The Historical Background to the Cleansing of the Temple

Tuesday, 12 Mar 2019

In John 2:13-16 we’re told that Jesus traveled to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover, and that when “he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there, [he made] a whip of cords [and] drove them all out of the temple.” According to one  commentary, “It was in the outer court that the temple authorities arranged booths (called ‘the Bazaars of Annas’ and belonging to the family of the high priest) to provide animals approved for sacrifice and to exchange foreign currency for coins acceptable for paying the half–shekel temple tax. Because most local coins were stamped with pagan symbols, they were not acceptable” (Understanding the Bible). In actuality, the coin that the Jewish authorities accepted during this period had its own pagan symbol on it.

The coin sanctioned for the use at the Jerusalem Temple was the Tyrian shekel due to it’s particular weight and silver content. In fact, the Mishna specifically says, “The five selas for redeeming the firstborn son are in Tyrian coinage. The thirty for the slave…are to be paid in the value of shekels of the sanctuary, in Tyrian coinage” (Bek. 8:7). Around the edge of this Phoenician coin was written, “Tyre the Holy, city of refuge.” The back of this coin bore the image of an eagle, and on the front, an image of Melkart, who was “accepted by Greeks as the Olympian Hercules, and derided by Jews as Beelzebub.” One coin specialist writes, “It is ironic that Tyrian coins bore the image of Melkart, a Phoenician deity equivalent to Baal, Israel’s old enemy.”

In another section of the Mishna we see a confirmation of the claim made in all four Gospels that the money-changers eventually began to set up tables within the walls of the Temple itself:

On the first day of Adar [i.e., around the time that the Jews begin to prepare for the festival of Passover] they make public announcement concerning shekel dues (Ex 30:13)…On the fifteenth day…they repair the paths, roads, and immersion pools. And they carry out all public needs. And they mark off the graves…[and] set up money changers’ tables in the provinces. On the twenty-fifth they set them up in the Temple. Once they were set up in the Temple, they began to exact pledges…and they do not exact a pledge from priests…He who pays the shekel…for himself and for his fellow, he is liable for a single surcharge…Just as there were shofar chests [for receiving the shekel tax] in the Temple, so there were shofar chests in the provinces (Sheqal 1:1ff).
Alfred Edersheim, who was a Jewish convert to the Christian faith in latter part of the nineteenth century, provides a great deal of historical background that helps us to understand the true significance of Jesus’ actions as he drove the money-changers out of the Jerusalem Temple: 

 

It was a great accommodation, that a person bringing a sacrifice might not only learn, but actually obtain, in the Temple from its officials what was required for the meat, and drink-offering…and these transactions must have left a considerable margin of profit to the treasury. This would soon lead to another kind of traffic. Offerers might, of course, bring their sacrificial animals with them, and we know that on the Mount of Olives there were four shops, specially for the sale of pigeons and other things requisite for sacrificial purposes. But then, when an animal was brought, it had to be examined as to its Levitical fitness by persons regularly qualified and appointed. Disputes might here arise, due to the ignorance of the purchaser, or the greed of the examiner…Now, as we are informed that a certain examiner of firstlings had been authorized to charge for his inspection…all trouble and difficulty would be avoided by a regular market within the Temple-enclosure, where sacrificial animals could be purchased, having presumably been duly inspected, and all fees paid before being offered for sale. 

It needs no comment to show how utterly the Temple would be profaned by such traffic, and to what scenes it might lead. From Jewish writings we know, that most improper transactions were carried on, to the taking undue advantage of the poor people who came to offer their sacrifices. Thus we read (Ker.1. 7), that on one occasion the price of a couple of pigeons was run up to the enormous figure of a gold denarius.

[It] can scarcely be doubted, that [the moneychangers] had to pay a considerable rental or percentage to the leading Temple-officials…If this inference…be admitted, we gain much light as regards the purification of the Temple by Jesus, and the words which He spake on that occasion. For, our next position is that, from the unrighteousness of the traffic carried on in these Bazaars, and the greed of their owners, the ‘Temple-market’ was at the time most unpopular. This appears…from the fact that popular indignation, three years before the destruction of Jerusalem, swept away the Bazaars of the family of Annas, and this, as expressly stated, on account of the sinful greed which characterized their dealings. And if any doubt should still linger in the mind, it would surely be removed by our Lord’s open denunciation of the Temple-market as ‘a den of robbers.’ Of the avarice and corruption of this High-Priestly family, alike Josephus and the Rabbis give a most terrible picture. Josephus describes Annas (or Ananus), the son of the Annas of the New Testament, as ‘a great hoarder up of money,’ very rich, and as despoiling by open violence the common priests of their official revenues. …It were easy to add from Rabbinic sources repulsive details of their luxuriousness, wastefulness, gluttony, and general dissoluteness. No wonder that, in the figurative language of the Talmud, the Temple is represented as crying out against them: ‘Go hence, ye sons of Eli, ye defile the Temple of Jehovah!’ (Pes. u. s.). 

These painful notices of the state of matters at that time help us better to understand what Christ did, and who they were that opposed His doing. But we can now also understand why the Temple officials, to whom these Bazaars belonged, only challenged the authority of Christ in thus purging the Temple. The unpopularity of the whole traffic, if not their consciences, prevented their proceeding to actual violence…There was not a hand lifted, not a word spoken to arrest Him, as He made the scourge of small cords…His Presence awed them, His words awakened even their consciences; they knew, only too well, how true His denunciations were. And behind Him was gathered the wondering multitude, that could not but sympathize with such bold, right royal, and Messianic vindication of Temple sanctity from the nefarious traffic of a hated, corrupt, and avaricious Priesthood. It was a scene worth witnessing by any true Israelite, a protest and an act which…gained Him respect and admiration, and which, at any rate, secured his safety (The Life & Times of Jesus The Messiah, Chapter 5, “The Cleansing of the Temple”).  

Shane Rosenthal is the executive producer of White Horse Inn, and also serves as a ruling elder at Christ Presbyterian Church in St. Charles, Missouri.

To view an image of the Temple coin referenced in the above article, click here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyrian_shekel#/media/File:C%2BB-Shekel-FigC-TyrianHalfShekel.PNG
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