Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Lenten Reflections on Mark – Jesus in the Temple, Pt 2

Two Meanings

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” Mark 11 (12-21)

Part of what makes the various Gospel texts each a bit different is that they are written to different audiences in different contexts with different messages. The immediate problem this creates for the reader is that often when we hear Jesus speak what is said may have been what Jesus did say to those around him, but more than likely it is what the author is saying several generations later to his readers. The infamous Jesus Seminar project focused on just this question. But all study of the Bible requires the reader to at least acknowledge this ambiguity.

So as I read Mark, it is my contention that much of what is there is written for a third generation of apostles who are having hard times. Mark’s message to them is if you think that you have it tough, let me tell you about what it was like in the early years. The crowds regularly misunderstood and the disciples were dense and all fled during the most important period of conflict. So when Mark’s associates are tempted to say that maybe the best course of action would be to tone down the message a bit, after all  Sam was beaten the other day in the synagogue, Mark has Jesus say that you can’t put a lamp under a basket. Followers in this generation are reminded that the cost of their care is the way of the cross, but that Jesus has gone on before them.

Such a distinction may help us understand part of the sub-text behind Jesus’ denouncement:

“Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

Mark conflates two different prophetic passages, first quoting Isaiah 56 (7) and then alluding to Jeremiah 7 (11).

Taken as representative of Jesus’ actual teaching at the time, if there was an event in the first place, it appears that he is concerned with issues of inclusiveness and appropriate commerce in light of the sacrificial system.

There does seem to be legitimate doubt as to the scale of the event. Mark suggests that there was concern about unrest among the crowds and the fact that such a disturbance might bring down Pilate’s troops on the masses. We also know that in spite of the chief priests’ fears the intervention of Pilate’s troops doesn’t happen. One of my teachers at Chicago, Hans Dieter Betz writes about the plausibility of this event in the first place.

It is difficult to imagine such an event taking place at all. How could one person disrupt the extensive business conducted by many merchants in the wide outer courtyards area of the temple? In the real world, we expect that the merchants would have quickly stopped Jesus’ action, protected their merchandise and called the Temple guards.

In a recent BeliefNet April Fools parody, John D. Spaulding fakes a Mel Gibson-like script:

As Passover approaches, Jews who’ve traveled from many lands swarm the temple courtyard, which resembles a bazaar or an auction barnyard more than a place of worship. Shifty-eyed moneychangers convert foreign coin to the local currency, pocketing heavy fees and cheating at every opportunity. Merchants sell olive oil, vinegar and wine, as well as the customary sacrificial animals. The Jews bicker and haggle, and greed hangs in the air like smog over Los Angeles.

Jesus strides into the temple in slow motion, bathed in a white light and flanked by his 12 disciples, six on each side. He stops before a row of merchants selling pigeons. The crowd goes silent.

Jesus [In Aramaic] You have turned my house into a den of thieves! Get out!

No one moves. Jesus pulls a whip from his belt, and lets out a war yelp-Aaaaaaaaah!

-as he and the disciples charge the pigeon peddlers. Jesus leaps up on a table and strikes one of the Jews hard, knocking him back out of his chair at least 10 feet. A flurry of pigeons flies up toward heaven.

Another Jew jumps up on the tables and runs toward Jesus from behind. He dives at the Christ, who ducks just in time. The Jew sails headfirst into a stone pillar, cracking open his skull and splattering blood and bone fragments everywhere.

Jesus flays every merchant in reach, lacerating faces and exposed arms. The disciples kick ass: John smashes a jug of olives over a temple scribe’s head; Philip holds a sheep salesman’s arms from behind while Bartholomew pummels him in the stomach; Peter chases an ox trader around one of the beasts of the field, circling the ox one way, then the other. Finally, Peter leaps over the animal, tackling the man to the ground.

Jesus – Now let us get the moneychangers!

The Disciples -Yaaaaaaaah!

Jesus clutches a long curtain and climbs up the side of the temple. He leaps, swinging across the courtyard like Tarzan and striking a moneychanger sandal-first in the cheek. The moneychangers’s head snaps back in slow motion, blood flying from the side of his mouth.

Matthew gets one of the Jews in a headlock.

Matthew – Repent, sinner, or be damned! Your profession is an abomination to the Lord!

The Jew -[Gasping] You. know.nothing of my trade.

Matthew – No? I used to be a tax collector. Now repent!

The Jew – Never!

Matthew snaps the man’s neck like a communion wafer.

One by one, Jesus kicks over the moneychangers’ tables. Buckets of coins explode in the air and shower, slow motion, to earth. Some moneychangers run for their lives, while others dive to scavenge for change. Judas Iscariot, making sure Jesus and the disciples aren’t watching, joins his real brethren on the ground in the grab for silver.

A temple priest swings at Jesus with a sacrificial knife. Jesus catches the priest’s wrist, and knocks the knife away. Then Jesus leaps in the air, spins 360 degrees and delivers a devastating round house kick to the priest’s head. The priest falls onto his upturned knife. At least a quart of blood pools on the floor.

As most of the remaining uninjured Jews flee the temple, Jesus raises his arms triumphantly and scans the temple courtyard.

* * * *

Somehow, I just don’t think it happened that way!

New Testament scholar James Sanders suggests that this was a small symbolic gesture carrying a larger meaning. Maybe Jesus turns over one table. I think Sanders is probably a bit too circumspect, but his point is well taken that there may be something else being said in this tale.

Borg and Crossan are correct when they point out that under Herod’s renovation; the mount itself has in fact become a House of Prayer for all nations. The inner courtyards are now surrounded by even larger open spaces and various porticos where all people were welcome. The presence of means to exchange foreign currencies testifies to the fact that these festivals drew pilgrims and tourists from wide regions. Were not the so-called wise men visiting Jerusalem to see the wondrous sites? Borg and Crossan imagine Levitical tour guides available to point out the “must see” features of the latest construction.

Still even though the temple, in fact, serves as a House of Prayer for all nations during Jesus’ time, it will not remain so for long.

Amy-Jill Levine notes that the text does not immediately point to corruption. Jesus may be angry at locals gouging visitors, but the text does not say this space is a place where one will get robbed, but that this place has become a den (i.e. a haven, a safe-place) for thieves and as the original Greek implies bandits.

While most scholars agree that Mark was written around the time of Jewish Civil War from 66-74 CE. There is still disagreement about whether this Gospel was written prior to the destruction of the temple in 70 CE or shortly afterwards. Mark’s 13th chapter which is often call the “little apocalypse” is taken by most as directly talking about the sort of events that communities of the Jesus movement were experiencing. Joel Marcus suggests that while this text is formatted as a prediction by Jesus, it is more likely a description by Mark.

Marcus also notes how much of Mark’s narrative, verse after verse, seems aimed at building confidence in the community that is facing real pressure in these turbulent times. Mark draws on the language taken from Daniel about a “desolation of abomination” to speak either of the impending siege of Jerusalem by Pompei or a devastation that has already happened.

Marcus picks up on the same point that Levine makes that the language translated at thief speaks not to petty corruption, but to organized banditry. He points out that Mark uses the same word in two other places where its context is quite clear. He translates the spirit of Jesus’ words as “God intended this place for international prayer; you have made it a nationalist stronghold.” He continues:

The latter is exactly what happened at a crucial point in the Jewish War…. Josephus describes that in the winter of 67-68 CE, a group of revolutionary Zealots moved into Jerusalem under the leadership of Eleazar, son of Simon and set up their headquarters in the inner Temple itself, remaining there until that fall of the city in 70 CE. It is likely that there is a link between this act and the anti-Gentile attitude that prevailed among the revolutionary groups. The Zealots probably saw themselves as purifying the Temple from corrupting foreign influence and their empirically hopeless fight against the Romans was likely fueled by the conviction that God would give to his purified Israel t5he victory. Hence the Marcan antinomy “house of prayer for all peoples/den of brigands” reflects the revolutionary situation in a remarkable way.

Paula Fredriksen, whose work with the historical Jesus and the recovery of the Jewish context has pioneered new vistas speaks of how the notion of the “Cleaning of the Temple:” inappropriately reads into the text non-Jewish ideas and just doesn’t make sense. If by targeting those selling doves, Jesus is calling into question the sacrificial system and seeking to restore the temple’s purity, it harks back to a golden age that never existed. Fredriksen writes,

Pigeon vendors and money changers…facilitated the pilgrim’s worship of God as he had commanded Israel through Moses at Sinai. Jesus’ gesture therefore could not have encoded  “restoring” Temple service to some supposed pristine ideal, because there had never been a time when its service did not involve offerings.

Fredriksen rightly points out that the disciples eventually returned to Jerusalem and participated in the life of the Temple. She notes that “If Jesus had indeed acted and taught against the temple then his immediate followers completely missed the point.”

So what was the point? If Marcus sees the events of the Jewish civil war, Fredriksen in similar fashion reads into this event the hoped for apocalyptic intervention of God bringing about a new age with a new temple

By overturning the tables ,Jesus was symbolically enacting an apocalyptic prophesy. The current Temple was soon to be destroyed (understood: not by Jesus, not by invading armies, but by God) to cede place to the eschatological Temple (understood: not built with the hand of man) at the close of the age.

Or again, she writes

Jesus’gesture was simply a dramatic performance of the chief message of his mission, that the Kingdom was, indeed, at hand.

Amy-Jill Levine summarizes these questions with the following statement:

Did he mean to renew it? Reform it? Predict its destruction? Proclaim its illegitimacy? Did he even engage in an action in the Temple, or did his condemnation of certain Temple practices metastacize through legendary development into a full-blown scene of disrupting Temple activities?

We are left to speculate. While not denying the insights of scholars such as Levine, Fredriksen or Marcus about the broader context his readers follow, I will return next time to the question of what could Jesus have been about in his time that doesn’t require him to be seen as opposing traditional Judaism and Temple practice.

Grace and Peace,



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