Those who sold doves
Last, but certainly not least, Jesus turns his attention to those selling doves for sacrifice. Whilst Jesus initially targeted those buying and selling cattle, He does not forget about the birds. There is a nice detail given in each of the synoptic Gospels that He overturned the ‘seats’ of those who sold doves, whereas with the money changers He overturned their tables. Had He overturned the tables or cages of the doves it would have harmed the birds. Jesus does not attack the birds but those who were selling them. The fact that all four Gospels speak about Jesus’ protest against the dove sellers may also indicate that Jesus is concerned here with issues other than the financial exploitation of the poor. The main reason why doves were sold was to make the sacrificial cult accessible to everyone, despite their income level. If you could not afford a bull, sheep or goat, you could substitute them for a dove.
Taking all of this into consideration, is it at all possible that Jesus protest against the temple’s animal market was more than just a condemnation of capitalism? Whist still a minority view there is an ever increasing view that Jesus may have taken issue with both the temple and perhaps even the practice of animal sacrifice. After all, the process of sacrifice did not begin and end at the temple altar, but began at the market where people brought the animals.
This is not to say that originally the sacrificial cult did not have merit. In the beginning the temple cult and the sacrificial system were put in place as a concession necessary to deal with the issue of idolatry. Thus it played a fundamental role in the moral and spiritual development of the Hebrew nation. However, around 1,400 years later the temple cult was out of control. Some historians estimate that at the time of Jesus around three hundred thousand pilgrims would come to the Jerusalem temple altar to offer sacrifice at the festival of Passover.
In his lecture titled ‘The God’s Aren’t Angry’, Rob Bell commented,
“It was a massive production line in which people queued for miles around. The altar had a drain that flowed into the Kidron River that would run red at feast time celebrations like Passover because of the continuous blood sacrifices offered to God. They actually believed this was how you get to know God. It was a system built on violence. Indeed, the killing and shedding the blood of a single animal is a violent act. From violence the people believed that they could have some kind of peace with God.” (Rob Bell – ‘The God’s Aren’t Angry’ lecture).
Furthermore this system was being used by the religious establishment to exploit people’s religious guilt and fears. It was being used to condemn the venerable and was making those with a vested interest in maintaining this system of violence extremely wealthy. Change was needed.
There is certainly a great deal of evidence in the New Testament that Jesus had issues with the sacrificial cult and/or animal sacrifice. Here are just a few examples.
- Throughout Jesus’ public ministry He disapproves of those who ran and operated the sacrificial cult, namely the Sadducees. They controlled and operated the whole altar system and in turn would receive a portion from all the offerings dedicated to God as payment for their services.
- Jesus twice preached the he desired “mercy, not sacrifice.” (Matthew 9:13). On the second occasion He also declared “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless…’” (Matthew 12:6-8).
- When Jesus was challenged which commandment is first of all? Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear O Israel: the Lord your God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12: 28-31). A temple scribe responded “You are right, Teacher… …this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Mark 12:32-33). From this context it seems clear they were having a debate about animal sacrifice in which the scribe concedes that there are more important commandments.
- In Jesus first sermon on the good shepherd He taught that all those who had come before Him were thieves and robbers (i.e. the religious authorities) who came to only steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10). The word used by Jesus for ‘kill’, is the obscure term, ‘thyō’. This word is used primarily to describe the sacrificial killings of animals, which may connote abuse found within the sacrificial system.
- Jesus said that His Father in heaven did not desire or take pleasure in sacrifices. “Consequently, when Christ came into the world, He said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body You have prepared for Me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings You have taken no pleasure.’” (Hebrews 10:5-7).
I acknowledge that for some, what I am suggesting here is highly controversial. However taking all these things into consideration I believe that we must give serious consideration to the possibility that Jesus’ protests may have also been motivated by a desire to bring about an end to animal sacrifice.
There are those who perhaps would go further and argue that Jesus’ protests were meant as an act of animal liberation. This is certainly a view held by Keith Akers in his book, ‘The Lost Religion of Jesus’. Now I don’t know if I personally would go as far as to call Jesus’ protests as acts of animal liberation. Certainly these were not particularly effective acts of liberation. It is only in the first protest as recorded by John does Jesus drive out the animals. However, the temple was located in the very heart of Jerusalem and as the animals stampeded out of the temple’s animal marketplace and on into the streets below they would have had nowhere to go. It would have taken some time to round-up all these escaped animals, but the sad reality is that none of the animals released by Jesus that day would have been spared from the hands of the slaughter. In the second protest recorded by the synoptic Gospels Jesus does attack those selling and buying the animals, but there is no indication of the animals themselves being liberated. Furthermore in all four Gospels there is no mention of the doves being set free. Having said this, perhaps the real value in Jesus’ protests is not in its effectiveness as an act of liberationism, but in its symbolism. When animal activists go and stand outside slaughterhouses, they too, do not get to liberate the animals destined for slaughter. But that does not mean that what they are doing does not hold value. They bear witness, they protest, and by their very presence in that place are declaring that this system is wrong and that they are passionately opposed to it. Regardless of what you think were Jesus’ motives for His protests, He is doing the same. He is bearing witness, protesting, and by His very presence in that place is declaring that this system is wrong and that He is passionately opposed to it. At the very least I believe we can say that from Jesus’ point of view, there is no longer any necessity for animals to be slaughtered in the temple.
Stay tuned for Part Four. 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