Saturday, September 27, 2014
[Links to my books The Ghost in the Gospels and True Jew, the more recent one, are at the right.]
In any scientific or scholarly field, it is always a good idea to think about what is the ideal evidence you would need to prove a theory or proposition. Always ask yourself: If this theory is true, what is the evidence I would expect to find to justify it?
With that in mind, consider the proposition held dear by most scholars: Jesus’ altercation with the vendors and moneychangers at the Temple was in insult to the Temple authorities or threatened them in some way and led to their having him arrested and tried. If this is true, here is some of the evidence we would naturally expect to see:
Historical context. There should be some similar examples in the history of this culture. Not that the same exact thing occurred, but something close. There should be some examples of Pharisees or others disgruntled with the ways things are handled at the Temple and who get into trouble for voicing their criticisms. That trouble could be a trial or some other action.
Accusation. Somebody should be telling Jesus that he just did a terrible thing, that the vendors did not deserve this treatment, and perhaps even that he was insulting the Temple authorities.
Prosecution. If this is an illegal or rebellious act, then he should be put on trial for it. The charge of disrupting Temple commerce, or some such charge, should be clearly stated and he is found guilty of such.
Symbolic act. Many scholars claim that Jesus was carrying out a symbolic act of destruction of the Temple. If so, he would have said something like ‘Let those who have ears to hear, hear.’ We would also expect that, if this is a deep-seated feeling, there would be other such criticisms or acts by Jesus against the Temple, and perhaps even by his followers after his death. We should see Jesus explaining on other occasions what he believes is wrong with the Temple.
In all of the above cases, no such evidence exists. It is all missing, every single bit of it. There are other examples in Jewish history of Pharisees or others severely criticizing some aspect of the way things are done at the Temple, but no one is ever punished for it. I present about 15 such examples in The Ghost in the Gospels, Ch. 8, sec. 2. One can of course always “argue” that Jesus was unique. It is more of an assertion than an argument. But those scholars who do that are taking Jesus out of history. They are proposing that all historical evidence is irrelevant in his case because his uniqueness would have no historical parallels. Those who assert this are really declaring an end to all historical study about Jesus.
In the Gospels, no one ever tells Jesus that overturning the tables was a bad thing to do, and at the so-called trial (in reality, it was a friendly, informal meeting, not a judicial procedure), he is never charged with this as a crime. Absolutely every other piece of information about Jesus and the Temple in the Gospels tells us how much he revered and loved the Temple. That includes his prophecy of destruction. A Jewish prophet utters his announcement as a deterrence. The whole point of Jewish prophecy is to prevent the destruction. The message is that we love this institution so much that we don’t want to see it destroyed. The prophecy is a reminder of that. There is simply no evidence whatsoever that Jesus had any deep objections to the Temple or its essential purpose.
The Gospels in fact never even tell us what exactly Jesus was angry about with the vendors. Something bothered him, but we are never told his specific grievance. The best rational guess is that he believed the vendors were conducting their business too near the Temple and in too loud a manner. Most Pharisees would likely have agreed with him, though they probably would have disapproved of the way he expressed himself.
Because the Gospels left out the specific reason for Jesus’ complaint, that left future theologians and scholars free to invent a deeper antagonism on Jesus’ part, but there is no evidence to suggest that he had any such feelings. Rather, everything else in the Gospels reinforces the fact that he held the Temple in high regard (and I go over all of this in sec. 1 of Ch. 8 of Ghost). The brief altercation with the vendors and moneychangers is an isolated incident. Precisely because it is isolated, unsupported by anything else, it tells us that this was a fairly small event at the time. No one, not even the priests, would have read larger implications into it.
When absolutely no evidence exists for a theory or a proposed idea, then it can truly be said to be ideology. The exaggerated importance most scholars give to the incident near the Temple is strictly a result of their general ideology that Jesus must be surrounded by Jewish enemies. Ideology is what it is because weak or no evidence supports it. In the case of this action, the evidence is totally non-existent. Being free of evidence is all too characteristic of so much historical Jesus scholarship.
© 2014 Leon Zitzer