Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The "Incident" in the Temple

What was Jesus’ disruptive action in the Temple all about?
Was it an act of purification, protest, or both?

In this post I survey the current range
of theological opinion that seeks to explain and clarify
this decisive moment in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

In assessing various scholars’ interpretations of the incident in the Temple, it’s clear that the historical and theological issues such interpretations raise revolve around the meaning that Jesus and others invested into this particular incident. Depending on the meaning given, different understandings and interpretations emerge concerning the person and character of Jesus, the nature of his mission, and the circumstances concerning his arrest and execution.

The Gospels imply that Jesus’ action in the Temple was a protest against the commerce within its walls – commerce that he perceived to be dishonest. Thus by driving out the money-changers and the sellers of the livestock, Jesus was symbolically restoring or reforming Temple worship.

Yet Paula Fredrikson in From Jesus to Christ, notes that such a scenario alienates Jesus from the Judaism of his time. Money changing and the selling of animals was “necessary to the normal functioning of the Temple which was universally regarded as vitally important.” (Fredrikson, p.112)

Fredrikson also points out that if Jesus aimed to ritualistically “cleanse” the Temple, and thus change Temple practice, then his gesture was lost on the disciples, whom, she notes, continued to worship and offer sacrifices in the Temple after Jesus’ death (a claim refuted, in part, by Richard Horsley who maintains that “there is no clear indication in Acts 2:46, 3:1 or elsewhere that the early apostles in Jerusalem were in the Temple to bring sacrifices and offerings.” [Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, p.292])

Nevertheless, the Temple episode must have had some meaning for the early church, and modern scholars seriously doubt that it was simply an isolated incident of anger on the part of Jesus. It obviously had invested meaning and, accordingly, potential implications – both then and now.

Fredrikson proposes that Jesus’ gesture of overturning tables was a symbol of destruction rather than purification. She points out that the synoptic tradition notes that shortly after the incident in the Temple, Jesus begins predicting its destruction. In John, the Temple’s “cleansing’ is combined with Jesus’ sayings about its destruction, and explicit reference is made to the Passion.

Accordingly, Fredrikson states that these traditions connecting Jesus’ death with his prediction of the Temple’s destruction suggest both the meaning of his action in the Temple and the reasons why the chief priests enter and dominate much of the passion narratives. Fredrikson maintains that Jesus’ disruptive behavior in the Temple was “another way of stating in the idiom of Jewish apocalyptic eschatology what he had preached throughout his ministry – namely that God’s kingdom was at hand.” (Fredrikson, p.113)

Thus seen in the context of his mission, Jesus’ overturning of the tables in the Temple on the eve of the archetypal holiday of national liberation (Passover) would have been “readily understood by any Jew watching as a statement that the Temple was about to be destroyed (by God, not human armies, and certainly not ny Jesus), and accordingly that the present order was about to cede to the Kingdom of God.” (Fredrikson, p.113) – as prophesied by Tobit two centuries earlier. In light of this interpretation, Fredrikson argues that the high priests acted against Jesus not because they saw his gesture in the Temple as a religious offense, but as a threat to civic peace and order in light of the Roman presence in the city.

Fredrikson is obviously attempting to attribute a political meaning to Jesus’ action – an action which, accordingly, had political implications, namely the fear-inspired reaction on the part of the Jewish authorities, and the threat-annihilating response on the part of the Romans. This “threat” was of a political nature. Yet politics do not exist in isolation but instead infuse the fabric of societal life. Jesus’ action in the Temple, therefore, should (and has) been perceived as having not only political implications but social ones as well.

Walter Wink in Engaging the Powers, notes that the meaning of Jesus’ demonstration in the Temple was lost on the disciples until some time after the Resurrection. Then, “the church gradually discerned that his life and teaching had undermined the entire theology of holiness on which the Temple cult was based. Jesus’ death . . . had exposed and annulled the whole system of sacrificial victimage, and thus terminated Temple slaughter – in short, spiritual violence. (Wink, p.125)

Wink stresses that Jesus’ gesture in the Temple was understood symbolically. Like Fredrikson, he maintains that “it was not a ‘cleansing’ or reforming of the Temple . . . rather, the Gospels depict Jesus as enflamed by the separatism and exclusivity of the Temple.” (Wink, p.126) For the Jews, holiness was understood in terms of separateness (note the Holiness Code of Leviticus that outlawed certain practices that identified the Jews with other races and groups of people). The Jerusalem Temple embodied, institutionally, this understanding of holiness – one that Wink notes, “prevented direct access to God by all but ‘undefiled’ Jewish men.” (Wink, p.126)

The Temple’s active maintenance of a separation between the sacred and secular worked greatly to the financial advantage of the priestly ruling elite (“but you have made it a den of robbers,” Mary 11:17b), and it was this “maintained system” that Jesus sought to abolish through his action in the Temple.

Wink labels this system “sacrificial,” and notes that it “projected the need for substitutionary slaughter into the very Godhead.” (Wink, p.126). He maintains that the violence that the animal sacrifices were suppose to quell was never satisfied, and that the system required human lives. By giving his life voluntarily, Jesus was seen to expose the scapegoating mechanism of the system. His death was understood by the early church as “a sacrifice to end all sacrifice,” and one which revealed another power at work in the universe apart from those of domination and violence. This power, “like water, cuts stone. It is the power of sacrificial love: active non-violence.” (Wink, p.126)

In contrast to Wink’s assertion that Jesus was a champion of “active non-violence,” Richard Horsley in Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, insists that Jesus’ action in the Temple “must have been an actual attack involving some violence against property if not against persons.” (Horsley, p.300). Horsley maintains that Jesus was not attacking things peripheral to the system but components which were integral parts of it, i.e., those who sold and bought, and those who changed money. Such enterprises were operated and controlled by the aristocratic priestly families and were points at which the domination and exploitation of the people was most obvious. Thus, concludes Horsley, Jesus’ gesture in the Temple was a “prophetic act symbolizing God’s imminent judgmental destruction, not just of the building, but of the Temple system.” (Horsley, p.300)

Although the various scholars cited differ in some ways in their interpretations of the Temple incident, the underlying premise of each is that through his action in the Temple, Jesus sought to expose a human reality contrary to the Reign of God. As Christians today, we need to emulate Jesus’ mission and action, and seek to likewise expose all humanly designed and maintained structures and systems that separate and alienate people from their true selves, from others, and from God.

Such exposing entails “taking a stand,” “rocking the boat,” challenging the status quo. For Jesus, it would have been obvious that such action would incur the wrath of those who gained most from “the system.” Yet he believed so much in what such action had the potential to accomplish (i.e., the liberation of the oppressed) that he was willing to accept the consequences – even of one was his own death.

And as I’ve noted previously, such an understanding liberates us from having to view Jesus’ death as resulting from the will of an exacting God – one determined to see Jesus die for the atonement of “fallen” humanity. Such a negative theological interpretation serves to encode violence into our religious tradition – as “holy” wars, inquisitions, and excommunications of both past and present testify. Letting go of this interpretation we are free to perceive Jesus’ death as the selfless love of one individual so open to the Spirit of Love that he would willingly die for a message, a way – one that he believed (indeed, knew from experience) would liberate the oppressed and lead all to human flourishing and union with God.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Pasolini’s “Wrathful Christ”
Why Jesus is My Man
Revisiting a Groovy Jesus (and a Dysfunctional Theology)
What We Can Learn from the Story of the Magi
Joy: The Most Infallible Sign of God’s Presence
The Sexuality of Jesus
On the Road with Punk Rockers and Homeless Mothers
Palm Sunday: "A Planned Political Demonstration"
A Wretched Death, a Wretched Burial
Jesus Lives!
The Triumph of Love: An Easter Reflection

1 comment:

PrickliestPear said...

Excellent post.

In retrospect, it was entirely predictable that Jesus's criticism of the religious establishment's attempt to monopolize access to God would be subverted by a new religious establishment that went on to do the exact same thing.