Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Temple as a "Den of Robbers"

In the synoptics Jesus calls the temple a "den of robbers" (citing Jer 7:11) in his rampage against the money-changers (Mk 11:15-17/Mt 21:12-13/Lk 19:45-46). If there's an award to be given for Most Frequently Anachronized Gospel Saying, this one could well be the winner. Most Christians (like Will Manley) take the passage to mean that money-changers were fleecing people who came to sacrifice at the temple. More generally: Jesus opposed commercial activities in a house of God.

Scholars almost unanimously reject this Protestant reading, and even John Dominic Crossan gets things right for a change:
"There was absolutely nothing wrong with any of the buying, selling, or money-changing operations conducted in the outer courts of the temple. Nobody was stealing or defrauding or contaminating the temple's precincts. Those activities were the absolutely necessary concomitants of the fiscal basis and sacrificial purpose of the temple." (Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p 131)
Jesus was prophetically destroying the temple (Mk 13:1-2/Mt 24:1-2/Lk 21:5-6; Mk 14:55-58/Mt 26:59-61; Mk 15:29-30/Mt 27:39-40; Jn 2:19-22; Thom 71), not spiritually reforming it. He wanted God to wipe it out and rebuild it after the apocalypse. Overturning seats and tables was a symbolic gesture anticipated the building's destruction.

How then do we explain the "den of robbers" charge? One way is to not explain it, to treat it as unhistorical. Thus E.P. Sanders:
"If the saying ['den of robbers'] were Jesus' own comment...we would have to accept that it was indeed trade and sacrifice which bothered him, possibly because dishonesty was involved... The saying, however, is quite correctly rejected by most scholars as an addition... 'Robbers' cave' is inappropriate, since 'robber' always means raider, never swindler." (Jesus and Judaism, p 66)
So why don't we try interpreting the phrase correctly, instead of banishing it because its incorrect usage makes no sense? The Greek word lestes indeed means raider/bandit, as opposed to swindler/thief. If historical, Jesus would have been calling the temple a "cave of bandits".

This makes sense, because a den/cave isn't the place where robbery is carried out. It's the place of sanctuary for those who rob elsewhere. It's also the place where bandits "store their ill-gotten gain" (Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p 250). To call the temple of a "den of robbers", then, would have called to mind a refuge for temple authorities, and a storage of wealth accumulated from the Jewish people (through taxes and tithes), leaving them barely at a subsistence level. Jesus wanted to see the temple destroyed for the same kinds of reasons Jeremiah did, which is exactly -- quelle surprise -- why he cited him. Thus William Herzog:
"The temple played a key role in legitimating oppression (Jeremiah) or in actively extracting all but a subsistence from the poor (Jesus). The difference in the roles played by the temple reflects the fact that the institution of kingship still existed in Jeremiah's day but had been replaced by the temple state in Jesus' time. As Jeremiah's sermon foretells destruction of the temple by recalling the fate of Shiloh, so Jesus symbolically acts out the destruction of the Second Temple... The reference to the cave of robbers harkens back to the previous verse, in which the ruling class is condemned for violating the commandments and then seeking refuge in the temple. The people addressed commit all sorts of crimes and then flee to the temple for safety, just as bandits lie low until pursuit dies down, and then go out to commit fresh depradations... The very wealth they bring to support the temple and to buy sacrifices has been taken from the poor... Jesus wryly suggests that the real bandits are not to be found hiding in the caves of the Judean wilderness. No, the chief priests, the very paradigms of rectitude, are the social bandits creating havoc in the land." (Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, pp 139-140)
It's almost too obvious: Jesus had nothing against commercialism, as if a western Protestant, and he certainly wasn't calling on God to destroy the temple for something so trivial as monetary short-changing (as if that were happening). Like classical prophets he was mad about systematic robbery, which would no longer be a problem in the kingdom of God.


Blogger Danny Zacharias said...

This seems like a very subtle difference. I understand the anachronistic label of commercialism is wrong, but at bottom the people were being fleeced, no?

Jesus opposed systematic robbery and the corruption and greed of the priesthood. It seems that this corruption's manifestation was what was going on in and about the Temple and one of the reasons Jesus flipped out. The tables that were being tossed around by Jesus were the visible manifestation of the greed and corruption of the Temple leaders.

my 2 cents

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

This seems like a very subtle difference. I understand the anachronistic label of commercialism is wrong, but at bottom the people were being fleeced, no?

There's a big difference between swindling (dishonesty) and systematic oppression. The latter is sanctioned by the state, pervasive, effecting everyone everywhere. Because it's so omnipresent, it's harder to recognize as a problem and respond to it. To attack it is to go after the bedrock of an agrarian society.

Jesus opposed systematic robbery and the corruption and greed of the priesthood. It seems that this corruption's manifestation was what was going on in and about the Temple

In essence, but the "robbery" was taking place outside the temple, in the land. Bandits don't rob in their own caves, and that's why Jesus chose the Jeremiah passage.

Blogger Steven Carr said...

Roughly how much did the chief priests get from their banditry per year?

Blogger J. B. Hood said...

Loren, Interesting post (I would say Danny may have a point here--seems we could very easily say this is a false either/or).

One interesting point where is the widow's mite, a very famous "stewardship" passage! "Give like she gave!" the preachers say. Of course, they are enacting a parable the greedy ones. No one reports Jesus as commending her, only having a higher evaluation of her gift than that of those in leadership/the wealthy.

Seems as though this could easily be a tragic observation--she is giving everything, this woman who should rather be benefitting/blessed from the Temple and its functions.

Blogger Refutiator said...

In the Mosaic Law they were commanded to offer an animal for a sin offering. To do this they would take the animal through the city to the priest to slay on their behalf as a sacrifice unto God. This would certainly make everyone aware of what they had done and humble you. But they found a way to sell the sacrifice at the door of the temple thereby taking away what God wanted them to go through as a true repentive action. For Christ said they are a a den of robbers & thieves meaning unless you go through the door (Christ) you are a thief & a robber..Selah....Thank God we are not under that Law of Moses for Christ nailed it to His cross Col. 2:14 taking it out of the way...Confess your faults to one & other (I haven't read the Bible for a while or I haven't prayed for them) and confess your sins to God with true repentance in your heart. God's grace be with the household of faith. Refutiator


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