Another Look at the “Cleansing of the Temple” Story

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Based on archaeological excavations near the southern wall of the temple, the research of Shmuel Safrai, and a nuance of the Hebrew verb that is one of the equivalents for Greek ekballein (drive out, banish; throw out; throw away, reject; cast out of a place, expel; remove, get rid of; put out), it may be necessary to reinterpret the gospel accounts of Jesus' "cleansing" of the temple, even suggesting a different location for Jesus' action.

Revised: 4-Nov-2012

“And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold.” (Luke 19:45; RSV)

Based on archaeological excavations near the southern wall of the temple, the research of Shmuel Safrai, and a nuance of the Hebrew verb that is one of the equivalents for Greek ἐκβάλλειν (ekballein; drive out, banish; throw out; throw away, reject; cast out of a place, expel; remove, get rid of; put out), it may be necessary to reinterpret the gospel accounts of Jesus’ “cleansing” of the temple (Matt. 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46; John 2:13-16), even suggesting a different location for Jesus’ action.

On the face of it, εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὸ ἱερόν (eiselthein eis to hieron; Matt. 21:12; Mark 11:15; Luke 19:45) should mean “enter [one of the courts of] the temple,” perhaps the outer court, the Court of the Gentiles. However, since monetary transactions and other commercial activities were not permitted in the temple—not even in the Court of the Gentiles, into which non-Jews were allowed to go—in this context, “temple” probably refers to the area surrounding the temple platform, particularly the area immediately south of the Huldah Gates, those monumental gates that served as the entrance and exit for temple pilgrims. In rabbinic sources this area, or even the whole of Jerusalem, could be called “the temple.”[1]  True, the Greek ekballein can mean “drive out”; but assuming the vendors and money changers conducted their business outside the temple, “drive out” is puzzling.

In this aerial view of the temple mount from the south, almost the whole of the mount’s southern support wall is visible. South of this ancient retaining wall excavations were conducted beginning in 1968. In these excavations, archaeologist discovered scores of mikva’ot. Photograph by Todd Bolen. Photo © BiblePlaces.com

Although not the most common Hebrew equivalent for ekballein, Robert L. Lindsey suggested that the Hebrew verb הוֹצִיא (hotsi; take out, bring out) underlies ekballein. If so, then ekballein might not imply violence, but only have the sense “take aside” or “pull off to the side”: Inviting the temple merchants out of their shops, Jesus took them aside (or, took them out of the area) to rebuke them. Jesus may not have used force, but rather castigated the sellers by skillfully combining texts of Scripture: “‘My house is a house of prayer’ [Isa 56:7], but you have turned it into ‘a den of thieves’ [Jer. 7:11].”

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  • [1] The “temple” was not only the temple proper; but also the temple complex, including its commercial areas. Even Jerusalem is sometimes called “the temple” in Jewish sources: “As time passed, the Rabbis taught that the sanctity of the temple applied, in great degree, to the entire city of Jerusalem” (Shmuel Safrai, “Early Testimonies in the New Testament of Laws and Practices Relating to Pilgrimage and Passover”: 8-9 [forthcoming]).

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David N. Bivin

David N. Bivin
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David N. Bivin is founder and editor of Jerusalem Perspective. A native of Cleveland, Oklahoma, U.S.A., Bivin has lived in Israel since 1963, when he came to Jerusalem on a Rotary Foundation Fellowship to do postgraduate work at the Hebrew University. He studied at the Hebrew…
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