For those who have not yet read Part One
The Sellers and Buyers
In various Bible movies the temple marketplace has often been depicted as secular. We often imagine a scene where local people come to buy their groceries, tourists purchase souvenirs and market traders call out “two for the price of one, get them while their hot!” Contrary to popular opinion the temple marketplace was not a secular one. The principle items for sale were animals and birds for sacrifice. That is what “those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple” were trading in and it was those people who were Jesus’ first point of attack.
Therefore we must challenge religious convention and dare to ask, why did Jesus challenge them? It is often argued that the animal sellers were only targeted by Jesus because they were over charging for their services, which in that scenario would make those buying the animals the victims. But if Jesus considered the buyers as victims why would he attack them also? Furthermore, there is no historical evidence that they were overcharging for their services. Indeed, from the point of view of the worshipers they were providing a vital and indispensable role in aiding the sacrifices.
Others argue that the issue was with the presence of a marketplace, albeit a non-secular marketplace, functioning within the temple. We have to acknowledge that from the point of view of the sacrificial cult, there was a legitimate reason for selling animals within the temple marketplace. Although we often speak of Jesus’ ‘cleaning of the temple’, in actuality the Gospel accounts make a clear distinction between the temple complex or courts (‘hieron’) and the temple building proper (‘naos’). The animal sellers operated along the periphery of the gentile courtier along a colonnade called the ‘cloister of Solomon’. This colonnade was one of the few surviving outer structures of the original temple quarter and is said to have originally been King Solomon’s stables. Although this area held historical value to the people of Israel it was not at this time deemed to be a specifically holy, nor a sacred area. To the worshipers it was simply a preparation area where they could gather to purchase sacrificial animals before entering into the main part of the temple.
Another common view is that Jesus merely objected to their presence within the temple due to the excessive noise of the traders as people prepared themselves to pray and to worship. Whilst the marketplace would certainly have been noisy, are we to truly believe that even if the people had purchased the animals from outside of the temple walls, that the constant stream of thousands of worshipers dragging their animals in behind them would not have been as equally disruptive? Nor can I imagine the place of slaughter to have been a peaceable place. It is true that the temple was supposed to be a place of prayer, but they had turned it into something else. Prayer and quiet contemplation was not to be found at the temple during festival periods.
The Money Changers
The next group targeted by Jesus was the money changers. In John’s Gospel they are called ‘kermatistēs’, from ‘kermatizō’ which translates as “to cut small”. Pilgrims traveling from distant lands usually carried their money in large denominations. The ‘kermatistēs’ function was to exchange these large denominations for smaller coinage. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark call them ‘kollybistēs’ which was a different type of money changer. It was their function to exchange foreign currency. Both types of money changers would have been found within the Jerusalem temple precincts. But did they really exploit their customers?
We know from Jewish records of that period that the money changers charged a fee called a ‘kolbon’ (from the Greek ‘κόλλυβος’ which means ‘small coin’ [Shek. 1:6, 46b]). This ‘kolbon’ would have been set between four and eight percent (ibid). Although a popularized view there is no historical validation to the claim that the money changers were being dishonest and overcharging their customers. Nor do the Gospels explicitly make such a claim. Therefore is it possible that Jesus took issue with them for an entirely different reason?
I had always been taught that their principal role was to exchange secular coins with the Tyrian half shekel, a large single coin denomination, in order to allow people to pay the temple tax. This was indeed an important service that certain types of money changers provided, but that is not what these money changers were doing in the temple on this occasion. The temple tax was payable by the end of the Jewish year on the 25th Adar. However, Jesus’ protests took place during the month of Nisan, the first month of the Jewish year. Therefore if people were paying their taxes they were over eleven months early. Although some temple rituals required financial offerings and pilgrims frequently made free will offerings, it was not necessary to pay these in the Tyrian currency, usually because these donations were not of equal exchange value to the Tyrian half shekel. So then what were the money changers really doing in the temple? And why are they operating in such close proximity to the animal and bird sellers?
Understanding that Jesus’ protest was initially directed towards those selling and buying animals for sacrifice and furthermore that the temple marketplace traded exclusively in animals, is crucial to our understanding of the main function of the money changers. The principal reason why the money changers were operating within the temple at that point in the year was so that pilgrims coming for the Passover season could purchase animals for sacrifice. They provided a vital service for the animal sellers, ensuring that animals were brought using the correct local currency. If it weren’t for the money changers the animal sellers could not have functioned. Even if we were to only focus upon Jesus’ attack upon the money changers and them alone, they cannot be separated from their connection to the sacrificial system.
Stay tuned for Part Three. For those who want to read the entire article: The Activism of Christ.
Thank you for reading and sharing, we pray our articles are a blessing! Comments are welcome. God Bless ~ Phil Guyott