Hero photograph
"The Merchants are Chased from the Temple"
Photo by Painting by James Tissot. Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum.

Pilgrimage to the Dwelling Place of God — John 2:13-25

Kathleen Rushton —

KATHLEEN RUSHTON looks at how John 2:13–25 expands the “Clearing of the Temple” story and considers different understandings of the dwelling place of God.

“The restless heart is the starting point of pilgrimage. Everyone harbours a longing that impels him or her to leave behind the indifference of everyday life and the narrowness of habitual surroundings. All the paths . . . point to the fact that life is a path, a way of pilgrimage towards God.” These words of St Augustine ushered me into the world of pilgrimage when I walked the Camino Frances in 2011.

My understanding of the Fourth Gospel’s so-called “cleansing of the Temple” story expanded. It, too, is about pilgrimage to a sacred place. Jesus is a pilgrim. Philo and Josephus, who went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the first century CE, describe exhilarating experiences when pilgrims left the demands and constraints of everyday life imposed by social structures and concerns to enter another world. Pilgrims mixed together, shared experiences, often wore the same pilgrim clothing and emerged at the sacred site for the common purpose of festival worship.

Pilgrimage — “Jesus went up to Jerusalem”

“The Passover . . . was near and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (Jn 2:13). This festival inaugurates the ministry of Jesus and is the first of three key points of his public life — the second is the backdrop to the Bread of Life (Jn 6:4–14) and the third is the context of his arrest, trial and execution (Jn 11:55–19:14). Jesus goes to Jerusalem for the week-long spring festival celebrating the Exodus from Egypt (Ex 12:1–18). Passover is associated with liberation and with God’s salvation past and future.

Jesus, like all Israelite males, was commanded to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year: “at the festival of unleavened bread, at the festival of weeks, and at the festival of booths” — that is, Passover, Pentecost and Sukkoth (Deut 16:16). Pilgrims travelled to Jerusalem on the spring, in summer and in the autumn. The focus is the Temple: God’s dwelling place and the place of worship, reconciliation and covenant renewal. These festivals are the background to John 5–10.

The Temple — The Order of Creation

The Temple in Jerusalem was invested with meaning from both within Israel and the Middle East culture. Temples were constructed according to a divine revealed plan to be a dwelling place for God/the god(s) who visited and dwelled in the sky immediately above the temple. The understanding was that God/god(s) above did not actually come to earth but could be accessed by people in the temple which was usually built on a hill. (See diagram below.)

A temple replicated a palace. A temple existed for God/gods as the palace for the king. Like surrounding temples, the pattern of the Jerusalem Temple’s personnel, interactions and activities followed that of the palace. God was accessible in the Temple as the king was in the palace. God, too, had a household ordered according to rank — high priest, priests, Levities, an army with officers and soldiers, slaves, household staff.

The Temple was a cosmic centre, a navel of the world, a place where heaven and earth met, replicating in physical space the holy order of creation. In this focal religious place for all Israel, social relationships were mapped in the concentric circles which moved out from the Holy of Holies, to the sanctuary, the Court of Israelites, the Court of the Women and the Court of the Gentiles.

Cosmic, social and religious significance interconnected with the Temple’s political and economic aspects. As a king collected taxes, so too did the deity. According to Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, “it would be hard to overestimate the import of the Temple as the centre of a redistributive political economy.” Within its precincts were large treasuries and storehouses in which were deposited a great amount of money and goods “extracted from the surplus product of the peasant economy”. As only a few priests had access to most of the Temple precincts what was stored there was secure and inaccessible.

In addition, the Jerusalem elites (Jn 2:18, 20) held power by being allied with Rome and under Roman supervision. The Roman governor appointed the chief priest and controlled the use of the priestly garments which were kept in the adjoining Antonia palace. This alliance between the elites and the Romans was threatened by Jesus’ actions.

Jesus in the Temple

In what looks like a cleansing of the Temple, the Fourth Gospel gives more detail. There is more force. Jesus is more radical. The animals are named as “cattle” and “sheep” and there are doves. Jesus makes a whip to drive them out. He “poured out” the coins of the moneychangers and overturns their tables. Caged doves cannot be driven out so Jesus orders the sellers to “take these out of here” and adds: “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” The disciples “remembered” words from the Scriptures: “Zeal for your house will consume me” (Jn 2:17).

What Jesus did, in effect, was to shut down the Temple as a place of worship. The animals required for sacrifice were driven out — cattle and sheep, and doves (the offering of the poor). The necessary exchange of foreign currencies for the official temple tax half-shekel (Ex 30:11-16) became unavailable. The purpose of the temple as a place of reconciliation and covenant renewal between God and Israel was over. Where is God’s dwelling place now?

God’s Dwelling Place

In the Prologue, we learn that within all humanity, God’s dwelling place is within the humanity of Jesus: “The Word become flesh and lived/dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). Jesus’ words draw out the meaning of his actions.

A shift occurs in terms. “Jesus drove all of them out of the temple hieron (Jn 2:15). The term hieron refers to the whole area of the temple and is used for pagan shrines.

Then another term referring also to the whole area of the temple is used: “Destroy this temple naos” and “but he spoke of the temple naos of his body” (Jn 2:19, 21).

The evangelist, however, makes a distinction and associates the term naos with the temple of Jesus’ risen human body, now the dwelling place of God, the place of reconciliation and covenant renewal. Earlier, John the Baptiser saw Jesus and declared: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn 1:29). And later in the gospel Jesus will inform the woman at the well: “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (Jn 4:21).

So the Evangelist, probably writing from Ephesus, interprets an event of 60 years before in the early 30s, in the now non-existent Temple destroyed in 70 CE. Perhaps some of the community had been drawn into the activities of the local Roman temple of Artemis. Others may long for the Jerusalem Temple. The disciples “remembered” words from the Scriptures and also Jesus’ words about his body (Jn 2:17, 22).

While Mark, Matthew and Luke place this incident as happening in the last week of Jesus’ life, John’s Gospel begins Jesus’ public ministry by focusing on his now ever-present risen human body as the dwelling place of God, the place of reconciliation and covenant renewal.

Lent can be our pilgrimage towards God, a time of preparing for deeper participation in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus, the dwelling place of God. Are we drawn into today’s equivalent of Artemis’s temple? Do we need to refocus on Jesus and whakawhanaungatanga/making right relationship happen with God, the land and people?

Tui Motu Magazine. Issue 223, February 2018: 22-23.