When did Jesus Cleanse the Temple?
Contradiction hunters may have done Bible-believers a favour when it comes to their old favourite, “when did Jesus cleanse the Temple?” In each of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – the event comes at the end, only days before his arrest. However, St. John’s book doesn’t say that. He describes a temple cleansing at the beginning
of Jesus’ ministry shortly after attending the wedding at Cana. (John 2:11-16) The occasions are similar enough to assume they were the same event but different enough to assume someone made a mistake. Surely this “contradiction” deserves to go to the top of the pile of those touted by the skeptics?
A common reply is that John’s focus is theological, and his writings not intended to be followed in date order, but such an answer is inadequate. Wasn’t the book of Galatians also theological in focus, yet it contains specific date information concerning the history of the early Church? (Gal 1:18 – 2:1)
Also, cynics are quick to point out how often John says, “after this” and “following that” and “sometime later,” indicating sequence. John’s primary purpose may well have been theological but, like the synoptic gospels, he still meant
to write things as they happened. He simply got the temple incident wrong they say. Bad luck to the fundamentalists! Another inspired writer makes a mistake!
So the problem remains, but did the contradiction hunters do us a favour in pointing it out? Perhaps so, because it is Christian artists themselves who depict cowering traders getting the bite at the end of Jesus whip. Matthew never said so; neither did Mark; neither did Luke. Only John mentions a whip but in the context of cattle. He made the whip to drive cows and sheep, not people – though it might be suggested sensible people got out of his road.
Actually Christian apologists have been blest by the criticism because it forces us to better research the abuse going on in the temple at this time, and in exploring it; some interesting background has been unearthed. The historian Josephus mentions the “bazaars of Annas.” This wealthy high priest had four sons and apparently the family was making double profit, firstly by selling sacrificial animals to folk coming to do sacrifice. Secondly, by declaring Roman and Greek coins with inscriptions of Caesar ‘unclean’ due to the pagan image, they required such coins be exchanged for Jewish “kosher” money. The money-changers made handsome profits. Even the sale of doves, according to another Jewish source, had become a racket. Dove sacrifice was designed by God for the poor but it had become so expensive that ordinary people could barely afford it.
If anything, scenarios of the temple as painted in secular records confirm
our biblical descriptions. People traveled to Jerusalem and purchased animals from the market at the temple and it had become a rip-off. Jesus challenged these ungodly practices and in so doing challenged the authority of the High Priest himself.
Nevertheless, the original question remains. When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
Jesus Cleared the Temple Twice!
If there really was a contradiction between John and the other gospels concerning the clearing of the temple, it would be a single error about timing. John says it happened at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry but Matthew, Mark and Luke say at the end. Now, when an author makes a mistake, he is unlikely to combine three or four errors for good measure. However, timing wasn’t the only difference in this case. So, when the reader notices not one but several differences, we may be excused for wondering if there might be another explanation. Could it be there was no mistake made at all and Jesus cleared the temple twice?
Take, for example, the route Jesus used to get to Jerusalem. In the closing weeks of his ministry he came up via Jericho, having traveled on the eastern side – modern day Jordan. This is explained in the synoptic gospels due to his wish to avoid Samaria. However, in the first year he used the direct north-south route. John says concerning his journey home, “So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. Now he had to go through Samaria.” (John 4:3-4)
It might also be worth noting how, when he arrived home, his ‘temple cleansing’ episode was the ‘talk of the town’ among the Galileans. “When he arrived in Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him. They had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, for they also had been there.” (John 4:45)
These folk were particularly vulnerable to the sacrificial temple trade because of cattle transport distance.
Of course, the journey back from Jerusalem highlights an even more obvious difference between the two ‘cleansings.’ On the second occasion Jesus never got back; he was arrested! On the first occasion after he cleansed the temple, he left, spent some time baptising, (John 3:22) then proceeded home as we have noted.
A significant discussion took place in John’s account which is not recorded by the others. In the exchange the Jews replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” (John 2:20)
This information enables historians to date the year at AD 27 because Herod the Great began construction in 19/20 BC. (Herod’s reign is well documented) It follows therefore, that, if the temple stories were all the same incident, Jesus’ death must have also been AD 27. However, that year is too early for the crucifixion, suggesting rather that a temple cleansing occurred twice.
Finally, it might be asked if Jesus’ actions did any good apart from venting righteous anger. Well, no cattle are mentioned being whipped out of the temple on the last occasion so maybe they partially reformed the abuses by taking the cattle stalls out of the temple precincts. We don’t know for sure, but that would explain why no whip was made that time. Even so, the doves and money changing continued as before, hence a final judgment on the practice at the end of Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus’ Ministry was 3½ Years
The “2-cleansings” debate has done us another favour as well. By resolving a superficial contradiction, the timeline of Jesus’ ministry comes into clear focus. Was it two years or three? Some have even asked if it lasted a mere one year, since the temple incidents were (they say) the same Passover.
The truth is, John’s gospel offers step by step, order-of-event information but, because its chronological integrity has been compromised by weak apologies, the 3½ year ministry and its significance has been obscured. Likewise its connection to ancient prophecy, speaking of a 3½ year messianic span has been obscured, although this aspect is beyond our scope here. For the sake of brevity we will limit this article to John’s dating from the first cleansing of the temple through to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
John begins by pinpointing his first Passover at April AD 27
. As explained previously, it was forty-six years after Herod the Great began building the temple. (John 2:20) Now, this is about as reliable as dates get because Herod the Great began construction in 19/20 BC.
After this, John’s narrative continues in the order things happened. Yes, he omits things, selecting miracles that fit his theme (John 20:30-31) but not out of sequence as the temple story has been supposed. In chapter five Jesus went again to Jerusalem to the next public festival. It would have been the ‘feast of Tabernacles’ since that was in October AD 27
, following in natural sequence from the Passover in April.
Then, in chapter six the second Passover, April AD 28,
is referenced. Its context with the ‘feeding of the 5000’ anchors the middle of Jesus ministry to a solid date since this miracle was recorded by all four gospels.
The feast of Tabernacles comes around again in October AD 28.
As we might expect, it is the subject of chapter seven. And it seems as if Jesus remained in Judea from October till December AD 28
because the narrative continues through to the winter festival of Hunukkah. (John 10:22) After that, Jesus went across the Jordan River and “here he stayed.” (John 10:40)
Notice, he did not pass through this place but lodged and taught there, making the time early AD 29.
During this period, Jesus heard of the death of a friend and said, “Let us go back to Judea.” (John 11:7)
So, when did Lazarus die? Was it before the AD 29 year Passover or after? We can’t say exactly, but what we do know is that after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead he and his disciples left Judea again, changed house again, and resided in yet another village. (John 11:54) By this time Passover would have been and gone and it would have been about mid AD 29.
So, apparently Jesus did not go to the third Passover. He didn’t go to AD 29 Tabernacles either and the reason was this: the Jews were trying to kill him and he didn’t want to be killed … yet. The reason he didn’t want to be killed ‘yet’ was because it was not ‘time,’ as his death had to fulfil the 3½ years. (Compare John 7:6, Matt.26:18, Dan 9:27)
Then came the fourth Passover in April AD 30.
This, of course, was his last supper and was recorded in detail from chapter twelve as well as by Matthew, Mark and Luke. Is the date right? It surely is. (See related blog here)
Did St. John contradict the synoptic writers? On the contrary! He provided the chronological framework for them, not the least of which included the timing of the first temple cleansing.