Do you go to church? If so, what type is it? Is it a more traditional church with ethereal decorations, a reverent priest/pastor and sacraments? Or a more modern church, with a casual preacher dressed in a suite and referring to everyone as brother and sister? Maybe somewhere in between?
I cannot remember the specific instance, but I distinctly remember hearing the story of Jesus in the temple, even from the time I was a kid. This story is typically called the “Cleansing of the Temple,” and its traditional interpretation is the reason I wrote this piece.
Jesus cleansing the temple is typically viewed as a removal of detractors from the religious experience. In this scenario, pastors suggest that the temple has lost its holy stature and become a ground for seedy tradesmen and second-hand flea market merchants. But what are most people missing about this story? Proper historical background (albeit brief, this is a blog after all) will hopefully shed some new light on this well-known story.
First, it is not entirely appropriate to refer to this as the “cleansing” of the temple. This term has been misconstrued to suggest Jesus is ridding the temple of Jewish elements. This is horribly inaccurate, as I will explain below. It is more accurate to describe the event as the temple incident, especially because the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) suggest it is the event that eventually leads to Jesus’ arrest.
Despite how many anti-Semitic interpretations view the moneychangers and merchants in a negative light, they are actually vital for worship. This is a time when a significant portion of the Jewish population lived away from Jerusalem in a condition called “Diaspora.” When a Jewish person came to the temple, the temple tax (think “tithe” in our modern concept) was required in the local currency. Therefore, the temple needed moneychangers to change the foreigner’s money into local currency. In addition, those selling animals were vital as a proper sacrifice was required. After all, bringing an animal several hundred miles by foot to Jerusalem lessened one’s chances of showing up with a blemish-free sacrifice.
It is interesting that three of the four canonical Gospels specifically mention dove sellers (Luke lacks this detail). This links to Leviticus 5:7, which requires a person to sacrifice two turtledoves or pigeons if one cannot afford a sheep or cattle. Thus when Jesus is overturning the tables and driving them out (remember, the details vary, depending on which Gospel you read), he is not condemning Judaism or the Temple itself, but rather abuse of authority or, as in the Gospel of John, reinterpreting himself as the temple.
So why did I choose this episode from the Gospels to discuss on a blog? Well, I wanted to provide people with a historical background to help combat harmful interpretations, but I also wanted to use this opportunity to explain some personal experiences.
As a youth, I was heavily involved in church and youth group activities. Having reflected on those experiences in light of my scholarly work with the Bible, I am struck by the superfluousness of so many events that I attended at the time. If you grew up in the United States and in a Protestant tradition, you are likely aware of these “conferences” and concert events. Out of something resembling respect, I won’t name names. On the one hand, I get it. Marketing it important because it gets youth involved and thus you pray that the spiritual lessons of a retreat will carry over with their leather bound Bibles and WWJD bracelets. But should groups that assert conformity to a set of spiritual and moral standards enforce devotion to material items? Perhaps I am being too harsh and even simplistic by pointing out the obvious, but it does make one think in light of the perception of the temple incident.
Ironically, I suppose we have come full circle with the consumerism involved in Christian events mirroring the very misinterpretation of the Jesus and the Temple incident that so many attempt to fight. Churches offer courses on financial management. Is this proper? How does helping church members manage their money gel with the Gospels and its charge to give away everything? Perhaps more disturbing, what about a certain smiling popular TV pastor (who never attended seminary by the way), who will tell you that if you pray hard enough, God will make you wealthy? All I am suggesting is that if a group holds to a certain interpretation of a Biblical passage (regardless of whether it is historically accurate), then perhaps we should attempt the difficult task of holding ourselves to the same standard of which we hold others.
Am I the first to point out such connections? Of course not.
The moneychangers and merchants were necessary for the temple system as it is presented in the Gospels. To say Jesus was cleansing out unholy elements from the Temple is not accurate. Certainly, the actions of Jesus in this story (which by the way occurs towards the end of Jesus’ life in the Synoptic Gospels, but at the beginning of the Gospel of John) point to Jesus reinterpreting the Temple and his role. There are many interpretations one could take from this story, the likely (in my view) being Jesus demonstrating power over the temple and re-interpreting Judaism. Now, this is not to say he is doing away with Judaism and the temple system, as so many Christian interpretations explain. It still remains true however that these merchant and animal sellers were a necessary part of the temple system.
Should churches include gift shops? Have their own logo? At what point does the culture of Christianity take over the practice of Christianity? Perhaps we should hope that such a cleansing occurs in our modern worship spaces. Despite most modern views of this episode missing key historical factors, maybe there are redeeming features of “cleansing” a sacred space.