Christians celebrate Jesus’s birth and the immediate events around his crucifixion, but less attention is given to the clearest sign of his political activism, his overturning of the money-changing tables at the Temple in Jerusalem, the likeliest reason for his execution, as Mark Manolopoulos explains.
By Mark Manolopoulos
All four Gospels recall what is euphemistically known as the “Temple Cleansing”: an outraged Jesus overturns the tables of the money-changers. This story has always fascinated me – even when I was an unbeliever, even whenever I am an unbeliever. I expect it has a lot to do with the fact that it contrasts sharply with the gentle and peace-loving Jesus, the hippie Christ.
But very recently this classic tale has become particularly poignant, with a renewed relevance and resonance. This article hopes to go some way in explaining why. I proceed by exploring a series of questions.
First question: did the Temple event actually happen? Answer: who knows? If we’re really honest with ourselves, we can’t even be really sure whether Jesus existed, let alone whether this “incident” happened.
His existence and this particular outburst are certainly possibilities, certainly reasonable possibilities – and, today, we are surely open-minded enough to make room for the possible (which may even include the unlikely); in other words, we should no longer privilege the actual over the possible. And so, I myself can’t think of any reason why this Christic outburst couldn’t have happened, or why it wasn’t at least possible. …
Second question: what was the Temple? … In order to get to the crux of the meaning of the table-overturning, we must first determine the significance of its physical context – which means determining the Temple’s meaning/s, its function/s, its effects.
For assistance, I turn to William R. Herzog II, Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts, and the author of three cutting-edge books. … What does Herzog say about the Temple?
Drawing on a range of scholarly and biblical sources, Herzog proposes that, with the technological advances in ancient agrarian societies (the plow, draft animals, etc.), came surplus yields, and the temple became a sneaky and seductive way for rulers to extract this additional output from the peasant base, i.e. workers would hand over their hard-earned surplus-produce to the temple for the purported sake of pleasing or appeasing the gods.
And this process was couched in properly religious terms – indebtedness to Yahweh with its attendant sacrificing and taxing – even if the burden was economically crushing. Sneaky and seductive, indeed.
Howard Bess, a retired Alaskan preacher who draws on the work of Herzog (and whose article inspired this paper), expresses the nature and role of the Temple in suitably acute terms: “The Temple had become a lot more than a religious temple. It had become a tax collection agency and a bank. … With that fat treasury, the Temple had entered the banking business and regularly made loans, primarily to poor people. Poor people were the victims not only of a flat tax, but also high-interest loans.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Would Jesus Join the Occupy Protests?”] Sounds familiar, no?
Now, I’m not sure I would want to reduce the Temple to strictly an economic-political device for exploitation – can’t we maintain the ostensibly naïve possibility that the Temple was “originally” a place of worship? Both Herzog and Bess state that the Temple “had become” an “oppressive institution.” So maybe it devolved into this site of subjugation. …
Whatever the case may have been back then, today we should at least consider the “suspicious-materialist” reading of the Temple: in other words, we should be open to the possibility that it was more than and otherwise than a center of worship, that it was (also) a site of economic oppression.
Third question: what was Jesus doing in the Temple? Answer: there’s obviously a range of possible answers. The predominant interpretation, the one advanced by the likes of Joseph Fitzmyer, … is that the table-overturning event was some kind of cleansing, some kind of purging of the Temple’s commercial activity.
Herzog argues that such a reading relies on the modern dichotomy between inner, “true” religion and a religiosity that focuses on externalities, including the act of sacrifice. Herzog explains: “The offering of sacrifices was at the heart of what the temple was about, and that included all of the support services required to maintain the sacrificial system.”
And so, the argument goes that Jesus wasn’t pissed off with the commercial activity that was going on, nor do we possess any evidence that those involved in this activity were abusing this system.
Having thus discounted these and other possible readings, and having already explained how the Temple was an instrument of exploitation, Herzog raises the possibility of an economic-political reading.
Pointing out that such an interpretation has existed since the time of Reimarus (the 18th Century), Herzog explains: “The temple cleansing cannot be divorced from the role of the temple as a bank. … The temple was, therefore, at the very heart of the system of economic exploitation.”
And to what/whom does the “den of bandits” refer? Herzog proposes a reversal: not those plundering outlaws who lived in caves, but the chief priests. Herzog surmises: “Jesus’ action in the temple, then, was not a cleansing of the temple but an enacted parable or prophetic sign of God’s judgment on it and, therefore, of its impending destruction. … The destruction of the oppressive institution that the temple had become was one step toward the coming justice of the reign of God.”
In sum: “Jesus attacked the temple system itself,” assailing it because it was patently unjust.
Now, given that I’m no scriptural specialist, I can’t say with any authority that Herzog’s reading is “The Correct One,” and I can’t say with any certainty to what extent his argument is compelling. But it appears to be soundly argued, given the biblical, historical, and logical-deductive groundings of his argument, Herzog certainly provides a rigorous, convincing case; consequently, we should at least seriously consider this interpretation.
But – you may rightly ask – if we aren’t even sure whether the table-overturning event happened or whether Jesus even existed, and if we acknowledge that the radical economic-political interpretation may perhaps be one interpretation amongst others, why am I so drawn to this particular story and this particular reading? This is our fourth question.
Fourth Question: Why am I So Drawn to this Story? I would like to believe that the Nazarene existed and that this event happened, but whether they did/did not isn’t my primary concern, or perhaps not my most primary concern right now.
My most primary concern right now actually involves three parts, each inter-related division corresponding to description, analysis, and prescription. My most primary concern right now is: (1) the increasingly disfigured state of the planet and its inhabitants (human and otherwise), exemplified by the financial, ecological, ethical, and other crises; (2) the ways in which capitalism (and its collaborating power structures, including “democracy”) fundamentally drives (and accelerates) this disfiguration by overtly and covertly exploiting the human and non-human masses, as well as the mass that we call “Earth”; and (3) (i.e. the third part of my most primary concern) is how on Earth we can save humanity and the Earth, which, going by the scale of the destruction and subjugation, surely involves radical transformation or – to use an old and bloody word – revolution.
Given this obscene state of affairs, a story like the Temple event rendered in its radical economic-political configuration is incredibly relevant on so many levels: it is a powerful. inspiring story about an individual who opposes an oppressive Temple system, whose modern corollary is capitalism, which extracts everything (and more) from the world.
The table-overturning story is powerful because an apparently powerless person rallies against the powerful. Little wonder, then, that as someone belonging to a multitude that is powerless and faithful, I am drawn to narratives such as this one. I am drawn to this narrative, drawn to its ethico-political significance for us today. I single out this biblical story/event for its applicability today, for its liberatory potential, for its emancipatory hope – for here is a tale/praxis that inspires as much as it perplexes.
Others concur that this ancient tale is incredibly relevant today. Returning to Howard Bess: he refers to this story/act in addressing the initially-curious but ultimately-legitimate question, “Would Jesus Join the Occupy Protests?” – to which he replies with a rigorous and resounding yes.
I will not rehearse his argument here, which already permeates the present one, and I think we can already perceive how this narrative can be easily transposed to the present day, whereby Jesus would participate in the movement against the Temple of Capitalism, whose Temple of Temples is Wall Street.
Indeed, I would even posit that the Nazarene would not only be involved in the Occupy Protests, but that he would be devoted to the task of the revolutionary overthrow of oppressive institutions, systems, empires (a task whose infancy is barely perceptible).
After all, arguments such as Herzog’s (and other brave and perceptive scholars like Bess) provide intellectual clout to the perhaps-initially-ridiculous-seeming notion that the character of Jesus is in some way driven politically “as well as” theologically, which is all very possible/probable, given that the political and the theological are – and/or should be – inextricably intertwined.
Radical readings like Herzog’s therefore lend weight to the possibility of Jesus as some kind of freedom fighter. Hence, this figure of the Christ is so very relevant, so very crucial for our times, given that we are reaching/have surpassed economic, ecological, and other tipping points. For here is a figure who protests against oppression, who is on the side of the poor, who stands up for them by standing up to the authorities, by committing the ethically violent act of overturning Temple tables, and who eventually dies for this standing-up-for and standing-up-to.
Now, let us quickly and briefly move our focus from what Jesus did and would do, to what his followers should do. After all, shouldn’t an understanding of the radical Christ be of consequence to the billions that identify as ‘Christian’?
After all, if true Christians are, by definition, those who are devoted to following and imitating the Nazarene, then true Christians would feel compelled to be integrally involved in the coming revolution.
And, yes, such a communistic imitation has historical precedents e.g. The German Peasants’ War of 1524-1526, England’s True Levellers movement in the 17th Century, etc., as well as much literature and revolutionary Christian writings (exemplified by liberation theology), a socio-textual history “beginning” with the communistic living of early Christians cited in the Book of Acts 4:32, 34:
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” and “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.”
I am, then, drawn to the possibility that this ancient tale/event might motivate those of us who are motivated by Christ, by those of us who “believe in him” in some sense, by those who attempt to live by his example, more or less. I am drawn to the possibility that this evocative story will help stir revolutionary desire, will inspire Christic-Marxist praxis.
Such a story is a tale worth re-visiting, re-investing it with what appears to be its originary ethico-political power, and re-telling it, hopefully unsettling our zombie-like apathy. To be sure, one story won’t make the revolution, but surely inspirational myths and speeches and images are often/always part of the mix. And so, it is little wonder that I am so drawn to this divinely violent Gospel story, signalling the good news of revolution.
Dr. Mark Manolopoulos is associated with the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies at Monash University, which is based in Australia. This article is adapted from a paper that he presented to the Bible and Critical Theory Seminar in New Zealand.