Some people use the Gospel story about Christ expelling merchants from the Jerusalem temple to substantiate the thesis that a believer has the right to forcefully crack down on those who offend his religious feelings. And others believe that this episode is about the fact that there should not be church shops in churches. In doing so, important details regarding the situation described in the Gospel are often overlooked. Let’s try to figure out what really happened then in Jerusalem.
The most detailed episode with the expulsion of those that sold from the temple is described by the apostle John. Here’s how his story sounds: Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: and when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables; and said unto them that sold doves, take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise (John 2:13-16).
In what temple did all this happen?
This episode is not about such a structure, which we usually imagine today, hearing the word “temple” or “church”. In fact, the Jerusalem Temple was a city in the city – with many buildings and courtyards.
It was a grandiose construction, one of the wonders of the world, which became especially magnificent after it was rebuilt and expanded many times by the Jewish King Herod the Great (those works were more or less completed just before the birth of Jesus Christ). It was not only the temple building itself that underwent reconstruction, which was enlarged and covered with white stone, gold and silver; the space around it was also changed. Around the temple, high walls were erected, inside of which service premises were located; from the inside, galleries were attached to them, in which service goods were sold.
Outside, behind the south wall, there was the so-called court – a huge stone-paved square with fountains. Here, unlike the territory inside the walls and, of course, unlike the temple building itself, access was open to all comers, even to pagans. So this court over time and started to be called – The Court of the Gentiles.
It was intended mainly for the sale of sacrificial animals.
What’s a sacrificial animal?
Sacrifice was, in fact, the main part of the worship in the Jerusalem Temple. If a Jew committed a sin or wanted to thank God for some blessing, he should, according to Old Testament law, sacrifice a lamb, a baby goat, an ox, or, in extreme cases (if the person was poor), a pigeon. Most importantly, the animal must have been male and without any flaw or vice: they sacrificed the best to God, and not just anything.
They gave the animal or bird to the priest, he examined them to make sure that they were suitable for sacrifice, and then stabbed and burned it on the temple altar – in whole or in part. After the ritual was performed, sin was considered to be redeemed, and gratitude – accepted. After all, a man made an effort, parted with something valuable (and livestock was very highly valued at that time) in order to maintain or restore a relationship of mutual trust with God.
It is quite obvious that the event that the evangelists tell, and in particular John, did not take place inside the temple building, without saying about the Holy of Holies of the temple (no one except the priests dared to enter there even on pain of death), but outside – on that very The Court of the Gentiles. This court was part of the temple complex and was also called a part of the temple, but only in a broad sense. The fact that they sold sacrificial animals there was quite normal. It is clear that this was not the reason of wrath of Jesus Christ.
What then revolted Christ, if not the fact of trade in the temple?
On great Jewish holidays, such as Passover, thousands of visitors flocked to Jerusalem. Most of all, these were Jews, who in ordinary times lived in dispersal, far from Jerusalem – in Rome, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, etc. They did not have the opportunity to bring sacrificial animals with them, so they bought them already on the spot, in Jerusalem. The temple aristocracy, led by the high priest, took advantage of this to turn the temple sale of sacrificial animals into a highly profitable business.
It should be recalled that by the time of the Nativity of Christ, Judea had actually lost state independence and was one of the outlying provinces of the Roman Empire. The Roman garrison was located in Jerusalem, the Jews were obliged to pay tribute to the Roman emperor (it was collected by the “compounders” – publicans – despised by the Jewish patriots), and, of course, here, as everywhere in the empire, denarius – Roman coin – was used.
There was one problem with that denarius: it depicted the profile of the Roman emperor – Caesar. We remember this in the Gospel well: when Christ was once asked whether to pay tribute to Caesar or not, He asked to be reminded of whose image is on the denarius. When they answered “Caesar’s,” He said: Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s (Matthew 22:21).
The Moses’ Law categorically forbade worshipping to images, and on this basis the high priests forbade the use of Roman denarius in the temple. For trade operations in the temple territory, they introduced a special temple currency – the sacred shekels*, the very ones that the Jews paid the temple fee with.
* The sheqel (or modern shekel) in ancient times was a measure of the weight of precious metals – silver and gold, borrowed by the Jews from the Phoenicians. During the earthly life of Christ, the silver shekel weighing just over 11 grams was the standard unit of monetary calculations.
Remember how, in the Gospel of Matthew, collectors of this tax ask the apostle Peter to fulfill his religious duty and to bring the two didrachmas* to the temple treasury – for himself and for the Master?
*Didrachma – a Roman silver coin in denominations of two drachmae, was equated with a half-sheqel and was accepted as payment of the temple tax for one person.
And how does Christ upon knowing this, tells Peter to catch a fish, take a coin – stater * – from her mouth and give them for both?
* Statir, or tetradrachma – a coin in denominations of four drachmae, was equated to one sacred sheqel.
So, the high priests established a rule: all trading operations in the temple are performed exclusively in temple currency. And they organized an exchange of dinarius (as well as other money) for this special currency – in that very The Court of the Gentiles. Only this temple money went into business when priests checked bought animals. And these exchange transactions were carried out with a commission that amounted to almost two-thirds of the exchange amount! This order was extremely beneficial to the temple aristocracy. It was their hands that took all the profits from the exchange of money and from subsequent financial transactions with gold.
Another abuse related to the functioning of the temple currency was already described in the 4th – 5th centuries by the creator of the Latin translation of the Bible, St. Jerome of Stridon, who traveled around the Holy Land for many years and was well aware of the old customs of the Jews. Since many of those who wanted to bring sacrificial gifts needed money themselves, the high priests allowed the money changers to lend money to those in need on a guarantee, says St. Jerome. At the same time, however, it was necessary to circumvent the prescription of the law, which forbade the Jews to give money in growth (that is, to take interest on the use of a loan). As a result, priests came up with another way to earn money on loans: they introduced into the custom “small cheap gifts, for example: toasted peas, raisins and apples of various kinds”. That is, people who took loans from exchangers gave them gifts for this – a kind of bribe.
This was something against which the Lord repeatedly warned His people through the lips of many prophets. Even in the time of Moses, the Israelites were told very clearly: Thou shalt not wrest judgment; thou shalt not respect persons, neither take a gift: for a gift doth blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous (Deuteronomy 16:19). And all this flourished now, and not just anywhere, but in direct proximity to the temple!
This was precisely what Christ was indignant with: the people turned the house of His Father – the house of prayer – into a business enterprise! It was no longer a matter of trading at the temple, which would help pilgrims who came from far away to buy a sacrificial animal on the spot – the temple itself turned into a kind of “supplement” to a dubious business office.
The very first of the Ten Commandments has always remained the main guide of spiritual life for the Jews: I am the Lord thy God… Thou shalt have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:2,3). The anger of the Savior was caused by the fact that the high priests were, according to the words of the prophet Ezekiel, such shepherds who shepherd themselves (Ezek 34: 8), creating difficulties for everyone else who wanted to serve God. Calling themselves priests, they turned out to be essentially idolaters, like those Israelites who once cast a golden calf and began to worship it.
This explains the decisive actions of Christ described by the evangelists.
Why did Christ pick up the scourge?
The scourge was not intended for people at all, explains the Byzantine theologian Euthymius Zigaben, who lived at the turn of the 11th and 12th centuries. It was intended for animals: Christ “only frightened … the merchants … and drove them out, but the sheep and oxen, of course, were beaten and driven out.”
The twenty-seventh rule of the holy apostles unequivocally states that Jesus never, under any circumstances of His earthly life, raised his hand to a person:
“For the Lord did not teach us this at all: on the contrary, being himself hit, did not hit, being reproached, did not reproach in response, suffering, did not threaten.” It would be useful to remember for everyone who is trying to see in the expulsion of merchants from the temple episode the theological justification of violence.
However, one must not forget another thing. This gospel episode shows that the Lord acts in the temple as having authority, as true Vladyka. Moreover, no one dares to object to Him. Think about it for a second: pouring money out and overthrowing tables of changers at that time is like breaking into a bank today and setting up a chaos there. Surely next to the money changers there was a corresponding guard, but everyone was scared. It is just as scary to forget today that only its Head, Christ, can rule in the Church. This is especially important to remember for those who are trying to turn the house of God into a place of satisfying their own ambitions – personal, political, commercial; those who seek to rebuild this house with their own project.