January 22, 2022

How many times did Jesus cleanse the temple? In the Synoptics, Jesus cleanses the temple later in his ministry (Matthew 21:12-17, Mark 11:15-19, & Luke 19:45-48), but in John the temple is cleansed by Jesus very early in his ministry (John 2:13-16).

As far as historical theology goes, Chrysostom (A.D. 349-407) held the dramatic event happened twice, stating, “They [Evangelists] do not in this contradict each other, but show that he did this a second time, and that both these expressions were not used on the same occasion, but that He acted thus once at the beginning of His ministry, and again when He had come to the very time of His Passion”[1] Moreover, Augustine (A.D. 354-430), overall, agrees with Chrysostom concluding, “this act was performed by the Lord not on a single occasion, but twice over; but that only the first instance is put on record by John, and the last by the other three[Gospels].”[2] Similar to Chrysostom and Augustine some evangelical scholars have posited that Jesus cleansed the temple twice in his ministry (Carson, Sproul, Klink, Köstenberger, Richards, etc) for reasons such as there are historical markers in the text itself, there is a bias against doublets in historical scholarship, etc.[3]

Others, like Origen (A.D. 184-253)[4], reformer Martin Luther, or contemporary conservative evangelical scholar Craig Blomberg indicates that it could be one or two cleansings.[5] To quote Luther at length to get the full weight of his conclusion, Luther said in 1538 (using Christian names for Jewish Festivals because Luther held the church began at Adam and Eve):

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Here the first question is how the two Evangelists, Matthew and John, can agree with each other. For Matthew writes that it happened on Palm Sunday, when the Lord rode into Jerusalem. However, John maintains that it happened soon after the baptism of Christ. The miracle of Christ’s turning water into wine also happened around this Easter, and then he moves to Capernaum. On Epiphany he was baptized, and he simply paused a while in Capernaum until Easter. There he began to preach, and then on Easter he began to do, what John is describing here.

But there are questions that will remain questions, because I cannot answer them due to the fact that there is not much here. Except that there are many people who ask many pointed and shrewd questions, wanting to discuss and know the exact answers. But when we understand the Scriptures correctly and the right beliefs of our faith, that Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, suffered and died for us, then it is not a big obstacle if we cannot answer all the questions put to us. The Evangelists do not have one order, for what one puts before, the other writer can put behind.… It is definitely possible that the Lord performed these actions more than once, and that John describes the first time and Matthew another time. However, whether it happened before or afterwards, once or twice, it does not destroy our faith.[6]

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Similarly, one of the framers of the 1978 Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI), Christian philosopher Norman Geisler, states in his big book on Christian Apologetics in the section about the gospel of John, “it is entirely possible that Jesus did this object lesson twice, once near the beginning of his work, and after he arrived in the city for his final struggle.”[7] However, in the next paragraph, he concedes, “None of the Gospels claim to be written in chronological sequence. Topical message, rather than sequence, orders the text. Within an overall chronology, if a pericope of the same event is placed in a different place, it may be serving a slightly different literary purpose.”[8] This is in concert with CSBI statement Article XIII, which states, in part, that the biblical writers were well within their right to “the topical arrangement of material.”[9]

That being said, there is no explicit contradiction between the passages, so this does not pose as a real difficulty to the veracity of the Gospels. Yet to this type of thinking, does Jesus raise Jairus’s daughter from the dead twice? In Matthew’s account (9:18-26) differs in the chronology from that of Mark’s (5:21-43) and Luke’s (8:40-56). Doubling the events of Jesus’s ministry does present a stretched (and therefore undesirable) interpretation of the chronology of affairs.

Other scholars (some evangelical) have posited that John “moved” the story of the temple cleansing earlier into Jesus’s ministry for some literary or theological reason (Bruce, Witherington, Borchert, Gangel, Keener, Guthrie, Gundry, Burge, D. M. Smith, and a hybrid version of R. Brown).[10] However, some do not see this as even a viable option to adopt.

For example, in her recent blog post against William Lane Craig’s position, Lydia McGrew argues, “If John deliberately and invisibly ‘made’ Jesus cleanse the Temple in his narrative early in his ministry despite the fact that, in reality, Jesus didn’t cleanse the Temple then, then John’s gospel has been made deliberately unreliable concerning that factual question: When did Jesus cleanse the Temple? Saying that this was ‘accepted at the time’ simply doesn’t change that point, just as it would not for a bio-pic. (Oddly, Dr. Craig repeatedly asserts that such changes wouldn’t make the gospels unreliable, and says it as though this is somehow related to their being acceptable at the time.) Indeed, if making such changes were so acceptable, then there could well be many of them.”

The main problem with McGrew’s argument is that it makes a category error. Is asking of John ‘When [in space-time] did Jesus cleanse the Temple?’ an appropriate question? Allow me to use an extreme example (from a different genre) to illustrate my point. Suppose you’re reading Isaiah 11 and eventually you come to verse 12, “And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.” “Four corners of the earth”? The Bible teaches a flat earth! It says right there: “four corners of the earth.” Most of us should be able to recognize figurative language in this passage. What Isaiah means here is that people will be (re)gathered from all over the (known) world.

But now suppose with me if you were to ask this question of that text: ‘Where are the four corners of the earth?’ When told that the language is figurative, you might even go so far to make the accusation, ‘Then Isaiah has been made deliberately unreliable concerning that factual question: Where are the four corners of the Earth?’ If that accusation were made, would we really think that “four corners of the earth” entails that Isaiah was being deliberately unreliable about the issue of the physical location of the four corners of the earth? Hardly! To this we should answer that Isaiah never intended to convey a statement about the shape of the Earth. Perhaps Isaiah’s remarks mean his words are unreliable to answer that type of question, but not deliberately so. Now, let’s return to John.

If John “moved” the Temple cleansing event to be earlier in Jesus’s ministry, then would that make the document deliberately unreliable concerning that factual question: ‘When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?’? The answer is: Not necessarily, because it might not have been John’s intent to provide a dry account of everything Jesus said and did. Perhaps John’s remarks mean his words are unreliable to answer that type of question, but not deliberately so. Thus, asking of John ‘When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?’ is the wrong type of question. It might be like asking, ‘When was Justin Trudeau the President of the United States?’ or ‘How do I get to Middle Earth?’ Or even better, ‘Was Robert Frost deliberately unreliable concerning the factual question of where the road less travel is?’ Asking a question like that is simply playing the wrong sort of game. Likewise, I think McGrew is playing the wrong sort of game when interpreting John’s chronological use of the position of the Temple cleansing. I find Craig’s position preferred and would formulate it in a conditional sense: If John had moved the temple cleansing to an earlier period of Jesus’s ministry, then it would not have necessarily made his Gospel deliberately unreliable concerning that historical question. It all depends upon what John’s purposes for doing so were. It’s about authorial intent.

Asking John’s Gospel to provide a precise chronological account of Jesus’s actions imposes one’s presupposed standard of history upon a text not meant to be interpreted that way. Though he held to two cleansings, John Calvin did concede elsewhere, “we know that the Evangelists were not very exact as to the order of dates.”[11] The Gospel of John is not roughly equivalent to some annals of history. John’s Gospel is a biography, a memoir of the life, ministry, death, resurrection of God incarnate.

 

 


Some bibliographical details may be imprecise; please contact me if question arise.

[1] John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Gospel of St. John,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of St. John and Epistle to the Hebrews, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. G. T. Stupart, vol. 14, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), 80.

[2] Augustine of Hippo, “The Harmony of the Gospels,” in Saint Augustin: Sermon on the Mount, Harmony of the Gospels, Homilies on the Gospels, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. S. D. F. Salmond, vol. 6, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 160.

[3] D.A. Carson concedes that the gospel writers, “…frequently arrange their material in topical rather than chronological order; one should not rush to harmonize by addition.” However, he indicates that, within gospel scholarship, there is a deep-seated scholarly bias against doubles of anything in Scripture, primarily because of the desire to tease out trajectories of developments. If there was one event with two reports, then the differences between the reports provide evidence for the way the tradition developed. Most such trajectories are highly speculative.” Carson also states that, “When interpreters of John who hold that the Evangelist has moved the narrative here for theological reasons try to articulate those reasons, they neither agree with each other nor prove intrinsically convincing.” D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 177; Licona (who holds that there was only one clensing), in a endnote, states that Carson’s observation that scholars can have a bias against doublets is “legitimate.” Licona, Michael R.. Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography (p. 262). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition; Biola NT scholar Edward Klink states, “to argue that John is not concerned with details is to ignore his detailed account of the historical realities surrounding Jesus. Even more, to assume that the single-cleansing hypothesis simplifies the matter is to ignore the distinctions between the Gospels.” However, he is not dogmatic about his position stating the issue is “complex.” Edward W. Klink III, John, ed. Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 176; The late philosopher R.C. Sproul states, “So I think it did occur in the early part of his ministry, and I join many others in church history who believe that Jesus cleansed the temple twice.” R. C. Sproul, John, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2009), 26; See also Andreas J. Köstenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters: The Word, the Christ, the Son of God, Biblical Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 193;

[4] Origen concluded about this issue with John, “But I do not condemn the fact that they have also made some minor changes in what happened so far as history is concerned, with a view to the usefulness of the mystical object. Consequently, they have related what happened in this place as though it happened in another, or what happened at this time as though at another time, and they have composed what is reported in this manner with a certain degree of adaptation. For their intention was to speak the truth spiritually and materially at the same time where that was possible but, where it was not possible in both ways, to prefer the spiritual to the material.” Joel C. Elowsky, ed., John 1–10, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 100; Origen has some questionable theological conclusions, but, as Geisler here states, “Origen was at best a mixed blessing for Christian apologetics. He did defend the basic inspiration and historicity of the Bible. He stressed the use of reason in defending early Christianity against the attacks of paganism and other false teachings. He was a textual scholar.” (emphases added) Norman L. Geisler, “Origen,” Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 567.

[5] (Sermon on the Saturday after Saint’s Dorothy’s Day 1538). Quoted from Craig S. Farmer et al., eds., John 1–12: New Testament, vol. IV, Reformation Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 77; Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), pgs 87-91, specifically pg 91, “We’re not able to settle the debate.”

[6] Quoted from Craig S. Farmer et al., eds., John 1–12: New Testament, vol. IV, Reformation Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 77.

[7] Norman L. Geisler, “John, Gospel Of,” Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 393.

[8] Ibid.

[9] R. C. Sproul, Can I Trust the Bible?, vol. 2, The Crucial Questions Series (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2009), 42.

[10] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel and Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 77; Ben Witherington III, John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1995), 85-86, 86 “theological not chronological considerations”; Gerald Borchert (through a Southern Baptist affiliated commentary series) is probably the most adamant about this position, stating, “But the familiar argument of two cleansings is a historiographic monstrosity that has no basis in the texts of the Gospels. There is only one cleansing of the temple in each Gospel.” (emphasis original) Borchert wants to allow John to write according to his purpose rather than imposing something seemly foreign to the text. Gerald L. Borchert, John 1–11, vol. 25A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 160; Southern Baptist commentator Kenneth Gangel agree’s with Borchert, “I find myself drawn to Borchert’s argument, particularly in view of the emphasis all students of John must see in the compelling power of his purpose.” Kenneth O. Gangel, John, vol. 4, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 34; Raymond Brown thinks Jesus could have uttered some of the words in John, stating, “We suggest as a plausible hypothesis that on his first journey to Jerusalem and to the Temple at the beginning of his ministry Jesus uttered a prophetic warning about the destruction of the sanctuary,” but, “it seems likely that Jesus’ action of cleansing the temple precincts took place in the last days of his life.” Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, Translation, and Notes, vol. 29, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 118; Craig Keener states, “Unless Jesus cleansed the temple twice, which is unlikely.” Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary & 2, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 518; Calvin Theological Seminary NT professor Gary Burge states, “I believe that John is giving his own account of one cleansing. While it is an historical record, he has moved the account chronologically for theological reasons. There is no doubt that all four evangelists felt free to place sayings and stories from Jesus’ life in settings that suited their literary purposes. This is fully true of John. Using uncompromised historical material, John is creating a theological portrait of Jesus’ display of signs in the context of Judaism.” Gary M. Burge, “Gospel of John,” in John’s Gospel, Hebrews–Revelation, ed. Craig A. Evans and Craig A. Bubeck, First Edition., The Bible Knowledge Background Commentary (Colorado Springs, CO; Paris, ON; Eastbourne: David C Cook, 2005), 49; Donald Gutherie concludes that it may have happened twice, but he leans in the direction of John moving it for symbolic reasons concluding, “It is generally supposed that John has brought it forward for symbolic purposes. But it is not impossible that there may have been another cleansing after some two or three years. The specific time references here would be in support of that. But John seems more concerned with deeper meanings in the events of Jesus’ ministry and arranges his material to highlight them; in this case Jesus’ mission to cleanse out the abuses of Judaism. V 17 shows that only later did the disciples see the relevance of the OT text of Ps. 69:9 to this incident.” Donald Guthrie, “John,” in New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, ed. D. A. Carson et al., 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 1030; The late Duke University professor of New Testament, D. Moody Smith, states, “Harmonizers of the Gospels, ancient and modern, have proposed that Jesus cleansed the Temple in a similar way twice. This is possible but not likely. In all probability John has moved an event from the passion week to the beginning of the narrative. Such a move would fit his tendency to set out at the beginning matters or events that in the other Gospels take place later (e.g., the confession of Jesus as Messiah).” James Luther Mays, ed., Harper’s Bible Commentary (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 1050; Gundry concludes, “Probably John advanced it to provide a quick followup to the Baptist’s proclaiming Jesus the lamb of God.” Robert H. Gundry, Commentary on the New Testament: Verse-by-Verse Explanations with a Literal Translation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 358.

[11] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trans William Pringle, vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 89.

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Kurt Jaros

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