JOHN 2.13-22: A PROPHETIC CRITIQUE WITH INTERPRETATION: What did Jesus do?

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January 29, 2013 by jmar198013

What Did Jesus Do? (John 2.12-16)

John 2.12 begins with the common Johannine narrative hinge metà toûto,[1] indicating a shift from the sign story in 2.1-11. As the temple incident proper does not begin until v 13, the best way to understand v 12 is as a janus between the two vignettes.[2] It is treated here only to place a question mark upon the matter of how tightly the interpretation of the two vignettes in John 2 should be linked.[3]

The temple incident proper begins in John 2.13-14: “The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.”[4] This locates Jesus at the temple around the time of Passover. The significance of this fact will be explained further later in this study.

John 2.15a is a rather prickly passage, for it seems to portray Jesus applying some rather brutal corporal punishment to those selling sacrificial animals in the temple.[5] After making a scourge out of some cords or reeds,[6] Jesus “pántas exébalen hek toû hireoû tá te próbata kaì toùs bóas.”[7] The grammar is difficult. On the one hand, pántas fits most naturally with the masculines of v 14: the merchants of sheep, oxen, and doves, and the money-changers.[8] On the other, the te . . . kaì construction of v 15 normally means “both . . . and,” rather than “and also.”[9]

To portray Jesus flaying the animal merchants presents something of a quandary for the interpreter: on the one hand, Jesus teaches a way of nonviolent resistance, forbidding even lashing out in self-defense when backhanded (e.g., Matt. 5.38-42); on the other, he lashes out—quite literally!—at the sellers.[10] Some interpreters have indeed argued that John 2.15 sanctions even offensive violence in certain instances.[11]

However, the text itself does not warrant an incensed Jesus whipping the merchants with his crude scourge. In the first place, the verb used for his action after making the whip is exébalen, which may be read as forceful, but by no means necessarily violent.[12] Secondly, although Bultmann has famously judged tá te próbata kaì toùs bóas as simply “a poor apposition to pántas[13] because pántas is masculine and próbata is neuter, this is not necessary. If pâs refers to two nouns of different genders, its gender will be determined by the masculine or feminine, rather than the neuter noun. Since toùs bóas is masculine, the qualifying pántas results.[14] Coupled with the above observation concerning the function of the te . . . kaì construction,[15] it would seem that John indeed intended that his readers understand that Jesus chased out only the sheep and oxen with the whip.[16]

There is actually a simpler, and quite logical, solution to this supposed problem. Assuming that Jesus merely chased the sheep and oxen out of the temple with the scourge, it would make sense that their handlers would bolt out after them, as well, to try and round them up. In any event, the notion that Jesus used the scourge only on the animals stretches far back into the church’s history of interpretation,[17] and deserves at least a respectful consideration.

Yet, it is misleading to draw a bead upon John 2.15a-b as the focal point of Jesus’ temple demonstration. John 2.14‑16 as a unit presents a tightly-woven series of actions on Jesus’ part. Once Jesus has entered the temple, he observes[18] the following: merchants selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and money-changers (v 14). First, Jesus chases the sheep and the cattle from the area. Second, he pours out the coins of the money-changers and upends their tables (v 15). Then, he says to the dove merchants, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (v 16) There is a definite narrative logic displayed in this arrangement, which reconstructions that feature Jesus ejecting the merchants and/or money-changers with the scourge intrude upon.[19]

Jesus’ protest in John 2.16, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” is different from that of the Synoptics, which present a conflation of Isa. 56.7 and Jer. 7.11, the complaint being that the house of prayer has been made a den of robbers. It would not be remarkable if both traditions preserved an authentic saying of Jesus, or if the two sayings did not carry a great difference of significance in John’s mind. John elsewhere manifests a distrust of mercantilism (Rev. 18.3, 11, 15, 23).[20] In any event, Jesus’ protest did succeed in disrupting the temple commerce, which was what he was angry about in the first place.[21]

The complaint of John 2.16 seems to have as its referent Zech. 14.21: “there shall no longer be traders in the house of the LORD of hosts on that day.”[22] This brings an eschatological dimension to Jesus’ prophetic act here, and in light of our subsequent treatment of John 2.19-22, this is not surprising. John’s presentation of Jesus’ temple protest signals such a cosmic shift, which begins when Jesus “as the new Temple, will be destroyed and raised again.”[23]

Pertinent Observations

In John 2.13-22, our author places Jesus in the vicinity of the temple around the time of Passover for the first time. As the reader continues on to the rest of the narrative, it should become apparent that this sets a precedent for a sustained dramatic tension throughout: each temple visit, each Passover, places Jesus in escalating danger, finally climaxing with the crucifixion in John 19.[24] John has, as we shall discover, appropriated the temple narrative precisely to set the stage for Jesus’ death and resurrection. This explains his “displacement” of the story in relation to the Synoptic accounts.[25]

While the Synoptic versions of the temple incident (Mark 11.15-18; Matt. 21.12-17; Luke 19.45-46) are literally woven from prophetic cloth,[26] the prophetic undertones are muted in John 2.13-16. Yet they are still present. There is a general consensus that the passage echoes the prediction in Mal. 3.1 about the arrival of the LORD’s messenger, after which “the LORD whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.”[27] This sudden theophany in the temple is, furthermore, instantiated by reports of priestly infidelity (Mal. 1.6-2.11).[28] It is also coupled with the promise of judgment (Mal. 2.2). John 2.13-16, when understood in light of Mal. 3.1, may be legitimately judged a “prophetic action against the temple.”[29]

A protest has been lodged at this construal of Jesus’ motivation for the temple demonstration: If his actions were in response to perceived priestly injustice or corruption, why not aim the attack at the priests, rather than chasing the animals and ejecting the merchants from the temple?[30] David Seely, for instance, suggests that “Jesus could have done something like taking a handful of coins and pelting the priests with them.” [31] My simple suggestion is, Jesus knew when to clown and who his audience needed to be when he did so. His actions provoked a question from onlookers: “What sign can you show us for doing this?” (John 2.18). John would have his readers understand that the whole demonstration was a sign: this is not the temple God intended. The temple claimed to signify what Jesus was to be–God dwelling in the midst of his people (John 1.14). The scene Jesus encountered that Passover bore no resemblance whatsoever to that.


[1] See John 3.22; 5.1, 14; 6.1; 7.1; 19.38; 21.1. Cf. Ernst Haenchen, John 1, 175;   D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 175-76.

[2] Raymond F. Collins, These Things Have Been Written: Studies on the Fourth Gospel, Louvain Theological and Pastoral Monographs 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 164; Ernst Haenchen, John 1, 175. G. R. Beasley-Murray does not even bother commenting on this verse. See his John, 35-36.

[3] A popular interpretive move is to suggest that the water-to-wine story illustrates Jesus’ replacement of the cult and institutions of the Jews, e.g., R. Alan Culpepper, The Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design, Foundations and Facets: New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), 193. That assertion having been made, the temple incident is seen as confirmation of that replacement. Our study, however, would presuppose that the sign of John 2.1-11 was about transformation rather than replacement. More to the point then, at least as far as the rhythm of the narrative is concerned, are those who perceive the radical “transition between the messianic joy of the wedding at Cana and Jesus’ dramatic overthrowing of the Temple tables in Jerusalem,” Wes Howard-Brook, Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship, The Bible and Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994), 82; cf. Frederick Herzog, Liberation Theology: Liberation in the Light of the Fourth Gospel (New York: Seabury, 1972), 57-58. While it may be true that the new wine of John 2.1‑11 has spilled out into the rest of John’s Gospel, Jesus must still confront those who protest, “The old is good” (Luke 5.39).

[4] All biblical citations are from NRSV.

[5] Among those who argue that the attack includes the merchants as well as the animals are Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, 115n.15; Harold K. Moulton (with some reservation), “PANTAS in John 2:15,” Bible Translator 18 (July 1967):126-27; Wes Howard-Brook, Becoming Children of God, 83 (“. . . all with sheep and cattle”); G. R. Beasley-Murray, John, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 39. A sampling of Bible translations that favor this option includes KJV, RSV, NEB, ESV. Walter Bauer, Das Johannesevangelium, Handbuch zum Neuen Testament 6 (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1933), 47, argued that the animals are a later addition and Jesus ejected only the merchants. Gerard Sloyan, John, 40, inexplicably states that Jesus also drove out the money-changers. Ernst Haenchen, John 1,183, sensibly responds to proposals such as those of Bauer and Sloyan that they would have Jesus rather foolishly shouting, “Take these things out of here!” (John 2.16b) to people he had already ejected from the temple.

[6] Greek kaì poiḗsas phragéllion ek schoiníōn. All references to the Greek New Testament from Novum Testamentum Graece, 27th ed., hereafter NA27. Poiḗsas is an aorist active participle, marking it as a necessary antecedent to exébalen (he drove). See the discussions of Stanley Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. Biblical Languages: Greek 2 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 188; Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 624. It was necessary for Jesus to construct the whip in order to drive out the animals. Schoiníōn is a rope woven from rushes. Consult J. H. Moulton and G. Milligan, Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1930; reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), 619. Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd. ed., rev. and ed. Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1064, offers the somewhat apologetic concession that the whip described in John 2.15 was “far less lethal than the penal ‘flagellum.’” The apparatus to NA27 indicates that p66, 75 L N W and several other ancient witnesses preface phragéllion with ōs, thus “a whip of sorts.” This may indicate embarrassment by some early Christians at the idea that Jesus used a scourge. See G. R. Beasley-Murray, John, 38n.d.

[8] Harold K. Moulton, “PANTAS in John 2:15,” 126-27.

[9] Ibid., 127.

[10] John J. Pilch’s assertion that Jesus was afterward likely “contrite, baffled, and totally amazed at what he did” is hardly helpful in solving this dilemma. See Pilch, “Emotion/ Demonstration of Feelings,” in Handbook of Biblical Social Values, ed. John J. Pilch and Bruce J. Malina (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998), 57.

[11] So Faulkner University law professor John Eidsmoe in God and Caesar (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1984), 48-49, who argues upon the basis of John 2.15 that Jesus would have made a fine general in the military. Eidsmoe bases this rationale on the comments of R. C. H. Lenski, who was prone to overstatements that bordered on morbidly humorous, and famously said of John 2.15:

The Son cleans his Father’s house with the lash of the scourge . . . With fiery indignation, Jesus applied the scourge right and left to [those who were selling and the money changers]. Then also to the sheep and the oxen.

See Lenski, Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel (Columbus, OH: Wartburg, 1956), 205-06.

Of course Eidsmoe never pretends to be a biblical scholar, and Lenski’s popular commentaries should probably be handled with a great degree of caution. These examples were included to demonstrate what can happen when interpreters slavishly follow popular (mis)understandings of familiar texts.

[12] John Howard Yoder points out that in other instances (Mark 5.40; Matt. 9.38), echbállō means simply “to send away.” See his The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 43. The insights of Louw and Nida are also most helpful in this instance. A rather rare usage is manifested in Matt. 12.20, where it means to make something come to pass. The word is also often used of exorcisms (e.g., Matt. 9.34; Mark 1.34); cf. Wes Howard-Brook, Becoming Children of God, 83, who characterizes it as an “exorcism” or “throwing out.” The semantic continuum it inhabits is constituted by compelling a person or object to move from one place to another, whether by means of force, words, or simply leading out. In the temple incident, it obviously means to drive out. See Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (New York: UBS, 1989), sects. 13.68, 15.44, 15.68, 15.174, 15.220, 53.102. Keeping this in mind, all that the verb implies in John 2.15 is that Jesus chased the animals (and perhaps the merchants) out of the temple by means of the whip, not that he used it on anyone.

[13] Rudolph Bultmann, The Gospel of John, 123.

[14] See Ernst Haenchen, John 1, 183; G. H. C. MacGregor, The New Testament Basis of Pacifism (London: James Clarke, 1936), 17-18; John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 42-43.

[15]  Harold K. Moulton, “PANTAS in John 2:15,” 127; cf. Jean Lasserre, “A Tenacious Misunderstanding: John 2:15,” trans. John Howard Yoder, in Occasional Papers of the Council of Mennonite Seminaries and Institute of Mennonite Studies No. 1,” ed. Willard Swartley (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1981), 35-48.

[16] A concise summary of the data supporting this viewpoint of Jesus’ actions in John 2.15 may be found in Mark R. Bredin, “John’s Account of Jesus’ Demonstration in the Temple,” 46-47.

[17] See Wenda Wolska, La Topographie de Cosmas Indicopleustes (Paris: Presses Universitaires Francaises, 1962), 91.

[18] Greek heûren , which may connote either accidental discovery or finding after intentional searching. See Johannes Louw and Eugene Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, sect. 27.27. Most of the examples in J. H. Moulton and G. Milligan, Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, 264-65, indicate the latter, and I am inclined to favor that for John 2.14. Thus, Jesus moves with purpose.

[19] So Ernst Haenchen, John 1 183-84.

[20] Mark R. Bredin, “John’s Account of Jesus’ Demonstration in the Temple,” 47.

[21] Neill Q. Hamilton, “Temple Cleansing and Temple Bank,” Journal of Biblical Literature 83 (Dec 1964), 371.

[22]  Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, 121; D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 179; G. R. Beasley-Murray, John, 39.

[23] Alan R. Kerr, The Temple of Jesus’ Body: The Temple Theme in the Gospel of John, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 220 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 82; cf. 74‑77.

[24] Sean Freyne, Galilee, Jesus, and the Gospels: Literary Approaches and Historical Investigations (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), 119; Craig A. Evans, “Jesus’ Action in the Temple,” 243 n.17.

[25]  N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 3 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 671; Dorothy A. Lee, The Symbolic Narratives of John’s Gospel: The Interplay of Form and Meaning, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 95 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 82.

[26] Isa. 56.7; 58.13-14; Jer. 7.1-11; 19.10-15. See Ben Witherington, III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 316-318.  J. D. M. Derrett, “The Zeal of the House and the Cleansing of the Temple,” 79-88; Craig Evans, “Jesus’ Action in the Temple,” 251.

[27] See, e.g., D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 179; Alan R. Kerr, The Temple of Jesus’ Body, 73-74. Also Mark R. Bredin, “John’s Account of Jesus’ Demonstration in the Temple,” 46, though he has the details of Mal. 3.1 muddled, offering that “Jesus is YHWH’s messenger who enters the temple.” Not so! If the consensus is correct that John echoes Mal. 3.1 here (and I believe it is), he would have had John the Baptizer in mind as the messenger, and Jesus as the Lord entering the temple. On this, see Maarten J. J. Menken, Old Testament Quotations in the Fourth Gospel: Studies in Textual Form, Contributions to Biblical Exegesis and Theology 15 (Kampen, Netherlands: Pharos, 1996) 34.

[28] Craig Evans, “Jesus’ Action in the Temple,” 252.

[29] John T. Carroll and Joel B. Green, “Why Crucifixion? The Historical Meaning of the Cross,” in The Death of Jesus in Early Christianity, ed. John T. Carroll and Joel B. Green (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 175.  G. K. Beale likewise describes it as “a parable of judgment against the temple” in The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A biblical theology of the dwelling place of God, New Studies in Biblical Theology 17 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 179.

[30] So E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, 66. Jacob Neusner, “Money Changers in the Temple: The Mishnah’s Expectations,” New Testament Studies 35 (1989): 287-90, argues that if this truly was Jesus’ purpose, he came off looking like a lunatic.

[31] “Jesus’ Temple Act,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 55 (April 1993), 267.

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