Studies in John’s Gospel, Bible study lesson 5
by Reta Halteman Finger
In our last lesson, Jesus is a party guy. He does a favor for everybody at the Cana wedding, so the story has a happy ending. But two sentences later, everything has changed. The location is the temple in Jerusalem; the characters are animals and money-changers; and Jesus is racing around angrily kicking butt. What is going on?
Every churchgoer knows that Jesus “cleanses” the temple right after Palm Sunday. According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this action brings about his execution a few days later. Just as the NSA, Congress, and some journalists insist that Edward Snowden must pay the price for “espionage,” so must Jesus pay the price for his civil disobedience. Narratively speaking, this event becomes the turning point of the Synoptics’ plots.
Strange signs and unusual meanings
But the incident in the Fourth Gospel that gets Jesus killed is very different, as we shall see later. Thus John can move the temple-cleansing story to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry for a different purpose.
In the first lesson in this series, I noted that John’s Gospel focuses less on “what really happened” than on “what does what-really-happened mean?” I do not believe the author makes up stories about Jesus, but rather takes known events from Jesus’ life and shapes them into a narrative whose overarching purpose is stated in John 20:31. “These are written so you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah…and through believing you may have life in his name.” In other words, all the events are signs pointing in one direction—calling the reader to an unswerving loyalty to and trust in this Son/Sophia who in turn points the way to a true understanding of God.
Reading between the lines
Although archeologists have identified most of the locations in this Gospel, the transitions from one place to another sometimes seem unrealistic. In 1:28, John the Baptist’s disciples are with him at “Bethany across the Jordan” (a name with two possible locations on the east bank of the Jordan River). By 1:43, Jesus decides to go to Galilee, a hard two- or three-day’s walk northwest, taking along disciples who leave the Baptist to follow him. Cana and Capernaum are in Galilee, but after only “a few days” (2:1-12), Jesus trudges south to Jerusalem for Passover (2:13), a 70-mile trek steadily climbing upward to this city on Mount Zion. Thus the geography of chapters 1 and 2 provide another clue that the temple account is chronologically out of place.
In all four Gospels, pigeons are for sale for ritual sacrifice at the temple, but John ups the ante to include sheep and oxen as well (2:15). Given Jewish purity concerns (see the previous lesson), one might ask where in the temple precincts were all those animals and their manure to be found? A likely place is the Court of the Gentiles, a large area on the Temple Mount beyond which non-Jews could not go for worship and sacrifice (see illustration). Here the author uses the correct term, heiron, which means the larger temple environs, whereas in 2:19-21, Jesus uses naos, meaning the sanctuary itself.
All three Synoptics cite the same reason for Jesus’ dramatic outburst: the house of prayer has become a “den of robbers.” Money-changers filled the sacred space, since pilgrims wishing to sacrifice had to change their money into silver coins minted in Tyre—a setup for a rip-off. Economic oppression of the poor is a theme in the Synoptics, especially in Luke, so no doubt Jesus was protesting this outrage by overturning the money-changers’ tables and releasing the pigeons.
In John’s Gospel, however, Jesus’ reason for his action is changed to “Stop making my father’s house a marketplace!” The very act of buying and selling on this holy site flies in the face of the free gift of grace and peace promised through the Messiah in John 1:17. The coins rolling on the floor and the fleeing animals are now free for the taking. (No doubt many people watching in the Court of the Gentiles were quite pleased with this disturbance!)
A sign that needs interpretation
The final exchange at the end of this account is very Johannine. “What sign can you show us for doing this?” demand the shocked Jewish leaders. “Destroy this temple,” retorts Jesus, “and in three days I will raise it up” (2:18-19). This is, of course, a double entendre, a typical technique in John where Jesus makes an enigmatic statement that his dialogue partners always interpret literally when he means something more profound. Here the author explains that Jesus really meant the temple (naos) of his own body that would be raised up on the third day.
Beyond the Synoptic economic house-cleaning, the Fourth Gospel asserts that Jesus symbolically destroys the corrupted temple system, and his body would eventually replace it as God’s true Temple where all are welcome free of charge.
Questions for reflection:
1. What ties the Galilean account of water-to-wine and Jerusalem temple-cleansing event together? If both actions are signs, what do they signify?
2. If you were a poor person who found a coin or caught an animal at the temple after Jesus’ action, how would you react?
3. This Gospel was written some years after the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE. Is that significant? How political was Jesus?