Excerpt #3 from

Palestine in the Time of Jesus
Social Structures and Social Conflicts

K. C. Hanson & Douglas E. Oakman

Fortress Press

ISBN: 0-8006-2808-X


The temple system as it had developed in the Herodian period within agrarian social structures was oppressive and perceived by many (especially peasants upon whom rested the primary burden of the tribute) as "banditry." Jesus of Nazareth voiced this perspective when he called the temple a "cave of bandits" (Mark 11:17; Theissen 1976; Horsley 1987).
Jesus' reported action in the temple reflects the ambivalence of his movement toward it. Did Jesus want merely to cleanse the temple, or to get rid of it altogether (Malina 1988:10; 1996b:148; see Evans 1989b)? Reference to the temple as a "house of prayer" could imply the abolition of sacrifice (although this is not the case in Isaiah 56); moreover, if no trade can support the institution (John 2:16), then sacrifice on such a scale cannot continue. There are the words of Jesus in Mark 13:2 about the temple's destruction, or in John 4:23-24 about spiritual worship. Yet Jesus as a loyal Israelite apparently respected some priestly institutions of the covenant law (Mark 1:44; Luke 17:14); and the Jesus tradition at times assumes temple involvement (Matt 5:23). The harsh words against the temple need only apply to the Herodian buildings and related institutional structure. Certainly such reforming critique was characteristic of the Israelite prophets (Amos and Jeremiah). The ambiguity suggests the need for seeking more refined alternatives.
It is clear that when Jesus rejected the temple as a cave of bandits, he rejected it as a redistributive institution benefiting only the few. He condemns "Qorban" vows that deprive parents of culturally-mandated care (Mark 7:11; such vows removed real goods from everyday use). He excoriates scribes (probably temple scribes) who devour widows' houses (Mark 12:40). He remarks regarding the temple tax that "the sons are free" (Matt 17:26). Conversely, Jesus and his disciples were free to glean on the sabbath, just as David entered the house of God to eat the bread of the Presence (Mark 2:26). They were also freed from material anxiety by reference to God's rule (*Q sayings about anxiety: Matt. 6:25-33/Luke 12:22-34). The prayer of Jesus (Lord's Prayer) requests Israel's patron to forgive debts—plausibly temple debts were originally in mind (Luke 11:4/Matt 6:12). What kind of institution did he have in mind that might benefit the many?
Our previous considerations about religious politics in agrarian societies urge an understanding in which the Jesus faction itself seeks to become the controlling group and beneficiary of the temple institution. In light of Jesus' general message and the values of the Jesus movement, the temple institution must incarnate God's gracious patronage (the Reign of God)—on the model of Passover and the shelamÓm where all sacrifice and all share in the sacrifice. "House of prayer" for Jesus, as an alternative to redistributive banditry, implies a place where the patron is accessible and reliable, and needs are met. Redistribution must serve the needs of the many. In this light, Jesus is remembered to have associated the cup of Passover (perhaps the third cup, the cup of blessing) with the fulfillment of God's Reign (Mark 14:24-25).
This vision of Jesus stands in line with old Israelite law that still held up in his day the model of decentralized, simple sacrificial communion with God (Exod 20:24). It also expresses old Israelite hopes for communion of all peoples with God (Isa 56:6-8; Luke 13:29/Matt 8:11). But the vision was not actualized. Jesus himself suffered the fate of all who rebelled against Roman order, the penalty reserved for murderers, rebels, and slaves—crucifixion. In the Herodian temple, Israel's religion was exploited more effectively to enrich the few. The system's increasingly violent nature became ever more apparent as it followed its political course. Jesus' death and the appearance of rebellious brigands in the ensuing period were the warning signs of crisis before the final disaster of 66–70 CE. [pp. 155-56]

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