The Temple as a “Den of Robbers”

temple3In 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. Many Christians have taken 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 raise it anew 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. 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)

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 the classical prophets he was mad about systematic robbery, which would no longer be a problem in the kingdom of God.

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