Did Jesus Cleanse the Temple Once or Twice?

*** Edited 4/10/19 ***

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?

A: 

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. Were they all speaking of the same event, or were there two temple cleansings?

Though it is possible they were speaking of the same event[1], the evidence seems decisively in favor of seeing two temple cleansings.

Consider:

1.     The 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 (Netzer 2008, 12).  Adding 46 years to this date places the setting of John 2:20 at AD 26.  Since Jesus was likely crucified in AD 30, after his 3.5 year ministry (Mauro 2001), the dating of Herod’s temple places the temple cleansing recorded by John at the beginning, not end, of Jesus’ ministry.

2.     The 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)[2], and before John the Baptist goes to prison (cf. John 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 chapter 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 (cf. 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.

3.     Jesus is 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), may suggest 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.

4.     The 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:

  1. 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.
  2. John alone records oxen and sheep as part of the temple cleansing (John 2:14-15).
  3. John alone records a whip of cords (John 2:15).
  4. John alone records Jesus as scattering the money (John 2:15)
  5. 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.
  6. Matthew (21:13), Mark (11:17), and Luke (19:46) record Jesus quoting Isaiah 56:7, but John does not.
  7. John alone mentions the disciples as recalling Psalm 69:9 in reference to this incident (2:17)
  8. In John’s account, Jesus objects to the temple being a, “house of merchandise,” (2:16), whereas Matthew (21:13), Mark (11:17), and Luke (19:46) show an objection to the dishonesty of the sellers (“house of thieves”).
  9. 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.
  10. 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.  In fact, he later tells us, through Nicodemus, that some of the Jewish rulers initially believed Jesus to be a teacher from God around this time (see Jn. 3:1-2).
  11. 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, before His pubic ministry began. 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: At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the temple = “His Father’s,” (Luke 2:49; John 2:16), but at the end of His ministry it is His own.  Even more, 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 now 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), which He hinted at in the first temple destruction (John 2:21)[3].

5.     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:

  • Jesus departed from the crowds,
  • Thousands sought Him out,
  • Jesus had compassion on the multitudes,
  • Jesus wanted to feed them,
  • The disciples said they only had a few loaves and fishes,
  • Jesus commanded the multitude to sit on the ground,
  • Jesus blessed the food and broke it,
  • Jesus gave the food to His disciples to distribute to the people,
  • All of the thousands ate and were filled,
  • Afterward, they picked up multiple baskets of leftover food, and
  • 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 writer only a chapter or two later (compare Matt. 15:32-39 and Mark 8:1-10), and with only slight variations (i.e. 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).

6.     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 (See Carson 1991, 177; L. Morris 1995, 167).

7.     Logical Deduction

When John wrote his gospel, he either:

  • knew of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and/or Luke, or
  • did not know of them.

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.  If this was the case, 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 that he wrote of a different temple cleansing in John 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[4], and perhaps other witnesses. In that case, if John was attempting to describe the same temple cleansing as Matthew, Mark, and Luke based on memory, 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/or 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 either of the different possible scenarios, it is most likely to assume John was describing a different temple cleansing.

8.     Would the Jews Tolerate 2 Temple Cleansings?

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:

  • 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.
  • 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, thus immediate retaliation was less likely.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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,’” (Lane 1974, 406), because the Jews were guilty of both practices. Therefore, the act was not as rebellious and reckless as some may presume.
  • 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 legitimate[5].
  • 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?
  • Finally, it seems very 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 those with pierced consciences would (hopefully) not organize 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.

[1] If it was the same event, it either happened at the end of Jesus’ ministry or at the beginning, and the other gospel writers placed it somewhere else for thematic reasons. If it happened at the beginning, then Matthew, Mark, and Luke all place it out of order. This seems unlikely since they write the last events of His life in fairly tight and connected sequence, which included the temple cleansing. If it happened at the end of His ministry, then only John placed it out of order. This, too, seems unlikely considering John’s gospel is consistently chronological (more so than any other gospel—see throughout this harmony). Thus, either scenario seems very unlikely, yet still possible.

[2] New Testament scholar, D. A. Carson writes, “The natural if not conclusive reading of [John] 2:11-13 makes the temporal connections pretty tight,” (1991, 177).

[3] More on this can be found at https://fmi360.live/2015/10/16/my-house-your-house/.

[4] See John 14:26.

[5] 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 Passover in 2 Chron. 30:14-15 and 2 Kings 23:4 (See Carson 1991, sec. John 2:18; Lane 1974, sec. Mark 11:15 for more details).

Thanks for considering,

Brian

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