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January 28, 2013 by jmar198013


It is common for translations of the Bible in English to entitle John 2.13ff (and its Synoptic parallels) “Jesus cleanses the temple” (or something of an equivalent nature). This characterization of Jesus’ behavior in the temple is also simply assumed by many commentators, including some quite competent exegetes.[1] There is, however, an alternate explanation that has garnered a fair amount of support in recent times: Jesus’ temple demonstration was simply a prophetic speech-act foretelling the impending destruction of the temple.[2]

Yet, both of these explanations seem ill-suited for John’s purposes. That he would have envisioned Jesus’ actions as a “cleansing” (if by that one means “purification”) is highly unlikely, for reasons that will be explained below. Likewise, given John’s explanation for Jesus’ behavior and the significance he affords it (John 2.18-22), it is also doubtful that he simply viewed it as a prophetic action aimed at predicting the temple’s destruction.

This study provides another option for discerning the function of John’s account of Jesus’ temple demonstration. The narrative works on two levels: Jesus’ actions in the temple did serve as a prophetic warning. Writing from the vantage point of a disciple who has witnessed both the Resurrection of Jesus and the destruction of the temple, John utilizes the story in light of these events to demonstrate that Jesus’ prophetic act has been confirmed.[3] The explanation of John 2.13-22 advocated here best fits John’s literary and rhetorical agendas.[4] The following pages present an exegesis of John 2.13-22 that I believe confirms my thesis, just as John intended his presentation of that vignette to confirm Jesus’ actions in the temple.

The Text of John 2.13-22

The story of the temple incident is one of the few John shares in common with the Synoptic Gospels.[5] Whether or not John was literarily dependent upon the Synoptics[6] in this instance is notoriously difficult to prove, but it would be quite a stretch to argue that at the late date John wrote, he was totally ignorant of at least the traditions behind the Synoptic accounts.[7]

Some interpreters downplay the differences between the two accounts, while others highlight them.[8] The stories share in common the Passover setting, the dove merchants, the overturning of the money-changers’ tables and the reference to the temple as the house of God.[9] There are also important differences. John’s account places the incident early in Jesus’ career, while the Synoptics place it just before his arrest.[10] John alone introduces the detail of the whip of cords (John 2.15). Jesus’ stated motivation for his behavior is quite different in John (John 2.16; cf. Mark 11.15‑17; Matt. 21.12-13; Luke 19.45-46). Finally, John alone provides explicit interpretation of the vignette (John 2.18-22). Our exegesis of this text will strive to maintain a balance of sensitivities, allowing that while John and the Synoptics may have drawn from a common tradition (at the very least, parallel traditions), John has his own purposes for using (and perhaps altering) the story.

John 2.13-22 is a pericope with two movements: the temple demonstration (2.13-16), and the promise of a future sign with attendant narrator commentary (2.17-22).[11] The interpretation of the two movements is tightly linked, though they will be considered separately first.


[1] See the recent commentaries of Barnabas Lindars, The Gospel of John, New Century Bible Commentary (London: Marshall, Morgan, and Scott, 1972), 133; Herman Ridderbos, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 114; George R. Beasley-Murray, John,2nd ed. Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 36 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 37. J. Duncan M. Derrett has also argued that Jesus’ outburst was meant to symbolically “cleanse” the temple of sacrificial animals because he himself was about to take on such a role. See his “The Zeal of the House and the Cleansing of the Temple,” Downside Review 95 (1977): 89-91. H. Stegemann has argued along similar lines, but assigns a different motivation to Jesus’ actions, namely that he believed the coming messianic age would render animal sacrifices unnecessary. See Stegemann, “Some Aspects of Eschatology in Texts from the Qumran Community and in the Teachings of Jesus,” in Biblical Archaeology Today: Proceedings of the International Congress of Biblical Archaeology, Jerusalem, April 1984, ed. A. Biran (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1985), 408-26. Craig A. Evans, “Jesus’ Action in the Temple: Cleansing or Portent of Destruction?” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 51 (1989): 237-70, argues mostly from the Marcan version and its synoptic parallels that Jesus was “cleansing” or “purifying” the temple, though the significance he assigns to what is meant by that is quite sympathetic to parts of my own argumentation in this paper.

[2] This interpretation was stridently defended by E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 61-76. Rudolph Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, trans. G. K. Beasley-Murray, R. W. N. Hoare, and John K. Riches (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971), 122-29, takes a similar approach, though he still calls the incident a “cleansing” throughout.  Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, trans. S. H. Hooke (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955), 158 dubs it a “parabolic action” that foreshadows the “final crisis,” though he does not explain what this crisis entails (i.e., Jesus’ death? The destruction of the temple? A situation created by a conflation of both events?) See also Ernst Haenchen, John 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of John Chapters 1-6, trans. Robert W. Funk, ed. Robert W. Funk and Ulrich Busse, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 187, who states, “It is not a matter of a ‘cleansing of the temple,’ but of the abolition of the temple cultus altogether.”

[3] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible 29 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966), 122-25, also argues for a two-tiered reading. My initial hunch upon reading his comments was that he was right, but exactly what this means for our understanding of how the story functions in John’s Gospel and for his community needs to be developed further.

[4] John 20.30-31 discloses John’s rhetorical end. The reading of the temple incident advocated in this paper is also attuned to John’s literary sensibilities, in that it is able to develop this narrative vignette relative to the temple imagery which courses through John’s Gospel.

[5] John 2.13-17 = Mark 11.15-18; Matt. 21.12-17; Luke 19.45-46. D. A. Carson’s attempt to defend two temple demonstrations, one recorded in the Synoptics and one in John, is superfluous. See his The Gospel According to John, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 177-78. Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, 119, offers this clarifying reminder: “There are too many of the same Greek words to posit accidental similarity of the two traditions.” Cf. Ernst Haenchen, John 1, 186-90; E. F. Scott, The Crisis in the Life of Jesus: The Cleansing of the Temple and Its Significance (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952), 11, 24-25.

[6] For discussions of the relationship between John and the Synoptics, see C. H. Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), esp. 423-32;  D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 49-58; G. R. Beasley-Murray, John, xxxv-xxxvii; Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 4th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 303-331; F. W. Worsley, The Fourth Gospel and the Synoptists (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1909).

[7] Carl R. Holladay, A Critical Introduction to the New Testament: Interpreting the Message and Meaning of Jesus (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 199, mentions that early patristic witness reports it the last Gospel written. John Drane, Introducing the New Testament, rev. ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 217, cites the same evidence in establishing a date of composition between 85-100 CE. Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 297-303, reports that the majority opinion places the writing of the Gospel between 90 and 110 CE, though he also receives pre-70 dates with more enthusiasm than most. G. R. Beasley-Murray, John, lxxvii, offers 80 CE as “a plausible guess,” but no more. D. A. Carson’s dating is similar; see The Gospel According to John, 82, 85-86.

[8] For the former, see Gerard S. Sloyan, John, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 40, who says, “The differences between John’s account and those of the Synoptics are slight.” For the latter, see F. W. Worsley, The Fourth Gospel and the Synoptists, 68-71;  J. D. M. Derrett, “The Zeal of the House and the Cleansing of the Temple,” 79-94;  Mark R. Bredin, “John’s Account of Jesus’ Demonstration in the Temple: Violent or Nonviolent?” Biblical Theology Bulletin 33 (Summer 2003): 46-47.

 [9] William Pape Wood, “John 2:13-22,” Interpretation 45 (Jan 1991), 59.

 [10] Ibid., 59-60.

[11] William Pape Wood, “John 2:13-22,” 59, divides the account into “a diptych in two panels.” Cf., James McCaffrey, The House With Many Rooms: The Temple Theme of Jn. 14, 2-3, Analecta Biblica 114 (Roma: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1988), 186-87, but he divides the pericope as 2.13-17, 18-22.



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