When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?

Last Sunday’s scripture was John 2:13-22, Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. Careful readers of the gospels may wonder why John puts this event near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, while the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) place it near the end, during his Passion Week.

In the world of critical scholarship in which I was immersed for several years, this wasn’t even a question: since John cares little for historical accuracy, he places the pericope here to serve his thematic purposes. Here’s a typical explanation, from Candler professor Gail O’Day’s commentary on John:

It is unlikely that Jesus performed this bold act twice, so the two traditions probably narrate the same event. The synoptic chronology is the more historically reliable, because it is difficult to see how the Jewish religious authorities would have tolerated such a confrontational act at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. John moves the temple scene to the beginning of his Gospel because it serves a symbolic function for him. The temple cleansing in John completes the inaugural event begun with the Cana miracle. John 2:1-11 reveals the grace and glory of Jesus and the abundant new life Jesus offers. John 2:13-22 highlights the challenge and threat that new life poses to the existing order (cf. John 5:1-18).[1]

Many evangelical scholars take this position, too.

N.T. Wright, that rare evangelical who gets published by mainline publishers—including Abingdon, which published his Romans commentary alongside Dr. O’Day’s John commentary above—disagrees. Like O’Day, he thinks that the event happened once, only not near the end of Jesus’ ministry, but at the beginning. Since the Synoptics, unlike John, compress Jesus’ public ministry into a one-year rather than three-year period, they narrate this event near the end, not because that’s when it took place, but because that’s when they have Jesus in Jerusalem.

Few would deny that the four Evangelists arrange pericopes to suit their thematic purposes. This is consistent with Article XIII of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which says (emphasis mine):

WE DENY  that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.

Wright, who neither confirms nor denies that he is an inerrantist, says:

In favour of putting the incident at the beginning, as John does, is the fact that Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t have Jesus in Jerusalem at all during his adult life, so the final journey is the only place where it can happen. John, however, has Jesus going to and fro to Jerusalem a good deal through his short career. And if he had done something like this at the beginning, it would explain certain things very well: why, for instance, people came from Jerusalem to Galilee to check him out (e.g. Mark 3.22; 7.1), and why, when the high priest finally decided it was time to act, they already felt they had a case against him (John 11.47-53).[2]

The final alternative—and the more conservative one—is that the event took place twice—once at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and again two or three years later, near the end.

In his commentary on John, D.A. Carson doesn’t take a firm stand, but he’s unimpressed with arguments against the event’s occurring twice. First, he notes that critical scholarship’s skepticism about events occurring in doubles is based on speculative “just so” theories. Second, he writes:

[I]t is often argued that if Jesus had cleansed the temple once, the authorities would never have let him get away with it again. This is ingenuous. If there were two cleansings, they were separated by two years, possibly three. During that interval Jesus visited Jerusalem several times for other appointed festivals, without attempting another temple-cleansing. The authorities could not possibly be expected to keep their guard up against him indefinitely. If he was not arrested the first time, it may well be because a certain amount of public feeling sided with Jesus: is not that suggested by 2:23?

In short, it is not possible to resolve with certainty whether only one cleansing of the temple took place, or two; but the arguments for one are weak and subjective, while the most natural reading of the texts favours two. Meanwhile it is important to note (1) that a detail in John’s account of the temple-cleansing does not issue immediately in a conspiracy by the authorities to have him arrested and killed, for Jesus has not yet established his reputation, whereas the later cleansing reported in the Synoptics is presented more or less as one of the last straws that call down the wrath of the religious establishment.[3]

One final note: As if to give the lie to the idea that John’s gospel is less historical than the other three, please note that it is only John, in v. 19 (“Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’”), who narrates the event that led to a spurious charge reported only in the Synoptics: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands’” (Mark 14:58; Matthew 26:61). (Notice Jesus didn’t say, “I will destroy…” but that’s how rumors start.)

Did Mark and Matthew know where this rumor originated? We don’t know. But if they knew it was connected to the Temple-cleansing event that they report in their own gospels, why didn’t they say so when they reported it? This conspicuous omission lends credence to the idea that there was an earlier temple-cleansing.

1. Gail O’Day, “The Gospel of John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 543.

2. N.T. Wright, John for Everyone, Part One (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 25-6.

3. D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 178.

2 thoughts on “When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?”

  1. A similar “puzzler” is the “Sermon on the Mount” versus the “Sermon on the Plain” in Matthew and Luke. Some commentators say they must have been the same event despite notable differences in the statements made because of their “timing.” But why could Jesus not have spoken on the mountain to those there and then later on the same trip have spoken to a different group about similar but slightly different points in the same “trip”? Both the geographical references and the language of the two accounts would support that. In other words, the fact that similar things may have happened twice in Jesus’s ministry should not be considered a problem to conservative interpreters.

    1. Jesus probably preached that sermon on many occasions, not only twice! Why wouldn’t he? It’s so crucial to his mission and identity.

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