When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?

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There seems to be no end in sight to the allegations that the Bible is full of discrepancies. One of the more famous contradictions appears in the gospels where Jesus clears the temple area of people buying and selling. In Matthew 21:12-17, Mark 11:12-19, and Luke 19:45-48 the cleansing occurs during Christ’s last week before he is crucified. In John 2:12-25, however, it is the first public event of Jesus’ entire ministry. So the question is, “When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?” Let’s take a look.

When commenting on this alleged inconsistency, skeptical bible scholar Bart Ehrman, in his book Jesus, Interrupted, says, “Strictly speaking this difference is not a contradiction: if you are creative enough, you can figure out a plausible explanation for both accounts being right…maybe Jesus cleansed the Temple twice, once at the beginning and once at the end of his ministry. On the other hand, this does seem a bit far-fetched, as the question suggests itself: Why wasn’t he arrested the first time?”[1] He continues by stating that each gospel says that Jesus cleansed the temple only once.[2]

Clearing up any difficulties

There have been two major interpretations concerning the cleansing of the temple by Jesus. First, the temple cleansing in each gospel is the same event. It occurred at the end of Christ’s ministry, but John placed it at the beginning for thematic purposes. As I wrote about in another article, the gospels are Greco-Roman biography. In this genre, writers were not bound by the exact same rules that historians and biographers are today. Here is what I had to say in that article:

“Modern biographies will include topics such as a person’s family background, stories from the childhood, and many other subjects from a person’s life that the Gospels simply do not include about Jesus…Also, the Gospels do not fit into the modern way of “doing” history. They are not very long and do not read like a typical history book. Skeptics believe because the Gospels are nothing like modern biographies or history books then they are unhistorical and cannot be trusted…However, the Gospels do fit into the ancient literary genre of Greco-Roman biography. These books were generally shorter and it was common to skip over large parts of a person’s life (like how Mark and John say nothing about the birth of Jesus). It was common to actually limit the discussion to a person’s key speeches or events in their life, and these moments in a person’s life were usually chosen and organized for making a moral statement (and not about historical interest like modern biographies are). ‘The subject of the biography exemplified certain virtues. Emphasizing these encouraged readers to emulate the virtuous life of their biographical subject…They were written to teach, to exhort, and to improve their readers.’”[3]

Greco-Roman biographers were allowed to rearrange material chronologically to emphasize certain teachings. This could be what John was doing when he placed the cleansing of the temple at the beginning of Christ’s ministry when it had actually taken place at the end.[4]

The second major interpretation is that Jesus cleansed the temple twice. Just because the two accounts are similar does not necessarily prove that they are the same event.[5]  For example, John mentions that Jesus was confronted by temple officials (2:18). The other gospels do not record this but say that Jesus began to heal those who came to him after the events in the temple (Matthew 21:14-15). In John, Jesus made a whip of cords and used it to drive out the money changers (2:15), while Matthew and the others do not mention this.

I admit that these few details do not prove that they are two separate events. It could be that Matthew, Mark, and Luke decided not to include the detail about the whip. Historians and biographers do not have to include every single detail about every event to be historically true. However, there are some details in John’s account that may point to the fact that Jesus may have cleansed the temple twice.

Jesus cleansing the temple.
Jesus cleansing the temple.

First, John describes the cleansing of the temple he records as taking place during the first of multiple Passovers during Jesus’ ministry. The other gospels record their temple cleansing during Jesus’ final week before his death and resurrection.

Second, in John 2:19 Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” He was talking about himself, but those around him thought he was talking about the actual temple. They confronted him and responded, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?”

According to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, Herod the Great began a grand program to rebuild and expand the temple.[6] This program began in the eighteenth year of Herod, which is taken to be 20 or 19 BC by historians. John 2:20 tells us that this was 46 years before Jesus cleansed the temple. Adding 46 years to 20 or 19 BC brings us to the year 27 or 28 AD. Jesus was thirty years old when he began his ministry (Luke 3:23), and he was born around 5 or 4 BC. Jesus was put to death in the year 30 AD or even later.[7] This chronological data seems to conclude that the cleansing that John records happened well before Jesus’ final week.

Third, John 3:22-36 tell us that Jesus went out into the Judean countryside and that John the Baptist was still alive (John was dead by the time Jesus was crucified). 3:22 begins with “after these things” which is plural. The “these” must be the two events just mentioned: the cleansing of the temple and the discussion Jesus had with Nicodemus (where Jesus uttered the famous 3:16 verse). In my opinion, all of these details seem to point to the fact that Jesus cleansed the temple twice.

Would Jesus have been arrested?

But what about Ehrman’s objection that Jesus should have been arrested? Writer James Patrick Holding answers his objection:

“Perhaps Ehrman assumes that the prophetic demonstrations were themselves arrestable offenses. This is a gratuitous assumption, if that is so. In the social world of the Bible, dramatic acts like these were “par for the course.” One may not doubt that various persons “acted out” as did Jesus the son of Ananus (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 6.5.3), who went about nearly unmolested for over seven years as he went about “day and night” proclaiming woes against the Temple — only at one point being arrested and given stripes as befit one found to be a madman…The lack of intervention by the Roman guards at the Temple points to this as a disruptive, yet not illegal act… In light of this, Ehrman needs to carefully read Mark 11:18, which says that the reaction of the priests was to wish to destroy Jesus, not arrest him. They could not arrest him for the Temple demonstration; there was nothing illegal about it. Ehrman’s argument implies that the Temple disruption was somehow a “chargeable offense” for which Jesus was arrested in Mark, and that this creates an inconsistency with John. It does not, because there is nothing to show that the Temple action was indeed connected particularly with Jesus’ arrest by the authorities. Rather, Mark depicts Jesus’ arrest as a reaction to the sum total of Jesus’ ministry. One of the most frustrating aspects, indeed, was that Jesus did not do anything that could be charged as an offense — they had to trump up and manufacture charges that would satisfy the Roman governor.”[8]

Conclusion

Once again an alleged contradiction in Scripture is shown to be just that – alleged. Jesus cleansed the temple twice, not once. This is not as far-fetched as Ehrman thought it was. This should show the reader that when you are confronted with a discrepancy in Scripture, take the time to look at all the possible interpretations within the passage’s context before jumping to the conclusion that the Bible is contradicting itself.

 

 

[1] Bart Ehrman. Jesus Interrupted (New York: Harper One, 2009). 22. Also p. 6-7.

[2] Ehrman, 7.

[3] The quote that used towards the end of my quote is from Mark D. Roberts. Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007.) 85-86.

[4] See Hank Hanegraaff. “Christ’s Cleansing of the Temple: Can Mark and John be Reconciled?” Christian Research Journal 32:4 (2009). http://www.equip.org/articles/christs-cleansing-temple-can-mark-john-reconciled/

[5] Tim Chaffey. “When did Jesus Cleanse the Temple?” In Demolishing Supposed Bible Contradictions Volume 2. Ed. Ken Ham, Bodie Hodge, and Tim Chaffey (Green Forest: Master Books, 2011). 130.

[6] Flavius Josephus. The Antiquities of the Jews, 15.11.380.

[7] Chaffey, 134-135.

[8] James Patrick Holding. http://www.tektonics.org/ezine/assaultsample.html.

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