8 Possible Reasons Why Jesus Cleared The Temple

I have wondered about this question for years.

Why did Jesus kick over tables and cause a commotion at the temple?

After all his talk about peace and love and turning the other cheek, it seems out of character. 

But still, it is an event recorded by all four gospels, 

  • Mark 11:12-18
  • Matthew 21:12,13
  • Luke 19:45-48; 20:1-8
  • John 2:13-25

increasing its likelihood of being something that Jesus actually did.

Not only that, but many scholars, based on John’s placement of Jesus cleansing the temple early in his gospels, propose that Jesus not only cleared the temple once but twice. 

If that was the case it was a big deal to him. 

But for the sake of our discussion of why.

We do not need to separate the two accounts or even determine if they are two events or one in the same. 

Both the synoptic accounts and John can be used together to help us better understand Jesus’ motives behind clearing the temple. 

But before answering the why, we should first get a sense of the size of his protest. 

Did Jesus Stop the Entire Temple Activities?

It is highly unlikely that Jesus stopped the entire temple worship and sacrificial system that day(s).

And this is merely a matter of logistics.  

Herod the Great had built a magnificent temple encompassing 35 acres. It was a temple with few rivals in size and beauty. 

Herod had started building it in 20-19 BCE. 10 BCE completed the main temple construction, but construction on the temple continued long after, with the final touches being completed in 63 CE. 

But to our point, it was big. It was not a Mall of America, but similar to a good-sized local city mall.

This means Jesus could be kicking over tables in one corner of Gentile courts while thousands of pilgrims continue to buy and offer sacrifices, unaffected by his demonstration. 

Leaving us to understand that Jesus’ actions were symbolic in nature. He was demonstrating to his disciples, and the temple worshipers gathered around. He was not trying, nor did he stop the temple worship in its entirety. 

E.P. Sander provides another important point regarding scope. 

“It would appear that the action was not substantial enough even to interfere with the daily routine: for if it had been he would surely have been arrested on the spot.”

Jesus and Judaism E.P. Sander p.70

It does appear that later, Jesus’ cleansing of the temple may have caused his future arrest and execution. Still, if he had stopped the activities of the temple on the most important festival in the Jewish calendar, he would have been immediately arrested. Thousands if not millions of Jews had come to Jerusalem to offer their Passover sacrifice. There is no chance that the authorities would have allowed one man or even 13 if the apostles joined to stop the trade required to offer those sacrifices. 

No, Jesus’ actions were symbolic, demonstrating to all those who would pay attention. 

8 Possible Reasons Why Jesus Created a Scene at the Temple

It is anyone’s best guess of what motivated Jesus to “cleanse/clear” the temple. 

Even those terms, cleansing and clearing, which we often use, reveal much about what we think Jesus was doing at the temple. 

However, among scholars, I have found eight reasons or motivations for why Jesus caused a disturbance at the temple.

Not an Angry Outburst

The Temple incident is often cited as a time when Jesus got mad and possibly lost it. 

Many memes and discussions have this in mind, but the context surrounding it removes this possibility. 

Jesus did not walk into the temple, see the selling of doves in this sacred place of worship and just lose it. Kicking over tables and whipping those participating in business instead of prayer.

Important context from Mark 11.  

“Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.

Mark 11 NIV

The next day… On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there.”

Jesus observed what happened at the temple, left, and then came back unless we think he spent the night stewing about it and working himself into a fit of rage. 

Jesus had time to think about and plan his actions. 

He then returned to the temple with a plan and a why of what he was going to do.

Matthew, Luke and John don’t have this detail, but it’s helpful. 

Jesus does seem to be having a bad day. Being hangry, cursing a fig tree on his way to the temple. But even that seems to serve a larger purpose. 

My point is Jesus had time to take a deep breath, calm himself down. He did not fly off the handle. 

It was not an angry outburst.

But what was it?

Let’s start with what I perceive to be the weakest reasons, moving ahead to the most compelling. 

Taking the Temple Leadership by Arms

S.G.F. Brandon proposes this idea in his book “Jews and the Zealots.”

Jesus is attempting to do much more than a symbolic demonstration, attempting to begin a rebellion in the vein of what the Zealots did in 66 CE at the temple. 

Overthrowing the temple leadership, who were also influential in the administration of Jerusalem and Judea.  

The Zealots, in their revolt, did go to the temple and destroy the records of debts in an attempt to free the peasant population. Much of the fighting, both against the current temple leadership and later the Romans, occurred in and around the temple. 

Also, despite its similar focal point, the temple, there are strong arguments against the idea that Jesus was trying to start a rebellion by overturning tables in it.

The strongest being, as noted earlier, is the scope of actions pointing toward a more symbolic action.

Despite his acts of violence, Jesus was not trying to start an armed resurrection. 

If he was, it was pathetic. 

The next day, he returned to the temple and “walked and taught” in the temple courts. 

Jesus was trying to make a point at the temple but overthrowing the current administration was not it. 

Imitating the Maccabees 

There are many similarities to Simon Maccabees arrival in Jerusalem in 141 BCE on a donkey with waving of palm branches (1 Macc. 13:51). Appearing as if Jesus was trying to imitate his actions.

But part of his arrival in Jerusalem was cleansing of the temple. 

That Jesus taking his lead from history. 

Arrives in Jerusalem, is proclaimed as a king and then goes to the temple and “cleanses” it. Restoring both the “kingdom of David” and the focal point of Jewish worship, the temple.  

This would not be the first time Jesus took his lead from Jewish history.

Many of his actions appear motivated by scriptures as he “fulfilled” what he understood their application to be. 

As Matthew often writes.

 “This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:”

Matt.21:4 NIV

That Jesus’ demonstration at the temple was also fulfilling his role as the “Son of David.’

I have found this argument percussive and think it needs to be considered, but I find the later suggested motives more compelling.

Ending Animal Sacrifice

This argument is strongest in the gospel of John.

Where Jesus “made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; (Jn.2:15).

His actions stopping the offering of animal sacrifice.

John Dominic Crossan proposes this as an objection to forgiveness’s transactional nature. The Jews coming to the temple seeking forgiveness for their sins by offering animal sacrifices. Rather than repenting, they were “buying” forgiveness through animal sacrifices purchased at the temple.  

Along a similar vein of thought is James Tabor’s argument that Jesus was a vegetarian. Jesus not eating meat would be opposed to the slaughter of animals at the temple. 

Think PETA protests at supermarkets or farms against the “cruel” treatment of animals. 

The animals in the temple court were there for one reason and one reason alone. 

Jesus opposed this.

The killing of animals for sacrifices.

Either because that was no one to seek forgiveness from God or use animals. 

Rather, the temple of God should be a “house of prayer.”

Where worshippers would gather to offer prayers of praise and supplication. Seeking God’s forgiveness by repentance, not the blood of animals.

Ultimately, the religion founded in Jesus’ name (Christianity) and Judaism would become.  Judaism focuses moving from the temple to synagogues, which are “houses of prayer.” 

And Christianity, from animal sacrifice to the sacrifice of Jesus. 

But this is most likely reading too much of modern times into the past. 

Having Jesus act as we would.

Interesting side note.

The ending of sacrifices for the emperor officially started the Jewish War in 66 CE (Jewish War Ch.17:2, 409ff). 

If Jesus had ended animal sacrifices that fateful Passover, the consequences could have been huge. Signaling to the Roman authorities a change in mood, government and cooperation in Jerusalem. 

More importantly, if Jesus had wished to end animal sacrifice, would he not have gone into the inner sanctuary, the Court of Priests, where the actual sacrifices were made (Jesus and Judaism p.68)? 

This would have made more sense than knocking over benches of doves if it was the sacrificial system he desired to stop.

Purity of the Temple Leadership

At the time of Jesus, there were many people who were critical of the Jewish temple leadership. 

Not so much as we have complaints about church or charity leadership with accusations of corruption and greed. There was some of that and we will get to more of that later.

The Dead Sea Scrolls accuse the temple priests and leadership of impurity and incorrect sacrificial offerings. 

Keep in mind that the Levitical Law of the Jewish religion clearly states that priests are to be pure. A priest is disqualified from service for having a disfigured face, etc. (Lev.21).

One of the charges in the Dead Sea Scrolls is that the priests are defiled because they have “revealed the flow of menstrual blood.”(Psalm of Solomon 8:12), AKA they had sex too soon after their wife’s period (Lev.15:19). 

There is also a charge of the sacrifices being offered at the wrong time. 

The Essence and Sadducees used different calendars affecting when the proper time was to offer the sacrifices. 

Think Anno Domini (AD) and Common Era (CE) are a big deal.

What if your entire religious practice was impacted by the calendar you used? 

These, along with other reasons, caused the Essence to withdraw from the Jerusalem temple and its practices. 

The proposal here is that Jesus shared these concerns. That the temple leadership was impure and had to be stopped. 

This is possible, but his focus on the “market” of the temple, not the priests, reduces this as a focus. 

Along with most of His ministry, Jesus does not seem to emphasize ritual purity, which is the main objection of the Dead Sea Scroll community. 

Creating an Atmosphere for Prayer

A tranquil place for prayer appeals to me. I, at times, long for a quiet place to meditate or pray.

Did Jesus hear the loud sounds of buying and selling, disturbing anyone trying to pray at the temple? 

‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ quoted by Jesus as he drives the sellers out.

Isaiah 56:7

Jesus, seeing the commotion, stops the market so people can pray and worship God.

Similar to Martin Luther’s going to Rome to take Holy Communion and being disturbed by the hurries and business of the event.  

This it’s well with Zechariah.

“Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to the Lord Almighty, and all who come to sacrifice will take some of the pots and cook in them. And on that day there will no longer be a Canaanite[merchant, trader] in the house of the Lord Almighty.”

Zechariah 14:21 NIV

Jesus, seeing the fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy. That now was the time that all of Jerusalem would be holy and provide for the worship of God. Ending the need for a market or merchants in the temple. 

His goal was not to end the sacrificial system or even the buying and selling of animals but that they be moved outside of the temple precent. 

Just move it down the road outside of the temple. 

In short, this was a zoning bylaw complaint. 

The temple for worship, the streets outside for selling. 

Making it easier to focus on prayer once at the temple. 

This is very appealing, but we do need to keep in mind that in Jesus’ time, they already had dedicated places for prayer: the synagogues. 

Also, Jesus’ immediate action after yelling at the dove sellers is to teach. 

If Jesus wanted a conducive place for prayer, his actions were not creating it. 

A tranquil place of prayer may not have been Jesus’ motivation. 

Hindering Gentile Worship

A very popular reason often taught in churches is about the Who. 

Jesus was upset that people were excluded from the worship of God, in particular non-Jews Gentiles. This buying and selling was set up in “the court of the Gentiles.’ The only place in which Gentiles could come to the temple to worship.

W. D. Davies, in The Gospel and the Land and Borg in Conflict, argues that this was Jesus’ reason: He was upset about the use of the Gentile space.

It was not the buying and selling. 

It was who it was impacting. 

It’s kind of like using the kid’s playroom for storage because it doesn’t impact me, without thinking about the impact on those who use the space: the kids. 

A stone fence divided the temple between the courts of the Gentiles and Jews. With a sign warning all who dare to ignore.

“No foreigner may enter within the balustrade around the sanctuary and the enclosure. Whoever is caught, on himself shall he put blame for the death which will ensue.”

This was enforced by the Sadducees with a rare exception by the Roman authorities, allowing them to use capital punishment without a Roman trial, even for Roman citizens. 

The Gentiles had no choice but to worship where the temple leadership had turned into a market.

The strongest support for this reason for Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is Mark.

“My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.”

Mark 11:17 NIV

Interestingly, if this was his reason, Luke, the “gospel to the Gentiles, misses it. 

“It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be a house of prayer; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.”

Luke 19:46 NIV

And so does Matthew. 

“It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”

Matthew 20:13 NIV

Oops!

If this was Jesus’ point, it seems that two critical witnesses missed it. 

Even John doesn’t mention anything about “Gentiles” in his account. 

Making me doubtful that this was his reason. 

Protest Against the Corrupt Temple System

This is probably the most popular. Why? It has been taught in many churches, and I first heard it myself.

That the temple system had become corrupt. That this selling of sacrificial animals included cheating. A system of greed set up to “profit” the rich and powerful while taking advantage of the poor worshiper of God.

“the whole of this traffic- money changing, selling of doves, market for the sheep and oxen – was in itself, and from its attendant circumstances, a terrible desecration.”

Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah p.370

The money changers were only there to take advantage of the pilgrims who travelled from their homes but now had to exchange their money for “correct” currency to buy their sacrifice, at a price. 

The authorities demanded that only Tyrian shekels could be used in the temple. The pilgrims had no choice but to exchange their money for “official” temple currency. 

A price set by the temple. With no alternative.

Like buying those tickets at Chucky Cheese. They set the price, and there is nothing you can do but pay. 

Not only was that a rip-off, but these Tyrian coins had an image of the god Melkart (Herakles) on them and an eagle with the inscription, “Tyre the holy and inviolable,” How blasphemous?

Are not graven images forbidden? (Exodus 20:4–6)

On top of that, the prices in the temple could be exorbitant. 

Like paying 10 times the price of a hotdog at the theatre. 

Jesus saw the price being charged for the “poor” to buy doves, the only sacrifice they could afford, and he lost it. 

“To transform the courts of the temple to a market place – and for their own profit – was a violation of the law concerning the holiness of the temple…” Aulen

Jews p,77

Most of those thoughts are based on anti-free market ideas, or simply that business and commerce are bad. 

Profit=Greed

Something the gospels do not teach but is a much more modern idea.

Some of this apprehension about religious institutions dealing with money and trade is also a backlash from the sale of pendants prior to the Reformation era.

There was corruption and abuse that occurred in the 14 century that the reformers battled against.  But the also left a legacy of suspicion of religious institutions abusing power and being greedy for money.  Leaving us, to automatically think that if the temple was doing business, it was corrupt. 

If not, then individual corruption drawn from one line in the synoptic is the source of the belief that Jesus opposed the corruption of the temple market. 

“den of robbers.” 

Matt.21:13, Mark 11:17 Lk.19:46  NIV

Once we have the image of criminals in our minds, we jump to how thinking of ways the merchants in the temple were corrupt.

They must have charged exhortatory rates for the sacrifice, cheated the people with the exchange of money, and limited the worshipers’ options, thus forcing them to buy from them. 

Two often cited points of corruption in the half-shekel temple tax and the requirement to buy animals from the temple for sacrifices.   

First, there is the requirement to pay the temple tax with the official “temple shekel.”  

“payment of the tax was voluntary, being enforced only by moral suasion.” Sanders

Jesus and Judaism p.64

We can even see this in Jesus’ life in Matthew 17:24-27, where Peter is questioned about whether Jesus pays the temple tax. Jesus pays it only to “not cause offense” not because he is required. 

The worshippers coming to the temple may have felt pressured to pay the tax to the temple, but they were not required. 

Next is the requirement to buy animals from the temple for sacrifice. I have heard people assert that the priest would “fail” your animals if you brought it from your farm, requiring you to buy from them. 

But this is unlikely.

Bringing your own animal was allowed. 

If one chose to bring their own animals to sacrifice, they were charged a fee by the priest to inspect the animal to ensure it had no blemish. But why would the priest fail the animal to force you to buy theirs if you already paid to have yours inspected?

Possible but unlikely. 

Maybe a better understanding of “den of thieves/robbers would be helpful. 

Helen Bond in The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed points out that most thieves don’t normally practice their trade in their own “den.” 

The Message may have worded it better.

“My house was designated a house of prayer for the nations; You’ve turned it into a hangout for thieves.”

The Message Mark 11

The concern is not the evil being performed in the sale of goods at the temple. But the people who are participating in this trade. 

This also fits better with Jeremiah’s context if Jesus was genuinely quoting Jeremiah 7:11.

The prophet Jeremiah complains against Judah for practicing all these evils outside the temple but thinking they can still come to the “house of God.” 

Similar to the charge of impurity against the temple’s priest but of moral action, not ritual. 

Jesus was knocking over benches not because they shouldn’t be there but that the people operating them were not worthy to. 

Symbolic Prophecy of Future Temple Destruction

Jeremiah carried on Ox Yoke to foretell the future bondage of Judea. (Jeremiah 27)

Ezekiel laid on his side a day for every year of sin of Israel and Judah. (Ezekiel 4)

Jesus overturned tables, kicked over benches and whipped merchants to show the future violence and destruction to befall the temple. 

Jesus’ actions were symbolic. Symbolic of what was coming: destruction.

Many scholars consider Jesus an Apocalyptic prophet. That he ministry in light of a belief that God was about to usher in the kingdom of God with the end of the current world order. 

E.P. Sanders suggests that in light of this, we should consider Jesus’ action at the temple as part of his apocalyptic ministry (Jesus and Judaism, p. 70f). Craig Keener also supports this view of Jesus’ actions at the temple. 

Even if you don’t view Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, his teaching foretold the destruction of the temple. All three synoptic gospels include Jesus prophesying the end of Jerusalem and the temple.  

While on the cross, people taunted him regarding his prophecy of the destruction of the temple. (Matt.27:39f, Mark 15:29f)  

Earlier during his trial, witnesses testified of this prophecy (Mk.14:57, Matt.26:60).

“Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

John 2:19 NIV

In John’s record of Jesus’ action at the temple, Jesus speaks about a temple’s destruction.

Sander proposes that destruction is more appropriate for Jesus’ actions. If he wanted to demonstrate purification, cleansing. Pouring water in the temple court would be more fitting. 

But he didn’t. He wanted to demonstrate violent destruction, which he did. 

Ryan Nickel

Two loves of my life beyond my wife and 4 children are history and the person of Jesus. From childhood, I was captivated by history and still love reading and learning about the past. One life in particular that intrigues me in history is the person of Jesus. It's fascinating to think about how the course of human history was changed by a carpenter turned preacher. Both in our times and also in his. I attempt to process all I am learning about him through conversations, writing and shooting videos about the life and teachings of Jesus. With each word drawing me closer into his life. Ryan Nickel has been part of range of churches, including Baptist, Evangelical Free and Church of Christ. In 1999 I graduated from Peace River Bible Institute with a Bachelor of Religious Studies.

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