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JESUS AND THE MONEYCHANGERS

J.R. Hyland

Other relevant articles:
Against the Scholars -- Jesus' Opposition to Animal Sacrifice (again)

The Jesus Seminar Meets the Ebionites: Were the Ebionites a Legalistic Group?

Undergirding the theory that it was the cheating moneychangers whom Jesus targeted as the culprits in the system of animal sacrifice, is the claim that the whole process had become "too commercial." This is akin to claiming that the institution of slavery had to be dismantled because it had became too commercial. Although both Temple sacrifices and human slavery had a firm economic foundation, it was the inherent immorality of those systems that brought together the historical forces which finally led to their collapse.   

Several hundred years after prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea had denounced the sacrificial slaughter of animals, Jesus carried out what is euphemistically called the Cleansing of the Temple. It was just before Passover and he disrupted the buying and selling of animals that were being purchased for slaughter. (See article "Slaughter of The Innocent" www.HumaneReligion.org).  And because Christian scholars and religious leaders continue to ignore biblical denunciations of that bloody worship, they also try to obscure the reason for Christ's assault on the system.

They have done this by focusing on the moneychangers, although they were only minor players in the drama that took place. It was the cult of sacrifice that Jesus tried to dismantle, not the system of monetary exchange. In all three gospel accounts of the event, those who provided the animals for sacrifice are mentioned first: they were the primary focus of Christ's outrage.

The Gospel of John gives the most detailed account of the event. 

"When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the Temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords and drove all from the Temple, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said: 'Get out of here.' (John 2:13-16)

Matthew's gospel does not detail the kind of animals that were being sold for slaughter, but it gives the same order of events.

"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. '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.'" (Matthew 21:12-13)

The same account is given in the gospel of Mark who, like Matthew, also reports that Jesus accused those at the Temple of making God's house into a "den of robbers." And there is universal acknowledgement that in both gospels, when Jesus said this, he was quoting from the prophet Jeremiah (7:11). That prophet had hurled the same accusation at the people of his own time, almost six hundred years earlier. He said it while standing at the Temple entrance, after he had already warned the people "do not shed innocent blood in this place." And when Jeremiah said God's house had been turned into a den of robbers it could not have had anything to do with moneychangers--they did not exist in his time.

In the time of Jeremiah, as in the time of Jesus, there was a great distinction made between "robbers" and "thieves." In contemporary times that distinction can best be understood by comparing the crime of petty theft with crimes of armed robbery by those who violently attack/kill their victims. But in ancient Israel there was an even greater distinction. A thief could be anyone who succumbed to a momentary impulse to steal something, but a robber was someone for whom violent crime and killing was a lifestyle.

Both Jesus and Jeremiah were indignant about the violence of sacrificial worship, not the possibility of petty theft by moneychangers. When they said God's house had become a den of "robbers" the Hebrew word that was used (here, transliterated) was "per-eets'" defined as "violent, i.e., a tyrant--destroyer, ravenous, robber." It was the violence of the system, the killing of innocent victims in the name of God, that they were condemning. The moneychangers operating in the time of Jesus were driven out of the Temple because they were taking part in the process of sacrificial religion, not because they may have been cheating the pilgrims.

The gospel of Mark correlates Christ's attempt to dismantle the sacrificial system with the plot to kill him. Like Matthew's gospel, Mark's account of the Temple Cleansing starts by saying that Jesus "began driving out those who were buying and selling there." It goes on to relate how he explained to the people why he was doing this, by quoting Jeremiah's opposition to animal sacrifice: "My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations. But you have made it a 'den of robbers.'" And in the verse of scripture immediately following that statement, Mark reports that "The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard about this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him because the whole crowd was amazed at his teachings."(Mark 11:18)

It is ridiculous to claim that the religious leaders of Christ's time would have plotted his death because he undermined the function of the moneychangers. Nor would the crowd have been "amazed at his teachings" if Jesus was simply telling them to make sure they were not short-changed when they purchased Temple coins. What the people were amazed at was his condemnation of animal sacrifice; it had been hundreds of years since that kind of condemnation had been heard in Jerusalem. And it would not be allowed. A few days after he tried to overthrow the cult of animal sacrifice, Jesus was crucified. The religious leaders of his time were determined to preserve the belief that it had been ordained by God, who demanded its continuance.

That determination is echoed in the teachings of contemporary Christian leaders. In spite of Jesus, and in spite of the many biblical denunciations of animal sacrifice (*see endnote) they continue to maintain the ancient fiction that it was God who demanded His creatures be killed and butchered as an act of worship.

It is understandable that in the time of Jesus the religious leaders were committed to upholding the system of Temple sacrifice at all costs: it was the center around which their lives revolved and their livelihood depended. And in biblical times, most people were illiterate and dependant on what their religious leaders taught them concerning the scriptures. But it is not easy to understand why contemporary Christians uphold the validity of the cult of animal sacrifice. In an age of widespread literacy, there is a choice to be made. The bible clearly presents an ongoing conflict between those forces that demanded sacrificial victims in the name of God, and those forces that opposed it as a man-made perversion.

And because there is a choice to be made, it is deeply disturbing to see Christian leaders joining hands across the centuries with their ancient counterparts, in order to validate a system of worship in which the house of God became a giant slaughterhouse, awash in the blood of its victims.

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*Partial list of scriptures opposing animal sacrifice.
Psalm 40:6
Isaiah 1:11-17;
Jeremiah 7:3-7,11,21-25
Hosea 8:11-13,
Amos 5:21-25
Micah 6:6-8

Copyright 2002, Viatoris Ministries