Chronology and the Cleansing of the Temple
by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
One of the most popular alleged Bible discrepancies pertaining to chronology—and one that skeptics are fond of citing in any discussion on the inerrancy of Scripture—is whether or not Jesus cleansed the temple early in His ministry, or near the end. According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus cleansed the temple during the final week leading up to His death on the cross (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46). John, however, places his record of the temple cleansing in chapter 2 of his gospel account, between Jesus’ first miracle (2:1-12) and His conversation with Nicodemus (3:1-21). How should John’s gospel account be understood in light of the other three writers placing the event near the end of Jesus’ ministry? Skeptics question, “Did Jesus enter the temple and drive out the money changers early in His ministry, or near the end?”
Most often, it seems, the explanation heard regarding this difficulty is that there was only one temple cleansing—near the end of Jesus’ life—and John’s placement of this event at an earlier time is the result of his “theological,” rather than “chronological,” approach to writing his account of the life and teachings of Jesus. The problem with this explanation is that, although overall John may have been a little less concerned with chronology than were the other writers, a straightforward reading of the text favors the position that this particular clearing of the temple was not something that occurred near the end of Jesus’ life. The record of Jesus’ first miracle, beginning in John 2:1, begins with the phrase, “On the third day….” This section ends with John writing the words, “After this…” (2:12, Greek meta touto). Following verse 12, John then begins his account of the temple cleansing saying, “Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand…” (2:13). It certainly would appear to be “out of the ordinary” for John to jump ahead nearly three years in the life of Jesus to an event that occurred in Jerusalem during the last week of His life, only then to backtrack to a time prior to “the second sign Jesus did when He had come out of Judea into Galilee” (John 4:54). Admittedly, John would not have erred in writing about the temple cleansing earlier on in his gospel account if the Holy Spirit saw fit to mention the event at that time. (Perhaps this would have been to show from the outset of Jesus’ ministry that He “repudiated what was central to the Temple cults, and further that his death and resurrection were critically important”—Morris, 1995, p. 167.) A better explanation of this alleged contradiction exists, however: There were two temple cleansings.
Why not? Who is to say that Jesus could not have cleansed the temple of money-hungry, hypocritical Jews on two separate occasions—once earlier in His ministry, and again near the end of His life as He entered Jerusalem for the last time? Are we so naïve as to think that the temple could not have been corrupted at two different times during the three years of Jesus’ ministry? Jesus likely visited the temple several times during the last few years of His life on Earth (especially when celebrating the Passover—cf. John 2:13,23; 6:4; 11:55), likely finding inappropriate things going on there more than once. Do churches in the twenty-first century sometimes have problems that recur within a three-year span? Have church leaders ever dealt with these problems in a public manner multiple times and in similar ways? Of course. (“How soon men forget the most solemn reproofs, and return to evil practices”—Barnes, 1956, p. 196.)
What evidence does a person possess, which would lead him to conclude that Jesus cleansed the temple only once? There is none. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke recorded a temple cleansing late in Jesus’ ministry, much evidence exists to indicate that John recorded an earlier clearing of the temple. It is logical to conclude that the extra details recorded in John 2 are not simply supplemental facts (even though the writers of the gospels did supplement each others’ writings fairly frequently). Rather, the different details recorded by John likely are due to the fact that we are dealing with two different temple cleansings. Only John mentioned (1) the oxen and sheep, (2) the whip of cords, (3) the scattering of the money, (4) Jesus’ command, “Take these things away,” and (5) the disciples’ remembrance of Psalm 69:9: “Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up” (2:17). Furthermore, John did not include Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 56:7, which is found in all three of the other accounts, and stands as a prominent part of their accounts of the temple cleansing.
In view of the major differences in wording, in setting, and in time, as well as the fact that, apart from the work of John the baptizer, nothing in the first five chapters of John’s gospel account is found in Matthew, Mark, or Luke, “we will require more evidence than a facile assumption that the two similar narratives must refer to the same event” (Morris, p. 167). There is no chronological contradiction here.
Barnes, Albert (1956), Notes on the New Testament—Luke-John (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Morris, Leon (1995), The Gospel According to St. John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), revised edition.