Recent attempts to interpret Jesus’ so-called cleansing of the temple range from a repudiation of Temple worship, to an attack on the supposed inequality that the exchange and sacrificial system fostered, to a destruction and renewal of the Temple. There is general agreement that the incident itself is highly likely to be historical, and that it is a key event leading to the passion. A problem with interpreting the incident as a critique of the Temple cult or corruption associated with the cult is that this critique appears in isolation from the rest of the ministry of Jesus. Far more of the Torah addresses the particulars of Temple cult than anything we might consider matters of ethics. If Jesus were repudiating vast tracks of the Torah, we would expect to find him addressing that topic somewhere in his polemics against the religious leaders of the day. We do not. I find any interpretation of the incident as a devaluation of the Temple cult unsatisfactory.
All of these interpretations ignore the key that Mark gives us to the interpretation of the event: a saying attributed to Jesus that alludes to Isaiah and Jeremiah. I suggest that Mark 11:17 gives us a key to interpreting the incident in a way that is consistent with the overall mission of Jesus: “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’ but you have made it a den of thieves.”
Here is my solution. Jesus preaches about the coming of a new era. Either God will bring about the new era with his own hand without any human assistance, or the new era will come about through a battle between the righteous and Israel’s enemies, in which God will intervene decisively in Israel’s favor. Let us call adherents of the former position pacifists and the latter, militants.
Early in his mission Jesus does not distinguish between these two positions. The earthly battle and the heavenly battle are metaphors for one another. In any case, the coming distress will be real enough. As his mission progresses and the number of his followers grows, both positions emerge among his followers. The militant group is influential even within his inner circle. “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force” (Mt. 11:12). Jesus moves toward the other position, advocating love of enemies.
Moving directly to the cleansing of the temple, I would put it in the context of Mark 13:1-2. These two lines as they are located in the present text have no context and they make little sense. The disciple’s comments are gratuitous and Jesus’ response is somewhat mean-spirited: “Look teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings.” “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left one stone upon another….”
The disciple’s comment is not merely an aesthetic observation. The stones are wonderful because they are huge, and they have a military value. Perhaps the greatest Temple in the Roman world, it is possibly an impenetrable fortress. Jesus is in the Temple with his disciples. One of the militants remarks on the great fortress with tens of thousands (at least) gathering in preparation for Passover. If Jesus could lead the people, they could seize the temple, hold out against the powers of darkness (i.e. Rome) and bring on the new age.
This is a crucial turning point. Jesus must make clear that he is not another Galilean bandit come to take on the power of Rome by force. He does not see the temple as a fortress, in which to do battle against Rome, but rather “a house of prayer (for all people).” His vision of the new era reflects Isaiah 56:6-7. In the new era, the nations will not be wiped out, but they will all keep the Torah and worship in Jerusalem.
At this point, Jesus wants to make a point to his followers about how easily the temple, which seems so sturdy, may be upset. He grabs a table of a money changer not because his business is corrupt but because knocking it over will produce a big dramatic effect.
I would put the context of the reference to Jer. 7:11, “you have made it a den of thieves” all the way back through Jer. 6:22. Jeremiah has been preaching a reform toward justice (7:5-7). The context is a military threat from the north (6:22-26). Instead of heeding Jeremiah’s call, the people trust in the fortifications of the temple, using the “deceptive words, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’” (7:4). In this case, the robbers in Jesus’ reference to Jer. 7:11 would mean the same thing as Josephus, another Aramaic speaker, means by bandits: insurrectionists. Those who rely on the strength of the temple rather than the righteousness of their acts are bandits. Jeremiah’s own reference is not specifically to people engaged in thievery within the Temple, but to injustice and infidelity as practiced by the people as a whole. Jesus has been preaching about living a reformed life in anticipation of the new era, while a significant group of his followers have been thinking about military strategy. Rather than repenting, they are gathering arms. His great prophetic act is directed against those of his followers who still adhere to the Galilean banditry tradition. The money changers and those selling doves are collateral damage.
Of course a disturbance in which a crowd of Galileans is referring to bandits would certainly be disturbing to chief priests who might hear about it. They would be prudent to find out more about the person at the heart of the disturbance.
This solution does not need to deal with Zechariah 14:21, since the act was not directed at the traders. It is positive toward the rites of the temple, since Jesus wants to avoid turning the temple into a military zone, but keep its ritual function, in anticipation of all people being brought to the Torah.
The militant tradition within Jesus’ followers was inconvenient to the early church, since Christians wanted to portray themselves as amicable to Roman rule. If I am right that the original context of Mark 13:1-2 was the militants’ view of the temple as fortress, then we can see why Mark dislodged it from its original context. Rather than reveal the existence of a militant faction among Jesus’ followers, he makes Mark 13:1 into a puzzling and innocuous comment, a side comment somebody makes as they’re leaving the temple. Mark attaches it to another prediction of the destruction of the temple. But Mark does not reveal the possibility of the destruction of the temple as a warning to the militants of Jesus time. Rather, Mark uses this prediction as a lead-in to an apocalyptic passage narrating events that were occurring in Jerusalem even as Mark was composing his Gospel. He moves the militants out of Jesus’ inner circle and into an apocalyptic future now unfolding.
Is it too much of a stretch to imagine a spontaneous quote from the prophet Jeremiah? Jesus was faced with the problem of the militants throughout the later portion of his mission. As Jesus took upon himself the role of Isaiah’s suffering servant, it is not a great stretch to imagine that Jesus was familiar with Jeremiah chapters 6 and 7, and their similarity to his own situation. He may have used this phrase in an earlier context, and Mark later put it here. At any rate, it sums up Mark’s interpretation of the event. Matthew and Luke concur. It places the incident within the twin issues of the threat of militants with Jesus’ ranks and the failure of the people to repent.