In my previous blog post, I mentioned that Jesus “cleansed” the temple 2 times during his ministry.
Because some think there was only 1 temple “cleansing” during Jesus’ ministry, I thought it helpful to write this blog post that shows reasons why I am convinced there were 2 temple “cleansings”…
Q: Did Jesus Cleanse the Temple Once or Twice?
All four gospels record Jesus physically clearing the temple (Matt. 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48; John 2:13-22). However, John seems to place this at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, while the others indicate it happening at the end. So, did Jesus cleanse the temple once or twice?
Here are my reasons for strongly believing that John records an earlier temple cleansing, while Matthew, Mark, and Luke record a later–separate–cleansing:
- Many Differences. Though there are clear similarities between the temple cleansing accounts in all four gospels, there are also striking differences between John’s temple cleansing and the others. Such as:
- Jesus Falsely Accused. In Matthew and Mark’s gospels, we read that false witnesses rose up to condemn Jesus at the end of His life, accusing Him of saying, “I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days,” (Matt. 26:61; see also Mark 14:58). However, nowhere in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, or Luke do we see Jesus making the very statement they claim of Him. Instead, it is John who reveals that Jesus made this statement in His earlier temple cleansing (cf. Jn. 2:19). Not only is this a key difference in John’s account of the temple cleansing (not to mention an incredible proof that the gospels are interdependent, and not contradictory), but the inability of witnesses to readily and correctly remember the details of this statement of Jesus only a few days after the temple cleansing of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (see Matt. 27:60-61 and Mark 14:55-59), tells us that Jesus’ statement must have been made earlier in His ministry. This leaves us with good reason to believe that John’s account records an authentically earlier temple cleansing, where Jesus says the very statement quoted against Him in garbled form at the trial.
- Timing. In John’s account, the temple cleansing is placed at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry–shortly after Jesus’ first sign of turning water into wine (see Jn. 2:11-13), and before John the Baptist goes to prison (see Jn. 3:22-24). Even more, a careful reading of the entire gospel of John will show how strictly he adheres to a tight chronology in describing the events, thereby making it all the more absurd to think he intended people to think an event in Ch. 2 could have actually happened at the end of Jesus’ ministry. Whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke record the temple cleansing happening at the end of Jesus’ ministry–within days of Jesus’ death, and well after John is put in prison (compare Matt. 4:12; Mk. 1:14). The plainest and most natural reading of all the gospels, therefore, would make it impossible for these mutually exclusive times to describe the same event.
- Dating of Herod’s Temple. Immediately following Jesus’ temple cleansing, and in response to Jesus claiming He would raise up the temple of His body after it was destroyed, the Jews said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple…” (John 2:20). They are here referring to Herod’s rebuilding of the temple. Herod began this project in 20 BC. Adding 46 years to this date places the setting of John 2:20 at 26AD. Since Jesus was crucified in 30AD, and had a 3.5 year ministry, this is incredible extra-biblical confirmation that the temple cleansing described by John happened at the beginning, not end, of Jesus’ ministry.
- John focuses exclusively on the sellers (John 2:14-16), whereas Matthew (21:12), Mark (11:15), and Luke (19:45) show Jesus paying attention to the buyers, too.
- John alone records oxen and sheep as part of the temple cleansing (John 2:14-15).
- John alone records a whip of cords (John 2:15).
- John alone records Jesus as scattering the money (John 2:15)
- John alone records Jesus telling the dove-sellers to, “Take these things away!” (John 2:16), but does nothing else with them. Whereas, Matthew (21:12) and Mark (11:15) record Jesus overturning the seats of the dove-sellers, without saying anything to them.
- Matthew (21:13), Mark (11:17), and Luke (19:46) record Jesus quoting Isaiah 56:7, but John does not.
- John alone mentions the disciples as recalling Psalm 69:9 in reference to this incident (John 2:17)
- In John’s account, Jesus objects to the temple being a “house of merchandise,” whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke show an objection to the dishonesty of the sellers (“house of thieves”).
- In John’s account, the Jews question Jesus’ authority by asking for a sign (Jn. 2:18), but in Matthew (21:16) they question Him on why children were praising Him, and they do not directly question Him at all in Mark or Luke.
- Mark 11:18 and Luke 19:47 show that the Jewish leaders conspired to kill Jesus as a result of this incident, and Matt. 21:15 remarks that they were “indignant”. In contrast, John never records the Jews’ reaction besides their questioning. And later on tells us, through Nicodemus, that some of the Jewish rulers initially believed Jesus to be a teacher from God (see Jn. 3:1-2).
- In John’s account, Jesus refers to the temple as, “My Father’s house,” (2:16), which is not unlike His reference to “My Father’s business” while at the temple in Luke 2:49. However, Matthew (21:13), Mark (11:17), and Luke(19:46) all record Jesus calling the temple, “My house,” instead of, “My Father’s house,” when quoting Isaiah 56:7. This could indicate a progression: When Jesus is establishing His ministry, the temple is “His Father’s,” but at the end of His ministry it is His own. Furthermore, the progression continues when Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple, shortly after the later temple cleansing, and refers to it as, “Your [the Jew’s] house,” (Matt. 23:38). Therefore, after they reject Jesus a final time, the temple is no longer the place of God the Father or God the Son’s presence, but belongs to the Jews, devoid of God. Whereas, today, God’s new temple is not one made with hands, but is the body of Christ (e.g. 1 Pet. 2:5).
- In John’s account, Jesus seems to assume less authority and speak less directly than in the temple cleansing recorded in the other gospels. For instance, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, He drove out the buyers and the sellers (instead of just the sellers, cf. John), He overturned the seats of the dove-sellers (instead of just talking to them, cf. John), He did not allow anyone to carry merchandise in the temple afterwards (as opposed to just performing one single act of cleansing, cf. John), He spoke directly to the people who sinned, saying, “My house is a house of prayer for all nations,” and He claims their activity makes the temple, “a den of thieves,” (instead of merely, “a house of merchandise” cf. John). In contrast, the only forceful actions unique to John are: (1) Jesus making and using a whip of cords, (2) Jesus driving out the sheep and oxen, and (3) Jesus pouring out the money-changers’ money. However, it is likely that John’s whip of cords was used only on the animals, and it is possible in the wording of John’s account to read that He forced only animals out, and not people at all. Furthermore, it is not any more severe for Jesus to pour out the money (as only happens in John’s gospel) than it is for Him to overturn the tables of the money-changers (as He does in Matthew, Mark, and John). This shows that the forceful actions unique to John do not carry the same power as those in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which leaves us with a more forceful and authoritative picture of Jesus’ actions in the latter cleansing than in the former cleansing. This is exactly what one would suppose in comparing an action that Jesus did before He had much of a following versus an action He did at the end of His life, knowing He would be crucified, and with a much larger following.
- Jesus Repeated Words and Actions Throughout His Ministry. Though it is true that there are multiple similarities in the two temple cleansings, it should be noted that in other places in the gospels, Jesus repeats words and actions. For one of many examples, consider: In Matt. 14:13-21 and Mark 6:30-44, we are told that: (1) Jesus departed from the crowds, (2) Thousands sought Him out, (3) Jesus had compassion on the multitudes, (4) Jesus wanted to feed them, (5) The disciples said they only had a few loaves and fishes, (6) Jesus commanded the multitude to sit on the ground, (7) Jesus blessed the food and broke it, (8) Jesus gave the food to His disciples to distribute to the people, (9) All of the thousands ate and were filled, (10) Afterward, they picked up multiple baskets of leftover food, and (11) He departed from them on a boat. Astonishingly, every one of these eleven points are repeated in a different event that is recorded by the exact same writers only a chapter or two later (compare Matt. 15:32-39 and Mark 8:1-10), and with only slight variations (the numbering of loaves, fishes, etc. is slightly different). Among other things, comparing these two events informs us that it is not uncommon for Jesus to repeat Himself in words and actions. This should not be a surprise, however, since God is known to repeat Himself throughout the Bible (for instance, consider that God’s word repeats itself in 1-2 Kings compared to 1-2 Chronicles, as well as the four gospels studied in this harmony!). Furthermore, it seems self-evident that every good teacher is one who repeats themselves to emphasize their message, so no one should be shocked that Jesus (the ultimate Teacher) does this very thing. All of this enhances the plausibility of Jesus repeating the temple cleansing, which would be a clear teaching point that He begins and ends His ministry by cleansing the temple (the very thing He was doing spiritually, and finally accomplished for the church [which is now God’s temple] in His death and resurrection).
- Explaining Jewish Leaders’ Hatred. In Mark 3:22, teachers from Jerusalem (more than 50 miles away) enter the story, and without any explanation given by Mark, begin accusing Jesus with incredibly strong language. Also, throughout Matthew, Mark, and Luke, no reason is given for the Pharisees’ (and others who presided over the temple concessions) hatred of Jesus. The most fitting explanation for this is outrage over the earlier temple cleansing described by John’s gospel.
- Uniqueness of John 1-5. The rest of John 1-5 is unique to John’s gospel and found nowhere in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. It is unexplainable, then, why John would have inserted a well-established later event (i.e. Jesus’ later temple cleansing) into John 1-5, when every other story in that section is set at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and entirely unique from all the other gospel writers.
- Logical Conclusion. When John wrote his gospel, he either: (1) Knew of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and/or Luke, or (2) Did not know of them.
- (1) If he knew of them, he would have known the details of their temple cleansing accounts, and especially that each writer placed it at the end of Jesus’ ministry. Thus, if he knew this, it is highly unlikely that John would have intended to write about the same event in John 2, while changing the timing of it, and all of the major details. Instead, if John knew of the other gospels’ accounts of this story, it is most likely he wrote of a different temple cleansing in John 2.
- (2) If, on the other hand, John was unaware of Matthew’s, Mark’s, and Luke’s gospels when he wrote his own gospel, then his knowledge of Jesus’ later temple cleansing would have been by Spirit-guided memory, and perhaps other witnesses. In that case, if John was attempting to describe the same temple cleansing as Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it would be remarkable that he agrees on details like overturning the tables, confronting the dove-sellers specifically, and driving out the sellers of the temple, while he, others, and the Holy Spirit could not remember that this event happened at the very end, instead of the very beginning, of Jesus’ ministry, nor remember the main reasoning Jesus gave for clearing the temple, and other crucial details! This is beyond credulity.
Therefore, in the different possible scenarios, it is most likely to assume John was describing a different temple cleansing.
- Old Testament Witnesses. In Malachi 3:1-3, God says that a messenger will prepare the way for God, and then God will, “suddenly come to His temple…like a refiner’s fire…a purifier…” (3:1-3). The messenger is John the Baptist (see Mark 1:2), preparing the way for Jesus, who is God Incarnate (e.g. Matt. 1:23; John 1:1). The entrance into the temple to purify and refine it speaks to Jesus’ temple cleansing. And the timing (the ”suddenly,” of Mal. 3:1) would indicate that the event happens soon after John the Baptist announces Messiah. Therefore, the particular temple cleansing prophesied in Mal. 3:1-3 would fit best with the earlier time frame of John’s gospel.
In contrast, two notable temple cleansings were performed by two good kings during Israel’s monarchy: (1) Hezekiah’s (2 Chronicles 29:16), and (2) Josiah’s (2 Kings 23:4). In both instances, a Passover immediately followed. And roughly 40 years after both instances, judgment took place: (1) Ephraim was broken and dissolved roughly 40 years after Hezekiah’s temple cleansing, and (2) Judah was taken into captivity and the temple burned roughly 40 years after Josiah’s temple cleansing. Though it is difficult to draw an exact correlation between these events and the temple cleansings of Christ, there are some notable similarities: (1) Christ is a good King, the Son of David; (2) Christ cleansed the temple in conjunction with the Passover feasts; (3) 40 years after Christ cleansed the temple (the 2nd time), the temple was destroyed. Therefore, as Christ is the perfect fulfillment of Israel and the Old Testament, it is incredibly fitting that He would fulfill similar events (in addition to doing greater things) to the good kings of Israel during His reign on earth. Therefore, these temple cleansings of Josiah and Hezekiah (especially Josiah’s, at the end of Israel’s monarchy, and 40 years before the temple is destroyed) correspond well with Jesus’ second temple cleansing (happening at the end of His reign while on earth, and exactly 40 years before Jerusalem’s temple is destroyed), more so than Jesus’ earlier temple cleansing.
In comparing the Old Testament texts of temple cleansings, then, we have indicators that match the two separate temple cleansings of Christ foretold (either explicitly or implicitly), and that would not be as tightly fulfilled in only one temple cleansing.
- Jesus’ 3.5 Year Ministry. Daniel prophesies that Christ’s ministry would last 3.5 years (cf. Dan. 9:27). This also seems to be inferred in Revelation 11 (written by the same author as the gospel of John), where witnesses have a ministry of 3.5 years, then die, then rise from the dead after 3.5 days, and finally ascend to heaven in a cloud (all of which are allusions to Christ’s ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension). Thus, we should expect to find a 3.5 year ministry from comparing all of the gospel accounts. This can easily be done by seeing four Passovers (spanning 3 years) throughout Jesus’ ministry (see John 2:13; Luke 6:1; John 6:4; John 11:55). However, if John is recording the same temple cleansing as Matthew, Mark, and Luke, then this first Passover cannot be counted, and thus it is more difficult (if not impossible) to use the gospels to establish the needed 3.5 year ministry of Jesus.
- Answering An Objection. A main objection for having two temple cleansings is the fact that the Jewish leaders would never tolerate someone to do that more than once. However, consider: (1) John 2:23 indicates that Jesus may have had popular support in His first temple cleansing (perhaps He even had help, though this is beyond what the text records), and thus it would be more difficult for the Jewish leaders to protest the event. (2) When the first temple cleansing occurred, Jesus would have been relatively unknown to Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, and so it would have caught them by surprise more than awaken long held bitterness toward Jesus, making an immediate retaliation less likely. (3) As Jesus’ support grew, the chance of direct Jewish retaliation for the earlier temple cleansing would become less plausible, for fear of an uprising from killing such a popular figure. (4) The Jews specifically feared the timing of Passover to move against Jesus, in case of a possible riot (see Mark 14:1-2). This, of course, was the timing of the first (as well as the second) temple cleansing. (5) In cleansing the temple, Jesus was actually consistent with “existing provisions, which prohibited anyone from entering the Temple Mount with…his wallet, and which specifically denied the right to make of the forecourt ‘a short by-path’” (both of which they were guilty of doing). Therefore, the act was not as rebellious and reckless as might be assumed. (6) The temple cleansing would have been viewed as an act of prophetic “authority”–instead of trivial hostility–by the Jews, which caused them to be more concerned with whether He had authority to do such things as a God-sent prophet, than to question whether the act itself was illegitimate (see John 2:18-22, compare also Mark 11:27-28, as well as the example of a sharper, yet celebrated act in Num. 25:6-12 and Ps. 106:28-31, the prophetic preaching of Jeremiah in the temple gate as recorded in Jer. 7:1-14 and 26:1-15, and the temple cleansings celebrated as righteous acts before passovers in 2 Chron. 30:14-15 and 2 Kings 23:4). (7) There is no immediate action taken by the temple authorities in the latter cleansings recorded by the other gospel writers, either. Thus, if the Jews did not take immediate action in the latter temple cleansing, why is it unthinkable that they would not take action in the time between the first and second cleansing? (8) Finally, I find it incredibly likely that some (or many) of the Jews were convicted in their conscience of what they knew to be wrong conduct in God’s house (not that there was a major change, as is evidenced by the fact that Jesus had to cleanse the temple again only three years later), thus they may have been too morally stung to act in a concerted protest toward Jesus immediately, and lack the opportunity to act at a later time if conviction gave way to resentment. In fact, we have record of at least one of the ruling Pharisees earnestly seeking Jesus only one chapter later (see the exchange with Nicodemus in John 3), and indicating that other ruling Jews shared his feelings (note the “we” of John 3:2). For these reasons and more, it does not seem unreasonable to believe that Jesus could have performed this strong demonstration on more than one occasion. Adding this to the many reasons listed above for the probability of Jesus cleansing the temple twice, and the case seems tighter and tighter.
Thanks for considering,