Chapter V. The Cleansing of the Temple - ‘The Sign,’ Which Is Not a Sign.
It has been said that Mary understood, and yet did not understand Jesus. And of this there seems fresh evidence in the circumstance that, immediately after the marriage of Cana, she and the ‘brethren of Jesus’ went with Him, or followed Him, to Capernaum, which henceforth became ‘His own city,’ during His stay by the Lake of Galilee. The question, whether He had first returned to Nazareth, seems almost trifling. It may have been so, and it may be that His brothers had joined Him there, while His ‘sisters,’ being married, remained at Nazareth. For the departure of the family from Nazareth many reasons will, in the peculiar circumstances, suggest themselves. And yet one feels, that their following Jesus and His disciples to their new home had something to do with their understanding, and yet not understanding, of Him, which had been characteristic of Mary’s silent withdrawal after the reply she had received at the feast of Cana, and her significant direction to the servants, implicitly to do what He bade them. Equally in character is the willingness of Jesus to allow His family to join Him - not ashamed of their humbleness, as a Jewish Messiah might have been, nor impatient of their ignorance: tenderly near to them, in all that concerned the humanness of His feelings; sublimely far from them, in all connected with His Work and Mission.
It is almost a relief to turn from the long discussion (to which reference has already been made): whether those who bore that designation were His ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ in the real sense, or the children of Joseph by an earlier marriage, or else His cousins - and to leave it in the indefiniteness which rests upon it. But the observant reader will probably mark, in connection with this controversy, that it is, to say the least, strange that ‘brothers’ of Jesus should, without further explanation, have been introduced in the fourth Gospel, if it was an Ephesian production, if not a fiction of spiritualistic tendency; strange also, that the fourth Gospel alone should have recorded the removal to Capernaum of the ‘mother and brothers’ of Jesus, in company with Him. But this by the way, and in reference to recent controversies about the authorship of the fourth Gospel.
If we could only feel quite sure - and not merely deem it most probable - that the Tell H'fbm of modern exploration marks the site of the ancient Capernaum, kep̱ar naḥum, or tanḥumin (the latter, perhaps, ‘village of consolation’), with what solemn interest would we wander over its ruins. We know it from New Testament history, and from the writings of Josephus. A rancorous notice and certain vile insinuations of the Rabbis, connecting it with ‘heresy,’ presumably that of Christianity, seem also to point to kep̱ar naḥum as the home of Jesus, where so many of His miracles were done. At the time it could have been of only recent origin, since its Synagogue had but lately been reared, through the friendly liberality of that true and faithful Centurion. But already its importance was such, that it had become the station of a garrison, and of one of the principal custom-houses. Its soft, sweet air, by the glorious Lake of Galilee, with snow-capped Hermon full in view in the North - from a distance, like Mount Blanc over the Lake of Geneva; the fertility of the country - notably of the plain of Gennesaret close by; and the merry babble, and fertilising proximity of a spring which, from its teeming with fish like that of the Nile, was popularly regarded as springing from the river of Egypt - this and more must have made Capernaum one of the most delightful places in these ‘Gardens of Princes,’ as the Rabbis interpreted the word ‘Gennesaret,’ by the ‘cither-shaped lake’ of that name. The town lay quite up on its north-western shore, only two miles from where the Jordan falls into the lake. As we wander over that field of ruins, about half a mile in length by a quarter in breadth, which in all probability mark the site of ancient Capernaum, we can scarcely realise it, that the desolateness all around has taken the place of the life and beauty of eighteen centuries ago. Yet the scene is the same, though the breath of judgment has long swept the freshness from its face, here lies in the unruffled stillness, or wildly surges, lashed by sudden storms, the deep blue lake, 600 or 700 feet below the level of the Mediterranean. We can look up and down its extent, about twelve miles, or across it, about six miles. Right over on the other side from where we stand - somewhere there, is the place where Jesus miraculously fed the five thousand. Over here came the little ship, its timbers still trembling, and its sides and deck wet with the spray of that awful night of storm, when He came to the weary rowers, and brought with Him calm. Up that beach they drew the boat. Here, close by the shore, stood the synagogue, built of white limestone on dark basalt foundation. North of it, up the gentle slopes, stretched the town. East and south is the lake, in almost continuous succession of lovely small bays, of which more than seventeen may be counted in six miles, and in one of which nestled Capernaum. All its houses are gone, scarce one stone left on the other: the good Centurion’s house, that of Matthew the publican, that of Simon Peter, the temporary home which first sheltered the Master and His loved ones. All are unrecognisable - a confused mass of ruins - save only that white Synagogue in which He taught. From its ruins we can still measure its dimensions, and trace its fallen pillars; nay, we discover over the lintel of its entrance the device of a pot of manna, which may have lent its form to His teaching there - a device different from that of the seven-branched candlestick, or that other most significant one of the Paschal Lamb, which seem to have been so frequent over the Synagogues in Galilee.
And this, then, is Capernaum - the first and the chief home of Jesus, when He had entered on His active work. But, on this occasion, He ‘continued there not many days.’ For, already, ‘the Jews’ Passover was at hand’ and He must needs keep that feast in Jerusalem. If our former computations are right - and, in the nature of things, it is impossible to be absolutely certain about exact dates - and John began his preaching in the autumn of the year 779 from the building of Rome, or in 26 of our present reckoning, while Jesus was baptized in the early winter following, then this Passover must have taken place in the spring (about April) of the same year. The preparations for it had, indeed, commenced a month before. Not to speak of the needful domestic arrangements for the journey of pilgrims to Jerusalem, the whole land seemed in a state of preparation. A month before the feast (on the 15th Adar) bridges and roads were put in repair, and sepulchres whitened, to prevent accidental pollution to the pilgrims. Then, some would select this out of the three great annual feasts for the tithing of their flocks and herds, which, in such case, had to be done two weeks before the Passover; while others would fix on it as the time for going up to Jerusalem before the feast ‘to purify themselves’ - ‘that is, to undergo the prescribed purification in any case of Levitical defilement. But what must have appealed to every one in the land was the appearance of the ‘money-changers’ (shulḥanim), who opened their stalls in every country-town on the 15th of Adar (just a month before the feast). They were, no doubt, regularly accredited and duly authorised. For, all Jews and proselytes - women, slaves, and minors excepted - had to pay the annual Temple-tribute of half a shekel, according to the ‘sacred’ standard, equal to a common Galilean shekel (two denars), or about 1s. 2d. of our money. From this tax many of the priests - to the chagrin of the Rabbis - claimed exemption, on the ingenious plea that in Lev_6:23 (A.V.) every offering of a priest was ordered to be burnt, and not eaten; while from the Temple-tribute such offerings were paid for as the two wave loaves and the shewbread, which were afterwards eaten by priests. Hence, it was argued, their payment of Temple-tribute would have been incompatible with Lev_6:23!
But to return. This Temple-tribute had to be paid in exact half-shekels of the Sanctuary, or ordinary Galilean shekels. When it is remembered that, besides strictly Palestinian silver and especially copper coin, Persian, Tyrian, Syrian, Egyptian, Grecian, and Roman money circulated in the country, it will be understood what work these ‘money-changers’ must have had. From the 15th to the 25th Adar they had stalls in every country-town. On the latter date, which must therefore be considered as marking the first arrivals of festive pilgrims in the city, the stalls in the country were closed, and the money-changers henceforth sat within the precincts of the Temple. All who refused to pay the Temple-tribute (except priests) were liable to distraint of their goods. The ‘money-changers’ made a statutory fixed charge of a maah, or from 1'bdd to 2d, (or, according to others, of half a maah) on every half-shekel. This was called qolbon. But if a person tendered a sela (a four-denar piece, in value two half-shekels of the Sanctuary, or two Galilean shekels), he had to pay double qolbon: one for his half-shekel of tribute-money, the other for his change. Although not only priests, but all other non-obligatory officers, and those who paid for their poorer brethren, were exempted from the charge of qolbon, it must have brought in an immense revenue, since not only many native Palestinians might come without the statutory coin, but a vast number of foreign Jews presented themselves on such occasions in the Temple. Indeed, if we compute the annual Temple-tribute at about 75,000l., the bankers’ profits may have amounted to from 8,000l. to 9,000l., an immense sum in the circumstances of the country.
But even this does not represent all the facts of the case. We have already seen, that the ‘money-changers’ in the Temple gave change, when larger amounts than were equivalent to the Temple-tribute were proffered. It is a reasonable, nay, an almost necessary inference, that many of the foreign Jews arriving in Jerusalem would take the opportunity of changing at these tables their foreign money, and for this, of course, fresh charges would be made. For, there was a great deal to be bought within the Temple-area, needful for the feast (in the way of sacrifices and their adjuncts), or for purification, and it would be better to get the right money from the authorised changers, than have disputes with the dealers. We can picture to ourselves the scene around the table of an Eastern money-changer - the weighing of the coins, deductions for loss of weight, arguing, disputing, bargaining - and we can realise the terrible truthfulness of our Lord’s charge that they had made the Father’s House a mart and place of traffic. But even so, the business of the Temple money-changers would not be exhausted. Through their hands would pass the immense votive offerings of foreign Jews, or of proselytes, to the Temple; indeed, they probably transacted all business matters connected with the Sanctuary. It is difficult to realise the vast accumulation of wealth in the Temple-treasury. But some idea of it may be formed from the circumstance that, despite many previous spoliations, the value of the gold and silver which Crassus carried from a the Temple-treasury amounted to the enormous sum of about two and a half millions sterling. Whether or not these Temple money-changers may have transacted other banking business, given drafts, or cashed those from correspondents, received and lent money at interest - all which was common at the time - must remain undetermined.
Readers of the New Testament know, that the noisy and incongruous business of an Eastern money-lender was not the only one carried on within the sacred Temple-enclosure. It was a great accommodation, that a person bringing a sacrifice might not only learn, but actually obtain, in the Temple from its officials what was required for the meat- and drink-offering. The prices were fixed by tariff every month, and on payment of the stated amount the offerer received one of four counterfoils, which respectively indicated, and, on handing it to the proper official, procured the prescribed complement of his sacrifice. The Priests and Levites in charge of this made up their accounts every evening, and these (though necessary) transactions must have left a considerable margin of profit to the treasury. This would soon lead to another kind of traffic. Offerers might, of course, bring their sacrificial animals with them, and we know that on the Mount of Olives there were four shops, specially for the sale of pigeons and other things requisite for sacrificial purposes. But then, when an animal was brought, it had to be examined as to its Levitical fitness by persons regularly qualified and appointed. Disputes might here arise, due to the ignorance of the purchaser, or the greed of the examiner. A regularly qualified examiner was called mumḥeh (one approved), and how much labour was given to the acquisition of the requisite knowledge appears from the circumstance, that a certain teacher is said to have spent eighteen months with a farmer, to learn what faults in an animal were temporary, and which permanent.
Now, as we are informed that a certain mumḥeh of firstlings had been authorised to charge for his inspection from four to six Isar (1'bcd. to about 2d.), according to the animal inspected, it is but reasonable to suppose that a similar fee may have been exacted for examining the ordinary sacrificial animals. But all trouble and difficulty would be avoided by a regular market within the Temple-enclosure, where sacrificial animals could be purchased, having presumably been duly inspected, and all fees paid before being offered for sale. It needs no comment to show how utterly the Temple would be profaned by such traffic, and to what scenes it might lead. From Jewish writings we know, that most improper transactions were carried on, to the taking undue advantage of the poor people who came to offer their sacrifices. Thus we read, that on one occasion the price of a couple of pigeons was run up to the enormous figure of a gold denar (a Roman gold denar, about 15s. 3d.), when, through the intervention of Simeon, the grandson of the great Hillel, it was brought down before night to a quarter of a silver denar, or about 2d. each. Since Simeon is represented as introducing his resolve to this effect with the adjuration, ‘by the Temple,’ it is not unfair to infer that these prices had ruled within the sacred enclosure. It was probably not merely controversial zeal for the peculiar teaching of his master Shammai, but a motive similar to that of Simeon, which on another occasion induced Baba ben Buta (well known as giving Herod the advice of rebuilding the Temple), when he found the Temple-court empty of sacrificial animals, through the greed of those who had ‘thus desolated the House of God,’ to bring in no less than three thousand sheep, so that the people might offer sacrifices.
This leads up to another question, most important in this connection. The whole of this traffic - money-changing, selling of doves, and market for sheep and oxen - was in itself, and from its attendant circumstances, a terrible desecration; it was also liable to gross abuses. But was there about the time of Christ anything to make it specially obnoxious and unpopular? The priesthood must always have derived considerable profit from it - of course, not the ordinary priests, who came up in their ‘orders’ to minister in the Temple, but the permanent priestly officials, the resident leaders of the priesthood, and especially the High-Priestly family. This opens up a most interesting inquiry, closely connected, as we shall show, with Christ’s visit to the Temple at this Passover. But the materials here at our command are so disjointed, that, in attempting to put them together, we can only suggest what seems most probable, not state what is absolutely certain. What became of the profits of the money-changers, and who were the real owners of the Temple-market?
To the first of these questions the Jerusalem Talmud gives no less than five different answers, showing that there was no fixed rule as to the employment of these profits, or, at least, that it was no longer known at that time. Although four of these answers point to their use for the public service, yet that which seems most likely assigns the whole profits to the money-changers themselves. But in that case it can scarcely be doubted, that they had to pay a considerable rental or percentage to the leading Temple-officials. The profits from the sale of meat- and drink-offerings went to the Temple-treasury. But it can hardly be believed, that such was the case in regard to the Temple-market. On the other hand, there can be little doubt, that this market was what in Rabbinic writings is styled ‘the Bazaars of the sons of Annas’ (ḥanuyoṯ benē ḥanan), the sons of that High-Priest Annas, who is so infamous in New Testament history. When we read that the Sanhedrin, forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem, transferred its meeting-place from ‘the Hall of Hewn Stones’ (on the south side of the Court of the Priests, and therefore partly within the Sanctuary itself) to ‘the Bazaars,’ and then afterwards to the City, the inference is plain, that these Bazaars were those of the sons of Annas the High-Priest, and that they occupied part of the Temple-court; in short, that the Temple-market and the Bazaars of the sons of Annas are identical.
If this inference, which is in accordance with received Jewish opinion, be admitted, we gain much light as regards the purification of the Temple by Jesus, and the words which He spake on that occasion. For, our next position is that, from the unrighteousness of the traffic carried on in these Bazaars, and the greed of their owners, the ‘Temple-market’ was at the time most unpopular. This appears, not only from the conduct and words of the patriarch Simeon and of Baba ben Buta (as above quoted), but from the fact that popular indignation, three years before the destruction of Jerusalem, swept away the Bazaars of the family of Annas, and this, as expressly stated, on account of the sinful greed which characterised their dealings. And if any doubt should still linger in the mind, it would surely be removed by our Lord’s open denunciation of the Temple-market as ‘a den of robbers.’ Of the avarice and corruption of this infamous High-Priestly family, alike Josephus and the Rabbis give a most terrible picture. Josephus describes Annas (or Ananus), the son of the Annas of the New Testament, as ‘a great hoarder up of money,’ very rich, and as despoiling by open violence the common priests of their official revenues. The Talmud also records the curse which a distinguished Rabbi of Jerusalem (Abba Shaul) pronounced upon the High-Priestly families (including that of Annas), who were ‘themselves High-Priests, their sons treasurers (Gizbarin), their sons-in-law assistant-treasurers (Ammarkalin), while their servants beat the people with sticks.’ What a comment this passage offers on the bearing of Jesus, as He made a scourge to drive out the very servants who ‘beat the people with sticks,’ and upset their unholy traffic! It were easy to add from Rabbinic sources repulsive details of their luxuriousness, wastefulness, gluttony, and general dissoluteness. No wonder that, in the figurative language of the Talmud, the Temple is represented as crying out against them: ‘Go hence, ye sons of Eli, ye defile the Temple of Jehovah!’ These painful notices of the state of matters at that time help us better to understand what Christ did, and who they were that opposed His doing.
These Temple-Bazaars, the property, and one of the principal sources of income, of the family of Annas, were the scene of the purification of the Temple by Jesus; and in the private locale, attached to these very Bazaars, where the Sanhedrin held its meetings at the time, the final condemnation of Jesus may have been planned, if not actually pronounced. All this has its deep significance. But we can now also understand why, the Temple officials, to whom these Bazaars belonged, only challenged the authority of Christ in thus purging the Temple. The unpopularity of the whole traffic, if not their consciences, prevented their proceeding to actual violence. Lastly, we can also better perceive the significance, alike of Christ’s action, and of His reply to their challenge, spoken as it was close to the spot where He was so soon to be condemned by them. Nor do we any longer wonder that no resistance was offered by the people to the action of Jesus, and that even the remonstrances of the priests were not direct, but in the form of a perplexing question.
For it is in the direction just indicated, and in no other, that objections have been raised to the narrative of Christ’s first public act in Jerusalem: the purgation of the Temple. Commentators have sufficiently pointed out the differences between this and the purgation of the Temple at the close of His Ministry. Indeed, on comparison, these are so obvious, that every reader can mark them. Nor does it seem difficult to understand, rather does it seem not only fitting, but almost logically necessary, that, if any such event had occurred, it should have taken place both at the beginning and at the close of His public ministry in the Temple. Nor yet is there anything either ‘abrupt’ or ‘tactless’ in such a commencement of his Ministry. It is not only profane, but unhistorical, to look for calculation and policy in the Life of Jesus. Had there been such, He would not have died on the Cross. And ‘abrupt’ it certainly was not. Jesus took up the thread where he had dropped it on His first recorded appearance in the Temple, when He had spoken His wonder, that those who knew Him should have been ignorant, that He must be about His Father’s business. He was now about His Father’s business, and, as we may so say, in the most elementary manner. To put an end to this desecration of His Father’s House, which, by a nefarious traffic, had been made a place of mart, nay, ‘a den or robbers,’ was, what all who knew His Mission must have felt, a most suitable and almost necessary beginning of His Messianic Work.
And many of those present must have known Jesus. The zeal of His early disciples, who, on their first recognition of Him, proclaimed the newfound Messiah, could not have given place to absolute silence. The many Galilean pilgrims in the Temple could not but have spread the tidings, and the report must soon have passed from one to the other in the Temple-courts, as He first entered their sacred enclosure. They would follow Him, and watch what He did. Nor were they disappointed. He inaugurated His Mission by fulfilling the prediction concerning Him Who was to be Israel’s refiner and purifier (Mal_3:1-3). Scarce had He entered the Temple-porch, and trod the Court of the Gentiles, than He drove thence what profanely defiled it. There was not a hand lifted, not a word spoken to arrest Him, as He made the scourge of small cords (even this not without significance) and with it drove out of the Temple both the sheep and the oxen; not a word said, nor a hand raised, as He poured into their receptacles the changers’ money, and overthrew their tables. His Presence awed them, His words awakened even their consciences; they knew, only too well, how true His denunciations were. And behind Him was gathered the wondering multitude, that could not but sympathise with such bold, right royal, and Messianic vindication of Temple sanctity from the nefarious traffic of a hated, corrupt, and avaricious Priesthood. It was a scene worth witnessing by any true Israelite, a protest and an act which, even among a less emotional people, would have gained Him respect, approbation, and admiration, and which, at any rate, secured his safety.
For when ‘the Jews,’ by which here, as in so many other places, we are to understand the rulers of the people - in this instance, the Temple officials - did gather courage to come forward, they ventured not to lay hands on Him. It was not yet the time for it. In presence of that multitude they would not then have dared it, even if policy had not dictated quietness within the Temple-enclosure, when the Roman garrison so close by, in Fort Antonia, kept jealous watch for the first appearance of a tumult. Still more strangely, they did not even reprove Him for what He had done, as if it had been wrong or improper. With infinite cunning, as appealing to the multitude, they only asked for ‘a sign’ which would warrant such assumption of authority. But this question of challenge marked two things: the essential opposition between the Jewish authorities and Jesus, and the manner in which they would carry on the contest, which was henceforth to be waged between Him and the rulers of the people. That first action of Jesus determined their mutual positions; and with and in that first conflict its end was already involved. The action of Jesus as against the rulers must develop into a life-opposition; their first step against Him must lead on to the last in His condemnation to the Cross.
And Jesus then and there knew it all, foresaw, or rather saw it all. His answer told it. It was - as all His teaching to those who seeing do not see, and hearing do not hear, whose understanding is darkened and heart hardened - in parabolic language, which only the after-event would make clear. As for ‘the sign,’ then and ever again sought by an ‘evil and adulterous generation’ - evil in their thoughts and ways and adulterous to the God of Israel - He had then, as afterwards, only one ‘sign’ to give: ‘Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ Thus He met their challenge for a sign by the challenge of a sign: Crucify Him, and He would rise again; let them suppress the Christ, He would triumph. A sign this which they understood not, but misunderstood, and by making it the ground of their false charge in His final trial, themselves unwittingly fulfilled.
And yet to all time this is the sign, and the only sign, which the Christ has given, which He still gives to every ‘evil and adulterous generation,’ to all sin-lovers and God-forsakers. They will destroy, so far as their power reaches, the Christ, crucify Him, give His words the lie, suppress, sweep away Christianity - and they shall not succeed: He shall triumph. As on that first Easter-day, so now and ever in history, He raises up the Temple, which they break down. This is the ‘sign,’ the evidence, the only ‘sign,’ which the Christ gives to His enemies; a sign which, as an historical fact, has been patent to all men, and seen by them; which might have been evidence, but being of the nature of miracle, not explicable by natural agencies, they have misunderstood, viewing ‘the Temple’ merely as a building, of which they fully know the architecture, manner, and time of construction, but of whose spiritual character and upbuilding they have no knowledge nor thought. And thus, as to that generation, so to all which have followed, this is still the ‘sign,’ if they understand it - the only sign, the Great Miracle, which, as they only calculate from the visible and to them ascertained, these ‘despisers behold, and wonder, and perish,’ for He worketh a work in their days, a work which they shall in no wise believe.