(Jn. 2:14-15) Why did Jesus get so angry? Was his anger justified? (cf. Lk. 19:45-46, Mt. 21:12-13, and Mk. 11:15-17)

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.

Josephus: “When Pompeii entered Jerusalem (80 BC), ‘There were in that temple… the treasures two thousand talents of sacred money.’” (Josephus, 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 $1,500)
  • $2,880,000,000

Josephus: “Now 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.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 14.105)

  • 68 million ounces
  • $11,520,000,000
  • In total, $14.4 billion.

Josephus: “The Romans exacted of us, in a little time, above ten thousand talents; and the royal authority… became the property of private men.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 14:78)

Josephus: “And let no one wonder that there was so much wealth in our temple, since all the Jews throughout the habitable earth, and those that worshipped God, nay, even those of Asia and Europe, sent their contributions to it. Nor is the largeness of these sums without its attestation; nor is that greatness owing to our vanity, as raising it without ground to so great a height; but there are many witnesses to it.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 14.110-111)

Alfred Edersheim points out that foreigners flooded Jerusalem during Passover with their offerings. However, the priests considered their offerings “impure.” Then they sold replacement animals at exorbitant prices![1] Leon Morris writes,

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]. The enormous wealth of the temple is illustrated by the fact that the Roman Crassus is said to have taken from it a sum equal to about two and a half million pounds sterling. See Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 2 vols. (London, 1890) 1, pp. 367ff. for details. He relates that on one occasion the action of Simeon, the grandson of Hillel, caused the price of a pair of pigeons to fall from the equivalent of 15s. 3d. to 4d. This is related in Mishnah, Keritot 1:7 (where the price dropped from a golden denar [worth 25 silver denars] to a quarter of a silver denar).[2]

Today, one pound of sterling silver is $337. So, 9,000 pounds of sterling silver per year would result in a little over 3 million dollars in profit! And this was only the graft taken via the money changers. The Temple tax brought in roughly 25.2 million dollars per year in profit. Again, this took money from the poor who lived out of town.

The Mishnah records that Simeon massively cut back on the greed of the money changers. He readjusted the price of a pair of pigeons because it was inflated 100-fold! 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).[3]

Imagine driving out to the middle of nowhere and your car breaks 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 (those far worse) 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 stuck getting bilked by the priests in the Temple. These religious profiteers would be (rightly!) criticized today for taking money from the poor (see “Faith Healers”).

Furthermore, 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”).

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

[2] 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] Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah: A New Translation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 838.