Jesus’ life. He is using incidents of Jesus ministry to drive home his points.
Therefore, verse 13’s reference to the Passover being near is not meant to indicate nearness to the wedding in Cana but rather as a change of scene to the much later event of the temple cleansing.
The response of those at the scene varied. The Jewish officials were insulted. They expressed no faith. Jesus disciples had faith. But many in the crowd had what may be regarded as conditional faith—a faith in Jesus as their leader (Messiah) so long as he would give them what they wanted. We learn from the other Gospels that Jesus came into the city on a donkey to the praises of the people shouting, “Hosanna!” But after this incident of temple cleansing, the people back away and are shouting, “Crucify him!” within a few days. The change probably was due to Jesus not performing for them as they had hoped. They wanted a leader to throw off Rome and exalt them. Jesus, on the other hand, overturned tables in the heart of their cultural and religious world. As indicated in the feeding of the 5000 in John 6, Jesus says, “You are looking for Me, not because you saw [perceived, understood] the signs, but because you ate the loaves and were filled” (John 6:26).
When Jesus told them he would raise the temple in three days, the Jews misinterpreted his statement to mean the temple building in which they were standing. But Jesus was speaking of the replacement temple—the true temple of his body. We could also think of the temple of his body as the Church. This temple of those born of God is where we meet with God now instead of a building made with hands.
The incident of the temple cleansing was not about the marketers charging pilgrims to Jerusalem too much for the sacrificial animals. The thievery that was occurring was in their hearts as they sought their own concerns in a focus on self rather than focusing on the purpose of the temple—the union of God with humanity.