Tuesday, July 5

When Did Jesus Cleanse The Temple?

Skeptics have claimed for years that a Biblical contradiction exists concerning Jesus' cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Synoptic Gospels - Matthew, Mark, and Luke demonstrate that Jesus cleansed the Temple the week of the Triumphal Entry, the same week during which He was crucified - yet the Gospel of John appears to demonstrate that this cleansing occurred not in the third and final year of Jesus' ministry, but in the first year. Does this present a Biblical contradiction, or can it be reconciled? Do the four Gospels disagree on this important event? (Photo credit: Accessed 5 July 2011. Photos derived from The Gospel of John, a 2003 film starring Henry Ian Cusick as Jesus, narrated by Christopher Plummer, distributed by Visual Bible International. No copyright infringement intended.)

According to the section of the Ceremonial Law found in Exodus 30:11-16, Jews were to pay "half a shekel" as a tribute to the sanctuary, but during the 1st century AD, Jerusalem was under Roman control, and therefore the aureus (gold), the denarius (silver), the sestertius (bronze), the dupondius (bronze), and the as (copper) were in use. It was because of this that Roman coins were exchanged for Jewish coins, and this became commonplace within the Temple itself, as a matter of convenience for money-changers and those paying tribute alike. It was no a free exchange, however, these money-changers demanded a "small few" in return for the exchange, earning their own money because of this. Since so many came to the Temple to pay tribute, particularly during the feasts, money-changers became involved in a lucrative, yet fraudulent and oppressive business.

To note, it was not merely the coins which were required, but according to Leviticus 14:22, two pigeons or two doves must also be required for sacrifice. This is demonstrated in Dr. Luke's record, shortly after the birth of Jesus, in Luke 2:22-24, "When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it was written in the Law of the Lord, 'Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord'), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what was said in the Law of the Lord: 'a pair of doves or a pair of pigeons'" (emphasis mine).

However, it was difficult to bring the pigeons or doves to the Temple from distant parts of Judea (in modern-day Palestine). It was because of this factor, along with others, that led yet another lucrative business arising within the temple, the selling of birds, namely pigeons and doves, and since they were required for the sacrifices during the festivals, the sellers could over-charge the consumer for the product, and they surely did so. The historical record tells us that the sale of cattle as well as sheep for Temple sacrifices was also commonplace, with the merchants charging high prices for these as well. With this historical context in mind, we can determine that it was because of the way in which these merchants and sellers preyed upon the low economic status of the poor, along with His zeal for the purity of His house, that Jesus lashed out at these merchants in righteous anger, or righteous indignation.

Credit: Visual Bible International
Before continuing to examine whether or not a contradiction exists and if it can be reconciled, an important point ought to be addressed to provide a better understanding for the reader: if the Gospels record that when Jesus cleaned out the Temples, and convey that Jesus showed anger and great emotion, does anger qualify as a sin, and does this not mean that the deity of Christ as God is invalid, and that Jesus truly sinned? If this is true, it would contradict passages such as Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment" (Matthew 5:21-22a). First, understand that some manuscripts record, "But I tell you anyone who is angry with a brother or sister without cause will be subject to judgment." This clears up a bit.

John 2:17 records that Jesus' anger for the Temple was "zeal" for God's House. Essentially, it means this: "His anger was pure and completely justified because at its root was concern for God’s holiness and worship. Because these were at stake, Jesus took quick and decisive action. Another time Jesus showed anger was in the synagogue of Capernaum. When the Pharisees refused to answer Jesus’ questions, “He looked around at them in anger, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts” (Mark 3:5)... When we get angry, too often we have improper control or an improper focus. We fail in one or more of the above points. This is the wrath of man, of which we are told “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:19-20). Jesus did not exhibit man’s anger, but the righteous indignation of God."[1]

Now that we understand that Jesus did not sin, we can better understand that God in the flesh, who is God the Son, was concerned for the Temple and angry that it became a marketplace. Matthew 21:13 details that, "'My house will be called a house of prayer,' but you are making it a 'den of robbers' [or thieves]." In saying this, Jesus was quoting Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11. But does a contradiction exist between Matthew, Mark, Luke and John's Gospels? Succinctly put, no. There were two cleansings of the Temple - the money-changers and the merchants evidently did not learn from their mistakes the first time. John 2:11-12 tells us that this first cleansing occurred at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, directly after the first miracle that Jesus performed, the turning of water into wine during the wedding at Cana. John clarifies when he said that it was "after this" that He went to Capernaum, where He stayed for a few days. In John 2:13 we read, "When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem." 

From these verses we can determine that John is recording Jesus' path, over a short duration, from Cana which is in Galilee to Capernaum, and then to Jerusalem for the Passover. This clearly shows that this occurred at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, based on the chronology of events, and that this was the first of two cleansings. The Gospels record at Jesus went to three different Passovers, establishing that His ministry was about three and a half years long. The first Passover was in John 2:23, the second in John 6:4, and the third, which was the Passover of His crucifixion, is found in John 11:55-57, along with the Synoptic Gospels. From all of this it is easy to demonstrate that there were two temple cleansings. John 2:13-22 records the first:

"When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned the tables. To those who sold doves he said, 'Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father's house into a market!' His disciples remembered that it was written: 'Zeal for your house will consume me.' [Psalm 69:9] The Jews responded to him, 'What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?' Jesus answered them, 'Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.' They replied, 'It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?' But the temple he had spoken of was his body, After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken."

The second cleansing of the Temple transpired shortly after the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, on the final week of His life. This particular cleansing is recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke, but is not in John, although Matthew, Mark and Luke do not record the first cleansing either. It has been stated before in prior entries that certain Gospels provide more details on some events than others. This is not contradictory, but supplementary and indeed is a positive attestation to the biblical record, for if all four Gospels recorded exactly the same thing, word for word, not only would we only need one Gospel, but we would not have multiple attestation, nor would we trust the Gospels as much.

Aside from the two Temple cleansings taking place nearly three years apart, in the first cleansing, John 2:18 records that the temple officials immediately confronted Jesus, yet Matthew 21:17-23 conveys that at the second cleansing, the officials of the temple - the chief priests and the scribes - confronted Jesus on the following day. Also, at the first cleansing, Jesus made a whip out of cords, which he utilized to drive out the merchants. In the second cleansing which occurred the final week of Jesus' life, no mention is made of a whip of cords. It is evident that the Gospels record two distinct temple cleansings, not merely one. No contradiction exists, contrary to popular opinion. What is exists is a mere lack of investigation. The explanation that there were two cleansings is not an explanation to elude what some believe to be a contradiction, but is based in matters of textual fact.

For example, consider the following analogy (not based on personal experience, merely an example): I write four different books, and in the first three books, I write of my trip to Niagara Falls, and my ride on the Maid of the Mist. By the time I write the fourth book, twenty to thirty years after the completion of the first three, I understand that my audience will already know about the final visit to Niagara Falls the week before my Wedding, so in my fourth and final book, I record my first visit to Niagara Falls, rather similar to the second visit, but not the same event. The first visit occurred nearly three years prior to the second, and based on the chronological order in my fourth book, I trust that the audience will understand that this is a separate event, since they have already seen and read the first three books.

Likewise, John's gospel was written ca.75-95 AD, with Matthew, Mark and Luke having been written 40-61 AD. The reason John did not include much of the material that is found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (usually referred to as the Synoptic Gospels because they relate much of the same material but relay distinct information and teaching in each), is because their gospels had been in the public domain for a few decades, and John evidently did not see the need to record what had already been recorded, but rather to write on some of the things not yet recorded, and to report on the life of Jesus. This is why only John records the first cleansing - because John noted it was not included in the other three gospels. John sought to convey the necessary information about Christ that the first century Christians did not yet have, and to further establish the deity of Christ - to prove that He was God and claimed to be God, since there was claims from non-believers that Jesus was just another spiritual being. This can be likened unto Buddhism or Hinduism, which postulates that Jesus was nothing more than a spiritual being, yet Jesus did not allow for the possibility - He allowed only that He was God in the flesh. 

Matthew 21:12-17 records the second and final cleansing of the Temple, which transpired the final week of Jesus' life, "Jesus entered into the Temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 'It is written,' he said to them, ''My house will be called a house of prayer,' but you have made it 'a den of robbers.' The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, 'Hosanna to the Son of David,' they were indignant. 'Do you hear what these children are saying?" they asked him. 'Yes,' replied Jesus, 'have you never read, 'From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise?'' [Psalm 8:2] And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night."

Credit: Visual Bible International
It is surely evident from a reading of John 2 and Matthew 21 that these passages refer to two distinct temple cleansings. Mark 11:15-18 documents, "...Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, 'Is it not written: 'My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations'? But you have made it 'a den of robbers.'" Note also that here, the triumphal entry occurs, followed by the cursing of the fig tree and the temple cleansing the day after the entry into Jerusalem. Some claim this is a contradiction, but note that Matthew does not state that Jesus immediately entered the Temple courts. It is more likely that Matthew and Mark's order of events demonstrate that Mark's chronology is likely the order in which the events occurred.

This is not to say that Matthew was wrong, simply that the Gospels do not always place the events in chronological order. Mark includes a detail after the Triumphal entry that helps give credence to the concept that the chronology found in Mark is likely the order of events, "Jesus entered into Jerusalem and went into the Temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve." The proceeding verses record that Jesus entered into the Temple again the next day, and this is when the Temple occurred. Though the order of events between Matthew and Mark are flip-flopped, that does not deny the reliability of the Gospel records nor the truth of the event, merely that the order of the events was not always taken into account.

Finally, Dr. Luke also records the second cleansing. Note that he begins with, "When Jesus entered the temple courts," not, "The same day as the triumphal entry." From examining the Synoptic Gospels, we can conclude that no contradiction exists on the timing. It was likely that Jesus entered into Jerusalem as King, went to the Temple, but decided to come back the following day, in the morning on his way into Jerusalem he cursed the fig tree, He entered into the Temple and performed the second cleansing, and after teaching, on the way out the disciples observed that the fig tree had withered. Matthew's recording of the fig tree is simply out of order of events - he records both before and after. Note the text says, "When the disciples saw the fig tree..." not, "Directly after Jesus said this, He saw the fig tree..." The logical reason is because between Matthew 21:19-20, Matthew 21:12-17 occurred. This agrees with Mark and Luke, and is a reasonable explanation. Similar writing styles have been seen throughout the Bible. Genesis 1 and 2, for example - claimed by many to be contradictory, yet they are not. Genesis 1 is the six days of creation, and Genesis 2 expounds upon what happened on day six. Likewise, this is applied to the situation concerning the fig tree.

As aforementioned, Luke also references the second cleansing. He writes, "When Jesus entered the temple courts, he began to drive out those who were selling. 'It is written,' he said to them, 'My house will be a house of prayer,' but you have made it a 'den of robbers'" (Luke 19:45-46). Clearly, no contradiction exists between the four Gospel accounts. Evidently, two distinct, separate Temple cleansings occurred - the first at the beginning of Jesus' ministry after His first miracle turning water into wine, and the second occurring the day after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the final week of His life. No contradiction exists, but a rather satisfactory and understandable answer.

Thank you for reading this entry of "The Truth." We understand that not everyone will agree with the conclusions found and stated within the confines of this entry, nor do we expect everyone to. Feel free to email vexx801@yahoo.com or The Truth Ministries team at thetruth.ministryweb@gmail.com, and we will get back to you when possible - but we ask that you remain civil in your questions/comments/concerns. Be sure to also visit our facebook page and our ministry website. Take care, dear reader, and may God bless you. Troy Hillman

[1] "Was Jesus ever angry?." Got Questions.org. Got Questions Network, n.d. Web. 5 Jul 2011. .


  1. I have long pondered the single vs two cleansings. Dr Hendriksen in his commentary on John;s gospel agrees with you. After reading your commentary I am convinced that there were indeed two events. One other proof from Scripture: contrast the John passage with the Matt. passage and we see that Jesus was staying in two different places: Bethany and Capernaum with two different hosts; Lazarus and James and John, sons of Zebedee. Two different Passovers. Thank you for your excellent work - may God bless your ministry.

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