Until rather recently, the Gospel of John has been systematically excluded as a source for the historical Jesus. It has been popularly considered a “concocted Gospel.” Accordingly, scholarship tends to understand John as a derivative spiritualization of Synoptic material. As such, the Fourth Gospel contains no viable independent memory of the historical Jesus.
This critical consensus appears to be losing traction, however. John’s presumed late date, literary dependence on the Synoptics, and lack of historical concern, has been rightly questioned by scholars like Paul Anderson, Paula Fredriksen, and Richard Bauckham. As some have pointed out, when Johannine accounts are juxtaposed with their Synoptic counterparts—the Walking on Water, the Temple Disturbance, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the Healing of the Official’s Son/Servant, the Passion Narrative, and the Miraculous Catch—the Fourth Gospel’s use and development of an early and independent oral tradition becomes apparent. John diverges significantly from the Synoptics in detail and cannot be shown to have engaged in any program of “spiritualization.” Rather, in conjunction with John’s geographical acumen, the vivid and seemingly non-theological details provided by John hint at the weighty potential historical value encoded in the Fourth Gospel.
In light of this movement in historical Jesus research, in what follows I’d like to review one particular Johannine account, the Temple Disturbance, in order to interpret it and evaluate its historical value.
2:13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
As Marianne Thompson and others observe, the central function of John’s retelling of the event lies in its power to foreshadow the death of Jesus and his subsequent replacement of the Temple. John 2:19 represents the Johannine interpretation of the historical event: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” This statement constitutes John’s singular theological contribution to the Temple Disturbance episode. The account thus binds the Temple’s fate with Jesus’ and anticipates God’s provision of a new Temple, the mystical risen body of Christ. Because this is his motivation, John’s portrayal of the Temple Disturbance strikes many as more theologically concerned than historically concerned: clearly Jesus’ zealous exorcism of trade from the Temple was not simply (if at all) a metaphor for his death and resurrection. This, however, does not mean John’s account is without historical value. Other details unique to the Johannine report stand on more sturdy historical footing. Consider, for instance, the following three points in light of the historically-established vision of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet sent to a mismanaged Israel.
1) The φραγέλλιον crafted by Jesus can be understood as a prophetic prop representative of a Roman scourge (cf. Mark 15:15). There is a long tradition in the Hebrew prophets of sign-acts that prefigure acts of divine judgement. Jeremiah, for instance, represented the coming devastation of Jerusalem by smashing a clay pot before the priests and elders (Jeremiah 19:1-13). Ezekiel likewise represented the coming siege of Jerusalem with a brick and an iron griddle (Ezekiel 4:1-3). Forty years after Jesus’ sign-act in the Temple, Romans armies would both topple the Temple and scourge and crucify thousands of Jews.
2) Jesus’ allusion to Zechariah 14:21 in John 2:16 (“Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”) invokes an eschatological narrative in which Jerusalem is trampled by the nations (14:1-2) and is then restored and given dominion over the region (14:3-21). If Malina and Rohrbaugh are correct in their assessment that “quotations [of the tradition] were often given in truncated form… because audiences could be depended on to fill in the missing sections,” Jesus’ use of Zechariah 14:21 simultaneously warns hearers of a looming day of judgement and signals that God’s people and Temple will be restored through the crisis.
3) The scripture remembered by the disciples in association with the event, Psalm 69 (“zeal for your house will consume me”), is a cry for divine deliverance and vengeance. In conjunction with the disciples’ realization that the restored Temple was to be Jesus’ redeemed body, Psalm 69 represents another interpretive key for understanding of the Temple Disturbance. By retaining this quotation, John casts Jesus as the speaker of the psalm, the persecuted righteous man. As such, Jesus is portrayed as the defender of God’s honor against God’s enemies and thus not as the restored Temple. The priests and traders, on the other hand, stand in for those evildoers in the psalm who mock God and persecute His servant—”the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me” (Psalm 69:9). The psalm goes on to describe the defeat of these evildoers and the desolation of their camp (69:25). The wicked are contrasted with those who love God’s name and will inherit and enjoy a redeemed Jerusalem (69:35-36). The quotation of the Psalm thus brings to the fore an eschatological narrative of judgement and redemption not dissimilar to Zechariah 14.
These three details then preserve Jesus-tradition not yet taken over by the Johannine theological program. In other words, these three points were not created to serve John’s interpretation of the event: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Rather, as apocalyptic remnants embedded in a largely non-apocalyptic Gospel, they represent a distinct memory of the historical Temple Disturbance. Further, these particular elements are corroborated by the Synoptic memory of the same event. In those accounts, the Temple Disturbance is interpreted along two avenues: the parable of the withered fig tree and the quotation of Jeremiah 7:11. In the first instance, the fate of the fruitless fig tree foreshadows the fate of wicked Jerusalem: the city will perish. In the second, Jesus invokes Jeremiah’s prophecy of the first Temple’s destruction (“But you have made [my Father’s house] a den of robbers”) in order to warn of coming disaster. As was true of the first Temple, God will do to the second Temple “just what [He] did to Shiloh” (Jeremiah 7:12-15). Every interpretive feature provided by the Synoptics thus orients the Temple Disturbance as a prophetic sign-act of doom.
The three Johannine details addressed above correspond surprisingly well to this picture. We can thus conclude with three points.
- Not only did the historical Jesus enact the destruction of the Temple by flipping over tables (Mark 11:15), he also crafted a symbolic leather whip to prefigure the brutality suffered by Jews at the hands of Roman armies in AD 70.
- The historical Jesus associated his action in the Temple not only with doom but also with restoration (cf. Zechariah 14, Psalm 69).
- In upsetting the Temple establishment the historical Jesus conceived of himself as the defender of God’s house and honor (cf. Psalm 69). He felt personally affronted by the Temple priests and traders but believed God would vindicate him for his zeal. This would be achieved through an act of divine judgement and realignment.
In the case of the Temple Disturbance then, John is of great historical worth.