Why does Jesus cleanse 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.

Join Ian and James as they discuss these issues together:

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8 thoughts on “Why does Jesus cleanse the temple in John 2?”

  1. Rabbi Falk assumes it is because the house of Shammai, then dominant, would accept money from gentiles to offer sacrifices (as allowed by Hillel, Yohanan and others, for instance see Mishna, Gittin 56) but then converted the sacrifice into either gift offerings or dedicated it as temple property instead of offering the poor animals. It’s a disputed matter in the Talmud, some sages say that animal sacrifices could be offered by gentiles through a deputy, if it met the proper qualifications. Other sages admitted that, in practice, this was not done. Hence the Lord’s fury backed by the verse from Isaiah: ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer (for all nations)’

  2. If the goings on in the temple precincts were insupportable in conscience (and against Zech 14) on one occasion, those same goings on would have been equally insupportable (and against Zech 14) on every other occasion.

  3. The selling of animals for offerings is given in Deuteronomy 14:24-26. With the concentration of the cult in “the place he will choose as a dwelling for His name”, the issue for those living away from that place is the bringing of the tithes to the sanctuary. Thus the law allows one to sell the tithes locally, and then buy something appropriate when you arrive at the festival location.

  4. This is an old theological “chestnut” frequently seized on by “progressives” that, the gospels are inconsistent and contradictory.
    However there is a wonderful amount of good theology in these passages.
    What is evident to me is that there is a noticeable lack of a Theology of the Church and of Biblical Priesthood, this was a feature of the Old Testament with disastrous consequences and to my mind of quite a lot of today’s Churches’
    These scriptures about the “cleansings” should be read in conjunction with Leviticus 14:33–53. Please note that “Leprosy” should read “corruption or affliction”
    The priest had the authority to discern corruption, clean and unclean.
    Jesus was very respectful of the office of Priesthood: “Go and show yourself to the Priest, non the less corrupt priests cast out those who testified of Christ.
    Corrupt stones should be removed and New Stones inserted thus Peter “a stone” and his assertion ““As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4–5).
    Jesus chased the corrupt out of the Temple and chose new stones

    Having done that the Priest returned for a second visit;
    .” If the plague returned to the house after the stones were removed and walls scraped the first time, then the priest was to declare the corruption “persistent” (Lev. 14:44), and based on that declare the whole house “unclean.” What followed next was the total destruction and removal of the house: “And he shall break down the house, its stones and timber and all the plaster of the house, and he shall carry them out of the city to an unclean place” (Lev. 14:45).
    Jesus declared that the Temple would be totally destroyed and
    Wept that they had not recognized “ the time of her visitation or the things that belonged to her peace”.
    Rev 2:17 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it
    For a fuller treatment see Joel McDurmon @
    One other point
    The respected historian Alfred Edersheim explained that both Josephus and the Rabbinic writings claim that Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, was in charge of the “Temple-market.” The Rabbinic writings referred to this market as the “Bazaars of the sons of Annas” while Josephus claimed that Annas (the son of the high priest Annas) was very rich and guilty of “despoiling by open violence the common priests of their official revenues.” Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1896), pp. 371–372.

    • Out of sheer but earnest curiosity, Alan, does Alfred Edersheim identify these ‘rabbinic writings referring to the ‘bazaar of the sons of Annas’? I am very surprised by this.

  5. I was pleased to see some space given to considering the possibility that there were *two ‘cleansings’ of the Temple. It has been rather dogmatically held that John ‘dischronologised’ the Synoptics here, on the assumption that the Synoptics are historical and John is not and the act is so singular as not to be repeated. But when I began to think about this a few years ago, it struck me that the two accounts are rather different in details (no reference to sheep and oxen or the whip etc in Mark 11 and par.) and the charge in the Synoptics that Jesus threatened to destroy the Temple makes sense as as misremembered version of his words in John 2. No such dialogue in the Synoptics. An example of unintended confirmation between John and Mark, of which Richard Bauckham has written elsewhere (in ‘The Gospel for All Christians’)?

    • Indeed. I also suspect there was a sense in which Jesus visited the Temple twice, once at the start of his ministry and once towards the end, because he was giving the Jewish authorities time to repent. They didnt, and ultimately the Temple was destroyed.


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