Historical Cultural Context
A New Temple
Those who follow the Church’s guidelines and apply historical-critical methods in interpreting the Bible expect to discover more than one layer of tradition in various texts.
In today’s Gospel, the word “remembered” or “recalled” (see Jn 2:17 and 22) is a technical term used by John to describe the process by which the community of believers gradually came to view Jesus as the fulfillment of Scripture after his resurrection.
Thus, verses 17 and 22 do not describe on-the-spot responses of Jesus’ immediate followers but rather the evangelist’s interpretation of the event more than sixty years after the fact.
Jesus’ “cleansing of the Temple” is the obvious “historical” event that John describes. All the evangelists report it, but the Synoptics place it just prior to Jesus’ trial, making it the more proximate cause of Jesus’ death. John locates it much earlier in the ministry because he has made the raising of Lazarus from the dead the more proximate cause of Jesus’ death. Scholars think the Synoptic version is historically more likely.
Granting that this is a historical event, how did Jesus’ contemporaries perceive and interpret what he was doing and saying? Roman denarii and Attic drachmas bore pagan or imperial portraits and were unacceptable in paying the Temple tax (see Mt 17:27). Moneychangers performed a necessary service by exchanging these coins for acceptable coins of Tyre.
Animals, too, were necessary for sacrifice, but it seems the danger of an escaped animal entering the holy of holies was a risk originally avoided by keeping them outside the Temple precincts. It was likely Caiaphas who introduced them into the Temple precincts.
If Jesus’ contemporaries perceived abuses or potential abuses in these two activities, then Jesus the prophet is clearly viewed as performing a “prophetic symbolic action” after the fashion of Jeremiah (7:11) and Ezekiel. Such an action actually sets in motion the judgment spoken by the prophet. “Stop making the house of my Father a house of marketing!”
Body and Community
The second historical question in this scene concerns Jesus’ authority. “What sign can you show us for doing this?” This is a legitimate concern for those responsible for proper Temple behavior. Jesus’ answer, however, is totally unintelligible in historical context. In fact it is absurd. “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The actual historical reconstruction of the Temple was begun by Herod the Great around 20 B.C.E. and completed around 62 C.E.
Jesus’ original audience would have interpreted Jesus’ claim symbolically, quite in line with his identity as a prophet who is cleansing the Temple. For them, Jesus refers to a spiritual or messianic renewal of the Temple and its function. Such a hope continued even after the destruction of the Herodian Temple and is echoed in the fourteenth of the Eighteen Benedictions recited in the synagogue. This benediction combines the expectation of a rebuilt Temple with the hope of a coming Messiah.
That John identifies the risen body of Jesus (Jn 2:21) rather than the community as the new Temple is culturally startling. From a purely Mediterranean cultural perspective, this individualistic interpretation could be the consequence of his group’s distrust of all other groups.
From a faith perspective, John says it all came clear after the resurrection (Jn 2:22). How do culture and faith (understood as loyalty) relate to each other?
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University