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…
…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…
* 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.
Posted on June 22, 2011, in Conflict and Nonviolence, New Testament and tagged Cleansing of the Temple, Jesus, John 2:13-17, John 2:15, Nonviolence, Violence, Whip of Cords, Whipping. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.