Questions for Bible study groups
- What was the Temple in Jerusalem like at the time of Jesus?
- What sort of people were there on that day?
- What did Jesus do? Why were his actions so shocking?
- Why was Jesus so angry?
- What was the reaction of the authorities?
In brief: There was an angry confrontation between Jesus and the money-changers and guards in the great Temple of Jerusalem. Jesus said they had turned the sacred place into a den of robbers, and he evicted them.
Reconstruction of the central part of the Temple of Jerusalem, built by King Herod the Great. The courtyard outside the walled area is the Court of the Gentiles, where Jesus attacked the money-changers
The Temple in Jerusalem
What was it like? The first thing Jesus did when he got to Jerusalem was to go to the great Temple, newly built in shining white marble, and vast, about 450mx300m. Jesus probably offered sacrifice there and prayed. But what we hear about is the action that happened in the Court of the Gentiles.
There was a market there selling sacrificial animals and birds. There was also a money exchange, since the Temple dues had to be paid in Tyrian coinage, and most people had Jerusalem coinage only. This meant:
- that the atmosphere in the Court of the Gentiles was like an oriental bazaar where merchants haggled with Jewish pilgrims – like souvenir shops clustered round modern-day cathedrals
- the Temple-appointed merchants/money changers probably cheated or over-charged people.
To add to the unholy din, tradespeople used the Court of the Gentiles as a short-cut between the city and the Mount of Olives – the Temple precincts could be entered from all four sides.
All this was harmless enough, but it meant that the Court of the Gentiles was something less than a place of prayer. Jesus was not the only one to object: there was widespread criticism of the 1st-century Temple scene among Jewish writers.
At right is an excavated stone sign found at the site of the Temple of Jerusalem. It advises that Gentiles must not enter past this point, on pain of death, and was presumably at the entrance separating the Court of the Women from the Court of the Gentiles (see ground plan below).
What sort of people were there on that day?
Josephus, the Jewish historian, says
The outer court was open to all, foreigners included; women during their menstruation were alone refused admission. To the second court all Jews were admitted and, when uncontaminated by any impurity, their wives; to the third male Jews, if clean and purified; to the fourth the priests robed in their priestly vestments. The sanctuary was entered only by the ruling priests, clad in the raiment peculiar to themselves. (Josephus, Against Apion, 2.8:104)
When did it happen? John puts this event at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and the other three evangelists place it right at the end, just before Jesus was killed. Who is correct? And does it matter?
It is quite possible that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice. We know he went there a number of times. Several years may separate the two cleansings – to judge by Jesus’ anger in Matthew, the first incident had not been effective, which is why Jesus was so angry.
But we also know John tried to supplement the other gospels, and this may account for the differences. John may have deliberately used a different narrative structure, one that did not rely on historical sequence. The message may have been more important to him than the order in which events happened.
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