The violence of Jesus in the temple: setting a bad example

I am generally a hesitant tweeter, but yesterday, in an idle moment, I tagged Derek Vreeland in a tweet suggesting that his republished Missio Alliance article asking “Did Jesus Really Usher in the Kingdom of God?” underplays the future aspect of the coming of the kingdom of God. He kindly tweeted back with a link to an article on the wrath of God and the Christian response to terrorism, which goes some way towards correcting that impression but raises questions about how we understand the “wrath of God”.

His argument runs roughly as follows.

How are Christians to respond to terrorism? We are exhorted not to take revenge but to live peaceably.

Is it permissible for Christians to use violence to protect the innocent? Seemingly not. We are to do good to our enemies and leave vengeance to the wrath of God.

What does that mean? Jesus says that we are to love our enemies, therefore God must love our enemies.

But what about the wrath or anger of God? That’s just a metaphor. What the “wrath of God” really means is the “judgment of God”.

And what does the judgment of God look like? Well, Jesus said that “God the Father isn’t judging, but he has given the authority to judge to Jesus” (cf. Jn. 5:22). And when Jesus talks about judgment, what he really means is love. “Judgment does not flow out of literal anger in the heart of God. Judgment flows from pure love.”

How do we know that? John’s Gospel tells us that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world. He judges by sending the light of his love into the world to expose evil. So when—or if—we use the phrase “wrath of God”, what we mean by it is “what evil looks like in the light of the love of Christ”. And it will all turn out well in the end:

Jesus is judging now and he will come again to judge the living and the dead. Jesus comes to make all things new, which includes expelling evil from God’s good creation. In the age to come, Jesus will come to execute judgment by the light of his love, which will sort things out and make all things right.

In other words, the wrath and violence of God are reconfigured as love and a vague agnosticism regarding exactly how God will repay those who have done evil.

I recognise that the article is not intended as pure New Testament interpretation. It is a polemical contribution to a peculiarly American debate over gun control. But I still think we have to do a better job of connecting public debate and biblical interpretation. So I will highlight two problems with this apologetic from a narrative-historical perspective.

1. The missing context

Like much of our theology, sadly, Vreeland’s argument operates within an unexamined universalised eschatological narrative shaped more by the totalising assumptions of modernity than by the New Testament. The cast of characters consists of God, Jesus and humanity. No reference is made to the long vexed story of Israel and the nations, which is unfortunate because it is just this story that accounts for the language of the wrath of God, both in the Old Testament and in the New. Even the benign abstractions of John 3:16-21 have a historical context, as we shall see. We should think twice before offering them as evidence for an enlightened pacifist theology.

History is important—not least because it’s the only thing that keeps us from recruiting the first century Jesus to front our modern campaigns, fight our modern battles, put our modern opponents to shame.

Let me broaden our view of this issue.

I do not think that we can explain the concept of the coming of the kingdom of God in the New Testament without bringing firmly into the foreground both the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome and the public confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations of the Greek-Roman world. History is important—not least because it’s the only thing that keeps us from recruiting the first century Jesus to front our modern campaigns, fight our modern battles, put our modern opponents to shame.

So if we are going to draw a line connecting Jesus and the modern Christian response to terrorism and gun proliferation by way of eschatology, I think we need a narrative that takes into account the following considerations:

1. The violent “punishment” of Israel was central to the New Testament story. More on this in a moment.

2. The New Testament ethic of non-violent resistance belongs to the transitional period of opposition and persecution that would culminate in the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations.

3. The conversion of the nations as nations inevitably required a rethink of the transitional ethic: it was simply not possible to run an empire, even a Christian empire, without having recourse to violence to maintain justice and security. I cite Andrew Wilson’s begrudging but honest review of Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine in support of this contentious contention.

4. The difficulties faced by Christians today, which Vreeland so effectively highlights (see also his “Guns in the Kingdom of God: An Eschatological Appeal to End Gun Proliferation”), stem from the fact that we are reverting from Christendom to a precarious, marginalised, prophetic existence in relation to the state, much like the situation of the early church.

5. Vreeland’s argument about “living in the present evil age as people of the age to come” is right in principle, but I think we need a more discriminating eschatological narrative if we are going to do justice not only to the New Testament but also to our own historical context. You might find my complex but colourful beads on a rod illustration a helpful way of thinking about this.

2. Jesus takes a Roman scourge to the traders in the temple

I argued a while back that the incident in the temple demonstrates that the “historical” Jesus was anything but gentle, meek and mild. This relied on the more obviously apocalyptic Synoptic Gospels. But John’s version of the story, when read carefully, also frustrates our well-meaning attempts to absolve God of the charge of getting angry and acting violently.

In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” (Jn. 2:14-17)

There is no allusion to the “den of robbers” passage in Jeremiah that so clearly marks Jesus’ action as a prophecy of impending divine judgment on the temple in the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 21:13; Mk. 11:17; Lk. 19:46; cf. Jer. 7:11). Instead, Jesus protests that they have made “my Father’s house a house of trade”.

Zechariah foresaw a day of the Lord, when YHWH would “strike all the peoples that wage war against Jerusalem”, and “everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts” (Zech. 14:12, 16). The final detail of the renewal of the temple, according to the ESV, is that there would “no longer be a trader in the house of the LORD of hosts on that day” (Zech. 14:21). The Hebrew word translated “trader” is knaʿany, which means “Canaanite”. There is clearly some sort of connection in the prophets between “Canaanites” and trade (Hos. 12:8; Zeph. 1:11; Zech. 1:7, 11), so while the translation is perhaps misleading, it’s not out of the question that John’s Jesus had this passage in mind.

In that case, the difference would be that where the Synoptics emphasise the coming destruction of the temple, John highlights the political-religious realignment of the nations around the reformed temple, which would be the “temple of his body” (Jn. 2:19-20).

Still, the fact that Jesus makes a phragellion out of cords as a stage-prop and uses it to drive the “traders” from the temple certainly introduces the threat of violence into the implicit eschatological narrative. phragellion roughly transliterates the Latin flagellum—a vicious instrument made of thongs, with metal tips to heighten the pain inflicted, to be distinguished from a mere scutica or “lash” (Horace, Satires 1.3.119).

The related verb is used for the “scourging” of Jesus before his crucifixion (Matt. 27:26; Mk. 15:15). Indeed, scourging was “a punishment inflicted on slaves and provincials after a sentence of death had been pronounced on them” (BDAG). Doesn’t this suggest that Jesus has taken up a Roman scourge to punish the “traders” (or “robbers”) who had taken over the temple, as a sign of the slaughter and ruin that was to come upon them?

For the disciples his dramatic behaviour brought to mind Psalm 68:9: “For zeal for your house has consumed me….” That sounds innocent enough, but the psalm is a prayer for deliverance from violent enemies in Israel against whom the psalmist invokes the wrath of God:

Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them. May their camp be a desolation; let no one dwell in their tents. For they persecute him whom you have struck down, and they recount the pain of those you have wounded. Add to them punishment upon punishment; may they have no acquittal from you. Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous. (Ps. 69:24–28)

So it’s hard to think that the zealous prophet-king Jesus wasn’t angry when he deliberately made a symbolic Roman whip and acted out a scourging of the corrupt temple hierarchy—the enemies who were out to kill him—as a sign that the judgment of God was coming on his people in the form of war and destruction. And if Jesus was angry, we have to assume that he thought God was angry too.

All spot on, Andrew. The context of psalm 69 is particularly illuminating.

If Jesus is enacting the destruction of the Temple before-hand, he can’t have the moral revulsion to any and all violence that the Sermon on the Mount might suggest. At the very least, Jesus’ God was willing to use violence (and soon).

It also seems doubtful that Jesus rejected the political structure of Israel as instituted by God at the Exodus; he rather rejected those who were currently in positions to wield the sword. The tenants would be destroyed and replaced.

As someone who believes the recourse to violence is necessary to maintain peace and order in a society, the idea that Christians (or even states!) should never use violence is a bit troubling. It is especially troubling since as far as I can tell we have not been given a prophetic word about what our imminent historical future holds in store. Christians seem to be more and more confusing Jesus’ apocalyptic purview with a kind of ethical idealism.

Yes, I think the sermon on the mount is a bit like Habakkuk 2:4. It asks how the righteous are to live during the coming period of God’s wrath against Israel. They will live by trusting in God, and the refusal to engage in violence must be understood as a concrete expression of that trust. How will the followers of Jesus overcome opposition and persecution during this period? Not by taking up the sword but by taking the narrow path of faithful suffering—literally following Jesus.

But after the judgment of God has reconfigured Israel’s world, we are in a very different situation. An idealised eschatology would expect violence to be banished from this new world, but if we read historically, there is no reason to think that the rule of Christ over the nations must preclude the use of “just” force.

I find this interesting not only in my attempt as an evangelical over the years at reconstructing my understanding of Scripture and a Christian worldview, but also in my ministry context of multi-faith engagement. I recently read a very good book that brought a progressive evangelical or mainline Protestant together with a Jewish lawyer to discuss Jewish-Christian dialogue. The Jewish conversation partner took special issue with Matthew 27:25 and the response of the Jewish crowd in response to the condemnation of Jesus: “His blood be on us and on our children.” For this Jewish dialogue partner, and for many Jews, this means that Matthew is anti-Semitic, and much of the New Testament is so construed as well. I recognize that this and other New Testament passages have been used wrongly to justify antisemitism. But (re)consideration of the historical context, Old Testament prophetic logic and narrative, and the overall narrative of the gospels, seems to be missed along the way. I wonder how a consideration of these things might inform Jewish-Christian dialogue. No doubt the idea of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 as divine judgment would be a bitter pill to swallow, but does not seem out of step with the Old Testament narrative, and pre-Christian antisemitic conceptions. Any thoughts?

Hi John. An interesting perspective, though it’s taking me outside my comfort zone. One thing to consider would be later Jewish apocalyptic texts that look back on the catastrophe of AD 70 and recognise that it was just punishment for sin—notably 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch. That helps to reinforce the point that the apocalyptic outlook of the New Testament is throroughly Jewish, and furthermore helps to extend the narrative into the post-biblical period.

peter wilkinson | Fri, 05/04/2018 - 09:29 | Permalink

John’s gospel seems to be more a cleansing of the temple than an enacted termination of the temple through judgment, which the synoptics might imply. You highlight this in your 4th paragraph (Part 2.), though mentioning that Jesus is “the temple of his body” in a reformed temple.

So is John describing a judgment or cleansing?

Also, I think it’s a stretch to move from the anger of Jesus (if that’s really what he felt) to a complex and problematic phrase like “the wrath of God”. This needs much more unpacking, as does the violence of God with which it is associated in the OT. I’m not sure that previous discussions on the subject in the NT got anywhere near giving it the consideration it deserved.

The problem with adding vs.24-26 of Psalm 69 to exegeting v.9 in John 2 is that they are not quoted in John 2. Two things might be said of this. When Isaiah 61:1-2 is quoted by Jesus in the synagogue (Luke 4:18-19), it is the omission of “day of vengeance of our God” which gives significance to the citation. It is precisely because Jesus is not coming on a mission of violent retribution that the line is omitted.

Second, the practice of 2nd Temple exegesis needs to be given more careful consideration (with Jesus as with Paul, Matthew and so on). Taking isolated verses out of context, and giving them meaning in a new and unrelated context was its often striking feature. So we cannot assume that the rest of Psalm 69 is implied along with the verse quoted in John 2.

I’ve nothing to say about Derek Vreeland, and I do think you highlight some interesting details in your post. I was going to ask whether we had moved on from the 2nd Temple exegetical issue which arose in the previous two posts, but my comment suggests we haven’t.

Taking isolated verses out of context, and giving them meaning in a new and unrelated context was its often striking feature.

I simply don’t agree with this. I don’t think you have proven the point (you are certainly mistaken about Lk. 4:18-19), and I think it is far more plausible, exegetically and historically, that the isolated quotation of an Old Testament verse or two by a Jewish speaker or author in the New Testament presupposed the general context, in more or less detail, from which it was taken. In this case, you would have to show that the prophecy of judgment on unrighteous “Jews” was incompatible with Jesus’ violent actions in the temple, his word about the traders, and the disciples’ recollection of Psalm 69:9 to convince me otherwise.

Why am I mistaken about Luke 4:18-19? Is there a commentator who thinks otherwise?

If you think it likely that isolated verses quoted by NT verses presuppose the general context, you need to prove your case, not just assert it. I don’t deny that 2nd Temple exegetical creativity is not always how OT allusion is used in the NT, but it is far more widespread than would warrrant ignoring it. So far, your refutation of examples has not disproved the practice, and in one case actually confirmed it.

That the context of Psalm 69 is unlikely to be intended as understood in the quotation of John 2:17 is very obvious. The sermon on mount speaks of love for your enemy, and is incompatible with the imprecations of 69:22-28. You can’t place one set of teaching of Jesus against his actions elsewhere.

Despite the violence of the temple cleansing, it’s the sheep and the cattle Jesus drives from the temple. There is no mention of him inflicting violence on the traders, other than a verbal tongue lashing.

So yes, not only is the specific retribution called for in Psalm 69 not mentioned in John, but it runs contrary to what we know of Jesus’ specific teaching, and it is not borne out by the detailed actions of John 2.

Then we have to take into account the evidence of 2nd Temple creative exegesis, as used of Jesus as well as by him, and it’s sage elsewhere in the NT. This is in addition to observations already made on the assumed state of mind of Jesus, and the tenuous connection between that and the much larger and far more complex issue of “the wrath of God” and God’s violence in the OT and NT.

I’ve just posted on Luke 4:18-19.

There is no contradiction between the prophecies of violent judgment and the sermon on the mount. It is not for the disciples to avenge themselves against their enemies, they are to love their enemies, and leave vengeance to the “wrath of God”, as Paul says (Rom. 12:19).

The syntax of John 2:15 is awkward. Morris notes: ‘This is the most natural way of understanding the masculine πάντας even though the following τά τε πρόβατα καὶ τοὺς βόας means “both the sheep and the oxen.” If animals only had been meant πάντα would have been more natural.’

The Synoptic Gospels are unequivocal: “And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple…” (Mk. 11:15).

But it’s neither here nor there whether he drives the traders out or just their animals; it is clearly a violent condemnation of their presence in the temple.

So I am still waiting for a clear example of New Testament use of the Old Testament that directly contradicts the broad use of the quotation in its original context.

Not contradiction perhaps, but try going back to my comment on your Maccabeean gloss on Matthew 22:31-32. But there are many others where the verse cited does not convey the sense of its context. Do you want a list?

I wrote a piece about this passage some years ago and haven’t changed my view. Jesus would be using the Exodus story somewhat analogically or symbolically, but if we keep in mind 1) that resurrection has to do with the renewal of the nation and not with personal salvation, and 2) that in Jesus’ teaching the patriarchs stand for renewed Israel (the story of the rich man and Lazarus is especially relevant here), I think we can say that Jesus’ use of the text is entirely consistent with its original context.

That’s fine. All I’m saying is that Jesus (and Maccabees) is reading back into Exodus 3:6 something that could not have been deduced from the text in context. He was engaging in 2nd Temple exegesis, which pays scant attention to meaning in context. You are trying to have both: non contextual meaning whilst importing meaning in context. At least this is your normal practice. It doesn’t work with Exodus 3:6.