The Gospel of John has, in my opinion, the most vivid picture of Jesus’ action in the Temple — making a whip of cords, turning over tables, and driving out money changers who were extorting people, as well as the animals they were selling in the place of prayer and worship.
Jn. 2:14-16 — 14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there.15 And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16 And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.”
* See also Mt. 21:10-17, Mk. 11:15-17, and Lk. 19:45-47
Some months ago I saw an exchange about this on a Facebook thread when someone insisted that Jesus would never approve of or participate in violence. Of course, someone else quickly put up a reference to this text and essentially concluded that “Jesus was, like, totally freakin’ pissed, and beat the crap out of a bunch of people with a whip in the temple one day!” The concluding idea wast that Jesus might resort to violence if it was justified, and here was an example of Jesus being violent — and a matrix for how and when to be violent the Jesus-way.
In his great book, Killing Enmity: Violence and the New Testament, author Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld takes a closer look at this, and other texts in the New Testament, that are often used to justify violence. I thought his treatment of the various possibilities for interpreting this event was incredibly helpful.
Terminological Clarity – What do you mean, “Violent?”
In chapter one, Neufeld sets out to discuss definitions for Violence and New Testament. With respect to violence, he admits (as I have often thought) that nailing down an agreeable definition for violence — especially among those who have a stake in the definition — is pretty tough (okay — impossible) .
In the end, he seems to emphasize harmful or destructive physical violence with intent to do physical harm to another, along with the possibility of including other things that may violate personhood (such as oppression of others on the basis of race, status, gender, or socio-economic class, etc.) .
I’ll discuss this more later, but with these considerations and a more robust definition of violence, Jesus actually seems to be confronting violence way more than he seems to be acting violently! Read on…
Interpretive Frame – “Prophetic Action”
Neufeld begins by framing the event as a prophetic parabolic act. In other words, he believes that like the Old Testament prophets who acted out their prophetic pronouncements, Jesus is speaking prophetically through his temple action (cf. Ex. 3:5, 1 Sam. 11:7, Jer. 27-28, Hos. 3:1-5, Ez. 4:1-8, Is. 20, etc. as other examples). In this light, the question from “the Jews” in Jn. 2:18 might make more sense:
So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?”
Neufeld observes, based on this response in John, that the Jews didn’t interpret what Jesus was doing as an act of either defilement or violence inside the temple. If they thought a crazy man was acting violent, whipping people, and throwing tables around in a mad rage, why is it that the Roman troops who were always stationed at the nearby Antonia fortress did not intervene (nor were they asked to), and why was Jesus not immediately arrested by either them or the temple police (see p. 65 for a longer argument)? Thus, Neufeld concludes:
…this action was a symbolic act, in line with the long tradition of prophetic demonstrations (p. 62).
Interpretive Question – “What does the prophetic action mean/signify/symbolize?”
If Jesus was “acting prophetically” in this scene, the question is — “What did his actions mean?” Neufeld surveys several possibilities (cf. pp. 62-65). For instance:
- The dramatization of a long-overdue purification of the temple from defilement (of which commerce was the most obvious symptom).
- A prophetic response to systemic economic injustice.
- A dramatization of what would happen to the temple if/when the Jews violently resisted Rome.
- The symbolic destruction of the temple in advance of its actual destruction (which happened 40 years later).
- The symbolic destruction of the old temple in anticipation of its replacement by Jesus as the New Temple (cf. Jn. 2:19).
- A prophetic assault on the perversion of using a temple to restrict (instead of to provide) access to God (cf. Mat. 21:13 — this activity was likely done in the court of the Gentiles).
- Jesus was just violent, and this episode demonstrates his hostility toward others and their sacred space (contrast this with the previous view!).
These are pretty different conclusions here (especially numbers 6 & 7 — where one has Jesus cleansing defiled sacred space for intended for Gentiles to draw near in prayer, and the other has him defiling sacred space through his violent outburst).
I am more than convinced that this is not violence, but it instead forceful prophetic action, and if I have to choose between the seven options above, I land somewhere between #1 and #5 — especially since Jesus said that the sign he would give of his prophetic office, and his right to cleanse the temple (through his prophetic act) would be the his own resurrection.
Other Interpretive Considerations – The whip, turning over tables, etc.
Did Jesus make a whip and hit people with it? Interestingly, when I was google-searching for images under “Jesus cleanses the temple” almost all of the pictures where Jesus is depicted as holding a whip show him swinging it at fellow humans. Is this accurate? And did he throw tables around like a scene from an angry bar fight? Further (and more particularly), in doing these things, does he seem to be attempting to physically harm others? Neufeld writes…
It is not clear…that Jesus used a whip made up of more than some strands of straw, or that he used it against human beings, or for more than shooing animals (p. 65).
Good point. Jesus doesn’t at all seem to be thrashing fellow humans with a whip. The mention of Jesus’ whip is in tandem with the removal of animals from the prayer space where they were being held and sold. That space was for prayer, and was being used for commerce instead.
My own conviction is that the only actual violence with a whip that Jesus ever participated in is that which he received upon himself at his own scourging before he was spiked to the Roman gibbet (cf. Jn. 19:1).
Putting things together…
Using all these interpretive considerations, we still have to ask:
- Was Jesus primarily destructive, and…
- Did he violate or diminish the personhood of others in his aggressive and forceful Temple action?
- What should Christians do with what Jesus did?
My own reading of Yoder’s conclusions is that Jesus was primarily restorative and reparative. There is no way around seeing his actions as both aggressive and forceful, but these were aimed at restoring things along the lines of their God-intended purposes.
This brings up the question of redemptive violence, which is addressed by thinking about the second question. If Jesus violated the personhood of others through his aggressive acts, then perhaps we could say he used redemptive violence. But he never seems to do anything other than advocate for the highest expression of personhood for everyone in the scene. He wants his Jewish brethren to be the persons they’re called to be (e.g. – light to the nations), and he wants Gentiles to be able to come into places of prayer to meet with Yahweh! So – he forces out, cleanses, and aggressively removes that which impedes personhood, worship, relationship, and mission. My conviction is that Jesus’ actions were directed at the things that were hurting people. Thus, he was not using things to hurt people (like whips, etc.).
The biggest practical question that Neufeld asks is: “What does the temple incident mean for us?” (pp. 70-72). Isn’t that what we’re really asking (or saying) by bringing up Jesus’ action in the temple when discussing violence? Isn’t it what the guy on Facebook was pointing to when he posted the response about Jesus being violent in the temple? More specifically, aren’t Christians using this text (and haven’t we used this text) to justify our own violence, or the violence used by the champions of our “good” causes? “After all, you know, Jesus did whip people and throw over tables in the temple that one time — so…”
Neufeld wants to poke hard (but not with the intent to cause physical harm!!! haha) on this question and these conclusions.
Part of the problem, as he points it out, is that we Gentiles are reading a text that is very much applicable to the very Jewish audience of Jesus about their misappropriation of the Temple, and their corresponding mistreatment of the Gentiles (which is a violation of their God-given vocation!). So, Neufeld concludes that “this is a dangerous text for Gentiles to read” outside of that context (p. 67).
But beyond that, if we are using the life of Jesus as a way of answering, “What are humans supposed to be like in our relationships toward one another?” then can we identify Jesus’ action in the temple as a model for his followers?
Neufeld’s Conclusions (in — mostly — my own words):
- Beware of using this episode to answer bigger questions about sanctioned violence (like armed combat, etc.). This is not a text for those kinds of ethical questions since it doesn’t include any explicit or implicit mention of them.
- The gospel writers framed the scene as a prophetic act by someone acting as God’s plenipotentiary (e.g., recall Jesus use of prophetic texts in Zech. 14:21, Is. 56:7, Jer. 7:11, etc. that correspond to his prophetic actions).
- And they did not seem to be telling the story in order to advance an ethical teaching moment about how to use violence the “Jesus-way.”
- Rather, they seemed to focus on helping the reader interpret what Jesus thought he was doing in fulfillment of his own divine mission.
- Jesus action, as it is narrated by the evangelists, is a direct confrontation of their violence (using a much more robust definition of violence), and their failure in their stewardship of the temple, and their failure to embrace and live their vocation/mission to the Gentiles.
Thus, Jesus prophetic action in the temple is not an example of using force and violence to either physically harm or to oppress another, but it is rather a prophetic and loving (though confrontational and aggressive) act intended to show God’s heart to provide a way for the nations to come to him in prayer! On that note, you’ll need to read Nicholas Perrin’s book, “Jesus The Temple” to see how this is made possible in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But that’s material for another post!
I would appreciate your input and dialogue in the comments below.
 Think especially of hardcore pacifists and just-war & redemptive-violence proponents alike! Trying to get a definition of violence that everyone likes is one of the most difficult dimensions of this discussion. I like Yoder’s willingness to include lots of possibilities, but with core elements.
 cf. pp. 2, 3 — especially the quotes by Robert McAfee Brown and Jacques Ellul.
My thanks to the folks at Baker Academic. I received a review copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.