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Yeshua in Context » Aims of Yeshua, Background to Gospels, Enactments and Symbolic Actions, Gospels as History, Temple and Torah » Understanding Yeshua’s Temple Protest Action

Understanding Yeshua’s Temple Protest Action

The Temple protest action of Yeshua (a.k.a. the Temple cleansing, Mark 11:15-19) is poorly understood because few consider the details of this narrative and place Yeshua’s actions in the context of the Judaism of his time and the context of the Temple of Herod and the way it was run by the powerful Temple state.

Mark’s account is the best of all four gospels to help us reconstruct what happened. This incident is of great importance, probably being what sealed Yeshua’s doom in the eyes of the Temple state and Rome. We should read Yeshua’s actions in the giant Temple complex as a commotion, not bringing the whole Temple activity to a standstill. Yeshua acted alone and did not ask his disciples to participate.

In the comments that follow, I will point to some resources for further study, consider the sequence as narrated in Mark, and put this crucial incident in Yeshua’s life in its context.

Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth is a monumental summary of historical scholarship by an expert in the Aramaic of Yeshua’s time. Casey has written on the Aramaic sources of Mark’s gospel and his work has interested me so much I am working with a rabbi friend and mentor this year to start learning Galilean Aramaic and will work through Casey’s research and read DSS texts and Midrashic texts in Galilean Aramaic over the next few years. Casey covers the Temple protest on pgs 408-415.

Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, in the Hermeneia series. Collins is excellent at providing examples from the Greco-Roman and Jewish sources to provide historical context. I first learned from her some of the issues surrounding Herod’s expansion of the Temple complex and how it informs Yeshua’s action of protest.

Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, in the Sacra Pagina series. Harrington is a well-informed and balanced commentator who values both tradition and context. I think his comments are a sane balance between mere historical inquiry (like Casey) and traditional understandings of the gospel. I do not think what we can know about Yeshua is limited to what historians can give evidence for. I think a storied epistemology (see my Yeshua in Context and an appreciation for the living presence of Yeshua in the tradition should also inform our knowledge.

The following sequence from Mark is helpful to restate:
(1) Yeshua enters the Temple, likely the outer courts.
(2) Yeshua begins driving out traders and overturning some tables.
(3) Yeshua preaches against and takes action to prevent people carrying vessels (baskets, bowls, money bags) through the outer courts.
(4) Yeshua preaches from Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11.
(5) Yeshua’s protest becomes known to the chief priests and also the scribes.
(6) Yeshua’s action draws a crowd which prevents his immediate arrest.

What should be obvious is that Yeshua reveres the Temple and protests the Temple state. Any interpretation which assumes Yeshua wanted the Temple to be destroyed is incorrect. The proper running of the Temple would involve redistributing tithes to the poor and make it a place of God’s Presence, of shared resources, and of joy. The Temple state has made it a place of taxation without redistribution and a source of power and position for the elite.

What does Yeshua specifically oppose here? He opposes trading in the Temple courts, carrying vessels through, and filling the place of prayer in such a way as to prevent the main activity which should be here: prayer.

Collins explains that the idea of commerce in the Temple courts began with Herod enlarging the Temple area and including a Portico, like the Greco-Roman markets on their temples. Prior to this, tradition says the necessary trade (selling animals, changing money) happened on the Mount of Olives.

Maurice Casey (Jesus of Nazareth) explains Yeshua’s very plausible prohibition of carrying vessels through holy space, which is similar to the later rabbinic law, “one should not enter the Temple mount with . . . his moneybag” (m. Berakhot 9:5, see also Harrington).

Isaiah 56 is about foreigners and eunuchs in the Temple, but also describes its courts as a place for prayer. Yeshua’s main objection seems to have nothing to do with gentiles (the outer courts were used by Jews and non-Jews for prayer, as numerous New Testament texts and other sources confirm). The commerce here at Passover crowded the courts and prevented prayer. Instead of worship, the Temple was a market. This is also the point of the Jeremiah 7 text, where the prophet complains that the leadership have made of the Temple a source of personal power and enrichment instead of a place of prayer and worship.

An additional issue in the money-changing is that the Temple state required the Tyrian shekel, which was more pure in its metal content, but which had an image of Baal Melkart on it (the Syrian Hercules) and was therefore idolatrous (Collins, Casey).

The Temple state’s priority was not holiness, but commerce, power, and wealth. Yeshua’s protest action did not stop Temple commerce and was symbolic. But it drew the attention of the Temple state and also a large crowd. By the time Yeshua completed it, his arrest was certain and the chief priests had what they would need to convince Rome to execute him.

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Filed under: Aims of Yeshua, Background to Gospels, Enactments and Symbolic Actions, Gospels as History, Temple and Torah

One Response to "Understanding Yeshua’s Temple Protest Action"

  1. Thanks. Good resources here.

    Yeshua made a statement about the corruption of the Temple elite who controlled all aspects of Jerusalem Judaism. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus is recognized in Tyre for His true identity. In the temple protest, He is recognized as a trouble maker who must be punished.

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