The cleansing of the temple in John 2


The gospel lectionary reading for Lent 3 in Year B is John 2.13–22, the Fourth Gospel’s account of Jesus ‘cleansing’ the temple and driving out the traders and money-changers. After quite a bit of immersion in passages from Mark’s gospel, it is an interesting contrast to be back in John. No driving narrative here, but a much more crafted, ‘literary’ shape to the passage, with careful structuring. And instead of teaching us things through the placing of one event after another—communicating by putting things next to each other in parataxis—this gospel does its work by double meaning—communicating by overlaying things on top of one another!

Our passage follows on from the miracle of water into wine at the wedding at Cana, but in between there is a brief topographical and temporal reference: ‘He went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and his disciples. There they stayed for a few days’ (John 2.12). The comment combining his biological family and the new family of faith is intriguing; we only know of Capernaum as his ministry base from Matthew 4.13, but here as elsewhere the writer of the Fourth Gospel assumes that we have read the other three.

From Cana in the hills, you must ‘go down’ to Capernaum by the lake, and similarly you must ‘go up’ to Jerusalem, since it is at a higher altitude. (In both Greek and Hebrew, the phrases ‘go up’ and ‘go down’ are a single verb.) Whereas we tend to view movement by compass direction, looking from above at a map with north being ‘up’ (so from where I live in Nottingham, I would ‘go down’ to London), here the movement is viewed from the ground, so what matters is whether you climb or whether you descend. Such topographical detail marks out this gospel, which (despite being thought of as the ‘spiritual’ gospel) has more and more accurate topographical references than the others.


One of the obvious differences in chronology between John’s gospel and the ‘Synoptics’ (Matthew, Mark and Luke) is that John gives an account of Jesus in Jerusalem on five different occasions, two during a Passover (here and at John 12.12), one during an unnamed festival (John 5.1), once for Succoth (Booths) from John 7 to John 10, and one at Hannukah (John 10.22; it is not clear whether Jesus has remained in Jerusalem the whole time between these feasts). The third Passover is mentioned in relation to the feeding of the 5,000 in John 6.4, so that in the first half of this gospel, there is a Passover at the beginning, middle and end. The Synoptics instead present Jesus in Jerusalem only in the final days of his adult ministry, and include the cleansing of the temple episode in this period; it is this which provokes opposition to Jesus and leads to his execution.

In the first part of this gospel, we have had a symbolic, relative counting of the passing of time, ‘the next day…the next day…on the third day…’ which hints at both a new creation and a new sabbath. But with the mention of the festival, we shift from relative narrative time to absolute historical time, and it is this which shapes much of the later narrative.

The phrase ‘Passover of the Jews‘ is rather striking—after all, whose Passover could it otherwise be? We need to be alert to the way that this gospel uses the term Ioudaioi. At times (as in this example) it is a value-neutral ethnic, religious or cultural descriptor, as we had in the previous account of the jars used ‘for the purifications of the Jews’ (John 2.6); elsewhere, it appears to refer to Judeans, that is, southerners and Jerusalemites in contrast to Galilean pilgrims from the north; at other times it seems to refer to the ‘Jewish leaders’ and in particular Jesus’ opponents; and then there is the intriguing group of ‘Jews who had believed in Jesus’ (John 8.31) but who have now turned away.

Some of the negative language, for example in John 8, has been taken as indications of an anti-semitic attitude of the gospel and its writer—yet it is clear that this gospel is very Jewish, not least because Jesus and his disciples are all clearly Jewish, as is the writer himself. The narrative gives more prominence to Jewish festivals and customs than the other gospels (which is quite surprising when compared with, for example, Matthew), and Jesus here states unequivocally that ‘salvation is from the Jews’ (John 4.22). Yet the language of explanation, ‘Passover of the Jews’ appears to be for the benefit of ‘outsiders’ who are not Jewish; is this language telling us implicitly that, though salvation is from the Jews, it is for the whole world?


There are two words translated ‘temple’ in this passage; the first in John 2.14 is hieron, which though used for the main temple structure in pagan contexts, here refers to the whole area, including the temple precincts with its extensive outer courts and colonnades (stoas). The presence of animal traders and money changers was a pragmatic necessity for the temple system. For one thing, with Roman occupation, most of the country operated using a different currency from the Jewish shekel, and in order to obey the command to pay the temple tax of half a shekel (Ex 30.13) then money had to be changed (and Jewish men would usually pay in pairs together to make a whole shekel). The OT commandments about offerings appear to assume that each family has its own smallholding, and can take animals from their own herd to offer in the temple (Ex 12.5); but with changes in patterns of work, including both artisans on the one hand, and day labourers on the other, this was no longer the case, so animals were purchased in the temple precincts, and this became big business.

Both aspects of this practice arose from a desire to fulfil the commands as literally as possible—yet ironically this concern with literal interpretation led to serious compromise. The shekel that was used to pay the tax was the Tyrian shekel, used because of the purity of its silver—but it was a coin with the image of a person on it, and its inscription exalted the city of Tyre, which was one of the historic foes of Israel, denounced in no uncertain terms in Ezek 27—its judgement formed the basis for John’s vision of the destruction of Rome (Babylon) in Rev 18. As a result of the money changing and animal sales, the temple amassed a huge treasury, and many people had become indebted to the temple authorities to fulfil their obligations. In the Jewish War, one of the first acts of the rebels was to burn the debt records.

The account here of the ‘cleansing’ of the temple precincts is much more detailed than in the other gospels—in Luke 19.45 it comprises a single sentence—and it is to this account that we always turn for the details, and this narrative that artists always depict. Only in this gospel do we learn that Jesus prepared himself by making a whip from ropes, suggesting that his action was premeditated rather than spontaneous, and we are offered a detailed and vivid sequence of his actions—driving out the people, driving out the animals, pouring out the jars of coins and overturning the tables. All worth bearing in mind next time someone asks you ‘What would Jesus do?’!

Jesus’ concern expressed here is different from the concern expressed in the Synoptics; where Jesus there highlights the question of access (‘It shall be a house of prayer for all the nations’ Mark 11.17), here something much more personal is in view. The language of ‘my Father’s house’ is found in the explanation for Jesus lingering in the temple as a boy in Luke 2.49, and becomes the place of spiritual abiding (in discipleship, not after death!) in John 14.2. More fluent translations miss the parallel in Jesus’ denunciation: the ‘house of my father’ has become a ‘house of emporion‘, of trading (from which we get, through Latin, ’emporium’). The activities which we supposed to serve the greater good of the worship of God have now displaced it as the thing that has taken centre stage; the works of God have displaced God himself.


In verse 17 we have the first of two references to the disciples ‘remembering’. The Greek term is related to the word for ‘imitation’; there is a sense in which, as we remember an event, we rehearse in imitation the experience of the event itself. But the English word ‘remember’ also has a sense of putting the pieces back together again, re-member. It is only after the resurrection that the disciples can put together the pieces of the story of Jesus as they experienced it and make sense of it. (This reminds us that we should never read the gospels as a ‘naive’ account of what Jesus did and said; they are always put together with theological purpose.)

The reason here is given by the citation of Psalm 69.9, a psalm of lament which articulates many of the things that Jesus will have felt during his trial and crucifixion—being overwhelmed by death, enemies without number, betrayal by friends and family, being mocked by passers-by—and yet with a resilient hope of trust in God for deliverance. Jesus’ zeal for God and his house will indeed consume him in death on the cross here in Jerusalem.

The references to the Passover at start and finish, with the inner references to remembering, mean that this passage has a symmetry which is focused around Jesus’ saying about the temple:

John 2.13 Passover

John 2.17 remembering

John 2.19 The temple saying

John 2.22 remembering

John 2.23 Passover

‘The Jews’ here appear to be Judeans, that is, southerners associated with Jerusalem and the temple, rather than either Jews in general or the Jewish leaders in particular. Their challenge to Jesus is expressed in the Johannine language of ‘sign’, and Jesus’ response, which with hindsight we understand as pointing to his resurrection, might suggest that the resurrection is the eighth sign to which the other seven in the narrative point.

This ‘temple’ is not the hieron but the naos, the temple sanctuary itself, in which the Holy of Holies represents the shekinah presence of God himself. Throughout this gospel, it is not through parallel events but in double meanings that Jesus makes his theological and Christological claims. John has already described Jesus as the tabernacle presence of God with his people through the desert in John 1.14, and he is the festival light of Hannukah, when God sustained his presence and worship miraculously when human resources failed. Now he claims, through double meaning, that he is the temple presence of God, a theological idea that both Paul and Peter pick up indirectly, as they describe those who are ‘in Christ’ as part of this temple (1 Cor 3.16, using naos, and 1 Peter 2.4, using the language of ‘spiritual house’).

There is a double meaning to the language of ‘raising’; you raise a building, if you are wealthy and powerful and have the resource to do so—and God raised Jesus from death on the third day by his mighty power. The response of the Jews offers us yet further intriguing chronology; though the outer precincts were continually developed, and only completed in around AD 65, just a few short years before being destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, the central temple building was renovated by Herod the Great (as part of his commending himself as a true Jew to his people, and demonstrating the status of the Jews to the Romans) in the eighteenth year of his reign, and was completed a year and a half later (see Josephus, Antiquities 15.11.1, 6) This takes us to 18/17 BC, and 46 years later brings us to Passover in the Spring of AD 30 (Andreas Koestenberger, John, Zondervan 2002 p 33), three years before his death on April 3rd, AD 33. (Note that John 2.20 could mean either ‘It has taken 46 years to build this’ or ‘It was built 46 years ago’.)


All this raises the question of how we relate this ‘cleansing’ to the event portrayed in the last week of Jesus’ life in the synoptics. For those who are concerned about the historical accuracy of the gospels, then the clear differences in this account (the use of a whip, the different details, the different reason given, and the focus on Jesus as temple rather than the literal temple) all point to there being two separate events. Whilst critics will dismiss this as implausible harmonisation, if the Fourth Gospel is correct and Jesus’ ministry lasted three years or more, why should he not have done things more than once? If he didn’t, given the gospel accounts are so sparse, then he must have spent a lot of time doing not very much!

Alastair Roberts takes a rather different approach, seeing the Fourth Gospel as deliberately moving this event earlier in the narrative for theological and symbolic effect:

While the synoptic gospels record temple cleansing in last week of Jesus’ ministry, John records a cleansing at the beginning. I don’t believe that there are two temple cleansings: why has it been moved? First, placing the temple cleansing at this point situates the entire narrative following the first sign under the shadow of the Passion Week. While the other gospels climax in Jerusalem, John is centred upon Jerusalem throughout.

Second, it may serve to introduce a symbolic movement through the temple. John 1 presents Christ as the Ark upon which God’s presence rests, as the lamp of the world, and as the altar from which things ascend and descend between heaven and earth. John 2, in presenting Christ as the temple, introduces us to the structure itself. The next chapters focus upon the laver, with their washing and baptismal themes. In the feeding of the five thousand and manna discourse we reach the table of showbread. Chapter 8-9 bring us to the lamp within the temple. In the high priestly prayer of chapter 17 we see the rite of incense. In Christ’s death he passes through the curtain. In chapter 20 we encounter the open Ark in the Holy of Holies of Christ’s tomb (notice the angels on either side). Presenting the temple action later would disrupt this theological sequence.

Third, in the other gospels, it is in large part the temple cleansing that precipitates the plot to take Jesus’ life (Mark 11:18; Luke 19:47). Note that Jesus’ words in 2:19 are also found in Matthew 26:61 in the trial leading to his death. By moving forward the cleansing of the temple, the threat to Jesus’ life hangs over the entirety of his public ministry. Also this threat reaches its theological climax, less in the temple action than in Jesus’ action in raising his friend, Lazarus (11:45-57). This allows John to frame Jesus’ death less as the consequence of a prophetic action against the institution of the temple than as the consequence of his self-giving love for his disciple and the world more generally.

‘Zeal for your house will eat me up’ (Psalm 69:9). Jesus’ identity and destiny is bound up with the temple. Jesus’ very body is the temple, God tabernacling among us.

I am not persuaded by the idea that the whole narrative takes us on a tour of the spiritual temple, since the structure is just not that systematic and the markers in the text are not that clear—even though I agree that much of this symbolism is present. I don’t see any historical reason why Jesus might not have cleansed the temple more than once, since we know that the gospel accounts are each highly selective—and the question of dating the cleansing here to AD 30 would confirm this. Is this the reason that the gospel writer includes this time reference, to distinguish this event from the one in the Synoptics?

But Alastair’s points about the narrative effect are well made: the threat of death, in Jerusalem, at the hands of his Jewish opponents, hangs over the Fourth Gospel from the beginning—mostly in contrast to the dynamic beginning of Mark’s gospel, where Jesus death is introduced with suddenness and with the effect of a shock halfway through in Mark 8. The Fourth Gospel has a more ‘realised’ crucifixion, which goes with his ‘realised’ eschatology; both the death of Jesus and the eternal life that comes from it are realities from the very beginning of his narrative.


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12 thoughts on “The cleansing of the temple in John 2”

  1. Thanks Ian – this is really helpful . I’ve just had a discussion of the passage with the ministry team at church as our LLM who is preaching this week was trying to work out how many times Jesus cleanses the temple! I agree that Jesus might well have done things more than once and that is I think plausible for the feeding miracles in Mark but my slightly tounge in cheek comment in our meeting this morning was that after Jesus did this once they probably would not have let him in the temple a second time! Do you think the set up in the temple was such that Jesus could have got back in a few years later and not be recognized as the guy who caused all that trouble last time? I genuinely am asking for a friend (as well as being intrigued myself).

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    • Yes, I think it is perfectly possible. With no photography or wanted posters, it would have been perfectly possible for Jesus to do things more than once. At the end of the gospels, there is clearly a fear of the crowds amongst the authorities, so it is not clear they could have prevented it if they wanted to.

      I think we don’t need to exaggerate the impact of this practically—the power was surely symbolic more than anything else.

      (I hope you passed this on to the team…!)

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  2. As an irrelevant aside. As a foreigner, the language of going “up to London” has struck me as a usage I don’t understand. Its not geographical as people north of London “go up” to London.

    Langauge of going “up” to Oxford makes sense re the river. So then “up” to Cambridge mirrors university use. But outside of that people tend to go “up” to London from all quadrants.

    On a more relevant note: I agree with that its quite possible that Jesus did the action twice.

    I also agree with those that see this as a prophet action of stopping the temple, stopping it working (cf stopping things from being moved around in Mark 11.16). This can be seen as a prophet action, less of “cleansing” but one foretelling destruction and the ending of the temple.

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    • Perhaps ‘going up’ (to London, ‘town’, university) is a matter of status, rather than altitude or cardinal direction. On railway lines, the ‘up’ direction is to London, and ‘down trains’ are leaving London.

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  3. Did Jesus cleanse the temple more than once?

    Well- if the anti-Zechariah sight of the corrupted outer-court provoked righteous passion in him, then presumably he did it as often as he saw it. Which will have been more than once. However, his looking around the temple on the first evening may not have been sightseeing! – more likely strategic for the morrow?

    It is interesting that Mark artificially has Jesus go to Jerusalem only once. So he must have had to squash everything of significance into that one visit. Papias’s Elder who mentioned that Mark wrote all he knew from Peter but not in correct sequence is likely none other than the author of the second gospel to be written, John. John already therefore shows an interest in the matter of sequence. He also alters (‘corrects’) the Markan chronology at other Jerusalem points: relative order of anointing and triumphal entry; dating of Last Supper. And of course he is himself a Jerusalem specialist.

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  4. Suggesting that the temple was “cleansed” twice solves the immediate problem of when, but does leave some questions in its wake. And there are deeper questions about the nature of the gospels and the intention of their authors as well as their inter-relatedness.
    One question, which Ian alludes to, is to what extent the theology of the synoptics and / or John has shaped the description of events in Jerusalem: John makes Jerusalem central, and the others make it the end-point of the journey. Both have clearly shaped their narrative accordingly. Either John has invented visits, or the synoptics have deliberately removed a key element of Jesus’ ministry.
    If John omits the second cleansing, he also omits to mention the entry into Jerusalem on the Sunday, and in the shared meal for the evening (ch 13) he includes foot-washing and then a lengthy sermon rather than the institution of the new Covenant. As is well-known there is an apparent discrepancy about the timing of the crucifixion with regards the Passover, which may be satisfactorily answered by variant calendars and celebrations but still leaves a theological question.
    Before John is written off as being rather more stylised and less historical, Ian reminds us of the historical accuracy in the gospel when it comes to places at least.

    Is this another example of the tension between the more positivist approach (which needs to map the description to the event), and a more narrative approach which asks what the text tells us about Jesus, faith etc, [which is, after all, why John says he wrote the gospel]. The two are caricatured as being at either end of a see-saw and at odds, but I suspect all of us are actually much more on a spectrum. A see-saw has grab-handles at each end to keep people securely in position, a spectrum allows for merge and slide and even uncertainty ..
    Some retreat when challenged one way or the other, though almost all will accept there is theological intention within the narrative and which shapes the narrative.
    Those who have explored ancient historiography and writing and the way that the ancients might have constructed their world-view (itself a contentious exploration) might help guide us, though the strongly positivist may well reject such guidance.
    Metaphor is potentially ambiguous yet ubiquitous and even essential.
    The worry for some is that if one (more) brick in the edifice is doubted then potentially the rest could come crashing down, yet we accept the variant accounts and the variant versions of what Jesus said, even when we know that Matthew and Luke have deliberately adapted what Mark had written.

    While I want a historical base, and Ancient History was my degree focus, it seems to me that John has moved the account of the cleansing of the Temple to provide a strong theological message near the beginning of his account, and the first audience and readers would mostly know this.
    I think that John has also constructed conversations, dialogues and speeches which he places in key moments. What is also clear is that these are sufficiently close to what Jesus taught that those who received the text first did not challenge it, just as the first audience did not challenge Matthew’s composition of a ‘sermon’ on a Mountain – a compilation of Jesus’ teaching delivered many times, in many places over several years.
    I find the “nimble” attempts by some at the more positivist end to defend (apparent) discrepancies not just unconvincing but inconsistent, in that some passages are granted a more theological interpretation and others are held fast as “accurate”.
    I admit to sitting uneasily on this spectrum, but I have not found an easy place at either end either. The person of Jesus who was part of our history is so much more than just a person that we have to find metaphor and theology, but it is all rooted in narrative and developed from narratives.

    Reply
    • I think Jesus could very well have ‘cleansed’ the Temple twice, at the start of his ministry and again towards the end. I suspect there was an element of ‘they have defiled my temple but I will give them,publicly, a further chance to change’, hence 2 visits. Similar to Jesus’ attitude towards fruit, time is given for it to appear, but if it does not then only judgement awaits. Their attitude did not change over that 3 year period.

      I think it is also reasonable to conclude that John was probably aware of Mark’s Gospel (and possibly the others) and therefore saw no need to repeat it, particularly if he wrote a few decades later and it was written from the pov of a disciple not part of ‘the twelve’ and who consulted other eyewitnesses beyond Peter. I tend to think Mark could very well have written in the mid-40s to mid-50s AD: this makes sense given his refusal to specifically name the High Priest at the time of Jesus’ arrest and execution, given the continued influence his family would have had on all things Jewish and those seen as possible enemies. Personally I think all the Gospels are historical, even if the authors may have moved certain events/actions/teaching around. That doesnt mean they dont reflect what was done or said. If the Gospels are indeed in the Greco-Roman biographical style, then I think it’s reasonable to expect such literary techniques. Bart Ehrman loves to see ‘contradictions’ between the Gospels, but he refuses to see literary techniques such as compression being used by the authors (the raising of Jairus’ daughter is a good example when comparing Mark and Matthew). You would think such techniques were invented in the 20th century!

      Finally Ill just comment on the inter-relatedness of the synoptics and John by giving an example which strongly evidences their historicity. John records Jesus telling the Jewish authorities at the Temple that if they destroy this Temple (referring to his body), he will rebuild it in 3 days. None of the Synoptics record this event, so many have been tempted to say it didnt happen (just another example of John’s non-historical account). But lo and behold, Mark records one of the accusations the Sanhedrin makes against Jesus after his arrest. In fact it’s a false accusation, a twisted version of what John records him as saying – they falsely accuse him of claiming he would destroy the Temple (a good reason to stand in judgement on him), when according to John he said, in effect, if you destroy this temple…

      Peter

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  5. A lack of chronological sequence does not, of itself, render what is described as ahistorical or unreliable. A snapshot is as reliable as a moving picture, although it may not give a full picture and may be juxtaposed with other snapshots to compose a more telling and compelling and complete “authorial intent”. The authorial intent of the gospel of John is made clear as part of The Ultimate Authorial intent of the complete NT and whole of scripture.

    And John is replete with allusions to fulfillment of the OT, by and through the person of Jesus, is it not? – that is, the ultimate Authorial Intent, who Jesus IS.

    Alastair Roberts picks up a longitudinal overview, with themes, patterns, echoes, drawing attention to emphases, which doesn’t negate history, nor reliability.

    The bottom line is, generally, a difficulty with the supernatural core of Christianity and a superintending Author of scripture.

    (As an aside a contemporary book , “Dominion” by Tom Holland, in many places, recounts events out of chronological order, for emphasis and to follow a thread.)

    A relevant question relates to the lectionary.
    Why now in lent? How would it be preached, (as a theme) en route to the cross, to the Easter festivals? There may be obvious comparisons with the temple today, with what takes place, for example, in Cathedral Buildings, or at a different level, consideration of our bodies, our devotion, to the body of Christ, living stones and to the Temple, Jesus Christ whose blood cleanses, purges, us, the temple, personally and collectively, in which God by His Spirit dwells, where we meet and have fellowship with God.
    What do we give-up for that?

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  6. Thanks Ian. I think you may be onto something with the emphasis of the salvation being beyond the Jews and for the benefit of others. I have long thought a major source of Christ’s anger is that it was the outer courts which had become blocked by the traders. These would have been the only way the non Jews could worship. The gentiles being forbidden from entering the temple. So the traders are literally preventing the outsider gentiles coming close to God. The only time Jesus is violent (bar fig tree incident) is to attack those putting money worship in the way of the gentiles knowing God.

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  7. Thx Ian, great article that I happened to preach about last week. I should have waited 7 days 🙂
    One question, the issue of people being indebted to the temple was a new one on me (presumably they were unable to pay the temple tax and a debt record was held).
    I was wondering if you are aware of any historical sources for this?
    Blessings, Nick.

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    • Yes, Nick, you should always wait for my exegesis! I found the reference to the debt records on Wikipedia:

      ‘A common interpretation is that Jesus was reacting to the practice of money changers routinely cheating the people, but Marvin L. Krier Mich observes that a good deal of money was stored at the temple, where it could be loaned by the wealthy to the poor who were in danger of losing their land to debt. The Temple establishment therefore co-operated with the aristocracy in the exploitation of the poor. One of the first acts of the First Jewish-Roman War was the burning of the debt records in the archives.[20]’

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleansing_of_the_Temple

      I suspect that this is noted by Josephus. Ah, yes indeed! I found this:

      ‘6. Now the next day was the festival of Xylophory, upon which the custom was for every one to bring wood for the altar (that there might never be a want of fuel for that fire which was unquenchable, and always burning); upon that day they excluded the opposite party from the observation of this part of religion. And when they had joined to themselves many of the Sicarii, who crowded in among the weaker people (that was the name for such robbers as had under their bosoms swords called Sicæ), they grew bolder, and carried their undertaking farther; insomuch that the king’s soldiers were overpowered by their multitude and boldness, and so they gave way, and were driven out of the upper city by force. The others then set fire to the house of Ananias the high-priest, and to the palaces of Agrippa and Bernice: after which they carried the fire to the place where the archives were reposited, and made haste to burn the contracts belonging to their creditors, and thereby to dissolve their obligations for paying their debts; and this was done in order to gain the multitude of those who had been debtors, and that they might persuade the poorer sort to join in their insurrection with safety against the more wealthy; so the keepers of the records fled away, and the rest set fire to them. And when they had thus burnt down the nerves of the city, they fell upon their enemies; at which time some of the men of power, and of the high-priests, went into the vaults under ground, and concealed themselves, while others fled with the king’s soldiers to the upper palace, and shut the gates immediately; among whom were Ananias the high-priest, and the ambassadors that had been sent to Agrippa. And now the seditious were contented with the victory they had gotten, and the buildings they had burnt down, and proceeded no farther.’

      Jewish War, Book 2, chap 7, 6 as here: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/war-2.html

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