who would jesus whip? the temple cleansing episode

A recent conversation with a good friend left us in square disagreement about the validity of violence for Christians.

My perspective, which I have frequently made known on this blog, was that violence was out of the question for Christians. Indeed, even if one were to accept that God commanded violence in the Old Testament (most do, I am not so sure…), we must take seriously Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:38-39a:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not (violently*) resist the one who is evil.

My friend responded by stating that he thought Jesus was violent; in the story of the cleansing of the temple Jesus seems to act violently when he fashions a whip, which is unique to John’s version:

The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” (John 2:13-17)

So is my friend right? Was Jesus really violent in this episode? Did he really lash out at people in a harmful way?

I suppose there could be a whole debate around the question of what violence actually constitutes. Is all force to be considered violent? What about threats? Such a semantic debate, however, must be reserved for another time.

Moving back to John’s Gospel, let us begin to interpret this verse with a consideration of the Greek grammar and words involved.

Some English translations (KJV, CEV, MSG, NASB, NKJV, NLT) translate John 2:15 as having the equivalent meaning as the ESV quoted above, namely that Jesus constructed a whip of cords and drove all the people out of the temple, as well as the sheep and oxen.

Other translations such as the ASV, GNB, NCV, RV and NIV offer an alternative reading. Here is what the NIV** says:

So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.

Interesting. According to this translation Jesus did not use the whip against people, but used it solely to drive out the animals.

But which reading is correct? At this point we need our Greek. John 2:15 reads as:

kai poiēsas phragellion ek schoiniōn pantas exebalen ek tou ierou ta te probata kai tous boas kai tōn kollubistōn execheen ta kermata kai tas trapezas anestrepsen…***

(Prepare to get technical for a few sentences…) The key word here is that little te, as it defines who the pantas (“all”) are. Te is generally used as either an appending link (“and”), or an inclusive prefix (“both”). Thus the sentence could read either:

…he drove all out of the temple, and the sheep and the oxen…

or:

…he drove all out of the temple, both the sheep and the oxen…

The first option makes more sense of the fact that pantas is in the masculine gender (so Morris, Witherington and the majority of modern Western scholars). The second option makes more sense of the te/kai construction, which could be summarised as meaning “both … and”; this is used reasonably often in the New Testament (around 35 times I believe).

Both readings are possible, and so the Greek is relatively unclear.^ (If you didn’t understand any of that, don’t worry too much.)

I opt for the latter (nonviolent Jesus) reading, though this is not because I wish to twist Jesus into being nonviolent when he is not (one may need to consider accusing the NIV translators of the same thing…).

To begin with the gender argument is rather loose,^^ as C.H. Dodd has argued.^^^

Moreover the first reading makes little narrative sense in that Jesus scolds the dove sellers subsequent to his whip-cracking; he has hardly expelled “all” from the temple courts if they are left standing there.

In conjunction with this point is the fact that the temple court was a massive space – 300m wide by 450m long – and it is unlikely that John’s account of Jesus driving everyone out is historically true, for this would have been an impossible task. That John recorded such a detail and expected his audience to digest it would be strange if he were referring to Jesus expelling the people and not merely the animals. This is of course unless all his audience were completely ignorant of the temple, which is unlikely.

It also makes more narrative sense if Jesus has sent the animals running rather than people. After all, Jesus’ next action is to send the money sprawling – he scatters the capital of the money-changers, and it isn’t hard to see the dispersing of the animals as a parallel scattering of “capital”. In other words, the animals and the money are equivalents representing temple currency.

Additionally it is unlikely that Jesus’ whip was anything significant, let alone a scourge like those used by the Romans. We must remember that weapons were banned from the temple, and this would explain why Jesus fashioned a whip while already inside. A whip of cords (or “ropes”*^) was likely small, such as those used in animal farming, as opposed to warfare.

In the end there is no definite answer to such an unclear verse and such an ambiguous Greek construction. All things considered, however, I am far more convinced by the reading:

…and making a whip out of cords he drove all out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned the tables…

This would leave Jesus free from violent action, a picture far more consistent with his other teachings, such as Matthew 5:38-39. Hopefully these rough thoughts help someone out, or expose people to a reading of John 2:15 that they have not yet considered.

I suppose if all else fails we could default to “do unto others”, right? I’m pretty sure Jesus wasn’t saying “bring it on!” as he was being scourged prior to his crucifixion…

MCA


* Though there are no English Bible translations that render the Greek antistēnai (“resist”) as “violently resist”, this is the most common meaning of the word. Indeed, antistēnai was a military term; out of 71 uses in the Greek Old Testament, 44 refer to military encounters (“rise against” type of language). In Mark 15:7 and Luke 23:19, 25 antistēnai refers to Barabbas’ murderous involvement in the “insurrection”, while Acts 19:40 describes the townspeople of Ephesus being in danger of being charged with antistēnai, rendered “rioting”. In any case Matthew 5:38-39 supports the rejection of violent action – either by doormat pacifism (do not resist evil at all), or by active nonviolent resistance (do not violently resist evil i.e. resist evil by other means); it is just a matter of what kind of resistance Christians are allowed to engage in.
** The GNB is more forthright; “So he made a whip from cords and drove all the animals out of the Temple, both the sheep and the cattle…” The Good News Translation is, however, not a good example due to the nature of its purpose – it is a simple translation allegedly designed for people who speak English as a second language. For this reason it cannot be said to be the most accurate translation (much like the Message). It does, however, serve its purpose well.
*** I am transliterating all Greek into English characters so that people unfamiliar with Greek can still follow along if they wish. The Greek sentence is καὶ ποιήσας φραγέλλιον ἐκ σχοινίων πάντας ἐξέβαλεν ἐκ τοῦ ἱεροῦ τά τε πρόβατα καὶ τοὺς βόας, καὶ τῶν κολλυβιστῶν ἐξέχεεν τὰ κέρματα καὶ τὰς τραπέζας ἀνέστρεψεν…
^ Leon Morris concedes the “te … kai” construction should mean “both … and”, though he concludes the violent Jesus meaning of John 2:15 is correct overall because of the gender of pantas. It seems an odd choice to forego the obviousness of the meaning of the “te … kai” construction in favour of an apparently more “natural” reading.
^^ The sheep are neuter in gender, but the cattle are masculine; which should John have used for panta? After all, he needed to pick one of the genders…
^^^ C.H. Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 156 n.3.
*^ In Acts 27:32 the same word (schoiniōn) refers to ropes on a ship.

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Posted on June 22, 2011, in Conflict and Nonviolence, New Testament and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. Hey Matt,
    Thanks for this post. I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog and appreciate your perspective on a number of issues, particularly this one, as your view is quite different to mine.
    My question (not a trick one I should point out) is how you reconcile the image of the non-violent Jesus of the Gospels with the recurrently violent image of Him portrayed in Revelation?
    Here is an example of what I’m talking about…

    Revelation 19:11
    “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war.” (NIV)

    My point is that if Jesus’ character is one of non-violent resistance, must that not consistently be His character throughout the ages? Are you arguing that He is specifically calling us to model His non-violent attitude demonstrated in the Gospels but ignore (or at least disregard for the moment) His violent responses in other parts of the Bible (in a Deuteronomy 32:35 sense)?

    This certainly gets back to your point about what constitutes violence. I definitely read a correlation between Jesus’ violence and His perfect justice…an aspect that we certainly lack.
    This may be a subject for another post, but would love to know your thoughts.
    j.

    • Hi Josh,

      Good to hear from you. How is the land of the Kiwi?

      I really LOVE this question! With your permission I’d love to use it as a new Q&R post topic. I feel like others will have similar questions, and I cannot do justice to it hidden away in the comments section.

      Matt

      • Hey Matt,
        Currently Wellington is windy and wet…no surprises really.
        Yep no probs, go for it.
        Talk soon bro,
        j.

  2. Hey Matt,
    Thanks for taking the time to write your thoughts in this post. I agree that violence will not provide long term solutions to the issues facing our world – nor is it the example given to us in the life of Jesus. I had the privilege of meeting an Iranian Pastor last week who shared his testimony about his encounter with the love of Christ. Prior to his conversion he was the head of a well known extremist group which was full of violence fuelled by hatred. As he shared about the transformation in his own life I understood that the use of violence against violence will never penetrate the deep hatred in someone’s heart. His personal testimony was a great affirmation of your more recent post citing Ched Myers on June 16.

    If violence is a God given right for a Christian to protect their faith, then who and what are we protecting it from? Is it our enemy? Who is our enemy? Was it Osama Bin Laden? Now he is dead is it someone else that we feel threatened by? The bible tells us that our enemy is not flesh and blood (Ephesians 5:12). Our enemy is anything that sets itself against God’s creation.

    Despite the incredible backlash Brother Andrew received from many Christians in the West when he made contact with the Hamas in their time of need, God uses him powerfully to proclaim the Good News to those whom many Christians in the West would rather see dead. Here is a snippet of an Open Doors interview given by Andrew on January 6, 2009.

    ‘God opened up doors for us to go into the most dangerous madrasa (Koran school) which there is: the one of Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan. And believe it or not, I was allowed to speak there openly about the love of God and about his Son Jesus. Just remember, these are people who after their studies of the Koran are drafted into the Taliban or Al Qaida. They insist that next time we should bring more Bibles. And this all happens because we have exchanged our vision of enemies for obedience to Jesus. We go with the Bible and a message of hope to people who are our enemies, and resolve to love them. For this is what Jesus told us to do, “Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you.” And what happens then…? Suddenly they are not your enemies anymore, but your friends. We are asked to take the step of faith of seeing our fellow man (even if he is threatening us with a machine gun) as someone for whom Christ died. Even Bin Laden is the object of God’s love. How I would like to meet this man! I would give him a Bible and tell him about the only solution for him and all his fighters, and for his opponents.’

    It is stories like this that bring me to a place of questioning my own capacity to love. I have often asked myself the question, what stops me from expressing Gods love toward others? How often did I pray for Bin Laden? Isn’t this the weapon of warfare that I read about in the New Testament? Would I be so bold as to love someone who could take my life? If I am honest with myself, more often than not my capacity to love is limited by my own selfish desire for comfort.
    Jen

  3. Perhaps we need to take note from this passage and ensure our churches are not houses of trade – and that our ministries are not services of chattel.

  4. Thank you for your thoughts about Jesus. It is rather hard to find thoughts which stick to the subject of Jesus, without straying the subject into narcissistic self-help. I’m sure this event caused a riot at a time when upwards of 100,000 people had swelled the city for Passover. I like to meditate on this with common sense: How would you drive oxen from a building courtyard; with a fly swatter? How would you cause a stampede of hundreds of sheep to go in the opposite direction? Even if He didn’t whip the Pharisees and other people in the Temple, they would have been terrified that He would. They couldn’t do anything about it. They couldn’t arrest Him because of His popularity. This event could have been the culmination of His frustrations with ‘sacrifices’. Nevertheless, He did what He saw the Holy Spirit doing, and said what the Holy Spirit would have Him to say, as always.

    • Thanks for your kind comment dar. On a completely different note, I like your blog. Do you think I could have permission to use some of those images for my posts in the future?

  5. So you are saying Jesus won’t wield a whip om any human (for scare of being branded Violent???) but would cast a soul into an eternal lake of fire?

    Get real man,

  6. I find it impossible to imagine that poor people were surrounded by animals and money flying around and that chaos trying to gather them did not ensue. And these were mostly animals and money from greedy, cheating money exchangers who people would not have been prone to help.

    Also, Jesus was furious at the money changers defiling his Father’s house, not ALL the people. So that offers reinforcement to the idea he didn’t drive out literally everyone.

    I think if Jesus came back right now and did the equivalent, say disrupted Henry Kissinger or another War Criminal’s memorial at the National Cathedral or The White House by causing a stampede (maybe a harmless smoke bomb), he would be America’s next political prisoner on death row.

  7. Hi there. I came across this post while doing research for a Bible study.
    I led a small group on this study last week, and someone suggested that the whip was intended for the animals. As an unblemished animal was required for the sacrifice, for Jesus to make small lesions on the animals’ backs with a whip would make them unfit for sacrifice. As such, Jesus is dismantling the temple traders’ ability to make profit, while not doing either the animals or people any significant or lasting violence.

    Have you ever heard this interpretation before? I have grown up attending church, and just completed an M.Div, but this was an entirely fresh perspective for me.

  8. I can tell you he did drive out the merchants with their livestock because I know how much livestock is worth! A whole lot!

    This was not some made up story with actors that just sat there as their livestock were being whipped and scattered. He drove them out and then gave the dove merchants a good talking to.

    Plus the word “whip” is coming from Greek and Latin “flog”, that is for flogging men.

    In the big picture there are souls that Jesus is going to cast into the lake of fire.

    And, Luke Chapter 12 tells us that “The Lord’s” servants are going to be beaten with stripes, some many, and some few.

    Did it ever cross your mind that there are those that just genuinely want to live in peace and without sin. And that sometimes peacekeepers have to stop these evil doers.

    Did it ever cross your mind that there are demon posessed individuals on Earth that genuinely just want to kill you.

    Did it ever cross your mind that it makes God sad when good people are raped by evildoers.

    And yes I believe the gospel message is endeavor to be peaceful. “Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Ephesians Chapter 4

    “Blessed are the peacekeepers.” Christ said that.

    I am Joseph Baker Davis, author of “Caught up with the Holy Spirit! Hebrew and Greek Root words in Scripture.”

    And I helped to compile a frighteningly truthful creation science website

    ancientpit.webs.com

    I worship the same Jehovah of the Old Testament that has saved me from sin! The same Jehovah that gave the Israelite’s the authority to claim the Holy Land from the unholy pagans! I am a Gentile convert with tattoos and believe I am forgiven! I believe that Jesus only ate clean meat, and you have been totally misled once again if you heard otherwise. You can grasp the one true gospel message when you stop being so prideful, and take the time to humble yourselves, and learn, and read the Holy Bible in it’s original form of Hebrew and Greek. What denomination am I? What denomination does this Bible of ours say I am?

    Jesus’ own words, “had ye believed Moses ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me. But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?”

    “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

    Stop living in half truths and someone else’s translation that is full of hypocrisies, lies, and ignorance. As in ignore.

    Thank you, and have a good day.

  9. Yes and I just found that the 3 other gospels of Matthew Mark and Luke do say he drove out the people. That simple.

    Matt 21:12 (NIV) Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “`My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a `den of robbers.'”

    Mark 11:15 (NIV) 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.

    Luke 19:45 (NIV) Then he entered the temple area and began driving out those who were selling. 46 “It is written,” he said to them, “`My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it `a den of robbers.'” 47 Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him.

    John 2:13 (NIV) When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

  10. Thank you for this. It bothers me how much people use this verse to justify all types of violence in direct contrast to Jesus’ teaching. It always seemed obvious to me that Jesus wasn’t whipping people.

    1. What is the purpose of a whip? Look at the history and function of whips. Whips were primarily used for driving animals. That’s basically what they are for. How else are you going to get livestock out of the temple? People want to say that Jesus talked to the animals and whipped the people? I don’t buy it.

    2. Why would Jesus whip the people out? Do people believe that Jesus overpowered the crowd in the temple by his physical strength? It was his authority. If someone was willing to resist his words, surely they could resist a whip.

    3. Isaiah 53:9 “And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.”

    Isaiah 42:1-3 “Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles. He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street. A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth.”

    John 18:36 “Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.”

    My personal belief: Jesus never lied and he didn’t do violence while he walked the earth.

    4. Mark 14:55,56 “And the chief priests and all the council sought for witness against Jesus to put him to death; and found none. For many bare false witness against him, but their witness agreed not together.” If Jesus physically beat a temple full of people, wouldn’t some of them have come forward and said so? If he had caused them any injury, it would have easy to find plenty of agreement on that point. If he somehow beat them without injury, then why do people use this text to justify hurting and killing humans?

    • The whip Jesus made was a “scourge”, a type of whip only used on human beings…

      It’s unfortunate that we are so willing to project our own 21st century Western timidity onto Jesus.

  11. Jesus cleaning the temple was a miracle.Since archeologists have chairs from that time we know no one could take a cord or cords and use it or them as a whip.Only the son of God could have upset those tables by himself.

  1. Pingback: q&r: jesus and violence in the book of revelation « life.remixed

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