“So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.”
Perhaps you’re familiar with this episode. If you grew up like me—in white, Anglo, evangelical Protestant Christianity—it likely featured in the sermons you heard and Sunday school lessons you learned. I rather like the image of Jesus that the Gospel of John gives us here. But not for the reasons given in my Sunday school classes. There Jesus was depicted as disrupting the legalistic priests who, in the minds of my well-meaning teachers, clung to the letter of the law when they should have been agents of God’s grace. That reading of the New Testament has a long history, but it is now regarded by a wide range of scholars as deeply mistaken (not least because it reinforces anti-Semitic stereotypes).
In John 2:15 Jesus is quite literally lashing out in righteous indignation, whip of cords in hand, perhaps out of breath, driving out those who are profiting from the oppression of God’s people. This was a political act. It was directed towards those who were exploiting two very important centres of Jewish life in this period: the Torah and the Temple. You might imagine Jesus’ face alternating between stern conviction and an ebullient smile. For in this story he’s truly about his Father’s business, returning sovereignty to God, symbolically setting the people free. Such, at any rate, is how I understand the Gospel’s interpretation of Psalm 69:6, which the disciples are said to have remembered later (John 2:17), “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
Ours is now a world of profound inequality of wealth and power, built on human and environmental exploitation. According to Oxfam, in 2017 eight people possess wealth equal to the poorest half of the world’s population. It is hard to accord that fact with the vaunted self-perception of our politicians—whether one lives in Australia, Canada, or the USA—who never tire of telling us that ours are the best, freest, most prosperous places on planet earth. Never mind the inherent contradiction of each leader making this claim, this pleasant-seeming mystification is meant to console and distract. The Gospels can aid our efforts to refocus.
In the world of Second Temple Judaism there were no sharply separate spheres of life, public versus private, political versus religious. They were one and the same. Our world is different. We tend to envisage a line running through our lives demarcating public and private life, and we tend think that religious belief properly resides in the private domain. When religious conviction presents itself to the public for consideration, today’s foremost political philosophers, including such luminaries as Jürgen Habermas, think religious conviction should be converted into secular reason so that it can be democratically debated. Whatever the merit of such a procedure, neither Jesus nor his interlocutors (Pilate, say) would have understood this distinction. Religion and politics, just like art and economics, were interwoven strands that made up the unified cloth of social life.
Generally speaking, evangelicals have tended to define the activities and teachings of Jesus in personal rather than social terms. What Jesus came to do, so this line of thinking goes, was to save me from my personal sins and ensure my personal salvation. And what Jesus teaches me is a set of personal ethical maxims which define good interpersonal relationships and my personal relationship with God. Since evangelical Protestantism emerged in the eighteenth century, alongside a new distinction in the social imaginary, that between public and private, perhaps it’s not too surprising that it conforms to a view of religion as properly belonging to private life. Indeed, in the modern world many religious thinkers have advanced the private-public distinction in order to further the cause of Christianity as they saw it. It is a complicated historical question of how and why this way of understanding of our social lives came to be, and the corresponding compartmentalizing of Jesus’s mission and teaching; but suffice it to say it has exercised and exercises still an important influence on religion and its relationship to the modern state. The question I want to raise here, however, is whether or not it makes sense to see Jesus’ activity in John 2:15 as simply “religious” or “personal?” 
In John 2:15 Jesus is in Jerusalem at the temple. The temple in question is that rebuilt by Herod, the client king of Judea ruling under the Roman empire in the century before Christ. But why exactly would Herod have rebuilt that temple? It was certainly not out of the goodness of his heart. For the temple had long served as the place from which imperial rule and revenues were established and collected. In fact, it was the Persian empire which had allowed the temple to be rebuilt (hence the “Second Temple”) so that it could effectively administer its subject territory. In order to facilitate this process the Persians established a priestly aristocracy in the temple complex, creating in Jerusalem what you might think of as a temple-state. Eventually this priestly aristocracy rebelled against the Persian empire (i.e. the Seleucids) and set up an independent regime, ruled by the Hasmonean dynasty, that lasted for about a century (140 to 37 BC). The rule of this Hellenized priestly aristocracy at the temple continued even after Pompey conquered the area for Rome in 63 BC. When Herod became client king for the Roman empire in 37 BC he used the existing temple-state at Jerusalem to his advantage, expanding it by incorporating members from the Jewish diaspora, whose loyalty could be tied more firmly to him. The priestly aristocracy at the temple was thus dependent on Herod/Rome for its authority, but they were required to collect tithes and tribute from the Jewish people. In short, the temple elite became the middlemen through which Herod and the Roman empire extracted the revenue and resources they demanded. They extracted tribute as punishment, to maintain control insofar as that was possible, and, in Herod’s case, to engage in an elaborate building campaign, constructing new palaces with lavish courts and new imperial cities (such as Caesarea).
In his reconstruction of the temple at Jerusalem, so the ancient historian Josephus tells us in his Antiquities, Herod had installed a golden eagle on the gate. To the Jewish people this was a blasphemous symbol of Roman power, an object which prompted violent resistance. It’s a very important component of the backdrop to Jesus in the temple, whip of cords in hand. What the Gospel of John presents us with in 2:15 is a story in which Jesus engages the exploitative, oppressive powers that be. Jesus’ righteous indignation is not merely a “religious” or “personal” act, neatly corresponding to a present-day solipsistic soteriology. As Richard Horsely has noted, if that was so then why would Jesus be executed by crucifixion, a form reserved for political rebels? Jesus’ righteous indignation was a politically charged act that cut across the economic, social, and religious spheres as we understand them. We cannot read our world back into the New Testament without anachronistic distortion. If we remember this holistic historical framework as I’ve sketched it then we can see what Jesus was doing in the temple as a political action directed against imperial powers. And as I’ve argued before, drawing on the work of Biblical scholars, this is consistent with John’s portrayal of Jesus as divine, as attempting to renew the Mosaic covenant, and as a prophetic figure of judgment which would liberate God’s people.
Jesus brandishing a whip of cords in the temple is a political act. If so, what’s he trying to accomplish? This requires some further historical unpacking. As Horsley observes, the world in which the Gospels were written down transmitted knowledge primarily by oral means. Even those who were trained to write texts probably composed them orally, committing them to memory first. Pliny and Cicero describe writing letters in their heads before writing them down on paper. Poetry, drama, orations, philosophical debate would have been matters of recitation and performance in front of a group, to be written down later. What the Gospels record in writing was first an oral tradition that was repeatedly performed in groups, for the most part in village assemblies. Thus the Gospels are best viewed as texts-in-performance, recording and transmitting social memory.
If the Gospels are texts-in-performance, what are they trying to say? To Horsley the answer to this question is quite clear: the Gospels record a fundamental division between Jesus and the representatives of Roman imperial power, between the high priestly rulers and the people who made up the bulk of a traditional agrarian society. Jesus is addressing himself to a problem between rulers and ruled, a fundamentally political conflict. As I observed earlier, we know from the writings of Josephus that the extractions by the Roman empire were the source of frequent social unrest, particularly as villagers could not make their payments and were probably forced into borrowing from rich landholders outside their village communities. The fabric of Judean and Galilean society was deteriorating under the imperial regime. The Romans had conquered Judea in 63 BC and were forced to reconquer the area repeatedly, which entailed widespread devastation of the Jewish people and the countryside. If tribute was slow or failed to be delivered, the Romans interpreted this as tantamount to rebellion and retaliated with extreme brutality. Yet despite such oppression Roman rule was resisted. As Herod was dying, for instance, the golden eagle he had installed as a symbol of imperial power was cut down from the temple gate; and after his death a revolt broke out.
In order to characterize peasant resistance to Roman imperial rule we need to look at the village assembly in ancient Judea. Activities in these assemblies, Horsley maintains, would have included common prayers and a court of elders to deal with conflicts. Although these meetings would have undoubtedly stoked family frictions and feuds, they were simultaneously essential to cooperation and communication. They likely played an important role in peasant action, including in the major revolt of 66-70 AD. The people attacked the archival records of debts in Jerusalem as an attempt to redress massive and unjust economic imbalances by erasing financial records. Josephus also records an agricultural strike by Galilean peasants after Emperor Gaius (Caligula) had ordered a military expedition to set up a statue of his divine person in the temple. The peasants refused to plant their fields in response, what Horsley calls a widespread and impressive feat of defensive organization and communication. This was by no means an isolated instance. There had been messianic revolts in Galilee after Herod’s death, as well as during the major revolt of 132-5 AD. These messianic resistance movements saw the peasants appoint a “king” from among their numbers. Horsley characterizes these as remarkably successful movements, given that they maintained independence for up to two or three years at a time.
Thus the Gospels’ portrayal of Jesus is one that clearly fits within the patterns of resistance to imperial rule, particularly resistance based on Mosaic covenantal commandments. Horsely thinks that peasants and priests alike would have assumed that the normal state of affairs for Israel was to be ruled directly by God. To pay tribute to an imperial power was a violation of the Mosaic covenantal commandments, since we know that resistance to Rome did occur for these reasons. If the village assembly was a relatively safe space for villagers and assembly leaders to discuss their political quandary, then it makes sense for the Gospels to portray Jesus as someone who operated in the countryside, in villages and in village assemblies.
Using studies of peasant societies and peasant political organization, Horsley argues that Jesus was the kind of leader who helped organize peasant political action. He turned peasant grievances into social action. Like other peasant leaders, Jesus often spoke in coded or metaphorical language, and he occasionally spoke directly to the powers as they then were. Horsley maintains that we can go further still. Not only is Jesus portrayed in the Gospels as a peasant leader, but the content of his message confirms it. Most Judeans and Galileans in Jesus’ day were under heavy financial burdens, giving enormous sums to the temple-state, and thereby to Rome; many peasants had been forced from their ancestral homes, had seen their family and village communities devastated by the destruction of Roman conquest and re-conquest, and had been forced to take out loans from those outside their village network. Doesn’t this make a great deal of sense of why Jesus attempted to renew the covenantal commandments established by Moses? Many people were poor, in debt, and hungry. But unlike other popular prophets we know about through Josephus, Jesus sought to renew the village communities through his healings and teachings, instead of leading them outside their villages to oppose Rome. It is to Judeans and Galileans that Jesus speaks most directly: cancel your neighbour’s debts, as God cancels your debts; trust God and God’s reign for the provision of food, water, and shelter; renew your commitment to worship God alone and live at peace with your neighbour. The Sermon on the Mount is about the renewal of the covenantal commandments by amplifying them, not for the mere sake of it or because it is more spiritual, but because these are the means Jesus uses to renew and strengthen the social fabric in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, in opposition to Rome.
The Gospels portray Jesus as adamantly opposed to the priestly hierarchy of the temple and the scribal representatives of the temple-state. Thus in John 2:15 Jesus acts in the role of a traditional prophet—hence the reference to Psalm 69:9 at 2:17—and in doing so forcibly stops the temple activities integral to Roman rule. As we now know because of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Qumran community, Jesus was not alone in this condemnation and his activities were consistent with resistance to Roman rule, resistance to the priestly collaborators, and with an ideal of renewing the covenant of Moses. Drawing on the work of James C. Scott, Horsley insists that Jesus engaged in a form of resistance that makes sense in light of what we know about agitation common to agrarian societies made up largely of peasants and peasant villages. Recall too that major figures in the Israelite tradition, including Moses, Joshua, and David, were sometimes portrayed in popular culture as having led movements of resistance and established forms of God’s direct rule. On the Gospel accounts, it’s clear that Jesus was aligning himself with that tradition. And he chose a particularly good moment in Passover to make that connection, a week-long celebration of deliverance from foreign powers, when Jerusalem would have been overflowing with people.
Finally, we should recall that Jesus was executed by Rome as a political rebel. Hence Jesus’ depiction as the “Son of Man,” a figure from the Book of Daniel who, in judgment, re-establishes God’s sovereignty in Israel. Of course, the resistance movement Jesus established did not end with his death. The Gospels are texts-in-performance and as such are the written repository of a community’s continued social action. These communities were assemblies of village-followers of Jesus Christ, known to us as ekklesia or church. They were embodying and remembering the renewal of God’s covenant with Moses in opposition to Rome. They were attempting to re-establish God’s reign (“thy kingdom come, thy will be done”) and to embody that reign socially in terms of Biblical peace, mutual generosity, and justice.Notes
- To answer this question I need to sketch the relevant backdrop to this episode from John’s Gospel. To that end I will be drawing from Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine by Richard Horsley, University of South Carolina Press, 2013.