March 6, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

When Jesus cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem

John F. FinkThe Gospel reading for this weekend’s Masses is John’s version of Jesus cleansing the Temple in Jerusalem (although some parishes might elect to read the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, which is permitted where there are catechumens).

Jesus knew the Temple area well. He was there first when he was only 40 days old, but the Holy Family, like all good Jews, would have traveled the 90 miles from Nazareth to Jerusalem to visit the Temple three times a year, for the feasts of Passover, Pentecost (or Weeks) and Tabernacles (or Booths).

The Jewish First Temple was built by Solomon in 957 B.C. to house the Ark of the Covenant. It was thought to have been built on Mount Moriah over the rock where Abraham was about to sacrifice his son Isaac. It was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.

The Second Temple was built by Zerubbabel in 516 B.C. after the return of the Jews from Babylon. It was looted by the Seleucid Empire of Syria in 167 B.C., but then rededicated by Judas Maccabeus. Then King Herod the Great began reconstruction in 20 B.C. He finished the Temple itself in a year-and-a-half, but construction of the buildings around it was still going on during Christ’s life. Jews continued to use the Temple throughout.

A superb model of the Second Temple, covering nearly an acre, is in the Israel Museum. The 50:1 scale shows what the Temple was like in 66 A.D., before it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. You can Google “Herod’s Temple” to see what it looked like.

The Temple proper was the same size as Solomon’s (see Exodus, Chapter 6), that is, 60 cubits long, 20 cubits wide, and 25 cubits high (90 by 30 by 37.5 feet). However, the entire magnificent structure sat on massive retaining walls called the Temple Mount, covering about 37 acres.

There were multiple stories where the high priests and scribes worked, and rooms where sages taught Judaism. There were 10 entrances into the inner courts where there were separate courts for men and women. Only men could enter the Court of the Israelites and, of course, only Levites could enter the Court of Priests.

The Court of the Gentiles is where vendors sold the animals (oxen, sheep and doves) to be sacrificed in the Temple. Priests there directed pilgrims and advised them on what kinds of sacrifices were to be performed. Money changers exchanged Roman coins for Jewish or Tyrian money because the Jews considered Roman money to be an abomination to the Lord.

This is where Jesus made a whip and drove the vendors and money changers out, overturning their tables. We can imagine 300,000 to 400,000 Jewish pilgrims packing the area, and the commotion Jesus must have caused. It was a good way to draw attention to himself.

John’s Gospel places this episode at the beginning of Jesus’ public life while the synoptic Gospels place it near the end, probably because they didn’t report on Jesus’s earlier trips to Jerusalem. Chronological order didn’t matter much to the Gospel writers. †

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