John 2

A House of Merchandise (John 2.16)

And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an house of merchandise. (John 2:16)

Contrary to popular interpretation, money-changing in the temple was not a blatant sign of corrupt profiteering. The money-changing is actually directly commanded in the Mosaic law, as a crucial part of the sacrificial rituals which pilgrims engaged in (Deuteronomy 14.24-26). Why then is the selling of in-house animals such a terrible thing?

Mark records the temple dialog a bit differently, with Jesus declaring the temple to be a den of “robbers.” The quotation references Jeremiah 7.11-12 and the corruption which caused the “first” or previous house of God in Shiloh to be forever wrecked. However, Jesus has tweaked the reference slightly, by using an unusual word for “robbers.” Properly translated—I owe the broad summation of this tidbit to NT Wright—the word does not mean a common thief. Rather, it means “bandit-rebel operating under anti-Roman rhetoric,” a sort of 1st century Palestinian Robin Hood—to put it into a loose equivalent term, “terrorist.” Josephus uses the word in like manner and traces these lestes back to the Maccabean rebels fighting Rome and plundering the countryside. The same word is applied to Barabbas, who is described as a thief but also as a murderous insurrectionist.

Altering his quotation to carry new political overtones, Jesus in the synoptics condemns the temple organization as a den of anti-Roman rebels, implying that temple has become a center of rebellion against God, Who ordained the Roman occupation in the first place.

Yet John’s quotation has dropped these subtle political overtones. Jesus explicitly condemns the selling of merchandise in the temple, highlighting a problem with the existing temple system rather than a corruption of political envy. Why so different? Perhaps the audience of John, unfamiliar with intricacies of Maccabaen-styled rebellion-rhetoric, would fail to appreciate the reference altogether. The reference to merchandise may be an allusion to the merchants of Zechariah 14.21—a point I owe to C.H. Dodd:

Yea, every pot in Jerusalem and in Judah shall be holiness unto the LORD of hosts: and all they that sacrifice shall come and take of them, and seethe therein: and in that day there shall be no more the merchant* in the house of the LORD of hosts. (Zechariah 14:21)

Zechariah 13-14 depicts, with several Christological foreshadowings, a day when God will sorely try Israel, refining the population, whittling away the dead wood. In the final line of the vision, the prophet declares that “in that day” the merchants will no longer be in the temple. Jesus’ condemnation of merchandise in the temple alludes to this time of restoration, as the climax of Israel’s redemption through trial-by-fire. But why will traders or merchants no longer inhabit the temple?

Deuteronomy tells us that they do so in order to help pilgrims make their sacrifices in a reasonable manner. Zechariah seems to be declaring that there will be no more need to make special purchases to properly perform the rituals; Jesus’ reference to Zechariah’s vision seems to be, in turn, a declaration that Zechariah’s vision was now coming to fruition, being fulfilled in his ministry; the need for special purchases was over as he was now the Lamb of God. In John, a key role of Christ is God’s once-and-for-all sacrifice for the sins of Israel, for the sins of humanity; there is no more need for buying and selling in the temple because there is no more need for sacrifices in the temple.

Certainly this interpretation seems to be more in line with the skeptical criticism which follows Jesus’ declaration; the Jews ask (vs 18) “What sign do you show us, seeing that you do these things?” They are looking for proof that Jesus has a right to do this—the idea that sacrifice is no longer necessary is not unthinkable; the crowd is looking for proof that Jesus really is the figure to bring about Zechariah’s visionary redemption of Israel; for the crowd, the issue is only proof, only timing; they already anticipate a day when such a thing may come to pass. In the synoptics, this incident serves to contrast the Pharisaical vision of the Israel's leaders with Jesus' vision of Israel’s redemption, the prior hardening their hearts against Rome and the Gentiles, and the latter embracing the nations of the world. John, dropping the political nuances in favor of eschatological nuances, seems to depict the same incident as proof that Israel’s redemption is indeed nigh, and confirms that it is Jesus’ vision which is true and valid.

*This word is commonly translated as “Canaanite,” but literally means “merchant.” Some commentaries believe the reference is to actual Canaanites, but typically fail to adequately explain how it is that Canaanites might have come to the temple in Zechariah’s era in the first place. Those commentaries which favor “merchant” as the translation insightfully note that the special distinction between clean and unclean sacrificial implements was abolished, along with the need to sell the clean implements to out-of-towners in the first place.