(Jn. 2:14-15) When did Jesus cleanse the Temple? (c.f. Mt. 21:12; Mk. 11:15; Lk. 19:45)

CLAIM: John places the cleansing of the Temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (Jn. 2:14-15), while the Synoptic gospels put it at the end (Mt. 21:12ff; Mk. 11:15, 17; Lk. 19:45ff). Which is true?

RESPONSE: There are two ways of harmonizing this event:

OPTION #1: The material in the Synoptic gospels was gathered topically—not chronologically

Advocates of this view point out that ancient historians had far less interest in writing their histories chronologically. They point out that this is a modern invention. For instance, Matthew clumps a number of Jesus’ miracles into two chapters (Mt. 8-9), when the rest of the gospel authors spread these throughout Jesus’ ministry. In the same way, when your wife asks you how your day was, you might say, “It was pretty good! I got off early, ate a good lunch at a restaurant, and had a good meeting in the morning.” Of course, this explanation is chronologically backward, but it still accurately reports your day. Therefore, the gospel authors were accurately reporting Jesus’ life—even if they weren’t chronologically reporting it.

OPTION #2: There were TWO cleansings—not ONE

Advocates of this view argue that Jesus cleansed the Temple at the beginning of his ministry and at the end. Jesus did multiple healings, and he raised multiple people from the dead (Mt. 9:18-25; Lk. 7:11-15; Jn. 11). He also repeated some of his teachings in multiple cities and places (Lk. 9:24; 17:33; Mt. 10:39; 16:25; Mk. 8:35; Jn. 12:25). Why would it be so surprising that he would do more than one cleansing?

Furthermore, if John is correct in saying that Jesus had an extensive Judean ministry before he took up the Cross (perhaps at the beginning of his ministry as John states), then this would make sense of several “interlocking”[1] facts between John and the Synoptic gospels:

(1) It would make sense why Jesus’ followers would be “fearful” to go to Jerusalem to face the religious authorities (Mk. 10:32).

(2) It would make sense of Jesus’ statement to the religious leaders: “Every day [i.e. an extended period of time] I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize Me” (Mk. 14:49). In John 2, Jesus spoke about the destruction of the temple (of his body), but the religious leaders did not attempt to seize him.

(3) It would make sense of the antagonistic witnesses claiming that Jesus would “destroy this Temple” in the Synoptics (Mk. 14:58; 15:29; cf. Acts 6:14). This claim only occurs in John 2:19—not in the Synoptics. Since this event in John was years prior, it would make sense as to why the witnesses couldn’t give a consistent testimony on this point (Mk. 14:59).

Most evangelical theologians do not favor this perspective,[2] but it seems most likely to me. Carson (who believes in two cleansings—not one) points out, “The arguments for one [cleansing of the Temple] are weak and subjective, while the most natural reading of the texts favours two.”[3] I would agree with him. The most straightforward reading of the text is that there were two cleansings. When we understand how hypocritical and immoral the Temple was, it’s surprising that Jesus didn’t cleanse it three times!

[1] See Carson, D. A. (1991). The Gospel according to John (p. 52-55). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans.

[2] Carson writes, “Only a very few judge it likely that there were two temple cleansings, one near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and the other at the end (e.g. Hendriksen, p. 120; Morris, pp. 188–191).” Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991. 176.

[3] Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991. 178.