AT 12: A Stubborn Misinterpretation: Jesus and the Whip

By Tim Foley
Originally published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 12, June 1996

Perhaps the most common objection to the claim that Jesus rejected violence is the story of Jesus cleansing the temple (Matt. 21:12-17 and parallels). The last time I heard a sermon from that passage I was treated to a drama which portrayed Jesus not only whipping people, but kicking and punching them as well. This makes for exciting preaching, but is it an accurate picture of what really happened in the temple? If it is, how does this fit in with the otherwise nonviolent picture of Jesus?

The temple-cleansing incident seems to persist in popular Christian folklore as an example of acceptable violence by Jesus. Bruce Milne comments that John 2 "has been frequently used as evidence of Jesus' support for the use of physical and military force to liberate the victims of oppressive political structures".1 One example of this can be found in the book Unyoung, Uncoloured, Unpoor by Colin Morris. He supports S. G. F. Brandon's thesis that Jesus actually condoned the use of violence, but the early church whitewashed this in order to save their own skins. This thesis suffers from the old problem of assuming what it tries to prove2 and has been discredited as an accurate picture of Jesus.3

Little comment from Anabaptists

It is surprising that Anabaptist sources scarcely refer to the temple demonstration (I consulted only English translations). Menno Simons, Dirk Philips, Pilgrim Marpeck, Balthasar Hubmaier and Conrad Grebel do not mention it, although there is a reference in The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren where it is used to support community: "Christ does not want any trading of goods in his house; he wants Christian community. This buying and selling is a sign by which one shall recognise the false church, discerning the evil that Christ drove out on two occasions with a good whip."4 Thomas Muntzer refers to the incident as an example of the "sternness of Christ" as he faces the roots of idolatry.5 However Muntzer used the story in a sermon which invited his hearers to help the godly destroy the wicked and establish the kingdom of God on earth. This interpretation would not have been supported by the majority of Anabaptists and was used at a time when his movement was passing into its violent phase.

Stuart Murray observes that Anabaptist hermeneutics were developed "in debate with opponents as well as within friendly meetings".6 It could well be that the Anabaptists rarely referred to the temple demonstration simply because the reformers such as Luther and Calvin did not use it to support violence. Luther wrote "this act of Christ cannot be cited as an example to be emulated", because he understood Jesus to be spanning the gap between Old and New covenants. To Luther, Jesus was here acting as a servant of the Old Testament, a "disciple of Moses" and therefore "in accordance with the Law of Moses he here resorts to force."7 It is interesting that Luther mentions the Anabaptists at this point, failing to distinguish them from Muntzer: "The devil bade the Anabaptists, Muntzer and the Pope have recourse to the sword, although Christ strictly forbade this to his apostles and preachers."8 In Calvin's commentary on the Gospel of John there is no explicit reference to the whip. Calvin thought that Jesus was purifying the temple "in order to bring back to its original purity the worship of God, which had been corrupted by the wickedness of men". According to Calvin, Jesus did this to awaken "sluggish and drowsy minds", to in some way take possession of the temple in order to give proof of his divine authority.

It may have been that the Anabaptists paid little attention to the temple demonstration simply because they did not understand it, but knew that it could not teach a discipleship of violence. Stuart Murray points out that the failure to acknowledge difficulties in Scripture seemed to be a feature of hermeneutics both for the Anabaptists and the Reformers,9 but perhaps the availability today of other sources can shed some light. A brilliant example of this is found in the writings of Richard Bauckham, who interprets the action of Jesus as a prophetic act of protest against economic exploitation in the temple courts.10 He argues convincingly that the priestly aristocracy were plundering the people of God, particularly the poor. In so doing they represented God not as a Father who provides, but as a King like any other who demands tax. Bauckham uses Matthew 17:24-27 (Jesus' conversation with Peter about the temple tax) as background for the temple-cleansing to show Jesus' opposition to the temple tax (which was presented by Jerusalem religious authorities as theocratic taxation). In Matthew 17 Jesus gives the father-son relationship precedence over the king-subject relationship for the children of God. The sons are exempt, and "God does not rule his people in the way that earthly kings do".11 God does not treat them as subjects who owe him taxes, but rather he provides for them. Even today in the local church the Old Testament concept of the tithe is often used to persuade people into a strict ten percent giving, under a thinly veiled threat of "robbing God" (Mal. 3:9). This is not a Jesus-centred handling of the Old' Testament, and only results in the well-off keeping more than they need and the poor giving away more than they can afford - all in the name of God's rule over his people, just as with the temple tax.

A social justice reading of the temple episode

The connection between Matthew 17 and the temple demonstration is clearly seen when Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers. By doing this he "attacked the most visible manifestation of the tax operations", and so directly criticised the very existence of the tax and aimed it at the highest level of the economic hierarchy - the priestly aristocracy - who claimed to operate in the name of God himself. Bauckham's thesis is strengthened by the reference to the selling of doves. He uses a variety of Jewish sources to show that the temple treasury had a monopoly on the selling of doves because of the strict requirements on fitness and rearing which they imposed. This probably created a monopoly where the treasury could charge prices as high as it liked, making the most common sacrifice of the poor a burden to them in the same way as the tax itself. The idea is not that Jesus objected to the sacrificial system, but rather sought to fulfill its real purpose: "The scandal of the temple trade in these days was that the laws specifically intended to make worship possible for the poor were being so applied as to make them a financial burden on the poor." Bauckham uses the sources to make a similar case for the "merchandise" being carried through the temple courts, which were probably vessels used to deliver the other materials used in offerings (flour, oil, wine) which were also monopolised by the treasury.12

When Jesus drove out those buying and selling in the temple courts, it is reasonable to interpret his actions with reference to the commercial transactions of the temple, rather than the worshippers themselves. Those selling were not necessarily profit-keeping themselves, but were the custodians of a vast economic enterprise with huge reserves of money which made the temple comparable to a bank. This made the temple an important employer and resource for Jerusalem, but one with little benefit for the many Jews outside the city. Tom Wright tells us of the temple that "its importance at every level can hardly be overestimated."13 This was the place where God lived, ruled and restored Israel by grace through the sacrificial system so that she could continue to be his people. The temple also combined in itself the functions of national figurehead, government and financial institution. Wright points out that it occupied around one quarter of Jerusalem city, symbolising its central place for every aspect of existence for the Jew. Thus at the very heart of Jewish life God was being misrepresented and his real relation to his people obscured, obstructing the very purpose of the temple and its worship. It seems most likely then that it was commercialism rather than corruption that provoked the prophetic demonstration of Jesus.

Alan Kreider notes a second purpose in the protest of Jesus, to do with the location of the transactions. That the place of worship for the outsider (the Court of the Gentiles) was taken over by commercialism was a powerful illustration of Jewish nationalism and exclusivism which by this time probably pervaded Israel. Jesus demonstrates that the purpose of God was to include the outsider, "The enemies were to be loved, the nations were to be brought in."14

A questionable translation

Bauckham's interpretation makes good sense of Jesus' actions, but he follows most commentators in understanding that Jesus used the whip against people. However, J. Lasserre shows that the traditional translation of John 2:15 - which has Jesus violently driving out people with a whip - is an incorrect one which even today is present in popular Bibles. 15 The questionable translation is: "Jesus ... drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen" (NASB and similarly The Message, the Authorised Version, NKJV, NEB, RSV and The Jerusalem Bible). The NIV and Amplified have a similar translation to that which Lasserre supports: "Jesus ... drove them all from the temple, the sheep as well as the cattle". The point is that there is no need to include people amongst the animals which Jesus drove out with the whip.

Lassere examined the grammatical construction used in John 2:15 (particularly the Greek words te kai) and compared it with eighty other occurrences in the New Testament.16 He found that in seventy-six instances it supports the translation of "sheep as well as the cattle" and not "as well as sheep and cattle". Even in the remaining four instances the former translation would be natural and normal. Lassere is quite correct to conclude that a violent interpretation of the demonstration cannot be justified. Even the phrase "driving out" (Mark 11:15) used in the synoptics to portray Jesus chasing people out, perhaps whip in hand, is a bad translation. The same verb can just as easily be translated "send out" (as in Matt. 9:38 and many other places). The fact that recent commentaries on the gospels do not refer to Lassere, despite J. H. Yoder's support and use of him, shows how big a part pre-understanding plays in exegesis. It would not seem feasible then to use the temple demonstration to justify violence toward people, as Jesus did not use the whip on them.

Furthermore, even for those who disagree with Lasserre's translation the temple incident does not easily justify violence. For example, George Beasley-Murray supports the traditional translation, but notes that the grammatical construction of John 2:15 draws attention to the expulsion of the animals rather than the people.17 He thinks that the demonstration's purpose is to bring about the new era where sacrificial worship has been fulfilled. However, he notes that this is achieved not through the demonstration itself and the use of the whip, but through that to which its use leads - the death of the Messiah. This is why Psalm 69:9 is quoted, and the righteous sufferer is cited elsewhere in the New Testament with reference to the death of Jesus: "In all four gospels the event signifies less the action of a zealous reformer to purify the worship in the temple than an act of judgment that presaged a new and more worthy order of worship of God. That new order is achieved not by Jesus throwing the traders and their beasts out of the temple but by the death to which his action leads, and the resurrection which is inseparable from it."18 Since Jesus did not intend his actions to directly accomplish his purposes, they cannot be used by his followers as justification for force today.

James Dunn is broadly representative of New Testament scholarship when he concludes that Jesus was not a violent revolutionary: ". . . we can be fairly confident that the revolutionary option was open to Jesus in one form or another.

But it is also sufficiently clear that Jesus did not commend or accept that option."19 Jesus did not condone violence, either by example or by words, and so his disciples are called to follow him in this area as in every other. This is both a crucial demonstration of God's active presence in the world, and a precious realisation of our status as peacemaking children of God (Matt. 5:9, 45).

Tim Foley recently served as associate pastor at Folly's End Christian Fellowship in Croydon, and is a graduate student at Spurgeon's College in South London.


1. B. Milne, The Message of John (Leicester: IVP, 1993), p. 72.

2. J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus' Call to Discipleship (Cambridge: CUP, 1992), p. 47.

3. N. T. Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1986 (Oxford: OUP, 1990), p. 380.

4. The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren, vol. 1 (Rifton, New York, 1987), p. 270.

5. G. H. Williams and Angel M. Mergal, eds., Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957), p, 67.

6. S. Murray, Spirit, Discipleship, Community.- The Contemporary Significance of Anabaptist Hermeneutics (unpublished Phd thesis; Oxford: The Whitefield Institute, 1992), p. 59.

7. J. Pelikan, Gospel of John chapters 1-4, in Luther's Works, vol. 22 (Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1957), p. 224.

g Pelikan, Luther's Works, vol. 22, p. 225.

9. Murray, Spirit, Discipleship, Community, p. 96.

10. R. Bauckham, "Jesus' Demonstration in the Temple", in g. Lindars, ed., Law and Religion (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1988).

11. Bauckham, "Jesus' Demonstration", p. 82.

12. Bauckham, "Jesus' Demonstration", p. 78.

13. N, T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992), p. 224.

14. A. Kreider, Journey Towards Holiness (Basingstoke: Marshall-Pickering, 1986), p. 154.

15. J Lasserre (trans. 1. H. Yoder), The Whip in the Temple: A Tenacious Misinterpretation, Occasional Papers of the Council Mennonite Seminaries and Institute of Mennonite studies, No. l (Elkhart, Indiana: 1981).

16. Lasserre, The Whip in the Temple, p. 37.

17. G. Beasley-Murray, John, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word Books, 1991), p. 40.

18. Beasley-Murray, John, p. 50.

19. Dunn Jesus.' Call to Discipleship, p. 47.