December 14, 2019

Why did Jesus Cleanse the Temple and Curse the Fig Tree?

Few stories about Jesus are more misunderstood than his clearing of the temple.  

On the one hand, many people see the act, and the cursing of the fig tree which accompanies it, as little more than a burst of anger, seemingly unworthy of a great teacher and model like Jesus. The noted atheist Bertland Russel accused Jesus of “vindictive fury” against the tree, and felt it tarnished his reputation.  

On the other hand, many Christians interpret the clearing of the temple as Jesus’ assault on the financial corruption of the temple authorities, or as a warning not to commercialize holy ground. 

Both these viewpoints are mistaken. Jesus did not act in a fit of rage, but with great foresight and meaning. And his point was not to warn against commercializing religion, but to judge “temple religion”. I will attempt to prove both these points by examining the context, the actions of Jesus, and the words of Jesus (especially his two Old Testament quotations) from Mark’s account (in Mark 11:1-12:12). 

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The Context 

Chapter 11 begins a new division in the book of Mark; Jesus arrive in Jerusalem for the passion week, and the rest of the book is set in that city (and especially in the temple). Here is the flow of the narrative” 

  1. 11:1-10 The Triumphal entry 
  1. 11:11 Jesus examines the temple and its activities 
  1. 11:12-14 The next morning Jesus curses the fig tree 
  1. 11:15-19 Jesus clears the temple 
  1. 11:20-21 The fig tree is seen and it has withered 
  1. 11:20-26 Jesus teaches on prayer (and speaks of moving “this mountain”) 
  1. 11:27-33 Jesus and the Jewish leaders argue Jesus’ authority to “do this”. 
  1. 12:1-12 Jesus gives the parable of the vineyard and the tenants, denouncing the Jewish leaders. 

It’s rather obvious that Jesus’ action at the temple is the central theme of this section; the way Mark sandwiches it between the two sections on the fig tree clearly links the two events together. Neither can be understood apart from the other.  

The Clearing of the Temple 

We will start, then, with the clearing, and work out from there. Mark 11:17 says: 

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written:  

“ ‘My house will be called  

a house of prayer for all nations’?  

But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.

18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.  

 We should note the following things: 

  • The passage says nothing about Jesus being in a rage. He used a corded whip to move the animals (who are notoriously bad at listening to reason) not to attack people (the Romans would have gotten involved if that had happened).  
  • The emphasis is what on Jesus stopped: he stopped, for a day anyway, the buying and selling of animals which were used for the temple sacrifices and he stopped the conversion of money that was used for the temple offering. In other words, Jesus temporarily (and symbolically) ended the Temple operations. 
  • The text emphasizes twice the teaching element of the scene; the temple authorities were not upset at some sort of violence on Jesus’ part, but the meaning of his action. 
  • Jesus, in explaining his action, cites two texts from the prophets. The first (from Isaiah 56) describes what the temple was designed to be (a house of prayer for all nations, not just Jews) and what it had actually become (a den of thieves).  
  • Jesus returns to the idea of prayer again in verses 22-25. Here we see that prayer can move “this mountain” (in context, the temple mount) into the sea. We also see that prayer is dependent, not on location (that is, at the temple) but on faith and forgiveness. 

It becomes clear, then, that Jesus is taking action against the temple itself, and is not just upset that some people are buying in the temple courtyards. Why? The answer is explained in the two passages from the prophets that Jesus quotes to explain and justify his actions.  The first is from Isaiah 56: 

6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord

to serve him, 

to love the name of the Lord

and to worship him, 

all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it 

and who hold fast to my covenant— 

7 these I will bring to my holy mountain 

and give them joy in my house of prayer. 

Their burnt offerings and sacrifices 

will be accepted on my altar; 

for my house will be called 

a house of prayer for all nations.” 

8 The Sovereign Lord declares— 

he who gathers the exiles of Israel: 

“I will gather still others to them 

besides those already gathered.” 

Here the emphasis is clear: the temple is a place where God intends to draw “foreigners” and “all nations” to Himself. He will thereby gather other nations to Himself, besides those He has already gathered (Israel).  

But this was not what was happening in the temple. In fact, a stone partition, a “dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14-17) kept foreigners out of the main part of the temple, on pain of death. Instead of being a place where they could come and pray and worship Yahweh, it was now a painful reminder of their distance from Him. 

The second quotation is even more damning. To understand what is meant by “den of thieves” we need to read the words in their context in Jeremiah 7: 

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord“Stand at the gate of the Lord’s house and there proclaim this message:  

“ ‘Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the LordThis is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.  

“ ‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? 11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord 

12 “ ‘Go now to the place in Shiloh where I first made a dwelling for my Name, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel. 13 While you were doing all these things, declares the Lord, I spoke to you again and again, but you did not listen; I called you, but you did not answer. 14 Therefore, what I did to Shiloh I will now do to the house that bears my Name, the temple you trust in, the place I gave to you and your fathers. 15 I will thrust you from my presence, just as I did all your brothers, the people of Ephraim.’  

This passage is a judgment against the people for misusing and perverting the temple. In particular, they were viewing it as some sort of talisman against God’s wrath, as if they could do whatever they wanted (steal, murder, commit adultery) and still be safe because they had “the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord”. This gives background to the meaning of “den of robbers”. The point is that the den is where the robbers return after they have stolen, and find (they think) safety. The robbers are not robbing the den, but using the den as a safe house. So the condemnation of Jesus in the temple is not that the money changers were robbing the people, but that the religious authorities (and, no doubt, many of the common people) felt they could do whatever they wanted to do and yet they would be safe from God’s judgement because they had the temple. In that way, it had indeed become a “den of robbers”, a safe house for thieves.  

Jesus then, quotes this passage from Jeremiah which announces that God will destroy the temple because of their perversion. If this seemed unthinkable, God reminds them that he let the tabernacle be destroyed in Shiloh. He is not bound by any building. 

From the rest of the New Testament, we see that the temple is no longer needed because Jesus has fulfilled the symbolism of the temple, and, through His Spirit, has now reconnected his followers to God in a more profound way than the temple could ever afford; this is why he talks about our access to God in prayer in verses 22-25.  Jesus stopped, temporarily and symbolically, that which He would soon stop completely.

The cleansing of the temple, then, is not a fit of rage, but “an acted parable” of the sort common to the prophets. We should view the cursing of the fig tree in the same light. It is also an acted parable, describing God’s anger at Israel’s unrighteousness. It also carries a warning to us. 

The Cursing of the Fig Tree 

As we have seen, the action about the fig tree sandwiches the temple clearing incident, and thus is closely related to it. Verses 12:-14 describe the first part: 

12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it. 

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To explain the background, I will quote from the James Edwards in the Pillar New Testament Commentary (one of the best series, in my opinion): 

After the fig harvest from mid-August to mid-October, the branches of fig trees sprout buds that remain undeveloped throughout the winter. These buds swell into small green knops known in Hebrew as paggim in March–April, followed shortly by the sprouting of leaf buds on the same branches, usually in April. The fig tree thus produces fig knops before it produces leaves. Once a fig tree is in leaf one therefore expects to find branches loaded with paggim in various stages of maturation. This is implied in 11:13, where Jesus, seeing a fig tree in full foliage, turns aside in hopes of finding something edible. In the spring of the year the paggim are of course not yet ripened into mature summer figs, but they can be eaten, and often are by natives (Hos 9:10; Cant 2:13). The tree in v. 13, however, turns out to be deceptive, for it is green in foliage, but when Jesus inspects it he finds no paggim; it is a tree with the signs of fruit but with no fruit. 

The most puzzling part of the brief narrative of the cursing of the fig tree is the end of 11:13, “because it was not the season of figs.” This phrase is usually understood to exonerate the tree for not producing fruit since it was not yet the season. Understood as such, the phrase makes Jesus’ curse vindictive and irrational . . .But this is neither the only nor the best way to understand the phrase. It is better simply to distinguish between mature figs (Gk. sykē; Heb. te’enim) and early or unripe figs (Heb. paggim). The end of v. 13 might be paraphrased, “It was, of course, not the season for figs, but it was for paggim. 

In narrating the episode of Jesus and the fig tree Mark exploits its symbolic import, seeing in the curse of the tree the fate of Jerusalem and the temple. The prophets had often used the fig tree as a symbol of judgment (Isa 34:4; Jer 29:17; Hos 2:12; 9:10; Joel 1:7; Mic 7:1). In a scathing denunciation of Judah, Jeremiah says, “There will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither” (8:13). Jesus, according to Luke (13:6–9), had in fact told a parable with the same image and point. Like the prophets who had on occasion dramatized a particularly trenchant message by action (Isa 20:1–6; Jer 13:1–11; 19:1–13; Ezek 4:1–13), Jesus dramatizes the end of the temple by an enacted parable. The leafy fig tree, with all its promise of fruit, is as deceptive as the temple, which, despite its religious commerce and activity, is really an outlaws’ hideout (v. 17). The curse of the fig tree is a symbol of God’s judgment of the temple.3 

I think this is exactly right, and in line with the most ancient interpretation of the passage. The earliest commentary on the Gospel of Mark is by Victor of Antioch in the fifth centuryVictor understood the event as an enacted parable, in which the cursing of the fig tree symbolized the judgment to befall Jerusalem.  

This theme of judgment because of the lack of expected fruit is amplified in the section which ends this division of Mark, the parable of the vineyard: 

He then began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.  

“He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’  

“But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.  

“What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. 10 Haven’t you read this scripture:  

“ ‘The stone the builders rejected  

has become the capstone;  

11 the Lord has done this,  

and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”  

12 Then they looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away.  

We must be thick indeed not to get the meaning of this parable after all the above. It fits in exactly the context preceding. After two enacted parables (the fig tree and the temple) Jesus finally gives an oral parable, with the same message of judgment on God’s people (especially the leaders) because they have not produced righteous fruit. 

A Conclusion and a Warning 

The conclusion is this: Jesus did not “lose it” in a fit of rage when he cursed the fig tree and cleared the temple. He, like the prophets before Him, enacted parables of judgment and warning. He did this, moreover, at the beginning of the passion week, where he had come “to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45). The followers of Jesus, like blind Bartimaeus (10:46-52) are given new vision by trusting in Jesus. They no longer need the temple and its regulations; they now have access to God by Jesus, and exercise that access by faith in prayer (11:22-25). 

But implicit in all this is a warning: God expects His people to grow in righteousness, not use their religion to cover up their sins. Not that we would ever do that today… 

 

 

By the way, here is N.T. Wright on the meaning of the temple clearing:

 

Comments

  1. A very enlightening and convincing commentary.

  2. Might there also be eschatological significance in Jesus’ words “You will never bear fruit again”? IOW, the destruction of the first Temple was provisional, but this time it’s destruction will be permanent?

  3. Thanks Daniel. I happened to have been reading the other day about the Bar Kokhba revolts and historically, that’s when the use of a “temple” truly came to it’s final, final end. You’re correct in a way with this, “Jesus stopped, temporarily and symbolically, that which He would soon stop completely.” but His brethren were very, very stubborn… they did not give up that talisman (well put btw) easily; It’s a very sobering tale indeed. Jesus was really trying to save them, in a physical, tangible way from the end result of their cargo cult. Makes me ask, what are we hanging on to for dear life, that if we don’t let go, will lead us to utter and complete destruction?

    • Burro (Mule) says

      Warning: Long winded rant ahead

      Makes me ask, what are we hanging on to for dear life, that if we don’t let go, will lead us to utter and complete destruction?

      Progressives are ever accusing conservatives of attempting to hang on to things after their expire date, like Ransom’s description to the Green Lady of the Bent Oyarsa in CS Lewis’ Perelandra. Being unfallen, the Green Lady had no concept of evil, so Ransom explained that the titulary spirit of our world – ‘held on to the old good so long that it ceased to be good.’

      Just about every comment on this board that doesn’t come from SenecaGriggs, Jon, or Miguel seems to have this flavor to it; ‘if you yahoos would just give up your outdated and, frankly, embarassing opinions about sex, private ownership, nationalism, and a host of other issues we could all follow Jesus the right way.’

      Conservatives return the favor by accusing progresives of undue experimentation, reaching out for changes and states of affairs that the race may not be ready for yet, and, indeed, may never be ready for. It lends creedence to Owen Barfield’s concept, following Steiner, that there are two evil, tempting spirits that appear to be opposed but who are united in their contempt for mankind. I think Jesus was warning against something far more prosaic, the desire for a domesticated God and “homestyle” miracles.

      In the well-received Orthodox movie, The Island, there was a line where the monk Anatoly remarks ‘people asking for miracles will always be disappointed because the world does not tolerate domestic miracles’. There was some discussion on the Orthodox Christianinty reddit forum as to what this could possibly mean, especially in light of the original Russian dialogue of the film. The word used by the monk Anatoly was ‘domashniy’, which could be translated ‘domestic’, but with connotations of “homespun”, “cozy”, “like Grandma used to make”.

      One of the most perceptive ommentators on that board remarked “I’m not sure what exactly was meant by the term “domestic miracles”, but there is a recurring theme of the people who come to seek advice and healing from the monk Anatoly, receiving what they sought and then desiring to continue going about their daily lives without any real change.

      “[Anatoly] is exhorting the people to make changes, or to take leaps of faith, but they are unwilling to listen. They get what they want from him and go on their way. Maybe what that comment in the article was trying to convey is that people expect the miracles from the prayers of the holy people, but more in the same way that you would expect a soda when you put change in the machine and press a button. It is disconnected from love and thanksgiving towards God, seen more as a product they want to attain than a miracle they ought to have faith in.”

      I think sometimes , because we are so far removed from those days and we aren’t Jewish, we fail to realize how much of the Second Temple cultus was innovative and Mishnaic in character. I don’t believe there was any ‘Court of the Gentiles’ or ‘Court of Women’ in the original instructions for the tabernacle given to Moses in Exodus.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        It lends creedence to Owen Barfield’s concept, following Steiner, that there are two evil, tempting spirits that appear to be opposed but who are united in their contempt for mankind.

        A Good Cop/Bad Cop tag team of opposite-appearing pairs.
        Like the two archetypes of Antichrist — fleeing the Fanatic Persecutor, we seek refuge with the Slick Deceiver.

        “The Devil sends sins in matched opposing pairs, so that in fleeing one we embrace the other.”
        – attr to C.S.Lewis

        I think Jesus was warning against something far more prosaic, the desire for a domesticated God and “homestyle” miracles.

        Like the Testimony Night classic of God answering MY prayer with a good parking spot at the mall? Or the higher-stakes miracle where I walk unharmed out of a car/train/plane crash where everyone else dies horribly?

        Aslan declawed and castrated, harmlessly purring on MY lap.
        (Which is really gonna help when — not if — Tash kicks in the door.)

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Makes me ask, what are we hanging on to for dear life, that if we don’t let go, will lead us to utter and complete destruction?

      Simple.
      Whatever YOU hang on to that I don’t.
      (Once you factor in one-upmanship…)

      • Burro (Mule) says

        Knowing this crowd, probably ethno-linguistically based nation-states, male-only clergy, heterosexual-exclusive marriage, basically the whole panoply of tradition received from our ancestors. Dintcha know? It’s all a functional equivalent of Second Temple Jewish ethnocentrism because it makes distinctions between people and Hurts Feelings.

        • “ethno-linguistically based nation-states” – the problem with ethnostates is that they tend to have a very poor track record with minority rights and respecting the neighbors who aren’t them.

          “male-only clergy” – if you want to cut yourselves off from the gifts and talents of half your congregants, that’s your problem. Just don’t expect us to follow your lead on that old wineskin.

          “heterosexual-exclusive marriage” – you may get a partial pass because your tradition still recognizes options other than marriage for people of faith. But when it comes to it, what do we care what non-believers do with their junk, and with whom?

          “basically the whole panoply of tradition received from our ancestors” – which is very similar to the charge the Pharisees hurled at Jesus. Don’t expect me to lose much sleep over facing the same charge. 😉

          • Ethnostates have a poor track record regarding minority rights, and they also have a penchant for going to war with other states, especially other enthnostates in their neighborhood. Western European history provides plenty of evidence of that.

          • Just don’t expect us to follow your lead on that old wineskin.

            Exactly.

            • So you guys can find no good whatsoever in the history of Western Civilization? What state would not be an ethno state? I am not connecting the article to this at all.

              • Neither one of us said anything about not finding any good whatsoever in the history of Western civilization; you had to make a mighty big leap away from what we actually said to get to that conclusion. The United States is not supposed to be an ethnostate, and to the degree that it has succeeded in living up to that ideal as codified in its founding documents and evolving legal history, it has avoided much of the internecine, sectarian, and nationalistic strife of many other places around the world, including Europe. The European Union is an attempt to overcome the ethno-nationalist divisions that for so long caused Europe to be in a constant state of warfare, both within and between countries — and Western Europe has never had so long a period of peace between nation states as during the the last 75 years since WWII, as it has striven for greater trans-European unity (I’m not counting the Pax Romana.) As for the tangent away from the post, it is in response to Mule’s long comment above, so perhaps you should take it up with him.

                • Klasie Kraalogies says

                  Ditto Rob. It amazes me when people make comments like that.

                  In addition, the nation-state is a quite recent invention in the history of humanity – a few hundred years only. Don’t these folks know any history at all? (Hint: they dont)

              • So, you think minority rights is something that wasn’t invented by Western civilization? I like to think we’re calling Western civilization to live up to it’s stated ideals. But if you think ethnocentrism, patriarchy, and heteronormativity are the core of our civilization… Well, that really wouldn’t make us all that different from everybody else, wouldn’t it? 😉

        • Yes, Burro one world is dying and another is being born. Same as it ever was.

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    …some sort of talisman against God’s wrath, as if they could do whatever they wanted (steal, murder, commit adultery) and still be safe because they had “the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord”.

    Just as the Truly Reformed Behaving Badly use their Predestined Election.
    And the OSAS types behaving badly use their long-ago Altar Call.