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

CLAIM: Critics note that Jesus chased out the money changers with “a scourge of cords.” Why was he so angry here?

RESPONSE: The religious leaders were profiteering off of a poor culture. The historical background of this graft is important in understanding Jesus’ anger:

Jesus’ reaction implies that there was serious financial theft occurring in the Temple. Jesus said, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves!” (Mt. 21:13 NLT; cf. Mk. 11:17; Jer. 7:9-11). Moreover, the fact that he made a whip to drive out the moneychangers implies that this was extremely serious theft. When we look at the background history, we can reconstruct what was happening at the time.

Hundreds of thousands[1] of people flooded into Jerusalem from all across the known world during Passover. Jews and God-fearing Gentiles would make the voyage to worship God in Jerusalem during this important holiday. However, whenever hundreds of thousands of people enter a city, this becomes a mark for people to make money. The religious people collected an enormous amount of money in one of two ways: (1) “selling oxen and sheep and doves” and (2) being “money changers” (Jn. 2:14).

(1) “Selling oxen and sheep and doves.” When travelers arrived in Jerusalem, they needed to buy an animal to be sacrificed. The priests scrupulously inspected the sacrifices (Philo, On the Special Laws, 1.166-167). So, the animal needed to be perfect.

Those who were selling sacrificial animals hiked the prices up significantly, and once a traveler made it all the way to Jerusalem, they didn’t have any other options. This might be similar to driving out to the middle of nowhere and having your car break down. The radiator only costs $300, but the mechanic says it’ll cost $1,500 with labor. If you were stuck, what else would you do? Something similar was going on here: Once the weary travelers made it to the Temple, they couldn’t go back and get another lamb from home. They were stuck getting bilked by the priests in the Temple.

The Mishnah records the outrageous rates of the animals. One rabbi readjusted the price of a pair of pigeons because it was inflated 100-fold![2] The Mishnah states, “A pair of birds in Jerusalem went up in price to a golden denar. Said Rabban Simeon b. Gamaliel, “By this sanctuary! I shall not rest tonight until they shall be at [silver] denars [or one-half shekel]” (Mishnah, Keritot 1:7). This citation is interesting because it associates this graft with the “sanctuary” or “temple” of God. This strongly implies that formidable greed was occurring within the Temple.

(2) “Money changers.” To put it plainly, the moneychangers were getting rich off of the Temple tax. By law, the Jewish people were required to pay the Temple tax.[3] However, just like an airport currency exchange, the moneychangers would take a cut when they exchanged the money.

Think about it: Nobody brought exact change to pay the Temple tax. Carrying that many coins would be a heavy load, so they usually brought bigger denominations “due to the burden of the way” (m. Shekalim 2). Moreover, the visitors would bring various types of money that needed to be exchanged in the Temple. Therefore, once they reached the Temple, these travelers would need to pay whatever was asked of them.

Alfred Edersheim[4] cites the rabbinic literature to explain how much graft was going on. The Mishnah states that those who were exchanging money were “liable to the surcharge.” The moneychangers charged them an extra 1/12 or 1/24 of a shekel (m. Shekalim 1:6). If someone used a bigger coin like a Sela (a four-denar piece), then the surcharge would double.[5]

With hundreds of thousands of people entering Jerusalem, this surcharge added up quickly. Leon Morris explains, “The Temple money changers had a monopoly and often charged exorbitant rates. They have been estimated to have made an annual profit of about £stg. 9,000 a year [i.e. pounds of sterling silver], while the Temple tax brought the Temple authorities about £stg. 75,000 a year [i.e. pounds of sterling silver].”[6] Today, one pound of sterling silver is $337. This means that the religious authorities were bringing in 84,000 pounds of sterling silver per year or roughly $28,308,000 by today’s standards.

If this historical reconstruction is correct, then we would expect the Temple to possess an outrageous amount of money. And historically, that’s exactly what we discover. Josephus states, “When Pompeii entered Jerusalem (80 BC), ‘There were in that temple… the treasures two thousand talents of sacred money’” (Antiquities of the Jews, 14.72). If one Attic talent was ~60 lbs, this would result in an outrageous amount of money:

  • 2,000 talents
  • 120,000 lbs of gold
  • 92 million ounces (today an ounce is $2,015)
  • $3,968,800,000

But Josephus continues. He states, “Crassus… carried off the money that was in the temple, which Pompeius had left, being two thousand talents, and was disposed to spoil it of all the gold belonging to it, which was eight thousand talents.” (Antiquities 14.105). Another 8,000 talents of gold would be $15,475,200,000 by today’s standards. By adding these figures together (Antiquities 14.78), we arrive at 10,000 talents of gold, or roughly $19,400,000,000 of gold in the Temple.

Was Josephus exaggerating? Perhaps. However, he states that the amount of gold was not “without its attestation,” and “there are many witnesses to it” (Antiquities 14.110-11). He also states that the Romans “burnt down the treasury chambers,” and inside they found “an immense quantity of money… There it was that the entire riches of the Jews were heaped up together, while the rich people had there built themselves chambers [to contain such furniture]” (Wars of the Jews 6.282).

Annas the high priest lived during the time of Christ (23 BC to AD 40), and he became extremely wealthy during his tenure. Josephus records, “As for the high priest Annas, he increased in glory every day, and this to a great degree, and had obtained the favor and esteem of the citizens in a signal manner; for he was a great hoarder up of money” (Antiquities 20.204). Where did Annas get so much money? Josephus states that Annas sent men to beat the tithes out of the priests! He writes, “[Annas] had servants who were very wicked, who joined themselves to the boldest sort of the people, and went to the threshing floors, and took away the tithes that belonged to the priests by violence, and did not refrain from beating such as would not give these tithes to them” (20.206). Surely such a man would have no problem stealing large sums of money.

The original purpose of the Temple was supposed to glorify God. So, all of this graft was cutting against the original purpose of the Temple. At the dedication of the Temple, Solomon prayed that all people on Earth would come to God through his Temple (1 Kin. 8:41-43). Later, God himself said, “I will bring them to my holy mountain of Jerusalem and will fill them with joy in my house of prayer. I will accept their burnt offerings and sacrifices, because my Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isa. 56:7). Yet, this vision of drawing people to God was being poisoned by religious thieves. It was unconscionable, and Jesus wouldn’t stand for it.

Finally, we should note that Jesus made a “scourge of cords.” He didn’t come in with a sword (or a machine gun!). A whip is not meant to be a lethal instrument. He came in to clear the Temple, but not kill those in the Temple. This is an example of righteous anger—not unrighteous anger (see “Anger”). This was an act of bravery—not brutality.

[1] Josephus places the figure at 2.7 million people (Wars of the Jews 6.425). This seems like an exaggeration. Joachim Jeremias places the figure at ~200,000 people. See Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), 84.

[2] A golden denar was worth 25 silver denars, and a half shekel was only worth a quarter of a silver denar. See footnote 66 in John 2:14. Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), p.170.

[3] Exodus 30:13-14; 2 Chronicles 24:5, 9; Matthew 17:24-27; cf. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 3.193-96.

[4] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1896) 364-376.

[5] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. 1 (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1896), 368.

[6] See footnote 66 in John 2:14. Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), p.170.