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Jesus Flipping Tables: Unpacking antisemitic readings of the “Temple Cleansing”

Lent is one time of year we talk about Jesus marching into the Court of Gentiles, sitting down and braiding a whip, and proceeding to wreak havoc upon money-changers’ tables and sacrificial animal cages.

It’s a weird, fascinating, fun story (that you can read in Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, and John 2)! Progressive & leftist Christians like myself have a particular love for it, pointing to this story as evidence that sometimes our “meek and mild” Jesus used violence to combat injustice. If you hang around progressive Christian spaces online, I bet you’ve seen this meme more than once:

A portrait of Jesus wielding a whip in the teple, with tables overturned and people on the floor looking confused or afraid, with text overlaid that reads "If anyone ever asks you What Would Jesus Do? Remind him that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibility"
Image description in alt text.

He did indeed break out a whip, according to the Gospels! But why? What exactly was Jesus’s purpose for causing a ruckus in the Temple?

A common progressive interpretation of the story is exemplified by this Tweet by ELCA pastor Eric Clapp:

"Just a reminder that the only time Jesus flipped tables is when religious people put a bustling economy over the well-being of their neighbor."
ID in alt text. Click here for the original Tweet.

Hey, I’m all for a reminder that God calls us to care for human beings over economic gain — and that religious leaders often find ourselves in prime positions to make some money ourselves. But before embracing this interpretation, we need to pause and consider what assumptions about Temple goings-on are present within it. For starters, this reading assumes:

  • that the selling of animals for sacrifice right on the Temple premises was inappropriate and even unjust;
  • that Temple leaders did so in order to line their own pockets;
  • and that they charged exploitative prices to the detriment of the poor.

So what’s the problem here?

Well, according to Jewish scholar of the New Testament Amy-Jill Levine, these assumptions about Temple corruption have no historical backing to them. As this post will get to in a bit, both within the Gospel narratives and in extra-biblical sources, we don’t have any reason to believe that money changers were cheating anybody in the Temple, or that Jesus was protesting such a thing!

Even worse, such readings easily lead into antisemitism that impacts our Jewish neighbors even to this day. For example, I can easily imagine the above list of explicit assumptions yielding various implicit ones:

  • that Jewish leaders were greedy & money-obsessed — hmm, doesn’t that sound uncomfortably like an antisemitic stereotype that’s pervaded centuries?
  • that one of Jesus’s priorities in his ministry was to shut down the Temple system and institute a brand new religion that would replace the “legalism” and hypocrisy of Judaism with a “law of love” — a foundational concept of supersessionism, or the idea that Christianity supersedes (replaces) Judaism; click here for information on the pervasiveness of supersessionist views in our churches today & why such views actively harm our contemporary Jewish neighbors.
  • (And if you don’t think this Bible story promotes supersessionism, pause and ponder why we traditionally call it “The Cleansing of the Temple” — implying the Temple, which was at that time the hub of Jewish religious & political life, was unclean.)

I used to hold the same assumptions expressed in the above meme and tweet. Jesus flipping tables to protest exploitative economic and religious systems is a compelling story! It’s relatable to our own activism, it showcases a countercultural Jesus — but is it worth fueling anti-Jewish theologies?

Those of us who claim to care for the oppressed need to rethink our readings of this story, in order to prevent its misuse as a weapon against our Jewish neighbors.

Thus I am grateful to Dr. Amy-Jill Levine for sharing historical context that can help us with our re-readings, and for offering her own interpretation of why Jesus really decided to weave that whip and flip those tables.

The rest of this post is me sharing excerpts from Levine’s book Entering the Passion of Jesus at length (and then ending with further resources, for those interested).

The images I share below condense her argument into concise bits that you could easily share on a church Facebook page or website, or at a Bible study. They can stand on their own as helpful conversation material; but I’ve also interspersed them with longer excerpts from Levine that provide even more information. (If you want a post with just the images and not the lengthy excerpts, click here.)

If you do share these images, please simply credit back to this site! Also, each one has an image description in the alt text; if you share them online, I request that you keep that alt text to make them accessible to people who use screen readers.

Images show slides with text and illustrations based around the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus flipping tables and wielding a whip in the Temple. This first slide shows one such illustration, with Jesus as a middle eastern man with black hair and beard wearing yellow and blue robes with traditional tassels looking angry and wielding a whip, surrounded by frightened looking people and animals escaping their cages, with an overturned table by his side. Text reads “Jesus flipping tables: Dr. Amy-Jill Levine’s Interpretation” and “In Entering the Passion of Jesus, Levine unpacks traditional readings of the “cleansing of the Temple” and offers an alternative that resists antisemitism and applies biblical & historical context…”

The incident known as the ‘Cleansing of the Temple’ is described in all four Gospels. Most people have the idea–probably from Hollywood–that this is a huge disruption. When we see this scene depicted in movies, we find Jesus fuming with anger, and we inevitably see gold coins falling down in slow motion. Everything in the Temple comes to a standstill. …But we are not watching a movie: we are studying the Gospels. …

Excerpt from Levine’s Entering the Passion of Jesus
a detail from a painting of the Jesus MAFA series where Jesus is depicted as an African man in a traditional Cameroon marketplace; he’s got deep Brown skin and close-cropped hair, a red robe, and likewise wields a whip and looks angry as people run frightened around him. This image will repeat on every other slide from now on (all slides that include bullet points summarizing Levine’s points). This slide’s text reads, “What follows is a summary of the points Levine makes in her chapter on the “cleansing of the temple”:
- Jesus’s whole table flipping, whip-wielding stunt is more symbolic than practical (echoing similar performances by his people’s prophets).
- Jesus’s anger isn’t about gentiles being excluded from Temple life; they weren’t.”

Here’s what we know about the actual setting. We begin by noting that the Temple complex was enormous. It was the size of twelve soccer fields put end to end. So, if Jesus turns over a table or two in one part of the complex, it’s not going to make much of a difference given the size of the place.

The action therefore did not stop all business; it is symbolic rather than practical. Our responsibility is to determine what was symbolized. For that, we need to know how the Temple functioned.

The Jerusalem Temple, which King Herod the Great began to rebuild and which was still under construction at the time of Jesus, had several courts. The inner sanctum, known as the “Holy of Holies,” is where the high priest entered, only on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, to ask for forgiveness for himself and for the people. Outside of that was the Court of the Priests, then the Court of Israel, the Court of the Women, and then the Court of the Gentiles, who were welcome to worship in the Temple. 

Excerpt from Levine’s Entering the Passion of Jesus
a detail from a painting, showing a flipped tables and a mess of coins and sheep and doves. There’s another quote from Levine reading, “Pilgrims…would not bring [sacrificial] animals with them from Galilee or Egypt or Damascus. They would not risk the animal becoming injured and so unfit for sacrifice. The animal might fly or wander away, be stolen, or die. …One bought one’s offering from the vendors. And…there is no indication that the vendors were overcharging or exploiting the population. The people would not have allowed that to happen. Thus, Jesus is not engaging in protest of cheating the poor.”

The outer court, the Court of the Gentiles, is where the vendors sold their goods. The Temple at the time of Jesus was many things: it was a house of prayer for all nations; it was the site for the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot/Pentecost, and Sukkot/Booths; it was a symbol of Jewish tradition (we might think of it as comparable, for the Jewish people of the time, to how Americans might view the Statue of Liberty); it was the national bank, and it was the only place in the Jewish world where sacrifices could be offered. Therefore, there needed to be vendors on site.

Pilgrims who sought to offer doves (such as Mary and Joseph do, following the birth of Jesus, according to Luke 2:24) or a sheep for the Passover meal would not bring the animals with them from Galilee or Egypt or Damascus. They would not risk the animal becoming injured and so unfit for sacrifice. The animal might fly or wander away, be stolen, or die. And, as one of my students several years ago remarked, ‘The pilgrims might get hungry on the way.’ One bought one’s offering from the vendors. …

Despite Hollywood, and sermon after sermon, there is no indication that the vendors were overcharging or exploiting the population. The people would not have allowed that to happen. Thus, Jesus is not engaging in protest of cheating the poor.

Next, we need to think of the Temple as something other than what we think of churches. A church, usually, is a place of quiet and decorum. …The Temple was something much different: It was a tourist attraction, especially during the pilgrimage festivals. It was very crowded, and it was noisy. The noise was loud and boisterous, and because it was Passover, people were happy because they were celebrating the Feast of Freedom. …We might think of the setting as a type of vacation for the pilgrims: a chance to leave their homes, to catch up with friends and relatives, to see the “big city,” and to feel a special connection with their fellow Jews and with God. It is into this setting that Jesus comes. …”

Excerpt from Levine’s Entering the Passion of Jesus
more bullet points summarizing points from Levine’s chapter:
- Jesus’s anger was not about animals being sold in the temple’s outer courts
- There’s also no evidence of unjust prices, so he’s not angry about the poor being cheated here either.
- Various Gospel stories show that Jesus did not reject the Temple or its laws & rituals (also – he has “zeal for his father’s house”)

Driving out the Vendors 

…It seems to me that Jesus, in the Temple, was angry. But what so angered him? I hear from a number of people, whether my students in class or congregations who have invited me to speak with them, that the Temple must have been a dreadful institution; that it exploited the poor; that it was in cahoots with Rome; that Caiaphas, the High Priest in charge of the Temple, was a terrible person; that it banned Gentiles from worship and so displayed hatred of foreigners; and so forth. …Some tell me that the Temple imposed oppressive purity laws that forbade people from entering, and so Jesus, who rejected those laws, rejected the temple as well. No wonder Jesus wants to destroy the institution.

But none of those views fits what we know about either Jesus or history.

First, Jesus did not hate the Temple, and he did not reject it. If he did, then it makes no sense that his followers continued to worship there. Jesus himself calls the Temple “my Father’s house” (Luke 7:49: John 2:16). …

Second, Jesus is not opposed to purity laws. To the contrary, he restores people to states of ritual purity. Even more, he tells a man whom he has cured of leprosy, “Go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them” (Mark 1:44; see also Matthew 8:4; Luke 5:14). 

Third, Jesus says nothing about the Temple exploiting the population. As we’ll see in the next chapter, when we talk about the widow who makes an offering of her two coins, Jesus is concerned not with what the Temple charges, but with the generosity of the worshipers. 

Excerpt from Levine’s Entering the Passion of Jesus
a detail of an illustration of a courtyard in the Temple with large pillars and crowds of people, with a quote from Levine’s chapter reading, “…The Temple has an outer court, where Gentiles are welcome to worship. They were similarly welcome in the synagogues of antiquity, and today. They do not have the same rights and responsibilities as do Jews, and that makes sense as well. When I [a Jewish woman] visit a church, there are certain things I may not do. …”

Fourth, we’ve already seen that the Temple has an outer court, where Gentiles are welcome to worship. They were similarly welcome in the synagogues of antiquity, and today. They do not have the same rights and responsibilities as do Jews, and that makes sense as well. When I [a Jewish woman] visit a church, there are certain things I may not do. We might also think of how nations function: Canadians, for example, cannot do certain things in the USA, such as vote for president; nor can citizens of the USA vote in Canadian elections.

As for Caiaphas…Caiaphas is basically between a rock and a hard place. He is the nominal head of Judea, and he is supposed to keep the peace.Judea is occupied by Rome, and Roman soldiers are stationed there. Caiaphas needs to make sure that these soldiers do not go on the attack. He needs to placate Pilate, and he needs to placate Rome. 

At the same time, as the High Priest, he has a responsibility to the Jewish tradition. Rome wanted the Jews to offer sacrifices to the emperor…but Caiaphas and the other Jews refused to participate in this type of offering because they would not worship the emperor. The most they were willing to do was offer sacrifices on behalf of the emperor and the empire.

When Jesus comes into the city in the Triumphal Entry, when people are hailing him as son of David, Caiaphas recognizes the political danger. The Gospel of John tells us that the people wanted to make Jesus king (John 6:15). Caiaphas has to watch out for the mob. Caiaphas also has to watch out for all these Jewish pilgrims coming from all over the empire celebrating the Feast of Freedom, the end of slavery. When he sees Roman troops surrounding the Temple Mount, Caiaphas has to keep the peace. And Jesus is a threat to that peace. But none of this has to do directly with Jesus’ actions in the Temple. He is not at this point protesting Caiaphas’s role.

Sometimes I hear people say that Jesus drove the “money lenders” out of the Temple. That’s wrong, too. Money-lending was a business into which the medieval church forced Jews, because the church concluded that charging interest was unnatural (money should not beget money). Yet people needed, then and now, to take out loans. The issue for the Gospel is not money lending but money changing. These money changers exchanged the various currencies of the Roman Empire into Tyrian shekels, the type of silver coin that the Temple accepted. We experience the same process when we visit a foreign country and have to exchange our money for the local currency.

So, if Jesus is not condemning the Temple itself, or financial exploitation, or purity practices, what is he condemning? Let’s look at what the Gospels actually say. …

Excerpt from Levine’s Entering the Passion of Jesus
another bullet point summarizing points from Levine’s chapter: “What Jesus’s anger is about: in the versions in Matthew, Mark, & Luke, he quotes Jeremiah 7:11 in calling the Temple “a den of thieves” – it’s become a place where people who sin and oppress in their everyday life feel perfectly comfortable, instead of being called to repent and reform.”

According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, …the concern is not the Temple, but the attitude of the people who are coming to it.

In Mark’s account Jesus begins by saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?” (11:17). Indeed, it is so written. Jesus is here condensing and then quoting Isaiah 56:6-7… Jesus’ rhetorical question should be answered with a resounding “Yes!” – for the Temple already was a house of prayer for all people. More, he is standing in the Court of the Gentiles when he makes his pronouncement. …Thus, the problem is not that the Temple excludes Gentiles. 

Already we find the challenge, and the risk. Are churches Today houses of prayer for all people, or are they just for people who look like us, walk like us, and talk like us?

How do we make other people feel welcome? Is the stranger greeted upon walking into the church? Is the first thing a stranger hears in the sanctuary, “You’re in my seat”? When we pray or sing hymns, do we think of what those words would sound like in a stranger’s ears? …

Matthew and Luke drop out “For all nations,” and appropriately so, for they knew it already was a house of prayer for all nations. Matthew and Luke thus change the focus to one of prayer. And prayer gets us closer to what is going on in the Synoptic tradition. …

Excerpt from Levine’s Entering the Passion of Jesus
another quote from Levine: “Some people in Jeremiah’s time, and at the time of Jesus, and today, take divine mercy for granted… The church member sins during the workweek, either by doing what is wrong or by failing to do what is right. Then on Sunday morning this same individual…heartily sings the hymns, happily shakes the hands of others, and generously puts a fifty-dollar bill in the collection plate. That makes the church a den of robbers… It becomes a safe place for those who are not truly repentant and who do not truly follow what Jesus asks.”

Den of Thieves

Jesus continues, ‘But you are making it a den of robbers’ (Matthew 21:13). Here he is quoting Jeremiah 7:11: “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?”

A “den of robbers” (sometimes translated a “den of thieves”) is not where robbers rob. “Den” really means “cave,” and a cave of robbers is where robbers go after they have taken what does not belong to them, and count up their loot. The context of Jeremiah’s quotation – and remember, it always helps to look up the context of citations to the Old Testament – tells us this.

Jeremiah 7:9-10 depicts the ancient prophet as condemning the people of his own time, the time right before Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s Temple over five hundred years earlier: “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’ – only to go on doing all these abominations?“ 

Some people in Jeremiah’s time, and at the time of Jesus, and today, take divine mercy for granted and see worship as an opportunity to show off new clothes rather than recommit to clothing the naked. The present-day comparison to what Jeremiah, and Jesus, condemned is easy to make: The church member sins during the workweek, either by doing what is wrong or by failing to do what is right. Then on Sunday morning this same individual, perhaps convinced of personal righteousness, heartily sings the hymns, happily shakes the hands of others, and generously puts a fifty-collar bill in the collection plate. That makes the church a den of robbers – a cave of sinners. It becomes a safe place for those who are not truly repentant and who do not truly follow what Jesus asks. The church becomes a place of showboating, not of fishing for people. 

Jeremiah and Jesus indicted people then, and now. The ancient Temple, and the present-day church, should be places where people not only find community, welcome the stranger, and repent of their sins. They should be places where people promise to live a godly life, and then keep their promises…

Excerpt from Levine’s Entering the Passion of Jesus
one last bullet point: “Finally, in John’s version, Jesus foretells a time when the Temple is no longer needed, for all places will be sacred & God will speak directly to everyone of every nation – a future that prophets like Zechariah also foretold. (A key difference: Jesus identifies a “new temple,” his body.)”

Stop Making My Father’s House a Marketplace

John’s Gospel says nothing about the house of prayer or den of robbers. In John’s Gospel, Jesus starts not simply by overturning the tables, but also by using a “whip of cords” (since weapons were not permitted in the Temple, he may have fashioned the whip from straw at hand), and driving out the vendors. Jesus when says to the dove sellers, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:16). He is alluding to Zechariah 14:21, the last verse from this prophet, “and every cooking pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the Lord of hosts, so that all who sacrifice may come and use them to boil the flesh of the sacrifice. And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.”

Excerpt from Levine’s Entering the Passion of Jesus
one last quote from Levine: “…Jesus anticipates the time when there willno longer be a need for vendors, for every house not only in Jerusalem but in all of Judea shall be like the Temple itself. The sacred nature of the Temple will spread through all the people. He sounds somewhat like the Pharisees here, since the Pharisees were interested in extending the holiness of the Temple to every household.The message is a profound one: Can our homes be as sanctified, as filled with Worship, as the local church?”

In John’s version of the Temple incident, Jesus anticipates the time when there will no longer be a need for vendors, for every house not only in Jerusalem but in all of Judea shall be like the Temple itself. The sacred nature of the Temple will spread through all the people. He sounds somewhat like the Pharisees here, since the Pharisees were interested in extending the holiness of the Temple to every household.

The message is a profound one: Can our homes be as sanctified, as filled with Worship, as the local church?

Do we “do our best” on Sunday From 11 a.m. to 12 noon, but just engage in business is usual during the workweek? Do we pray only in church, or is prayer part of our daily practice? Do we celebrate the gifts of God only when it is time to do so in the worship service, or do we celebrate these gifts morning to night? Is the church just a building, or is the church the community who gathers in Jesus’ name, who acts as Jesus taught, who lives the good news? 

Jesus’ words, citing Zechariah, do even more. They anticipate a time when all peoples, all nations, can worship in peace, and in love. There is no separation between home and house of worship, because the entire land lives in a sanctified state. Perhaps we can even hear a hint of Jeremiah’s teaching of the “new covenant,” when “no longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ For they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). Can we envision this? Can we work toward it? …

Excerpt from Levine’s Entering the Passion of Jesus
questions for reflection:
1. Do you struggle to let go of the way you’ve always read a Bible story? What helps you embrace new readings?
2. How do we find balance between welcoming people as they are, sins and all, and resisting being a comfortable, unchallenging space for oppressors? Moreover, how do we protect vulnerable persons from their oppressors?

Closing Thoughts: Re-interpreting Jesus not as superseding, but tapping into his faith’s beliefs

Recognizing how much antisemitism is embedded in our theologies, especially the stories or ideas we treasure most, can cause defensiveness, guilt, even a sense of being overwhelmed about what we can keep amid the mess. I’ve felt all those things and more in the past several years as I’ve explored how to weed out antisemitism in my own faith life and help fellow Christians do likewise.

One big thing I’ve been digesting all this time is AJ Levine’s constant reminder that we don’t have to make Judaism bad to make Jesus look good — and that includes the Judaism of Jesus’s own time, even though that Judaism looked very different from the Judaism of today. We don’t have to accuse the Temple or teachers of Jesus’s time with corruption and hypocrisy in order to find meaning within any of the Gospels stories.

A rule of thumb that I’ve brought into my Bible reading of late (especially after reading Levine’s book on Gospel parables, Short Stories by Jesus):

  • Anything that suggests that Jesus was The Very First Jew to suggest that God is loving and merciful — that Jews before him believed in a violent and vengeful God — is inaccurate & harmful.

We might implicitly suggest such a thing without even meaning to do so, so learning examples of supersessionist readings can help us catch new ones when they crop up. Short Stories by Jesus is one fabulous place to learn some of those examples. If you’re interested in Levine’s points on various parables but don’t have time for her whole book, I’ve been posting excerpts on my tumblr blog. For excerpts specifically about the antisemitic interpretations of parables, click here.

Another prime example of supersessionist readings involves the “antitheses” of Matthew 5 — “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” Levine has a sermon you can read or watch here that discusses how these antitheses are misunderstood by Christians as Jesus superseding the Torah with new ideas, when they don’t have to be read that way at all!

Moreover, the progressive desire to depict Jesus is countercultural and, well, progressive definitely fuels a lot of these readings. As Levine explains,

The message of Jesus and the meaning of the parables need to be heard in their original context, and that context cannot serve as an artificial and negative foil to make Jesus look original or countercultural in cases where he is not.

Yes, today we like what is “countercultural” or “radical” or “unique”—but those are our values and are not necessarily what the parables are conveying. Instead, the parables more often tease us into recognizing what we’ve already always known, and they do so by reframing our vision.

The point is less that they reveal something new than that they tap into our memories, our values, and our deepest longings, and so they resurrect what is very old, and very wise, and very precious. And often, very unsettling. …”

Short Stories by Jesus

Letting go of the “Jesus chock-full of completely new ideas” can be hard. But I’ve come to love the “Jesus who knew and cherished his people’s traditions” — who saw the goodness within them and worked to make that goodness reality.

Now, to help you adjust to a Jesus whose theology wasn’t all Completely Fresh, there is one teaching Levine says Jesus was original in: the love of the enemy. The Torah commands love of neighbor and stranger, but not of enemy:

In Jewish thought, one could not mistreat the enemy, but love was not mandated. Proverbs 25.21 insists, “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink” (Paul cites Prov. 25.21–22 in Rom. 12.20).

Only Jesus insists on loving the enemy: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” He may be the only person in antiquity to have given this instruction.

Short Stories by Jesus

Further Reading

So that was a lot! I’ll leave you with some great places to go in the work of unpacking antisemitism.

Lent specific stuff:

More Stuff on Supersessionism, & Concrete Consequences of Christian Antisemitism:

Context around Pharisees, Temple, Torah:

If you have resources you want to share; or have questions, thoughts, etc. please let me know!

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