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January 31, 2013 by jmar198013

Problems with Cleansing and Prophetic Portent Views in Light of the Text of John 2.13-22

Those who hold that Jesus was engaged in some sort of “cleansing” or purification of the temple usually portray him as protesting something: injustice in the socio-religious system,[1] the commercialization of religion,[2] even the sacrificial system itself.[3] The first two may be reasonably defended in terms of the text of John 2.13‑22. The latter is doubtful. The problem with characterizing the Johannine version of the story as a “cleansing”/protest is not that it was not one, but that this characterization hardly exhausts John’s intentions for the story.

In the first place, the text itself demands further development of this vignette. Jesus’ cryptic response to the Jews’ demand for a sign, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2.19), along with the narratorial aside that by this Jesus was “speaking of the temple of his body” (John 2.21-22), sets the agenda for how the story is to be understood by the reader. There is a definite sense that for John, the temple incident is a “sign” as surely as the water-to-wine in 2.1-11 is one, in that it points to a reality greater than itself.

Secondly—and this is important—what is behind the text militates against treating John 2.13-22 as an account of a mere purification of the temple. The Gospel of John is, after all, written from a post-temple perspective.[4] It is also written after Jews and Christians have decidedly dissociated from each other.[5] Stated frankly, there is no good reason for John to have emphasized a “cleansing” or purification of the temple when (a) the temple was defunct, and (b) in any event, his audience would not have been going there.

Likewise, John 2.13-22 resists categorization as nothing more than a prediction of the temple’s destruction. Admittedly, it probably serves that function in Mark,[6] and there is some reason to suppose that it does for Luke,[7] as well. But this explanation fails to explain the story’s import in John for precisely the same reason as the cleansing model: it does not adequately account for the developments found in John 2.18-22.

A Proposal for Interpreting John 2.13-22 on Two Levels: Jesus’ Demonstration as an Act of Prophetic Critique, and John’s Appropriation of the Tradition for His Purposes

If not for what transpires in John 2.18-22, John’s account of the temple incident could be viewed as simply a different articulation of that provided by the Synoptics, quite similar, but supplying a few supplemental details. Jesus’ behavior in John 2.13-16 reflects a prophetic critique, with a threat of judgment, against the commercialization of religion. Even the disciples’ response in John 2.17 could be viewed as nothing more than a comment upon Jesus’ indignation.

John 2.18-22, however, betrays John’s purpose in appropriating the tradition about the temple incident. Throughout his Gospel, John has made it a point to press the Jewish cult and Scripture into service to demonstrate that Jesus reveals and fulfills their true significance. In this instance, John has placed the vignette near the outset of the story to make a clear connection from the start between Jesus’ death and the destruction of the temple.[8] Jesus’ death and resurrection has rendered the temple redundant. More than that, the disciples’ response in John 2.17, 22 embodies John’s chief rhetorical end: they believed what was written (John 20.30-31).


The task of this exegetical investigation was to parse out the significance behind John’s version of the temple incident (John 2.13-25). Our proposal was that the story must be read on two levels in order to discern what it signified in its socio-literary context: the report of the event (John 2.13-16), and responses to it, along with the narrational aside (2.17-22). The crux interpretationis is the manner in which the latter develops the former. Once this is established, it becomes apparent that this text resists categorization as a mere account of a “cleansing” or prophetic portent.

John has appropriated an account of a (nonviolent) protest staged by Jesus in the temple, which also bears prophetic overtones. Like any good prophet, Jesus protests the trappings of commercialized religion, and by means of his actions implies judgment upon it. Also in fine prophetic form, Jesus likewise promises future renewal, even in the midst of pronouncing judgment. John picks up this story to show that this renewal is found in Jesus himself, who embodies the true meaning of the temple: God dwelling in the midst of his people. This account of John’s use of the temple incident best fits John’s rhetorical aim, literary sensibilities and historical setting. John’s presentation of the temple incident is neither a cleansing, nor a mere prophetic portent. It is a fulfillment narrative.

[1] Victor Eppstein, “The Historicity of the Gospel Account of the Cleansing of the Temple,” Zeitschrift für die neuentestamentliche Wissenschaft 55 (1964):42-58; Étienne Trocmé, “L’expulsion des marchands du Temple,” New Testament Studies 15 (1968):1-22; Mark R. Bredin, “John’s Account of Jesus’ Demonstration in the Temple,” 44-50.

[2] G. R. Beasley-Murray, John, 39; Frederick Herzog, Liberation Theology, 57-58, cf. John 2.16c-17.

[3]  J. D. M. Derrett, “The Zeal of the House and the Cleansing of the Temple,” 89-91; H. Stegemann, “Some Aspects of Eschatology in Texts from the Qumran Community and in the Teachings of Jesus,” 408-26.

[4] See above, n.7.

[5]  Hence John’s notoriously “anti-Jewish” bent. For a discussion of the tension between anti-Jewish polemic in John and John’s apparent “Jewishness,” see Judith M. Lieu, “Anti-Judaism in the Fourth Gospel: Explanation and Hermeneutics,” in Anti-Judaism and the Fourth Gospel, ed. Reimund Bieringer, Didier Pollefeyt, and Frederique Vandecasteele-Vanneuville (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 101-17.  John 2.13; 6.4; 7.2; 11.55 leave the distinct impression that John’s readers are not Jews, yet his Gospel as a whole assumes that readers are familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish customs. For an analysis of this curious data, see J. Alan Culpepper, The Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, 219-22. For a thorough, if somewhat controversial, overview of the church-synagogue split, see J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (Nashville: Abingdon, 1979).

[6] William R. Telford, The Barren Temple and the Withered Tree: A redaction-critical analysis of the Cursing of the Fig-Tree pericope in Mark’s Gospel and its relation to the Cleansing of the Temple Tradition, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 1 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1980); cf. E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, 61-76. But Sanders allows for a most anorexic presentation of the temple incident, saying on p. 61 that “it is overwhelmingly probable that Jesus did something in the temple and said something about its destruction” (emphasis mine). So he is not actually interested, in the final analysis, by what a later author such as John may have meant by appropriating the tradition.

[7] Whether this is so or not depends on two points, having to do with Luke’s appropriation of the widow’s mites account (Luke 21.1-4). First, is Joseph Fitzmyer correct in his assertion that the story was intended as a lament, rather than a praise of the woman’s piety? See his The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, Anchor Bible 28 (Garden City: Doubleday, 1985), 1321. It would seem so, insofar as it is sandwiched between Jesus’ protest against the “pious” who devour widows’ houses (Luke 20.45-47) and Jesus’ prediction of the temple’s destruction (Luke 21.5-6). Second, assuming one concedes to the first point, to what extent ought we read these pericopae back into Luke’s account of the temple incident (Luke 19.45-46)? This is uncertain.

[8] Dorothy A. Lee, Symbolic Narratives of the Fourth Gospel, 82.


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