Does the Cleansing of the Temple Show Jesus’ Violence? – I Don’t Think So

In this series we ask whether Jesus was sometimes judgmental, threatening, or violent. Those who say he was violent usually point first to the cleansing of the temple. Mark tells the story, which comes just after the triumphant entry into Jerusalem.

Mark 11 says that upon Jesus’ arrival:

Jesus entered 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.

What do you think Jesus saw as he looked around the temple courts?

The Story of the Cleansing

Mark also tells what happened the next day after leaving Bethany:

On reaching Jerusalem, 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.’”

Matthew and Luke also report the incident but add no further details.

Some believers claim that Jesus came into the temple, lost his temper at what he saw, then went into a rage and violently attacked the merchants in the market. Some claim this as justification for us to become angry and use violence for God’s cause.

I don’t think this accurately represents what happened that day in the temple courts.

jesus and the temple merchants3

Bernardino Mei [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

How Violent was Jesus in the Temple?

Notice that the picture above shows Jesus ‘whaling the tar’ out of one of the merchants with a whip (‘beating them severely’ for those unfamiliar with this idiom from the American South). However, Mark and the other synoptics (Matthew and Luke) say only that Jesus drove them out, and they don’t mention a whip at all.

While this story describes a disturbance of the merchants’ property and an interruption of their business, and Jesus might well have been upset, there is no suggestion of brutality. There is no indication of any great damage, though there is significant inconvenience. The merchants did not even lose their livestock or money and were likely back in business that same day.

Now it’s true that John’s version of this event does include a whip, but it also tells how Jesus used the whip.

John 2:

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 their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”

Jesus uses the whip for its normal purpose—to move livestock. There is no indication that he hit or brutalized anyone though he did tell them, ‘Get these [animals] out of here!’

Does Jesus Fly into a Rage or Does He Stage a Planned Demonstration?

Many retellings of this story portray Jesus as flying into a sudden, uncontrollable rage, but this does not seem to be the case. The lead-up to the story says that Jesus visited the temple the previous day and looked around. He had plenty of time to plan what he would do the next day; and his actions do seem planned—not sudden.

John says that Jesus took the time to make the cattle whip. It was not spontaneous.

But why did Jesus stage this dramatic presentation? It can’t have been to rid the temple courts of the merchants and their market; business would have returned to normal very quickly. I believed Jesus cleansed the temple courts in a public, symbolic act reminiscent of some of the Old Testament prophets.

Isaiah 20 says the prophet preached naked for three years as a symbolic sign against Egypt and Cush. Hosea 1 tells us Hosea married a prostitute, had children by her, and named them to illustrate, symbolically, God’s disfavor with Israel. In Ezekiel 4, the prophet lay on his side for 390 days to symbolize the number of years of Israel’s sin.

And Jesus symbolically cleansed the temple to publicly illustrate the Jews’ dishonor of the sanctity of the temple as a house of prayer for all nations in turning the court of prayer into a marketplace. Jesus got a lot of attention from it; ‘the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.’ The crowd was not the only ones who noticed.

Jesus’ action was also a planned confrontation with the authorities—and it worked. John 2 says:

The Jews then 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.”

He spoke of his coming execution and resurrection. So the Jewish leaders cooperated, unknowingly, with Jesus’ plan: they began to search for a way to kill him. And it wasn’t long until they did.

Is Jesus Violent or Nonviolent? His Final Word on Violence

Jesus’ action in the temple leads directly to his arrest and execution. And I am sure we all remember that throughout this process Jesus never resisted. Among his last words were: “Father forgive them.”

These are not the words of a violent man.

Yet Jesus did speak to his disciples about swords. We will talk about it next time.

Articles in this series: Does Jesus Demonstrate Judgmentalism, Threats, and Violence?
Does Jesus Demonstrate Judgmentalism, Threats, and Violence?
Does the Cleansing of the Temple Show Jesus’ Violence? – I Don’t Think So
Addendum to the Cleansing of the Temple—What about the Fig Tree?
What Does it Mean that Jesus Brings, not Peace, but a Sword?
3 Possible Reasons Jesus Told His Followers to Carry Swords
Isn’t it Violence for Jesus to Tell Us to Cut off our Hands to Avoid Punishment?
Jesus’ Final Act of Anti-Violence—Crucifixion



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30 Responses to Does the Cleansing of the Temple Show Jesus’ Violence? – I Don’t Think So

  1. Pingback: Does the Cleansing of the Temple Show Jesus’ Violence? – I Don’t Think So — Jesus Without Baggage | Talmidimblogging

  2. IF this was a violent episode then it was completely out of character with everything else that Jesus did and taught up to and including laying down his own life. Jesus knew exactly what he was doing and the purpose behind it.
    I have never considered that it would be business as usual for the traders the next day, but it would have been, which suggests that this was a show or demonstration with a deeper meaning – a living parable as it were, rather than an act to make people change their minds about trading in the temple.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      I agree, Andrew! Being violent seems completely out of character for Jesus. Of course, I also agree that the cleansing was a public demonstration rather than a game-changer for the merchants’ activities. I like you term: “A living parable”.


  3. Chas says:

    Isn’t overturning tables an act of violence? However, as I have written before, I do not believe that this incident occurred. It is only in the gospels because a writer did not understand the true nature of God.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Chas, I would agree that overturning tables is violence of some sort; but I don’t think anything in this story supports the kind of aggressive, explosive violence against people that some people claim it does. Attributing this kind of violence to Jesus is contrary to everything Jesus stands for, as well as mischaracterizing the event in the temple as recorded in the gospels.


      • Chas says:

        Tim, I believe any kind of violence would be contrary to what Jesus stood for. That is why this incident could not have occurred. The story reflects the mistaken views of its original writer.

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Chas, I essentially agree with you about Jesus and violence; but I think the action in the temple had a different purpose.

          As to whether the incident occurred, I notice that it is described in both Mark and John which are independent witnesses. Independent witnesses are important to scholars in establishing whether an incident about Jesus actually happened.

          Of course you could still be right, but I am persuaded otherwise.


          • Chas says:

            Tim, In regard to using John as a witness to confirm what was written in Mark, I think you will find that the version of Matthew is much closer to Mark’s than to John’s version. Only John says that Jesus used a whip, that there were sheep and cattle in the temple and he also uses a different quotation from the OT. On the basis of two witnesses in agreement, the John version is a false one.

            Liked by 1 person

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Chas, your statement is intriquing. Why do you think John’s version is false? Most scholars think Matthew used Mark as a source (as did Luke). So Mark and Matthew would not be considered two independent witnesses, since Matthew used Mark. This is why they agree so often.

            But Mark and John would be considered independent witnesses. What is it about John’s version that you think is false?


          • Chas says:

            Tim, when the Gospel of John is compared with those of Matthew, Mark and Luke, it can be seen that it agrees with unique items in all three, which, when put with the fact that it was produced much later than the others, suggests that the writer of John had access to all three of the Synoptic Gospels, so it cannot be regarded as at all independent.

            Liked by 1 person

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            OK. I think I have read of others who think John had access to some of the other gospels, though it seems to me to be based on eye-witness testimony–most likely the preaching of John the disciple.


  4. newtonfinn says:

    That Jesus might have experienced a flash of righteous anger, like billions of other men and women before and after him, is to me an uplifting idea that reveals the profound depth of the incarnation. If he didn’t feel the strong currents of emotion that we all feel, if he was always in complete and serene control of his emotions, then why did he weep?

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Newton, I agree with you that flashes of anger should be expected from Jesus who was human, as you say. In the article, I do not say Jesus was not angry but that he did not lose his temper, fly into a rage, and begin hurting people.

      Some people seem to have a strong need to portray Jesus was truly violent, even though all his teaching and example contradict that. I suppose it makes it okay for them to express their own violence–in ways that Jesus never would.


      • newtonfinn says:

        I’m certainly with you on Jesus’ lack of desire to hurt people. Such a desire would go against everything else he taught and lived for. The sword he wielded was entirely a spiritual one, a weapon of incisive words and symbolic actions that wounded the egotism and insensitivity of the proud and powerful. While the kingdom of God was subject to their violence, Jesus’ clearly told us not to respond in kind. Yes, Jesus was a revolutionary, but he engaged in battle only through nonviolence, warning us that those who take up the sword, and thereby play into the enemy’s hands, will perish by it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Newton, I agree. Being violent with people is against everything Jesus taught and lived. Yes, he was a revolutionary; but not one of violence or political force. This is why he died without a fight, and why he achieved his goal of instituting the kingdom of God.

          It likely also why many people abandoned him as a failed leader–which he was not.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Jeane says:

    Very thought provoking blog! Thanks!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. tonycutty says:

    Great article, Tim, thanks 🙂 Looking forward to the one on swords too!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Addendum to the Cleansing of the Temple—What about the Fig Tree? | Jesus Without Baggage

  8. Pingback: Does Jesus Bring Peace—or a Sword? | Jesus Without Baggage

  9. Pingback: Does Jesus Demonstrate Judgmentalism, Threats, and Violence? | Jesus Without Baggage

  10. Pingback: 3 Possible Reasons Jesus Told His Followers to Carry Swords | Jesus Without Baggage

  11. Pingback: Isn’t it Violence for Jesus to Tell Us to Cut off our Hands to Avoid Punishment? | Jesus Without Baggage

  12. michaeleeast says:

    It is significant that Jesus does not harm anyone physically.
    I agree that his actions were planned.
    I also agree that it is in keeping with the OT prophets.
    Non-violence (ahimsa) is a string influence in Eastern religions.
    I believe that Jesus practiced this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Michael, the term ‘ahimsa’ has made a big impact on my life–especially as expressed by the Buddha. One doesn’t have to be a follower of Jesus to embrace non-violence.


  13. Pingback: Jesus’ Final Act of Anti-Violence—Crucifixion | Jesus Without Baggage

  14. Pingback: Is It Appropriate for Believers to Use Violence to Advance Justice? | Jesus Without Baggage

  15. Chris Hopton says:

    I think there’s something important missing from these explanations which is provided by the context of Mark 11. The cleansing of the temple is sandwiched between an account of the cursing of the fig tree and the withering of the fig tree. Jesus searches in vain for figs (at a time when it’s not the season for figs). Why do this? He must have known it was the wrong season. This is a man who grew up with a carpenter who has intimate knowledge of wood and trees. Why curse the fig tree so publicly? We then proceed to the incident in the temple and the highly significant words that Jesus spoke, quoting from Jeremiah 7. We then return to discover the fig tree has withered up and Jesus uses the opportunity to talk about the importance of faith. What’s going on here? Well, I think we’re witnessing an enacted parable. Is it really a coincidence that Jesus quotes from Jeremiah 7 (to highlight how the Jews are still being hypocritical, avaricious, and tokenistic in their faith) and in the very next chapter, Jeremiah (as a symbol of God’s judgement) talks about there being no figs on the fig trees and the leaves withering (Jeremiah 8:13)?
    Surely, rather than worry about Jesus being violent (where there’s no evidence that he was, anymore than he was environmentally unfriendly!) we should see him here fulfilling the role of a 1st-century Jeremiah, warning his contemporaries about treating the temple in an idolatrous manner, and neglecting its true purpose.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      “Surely, rather than worry about Jesus being violent (where there’s no evidence that he was, anymore than he was environmentally unfriendly!) we should see him here fulfilling the role of a 1st-century Jeremiah, warning his contemporaries about treating the temple in an idolatrous manner, and neglecting its true purpose.”

      Chris, I agree!


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