[Again, this is an older article of mine with some updates made to it, dealing with the misuse of certain scriptures in modern Christianity. Also, contrary to some belief, this is not in response to any particular ODM, blog or writer, but more as a study of scripture in context...]

Court of the Gentiles

Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, ” ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.’” (Matthew 21:12-13)

Probably my first exposure to orthopraxy involving this verse was 15 years ago, when a youth group in our church was raising money for a mission trip, building a church in Mexico. Some of the kids purchased some boxes of doughnuts and “sold” them for donations toward the trip, standing next to the coffee urn in the church foyer. One of the staff members gave them a haranguing when he saw them, “because Jesus threw people out of the temple for buying and selling there”!

In the years since, it has been very interesting to see the vast number of references to this particular story about Jesus, along with the varied interpretations of what he was doing and why he was doing it. Some use this story to decry Christian merchandising, selling of items within a church building, dishonesty, or Judaic worship. Others use it as an example of justified righteous anger with any of the above items and more. But what was Jesus really attacking, why was he angry with it, and what scriptural and contextual support do we have to determine this?

The Setting

Josephus and other Judaic records (from the Essenes) tell us that in the latter Second Temple period (during Jesus’ life and after it, prior to 70 AD), the sale of animals for sacrifice originally took place in the Royal Stoa of the Temple (the area under the porticoes in the upper part of the diagram above). Early in the first century, these records indicate that pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem were no longer able to bring their own sheep for sacrifice, but they had to purchase sheep raised by the Sadducees in the hills around Bethlehem. This created a need for more space to buy and sell sheep in the Temple grounds. Because the selling of animals and the exchange of money was so profitiable for the Sadducee party, they then expanded their enterprise into the court of Gentiles (the area in front of the Royal Stoa).

Warning on the soregIf you will notice in the picture above, there is a short wall within the great court which was the closest non-Jewish believers and the ceremonially unclean could come to the Altar and the Holy of Holies. Warnings were inscribed on this wall, cautioning those who did not belong further inside the courts that they would be put to death for passing this wall, called the soreg (see the picture to the right). When the Sadducees expanded the area for selling animals, this effectively removed almost half of the space available to gentiles and ‘unclean’ Jews in the Temple grounds!

At the same time, there is also indication – confirmed in recent archaeological finds – that the Sadducees used weights and measures which were as much as 70% biased in their favor. To purchase sheep at the temple, pilgrims had to exchange their local currency into the temple currency. And so, faithful Jews who came to the Temple for sacrifice during the mandatory festivals, were being cheated when they exchanged money, and the god-fearing non-Jews who came to Jerusalem to the House were being forced out of the Temple.

It is upon this stage that Jesus entered the temple and turned over the tables.

Jesus’ Anger

There is significant evidence from Jesus’ very words that what made him so angry was that people were being kept away from worshipping God. Jesus uses two quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures in a form of remez (a ‘hint’ that must be interpreted by reading the verses just before or after the quoted scripture).

First, he says – “My house will be called a house of prayer” – which is quoting from Isaiah 56:7. If we read this verse and those surrounding it, we can see that this quotation is placing an importance of God’s House being a house of prayer for all nations, and that God desires that many beyond Israel should be saved.

6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD
to serve him,
to love the name of the LORD,
and to worship him,
all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it
and who hold fast to my covenant-

7 these I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.

Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.

8 The Sovereign LORD declares—
he who gathers the exiles of Israel:
“I will gather still others to them
besides those already gathered.”
(Isaiah 56:6-8)

In the gospel of Mark, which is primarily directed to Christians in Rome (who did not have as deep a knowledge of scripture) includes additional words to complete the remez – “my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations“. (Mark 11:17)

The second half of Jesus’ statement, which can legitimately refer to the dishonesty in the money-changing tables (also supported by Jesus’ turning these tables over), would also have been understood by religious Jews in his audience as a pronouncement against the Temple, itself, because of the sins being committed there. He says, “but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.’”, which is a direct quote from Jeremiah 7:11. Let’s read the verses just before and after this:

Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”-safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.

” ‘Go now to the place in Shiloh where I first made a dwelling for my Name, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel. While you were doing all these things, declares the LORD, I spoke to you again and again, but you did not listen; I called you, but you did not answer. Therefore, what I did to Shiloh I will now do to the house that bears my Name, the temple you trust in, the place I gave to you and your fathers. I will thrust you from my presence, just as I did all your brothers, the people of Ephraim.’ So do not pray for this people nor offer any plea or petition for them; do not plead with me, for I will not listen to you.

Just for the record, Shiloh was located in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was utterly destroyed by the Assyrians, as prophecied by Isaiah. Shiloh, itself, had been razed by the Philistines in appoximately 1050 BC, as well, due to the sins of the poeple. And so, from this remez, we can easily surmise exactly how angry Jesus was with the sins of the people, and what would be the ultimate result of their sins.

Who is Jesus Angry With?

Diagram of the TempleIf there is any question whether Jesus is angry with the money changers, themselves, or the Sadducees (who were in control of the workings of the temple, and who made the decision to exclude Gentiles to make room for selling), Matthew gives us a clue in the passages after the turning of the tables.

The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple area, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.

“Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him.
“Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read,
” ‘From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise‘?”

From a literal reading of Jesus’ words, the words do not appear to give an answer to the chief priests (who were Sadducees) and the teachers of the law. However, Jesus is again using remez, which both of these groups would definitely have understood, quoting the first half of Psalm 8:2. If we read all of this quoted verse, we once again get a deeper meaning.

From the lips of children and infants
you have ordained praise
because of your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.

In Jesus seemingly innocent declaration ‘From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise’, we can see that he has declared that these religious authorities are the enemies of God. This is definitely a harsh statement!

And so, here is another example of how, by understanding the cultural context of the scripture and the rabbinical teaching techniques used by Jesus, we get a much clearer and vivid picture of what occurred in this Biblical story.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, January 24th, 2008 at 12:30 pm and is filed under Church and Society, Devotional, Linked Articles, Misuse of Scripture, Theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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3 Comments(+Add)

1   Dave    http://blog.thewebsiteguy.com.au
January 25th, 2008 at 7:46 am

What an excellent article, thanks! I really like these ramez ones you post.

2   Chris L    http://www.fishingtheabyss.com/
January 25th, 2008 at 1:59 pm

Thanks, Dave.

This particular one is interesting, especially when you hear someone bad-mouthing your church because they have a coffee kiosk which, despite not charging for coffe, tea and hot chocolate, still charges for a bottle of Diet Coke, or someone else’s because it allows a non-Christian group to use space for a concert…

3   Dave    http://blog.thewebsiteguy.com.au
January 26th, 2008 at 1:41 am

I know you meant that in the “ye” sense, since I don’t go to church…

How do you pump so many of these out? I used to prepare studies in a similar format for my Bible stufy group and it could take over a week per session!