Few stories about Jesus are more misunderstood than his clearing of the temple.
On the one hand, many people see the act, and the cursing of the fig tree which accompanies it, as little more than a burst of anger, seemingly unworthy of a great teacher and model like Jesus. The noted atheist Bertland Russel accused Jesus of “vindictive fury” against the tree, and felt it tarnished his reputation.
On the other hand, many Christians interpret the clearing of the temple as Jesus’ assault on the financial corruption of the temple authorities, or as a warning not to commercialize holy ground.
Both these viewpoints are mistaken. Jesus did not act in a fit of rage, but with great foresight and meaning. And his point was not to warn against commercializing religion, but to judge “temple religion”. I will attempt to prove both these points by examining the context, the actions of Jesus, and the words of Jesus (especially his two Old Testament quotations) from Mark’s account (in Mark 11:1-12:12).
Chapter 11 begins a new division in the book of Mark; Jesus arrive in Jerusalem for the passion week, and the rest of the book is set in that city (and especially in the temple). Here is the flow of the narrative”
- 11:1-10 The Triumphal entry
- 11:11 Jesus examines the temple and its activities
- 11:12-14 The next morning Jesus curses the fig tree
- 11:15-19 Jesus clears the temple
- 11:20-21 The fig tree is seen and it has withered
- 11:20-26 Jesus teaches on prayer (and speaks of moving “this mountain”)
- 11:27-33 Jesus and the Jewish leaders argue Jesus’ authority to “do this”.
- 12:1-12 Jesus gives the parable of the vineyard and the tenants, denouncing the Jewish leaders.
It’s rather obvious that Jesus’ action at the temple is the central theme of this section; the way Mark sandwiches it between the two sections on the fig tree clearly links the two events together. Neither can be understood apart from the other.
The Clearing of the Temple
We will start, then, with the clearing, and work out from there. Mark 11:17 says:
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area 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, 16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 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.
18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.
We should note the following things:
- The passage says nothing about Jesus being in a rage. He used a corded whip to move the animals (who are notoriously bad at listening to reason) not to attack people (the Romans would have gotten involved if that had happened).
- The emphasis is what on Jesus stopped: he stopped, for a day anyway, the buying and selling of animals which were used for the temple sacrifices and he stopped the conversion of money that was used for the temple offering. In other words, Jesus temporarily (and symbolically) ended the Temple operations.
- The text emphasizes twice the teaching element of the scene; the temple authorities were not upset at some sort of violence on Jesus’ part, but the meaning of his action.
- Jesus, in explaining his action, cites two texts from the prophets. The first (from Isaiah 56) describes what the temple was designed to be (a house of prayer for all nations, not just Jews) and what it had actually become (a den of thieves).
- Jesus returns to the idea of prayer again in verses 22-25. Here we see that prayer can move “this mountain” (in context, the temple mount) into the sea. We also see that prayer is dependent, not on location (that is, at the temple) but on faith and forgiveness.
It becomes clear, then, that Jesus is taking action against the temple itself, and is not just upset that some people are buying in the temple courtyards. Why? The answer is explained in the two passages from the prophets that Jesus quotes to explain and justify his actions. The first is from Isaiah 56:
6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord
to serve him,
to love the name of the Lord,
and to worship him,
all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it
and who hold fast to my covenant—
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.”
8 The Sovereign Lord declares—
he who gathers the exiles of Israel:
“I will gather still others to them
besides those already gathered.”
Here the emphasis is clear: the temple is a place where God intends to draw “foreigners” and “all nations” to Himself. He will thereby gather other nations to Himself, besides those He has already gathered (Israel).
But this was not what was happening in the temple. In fact, a stone partition, a “dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14-17) kept foreigners out of the main part of the temple, on pain of death. Instead of being a place where they could come and pray and worship Yahweh, it was now a painful reminder of their distance from Him.
The second quotation is even more damning. To understand what is meant by “den of thieves” we need to read the words in their context in Jeremiah 7:
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 “Stand at the gate of the Lord’s house and there proclaim this message:
“ ‘Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the Lord. 3 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. 4 Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” 5 If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever. 8 But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.
9 “ ‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? 11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord.
12 “ ‘Go now to the place in Shiloh where I first made a dwelling for my Name, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel. 13 While you were doing all these things, declares the Lord, I spoke to you again and again, but you did not listen; I called you, but you did not answer. 14 Therefore, what I did to Shiloh I will now do to the house that bears my Name, the temple you trust in, the place I gave to you and your fathers. 15 I will thrust you from my presence, just as I did all your brothers, the people of Ephraim.’
This passage is a judgment against the people for misusing and perverting the temple. In particular, they were viewing it as some sort of talisman against God’s wrath, as if they could do whatever they wanted (steal, murder, commit adultery) and still be safe because they had “the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord”. This gives background to the meaning of “den of robbers”. The point is that the den is where the robbers return after they have stolen, and find (they think) safety. The robbers are not robbing the den, but using the den as a safe house. So the condemnation of Jesus in the temple is not that the money changers were robbing the people, but that the religious authorities (and, no doubt, many of the common people) felt they could do whatever they wanted to do and yet they would be safe from God’s judgement because they had the temple. In that way, it had indeed become a “den of robbers”, a safe house for thieves.
Jesus then, quotes this passage from Jeremiah which announces that God will destroy the temple because of their perversion. If this seemed unthinkable, God reminds them that he let the tabernacle be destroyed in Shiloh. He is not bound by any building.
From the rest of the New Testament, we see that the temple is no longer needed because Jesus has fulfilled the symbolism of the temple, and, through His Spirit, has now reconnected his followers to God in a more profound way than the temple could ever afford; this is why he talks about our access to God in prayer in verses 22-25. Jesus stopped, temporarily and symbolically, that which He would soon stop completely.
The cleansing of the temple, then, is not a fit of rage, but “an acted parable” of the sort common to the prophets. We should view the cursing of the fig tree in the same light. It is also an acted parable, describing God’s anger at Israel’s unrighteousness. It also carries a warning to us.
The Cursing of the Fig Tree
As we have seen, the action about the fig tree sandwiches the temple clearing incident, and thus is closely related to it. Verses 12:-14 describe the first part:
12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
To explain the background, I will quote from the James Edwards in the Pillar New Testament Commentary (one of the best series, in my opinion):
After the fig harvest from mid-August to mid-October, the branches of fig trees sprout buds that remain undeveloped throughout the winter. These buds swell into small green knops known in Hebrew as paggim in March–April, followed shortly by the sprouting of leaf buds on the same branches, usually in April. The fig tree thus produces fig knops before it produces leaves. Once a fig tree is in leaf one therefore expects to find branches loaded with paggim in various stages of maturation. This is implied in 11:13, where Jesus, seeing a fig tree in full foliage, turns aside in hopes of finding something edible. In the spring of the year the paggim are of course not yet ripened into mature summer figs, but they can be eaten, and often are by natives (Hos 9:10; Cant 2:13). The tree in v. 13, however, turns out to be deceptive, for it is green in foliage, but when Jesus inspects it he finds no paggim; it is a tree with the signs of fruit but with no fruit.
The most puzzling part of the brief narrative of the cursing of the fig tree is the end of 11:13, “because it was not the season of figs.” This phrase is usually understood to exonerate the tree for not producing fruit since it was not yet the season. Understood as such, the phrase makes Jesus’ curse vindictive and irrational . . .But this is neither the only nor the best way to understand the phrase. It is better simply to distinguish between mature figs (Gk. sykē; Heb. te’enim) and early or unripe figs (Heb. paggim). The end of v. 13 might be paraphrased, “It was, of course, not the season for figs, but it was for paggim.”
In narrating the episode of Jesus and the fig tree Mark exploits its symbolic import, seeing in the curse of the tree the fate of Jerusalem and the temple. The prophets had often used the fig tree as a symbol of judgment (Isa 34:4; Jer 29:17; Hos 2:12; 9:10; Joel 1:7; Mic 7:1). In a scathing denunciation of Judah, Jeremiah says, “There will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither” (8:13). Jesus, according to Luke (13:6–9), had in fact told a parable with the same image and point. Like the prophets who had on occasion dramatized a particularly trenchant message by action (Isa 20:1–6; Jer 13:1–11; 19:1–13; Ezek 4:1–13), Jesus dramatizes the end of the temple by an enacted parable. The leafy fig tree, with all its promise of fruit, is as deceptive as the temple, which, despite its religious commerce and activity, is really an outlaws’ hideout (v. 17). The curse of the fig tree is a symbol of God’s judgment of the temple.3
I think this is exactly right, and in line with the most ancient interpretation of the passage. The earliest commentary on the Gospel of Mark is by Victor of Antioch in the fifth century. Victor understood the event as an enacted parable, in which the cursing of the fig tree symbolized the judgment to befall Jerusalem.
This theme of judgment because of the lack of expected fruit is amplified in the section which ends this division of Mark, the parable of the vineyard:
He then began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. 2 At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. 3 But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 4 Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. 5 He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.
6 “He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’
7 “But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 8 So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.
9 “What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. 10 Haven’t you read this scripture:
“ ‘The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone;
11 the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
12 Then they looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away.
We must be thick indeed not to get the meaning of this parable after all the above. It fits in exactly the context preceding. After two enacted parables (the fig tree and the temple) Jesus finally gives an oral parable, with the same message of judgment on God’s people (especially the leaders) because they have not produced righteous fruit.
A Conclusion and a Warning
The conclusion is this: Jesus did not “lose it” in a fit of rage when he cursed the fig tree and cleared the temple. He, like the prophets before Him, enacted parables of judgment and warning. He did this, moreover, at the beginning of the passion week, where he had come “to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45). The followers of Jesus, like blind Bartimaeus (10:46-52) are given new vision by trusting in Jesus. They no longer need the temple and its regulations; they now have access to God by Jesus, and exercise that access by faith in prayer (11:22-25).
But implicit in all this is a warning: God expects His people to grow in righteousness, not use their religion to cover up their sins. Not that we would ever do that today…
By the way, here is N.T. Wright on the meaning of the temple clearing: