Book Review: The Significance of the Temple Incident in the Narratives of the Four Gospels
Deolito Vistar, currently pastor of Picton Baptist Church, has provided here an analysis of each of the canonical gospels’ narratives of Jesus’ action in the temple, in order to determine what the meaning of the incident was for each evangelist in terms of their wider purposes and narrative. Each gospel writer draws out the significance of the temple incident according to his own literary and theological purposes.
In pursuing his objective, Vistar employs what he terms “a variation of composition criticism” (3). This pays attention to the totality of the work, and the final text, rather than any putative sources, considers issues of authorship and the recipients and their “probable life settings”, and the author’s theological perspective (4). While Vistar considers issues of authorship for each gospel, coming down on the side of traditional ascriptions of authorship, I am not entirely convinced that this contributes anything to the substance of his arguments. The same applies to discussions of recipients. What is important, and to which perhaps more space might have been devoted, is the question of the main emphases and overall themes of each gospel.
Following a brief introduction, Vistar devotes the remaining four chapters to each of the four gospels. Each chapter follows the same format, in which he considers “contextual” matters, such as authorship, recipients, overall themes and emphases of the evangelist. Next he considers the wider context within which the passage detailing the temple incident is set, specifically what immediately precedes it and what immediately follows. Finally, he subjects the temple incident itself to analysis to determine the differences (and in some cases the correspondences) of the incident with the other accounts, before discussing aspects of the passage that bring out the specific interests and intents of the evangelist.
Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 2) is concerned with fulfilment, and so the triumphal entry that precedes the temple incident, shows how Jesus’ action fulfils scripture (Zechariah 9:9) – even to the extent of appearing to be said to ride two animals? (Strangely, though Vistar notes this detail elsewhere , he makes nothing of it here). The act of Jesus riding into Jerusalem, and the cries of the crowd, “Hosanna to the Son of David”, establish Jesus as the Messiah-King. The temple action shows this Messiah-King taking a stand against exploitative and greedy temple authorities, and returning the site to a “house of prayer”, where the blind and lame may come and be healed. Thus God’s intentions for the temple are revived.
Mark’s Gospel (Chapter 3) sandwiches the temple incident between the cursing of the fig tree. Another interesting feature is that Jesus prevents people from carrying vessels (probably used to transport sacrificial animals) through the temple precincts (Mark 11:16). Thus the temple’s sacrificial system is brought temporarily to a halt. This, and the enacted parable of the cursing of the fig tree, represents the fact that God judges the temple system as “barren of fruit” and under judgment, fit only for destruction. More broadly, it represents God’s judgment on Israel. But, it is also the precipitating factor in Jesus’ own suffering and death. And for Mark’s first-century readers, living under the Neronian persecution of the mid-60s, it provides hope and encouragement to endure suffering, knowing that, like Jesus, they will be vindicated.
Luke’s Gospel (Chapter 4) portrays Jesus as the Messiah and the Davidic king, and as such Jesus enters the temple (interestingly an entry to Jerusalem is downplayed, though Jesus weeps over the city’s inability to recognise its king) as a royal Messiah. As Luke wishes to present the temple in a positive light (see also the references to righteous people fulfilling worship and prophesying in the temple earlier in Luke; e.g.1:5 -25; 2:21 – 40; 41 – 52; and, cf. 24:53), he omits any reference to a violent protest on Jesus’ part. Instead, the brief account is followed by a description of Jesus teaching in the temple. Hence, Luke maintains a “balance”: Jesus “cleanses” the temple – making a stand against turning a house of prayer into a den of robbers – so that it may be reclaimed and prepared for his teaching ministry.
The differences between John’s account of the temple incident and those of the Synoptics are well known. For one thing, John’s Gospel (Chapter 5) places this incident at the outset of Jesus’ ministry, and after the first “sign”, the miracle of the wine at Cana in Galilee. Already, this sign signals – in its account of depleted wine, and the jars for purification representing the Jewish ceremonial system – that the old order of Israel is under God’s judgment (95). The new wine represents the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes and eschatological expectations brought by Jesus. So, the saying about the temple – which the evangelist refers to Jesus’ body – declares that Jesus now represents the new temple. In Jesus is found the place where God dwells, and by extension, those who believe in Jesus are also the “temple” where God dwells.
But the way the saying is framed, and the scriptural remembrance of the disciples, show that the destruction of the temple to which Jesus refers (John 2:19) is his own death, and resurrection. This both signals the conflict between Jesus and Judaism (represented by “the Jews”) that will follow in the Gospel, and the means by which the new temple will come into being.
Vistar lays out his arguments clearly and coherently: and there is more to his exegetical work than can be covered here. Not much is entirely new, and he is evidently quite dependent upon the secondary literature. One cannot come to this book looking for a comprehensive discussion of the various debates over Jesus’ motivation in performing his temple action. In Vistar’s defence, he clearly lays out that this is not his intention; though he does engage, if in a very cursory way, with some scholars’ opinions.
If I have one quibble, it is that Vistar (along with many scholars) unconsciously conflates the Johannine chronology of the last week of Jesus’ life with the Synoptic chronology. He fails to note, in fact, that it is only by following John’s Gospel –which sets the triumphal entry, or rather, a meal at Bethany, six days before the Passover (John 12:1) – that the temple incident may be placed (by harmonising the information in the gospels) in the week before Jesus died. The Synoptics give no indication when it took place, and arguably – especially in Luke’s telling – it could even be several weeks earlier. I do not dispute that the incident may have happened close to the time of Jesus’ arrest, but Vistar’s confident assertions on this point are not warranted by the text.
Vistar concludes (Chapter 6) with a brief synthesis and conclusion, including here a useful chart laying out side-by-side his main findings across the four gospels. There follow three appendices: one providing a “summative comparison” of the four gospels’ accounts of the temple incident, another comparing the Synoptic gospel accounts by laying out the Greek text in parallel columns, and a third comparing Mark’s and John’s accounts.
As a survey of the four gospels’ accounts of the temple incident, and a discussion of their distinctive theological approaches in a clear, and very readable presentation, I commend this book.
Derek Tovey is the book review editor for Stimulus.