Noted biblical scholar and critic Bart Ehrman says that the gospels have hopelessly irreconcilable differences. Therefore they can’t be trusted as reliable documents. One big difference would be the story of the cleansing of the Temple when you compare John and Mark (and the other synoptic gospels). Here’s Bart:
The Gospel of Mark indicates that it was in the last week of his life that Jesus “cleansed the Temple” by overturning the tables of the money changers and saying, “This is to be a house of prayer…but you have made it a den of thieves” (Mark 11), whereas according to John this happened at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry (John 2). Some readers have thought that Jesus must have cleansed the temple twice, once at the beginning of his ministry and once at the end. But that would mean that neither Mark nor John tells the ‘true’ story, since in both accounts he cleanses the temple only once. Moreover, is this reconciliation of the two accounts historically plausible? If Jesus made a disruption in the temple at the beginning of his ministry, why wasn’t he arrested by the authorities then?… Historically speaking, then, the accounts are not reconcilable.”Jesus, Interrupted, pp 6-7
But are these passages really contradictory? Before we get into the text, let’s consider the curious case of Jonathan Edwards, as noted by Dr. Tim McGrew.
|He was a minister and the son and grandson of a minister||He was a minister and the son and grandson of a minister|
|He was intellectually advanced at a young age.||He was intellectually advanced at a young age.|
|He served for two years as a tutor at his college before accepting a pastoral position||He served for two years as a tutor at his college before accepting a pastoral position|
|… in the church where his maternal grandfather had been a pastor …||… in the church where his maternal grandfather had been a pastor …|
|… but was subsequently dismissed on account of a doctrinal dispute||… but was subsequently dismissed on account of a doctrinal dispute|
|He moved to a smaller church where he was well-loved||He moved to a smaller church where he was well-loved|
|While at this smaller church, he turned to scholarship and produced several valuable works and corresponded with eminent men at home and abroad||While at this smaller church, he turned to scholarship and produced several valuable works and corresponded with eminent men at home and abroad|
|He was called from this church to the presidency of a prominent college||He was called from this church to the presidency of a prominent college|
|On the first Sunday of the new year, he preached on Jeremiah 28:16—“This year thou shalt die”||On the first Sunday of the new year, he preached on Jeremiah 28:16—“This year thou shalt die”|
|Although he was apparently in good health when he preached that sermon, he died later that year, in his mid-50s||Although he was apparently in good health when he preached that sermon, he died later that year, in his mid-50s|
|He died in 1758||He died in 1801|
In the two accounts of Jonathan Edwards, it seems like one of the accounts has to be wrong. You can’t die middle-aged in both 1758 and 1801. Well, guess what? Both accounts actually are true. As crazy as it seems, all the facts in the table above are correct of two different Jonathan Edwards. Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. And this goes to show that it’s easy to underestimate the extent to which two different events or people may look alike.
Now on the face of it, there would be nothing wrong with thinking that two very similar accounts from different sources are talking about the same person or event. But when two accounts are known for being reliable, but they differ on some important details, it’s reasonable to ask if they’re talking about two separate occasions.
If the gospel authors have shown themselves to be reliable in other aspects, then we don’t have to assume they’re contradicting each other here. Bart’s possibly conflating two events.
A FURTHER SKEPTICAL COMPLAINT
But wait, there’s more. Not only does Bart think these two accounts give us a contradiction, but that there’s no way Mark’s account can be historically accurate. Here’s Bart again:
Mark’s Gospel simply can’t be taken as historically reliable at this point. If Jesus really shut down the Temple cult, how could he not have been arrested on the spot by soldiers stationed there (both Jewish temple police and Roman soldiers, brought in for the occasion) precisely to quell any possible violence?Ehrmanblog.org – “Jesus and The Temple”
Here’s the thing about that. The crowds were on Jesus’ side. It is plausible to think that they did not want to arrest him out of the fear of making things worse. Moreover, shutting down the temple isn’t unheard of. During the time of Jesus, the Jews and the Samaritans were not the best of friends, to put it mildly. We see this conflict in the gospels, but there’s also a story in Josephus about a group of angry Samaritans shutting down the temple in a strange fashion.
“Now (about 9 AD) when Judea was administered by Coponius, who was sent out by Quirinius [the Roman governor of Syria]…these things occurred: During the celebration of the feast of Unleavened Bread, which we call Passover, in a custom of the priests the gates of the temple [in Jerusalem] were opened after midnight. And then, when their opening first occurred, Samaritan men coming into Jerusalem in secret, began to scatter human bones in the porticoes and throughout the temple. (So, the priests), who were not accustomed to such things before, managed the temple with greater care.”Josephus, Antiquities 18.29-30
The bottom line is there were ways to close down the temple.
JESUS THE JERK?
Some people have a hard time with the meek and mild-mannered Jesus having an emotional outburst in the first place. Here’s one atheist critic:
“Is this a smart thing to do? Is this the kind of behavior you expect from a thoughtful, rational adult? No, it is the behavior of a child. Surely the all-powerful son of God could come up with a better plan than knocking over tables in a one-time outburst.”godisimaginary.com
So was Jesus just throwing an unjustified temper tantrum here? To answer that, we need to give a little background. The temple market was established after the Babylonian captivity. JB Lightfoot says “There was always a constant market in the temple in that place, which was called ‘the shops;’ where, every day, was sold wine, salt, oil, and other requisites to sacrifices; as also oxen and sheep in the spacious Court of the Gentiles”
Josephus estimated there would be up to 3 million Jews traveling to Jerusalem for the Passover. Seeing their devotion, the money-changers saw an opportunity to get rich. They made a business of accommodating those who didn’t have the half-shekel temple tax. (See Mt 17:24)
Everyone was expected to pay it, rich or poor, in the month of Adar. So it became necessary to change a shekel into two halves, or exchange foreign money for the Jewish half-shekel. (Money that bore the image of “Divine Caesar”, in some cases) These men made a nice profit by charging a percentage for the exchange. The animals were in the courts to be sold as a sacrifice since people traveling from afar weren’t usually able to bring them.
Jesus was upset that in the Court of the Gentiles, the place where non-Jews were designated to worship, people were being deprived of the opportunity to pray because of greedy, irreverent people and this happened under the watch Jerusalem’s religious leaders. Jesus quotes Isaiah 56:7 that the temple was to be a place of prayer for all nations.
This would be like trying to have worship in the middle of Walmart on Black Friday. The Gentiles were pushed out of participation with the Passover. Matthew previously writes “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 8:11)
This event is called “The Cleansing of the Temple”, which indicates that Jesus was purifying the temple from defilement. Nearly 200 years before, Judas Maccabeus cleansed the Temple after it was defiled by Antiochus Epiphanes. By cleaning out the Temple, Jesus is saying that the present Jewish leadership had defiled the Temple. Talk about an act of defiant protest! Shortly afterward, Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple and the coming judgment upon the nation for their lack of response to Jesus’ Gospel. (Mark 13, Matthew 24)
So to sum up, you have noisy people who care nothing for God there to make an easy buck in the place where Gentiles were to worship, exploiting the poor in the process. Jesus taught that we can’t serve both God and money, and to him, this was both oppression, greed, and idolatry blatantly in his Father’s own house. Jesus said that this was to be a place of prayer, not a den of robbers. (Jeremiah 7:11) He was rightfully ticked off.
Not only that, but there’s not a hint that Jesus harmed any human or any animal. He flipped some tables. He fashioned a whip and gave it a good crack or two, but this would sort of like firing a gun in the air in a crowd. It would clear the people and the animals out in a hurry.
This bit of prophetic theatre did, of course, catch up with him later, but many scholars say that was the intention. And it was these people who he drove out that he interceded for when he said: “Father, forgive them”. (Lk 23:34) These skeptics seem to not be able to see the difference between righteous indignation and a temper tantrum. It wasn’t a “smart thing” to do, from a worldly standpoint. Jesus came so that he would be crucified. (Mark 8:31)
ZEAL FOR GOD’S HOUSE CONSUMED JESUS
It’s reasonable to think that Jesus cleansed the temple more than once, even though the two events are strikingly similar. That he did it at all the way Mark isn’t at all historically implausible, because he had the crowds on his side and it wasn’t the first time in Jesus’ own lifetime that the Temple was shut down. And Jesus wasn’t throwing a fit, he was angry at the greedy exploitation of his Father’s worshipers.
He drove out the animals without being directly violent to them, and later on, he became the sacrifice that didn’t just cover sins for a moment, but atoned for them forever. (Heb. 10:1-2, 10-14)
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.