Jesus Radicals Blog 2005-2017
By: James Hamrick
Whenever I talk to Christians about the non-violent way of Jesus they inevitably bring up an incident from Jesus’ life that ‘proves’ that pacifism is nonsense: his cleansing of the temple. All four canonical Gospels tell us that Jesus went to Jerusalem, entered the temple, and proceeded to chase people and animals out, overthrow tables, and cause an overall ruckus. The Gospel of John even tells us he used a whip. “That certainly doesn’t sound like something a pacifist would do!”
Unfortunately, this story is not the slam-dunk that violent Christians think it is. Ultimately there is no contradiction between Christian pacifism and Jesus’ action in the temple.
There are a lot of angles we can consider this story from. We could talk about Jesus being the Son of God, and that he may have the right to exercise force in ways that his followers are called to avoid. We could talk about the very large gap separating a symbolic destruction of property from taking lives in warfare. We could talk about many Christians who have renounced warfare and the taking of human life while participating in similar destructive protests. We could talk about how the text does not tell us that Jesus actually struck anyone – even the presence of a whip does not mean he actually hit anyone with it. But of all the different angles we could look at this story from, the one I’d like to focus on is that of holy zeal. I believe when we read Jesus’ cleansing of the temple against the other demonstrations of zeal in the Old Testament and early Judaism, the relatively non-violent nature of his action becomes more apparent.
In John’s version of the temple cleansing the disciples recall a scripture from the Psalms, which says “Zeal for thy house will consume me.” (John 2:17/Psalms 69:9). The Greek and Hebrew words behind this both carry a similar sense to our English word: an intense feeling or devotion to something or someone. The disciples in John see Jesus’ temple action as an example of his intense feeling towards God’s house, the temple. It is an example of holy zeal.
So how does Jesus’ demonstration of holy zeal compare with other demonstrations?
The most startling precedent is the tale of Phinehas in Numbers 25. There we read that Israel ‘played the harlot with the daughters of Moab,’ and got tangled up in idolatry with Baal Peor. In typical Old Testament fashion, YHWH got angry and the culprits were executed in order to avert his wrath. In the midst of all the weeping over the situation an Israelite man brought a Midianite woman into his tent. Phinehas was enraged when he saw this, and grabbing a spear he went into their tent and killed them both. For this he was commended by YHWH: “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was zealous with my zeal among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my zeal.” YHWH goes on to promise an eternal priesthood to his descendants, a promise that some early Jewish interpreters read as immortality for Phinehas.
The zeal of Phinehas became a model for how God’s people were to respond to those who in some way threatened or abandoned God’s covenant with his people, particularly in regards to cultic and ethnic boundaries. In Jubilees, an early Jewish retelling of Genesis/Exodus, we see Simeon and Levi’s murder of the Shechemites in response to Dinah’s rape interpreted as an act of Phinehas-like zeal. Levi is commended: “And Levi and his sons will be blessed forever because he was zealous to do righteousness and judgment and vengeance against all who rose up against Israel” (Jub. 30:18) In 1st Maccabees we read that a representative of the Seleucid king came to Modein to force the Jews there to commit apostasy by offering a sacrifice on an altar. The king’s officer tried to encourage Mattathias, an elder from a priestly line, to be the first to offer sacrifice. Mattathias refused, but another Jew from Modein accepted. The text tells us: “When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him upon the altar. At the same time he killed the king’s officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar. Thus he burned with zeal for the law, as Phinehas did against Zimri the son of Salu. Then Mattathias cried out in the city with a loud voice, saying: “Let every one who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!” (1st Maccabees 2:24-27)
Holy zeal is an awfully violent affair.
We also find the fingerprints of such holy zeal in the New Testament, particularly in the pre-Christian Paul. James Dunn says the following about Paul’s pre-Jesus days: “The most striking feature of Paul’s pre-Christian past as he himself recalled it was his role as a persecutor of the church, that is, of his fellow Jews who believed Jesus to be Messiah. He refers to this pre-Christian past several times: ‘I persecuted the church of God’ (1 Cor. 15:9); ‘I persecuted the church of God in excessive measure and tried to destroy it’ (Gal 1:13); ‘as to zeal, a persecutor of the church’ (Phil. 3:6). In Gal. 1:23 he recalls that he was commonly known among the Judean churches as ‘he who persecutes us,’ ‘the persecutor.’ Why did Paul take on the role of persecutor? The answer he himself gives has just been mentioned: he did so as an expression of his ‘zeal’ . . .” (Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011, 148-149).
Paul sought and approved of the deaths of Christians as a demonstration of zeal.
When we read Jesus’ temple action against this background, we would expect that his act of zeal would have looked a little more like this: “And Jesus, upon seeing how God’s house had been corrupted by businessmen, took up a spear and killed every last salesman and money-changer.” That would have been holy zeal in keeping with tradition. And that would have provided grounds for Jesus-followers to exercise lethal force in the name of our faith. 1 But the fact that Jesus’ temple action did not involve the deaths of any humans or non-human animals makes what he did remarkably non-violent. I can almost picture Phinehas and Mattathias shaking their heads and muttering ‘sissy.’ How can turning over some tables and using a little whip turn the wrath of God away from Israel?
It is true that Jesus’ temple action undermines a quietist form of pacifism that fails to speak out against or confront injustice. But to use his action to support Christians taking lives in war, killing others in interpersonal self-defence, or torturing prisoners for a ‘greater good’ is to misunderstand the type of zeal Jesus demonstrated and called us to emulate.
1. A further contrast that can be explored between the zeal of Jesus in the temple action and the examples of lethal zeal: Jesus’ temple action was arguably rooted in his anger that the traders were occupying space in the temple reserved for Gentile worshippers. Thus his zeal is based on a universalist vision. The zeal of figures like Phinehas, Levi, Mattathias, and Paul are rooted in a desire to maintain separation from the nations.
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