I am doubtful about Jesus’ purification of the temple in John 2:12-25 / Mark 11:15-18, were there two purifications or only one?


There are three possibilities:

1. Jesus never cleansed the Jewish temple and these stories are all just made up in order to create a false narrative about Jesus.

2. Jesus cleared the temple twice–once near the beginning of his ministry, as recorded in John and about three years later, as recorded in Mark 11.

3. Jesus cleared the temple once–probably near the end of his three year ministry and for some unknown reason, John placed the event quite significantly out of chronological order.

I believe we can completely dismiss the first option because Matthew was written by the sixties AD, when there were literally thousands of eye-witnesses to the events still alive. There is no way that such a fable could have been accepted in the church if it were merely a story.  Besides, what conceivable motivation could the gospel writers have to place sheer fiction in their gospel accounts when they deeply wanted both believers and unbelievers to accept the message of Christ?

Of the other two, I will admit that both are possible, but I quite strongly favor the second option–that Jesus “cleansed” the temple twice, about three years apart.  Some have said that if Jesus did this one time, then it could not possibly have happened again.  What is the reasoning here?  What Jesus did once, he certainly might be inclined to do again.  His presence in Jerusalem was not known in John 2, but it was known in Mark 11.  By the end of his ministry he was an extremely popular preacher, with great support among the people and to exclude a Jew from the temple would have been difficult without arresting Jesus (which they in fact did soon afterward).  That Jesus was able to enter the temple on the week of his death is not a surprise, and that he would drive out the money-changers again is also not surprising. The details of the two cleansing events are sufficiently similar that we cannot absolutely rule out that they are the same event, but they are sufficiently different that it is more likely two different events are described–especially the making of a whip and driving out the sheep and cattle.

As to explanation 3, although I doubt this personally, but many faithful believers accept it.  That John at least occasionally rearranged his accounts chronologically is accepted by most commentators.  John wrote thematically rather than chronologically, as did all of the gospel writers, at least occasionally.  This was a pattern in Near Eastern accounts generally.  That is why I do not reject this explanation outright. However, the placement at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry makes me believe rather strongly that he cleared the temple on two different occasions.  Again, I see no reason to assume that Jesus would not have gotten righteously angry a second time, three years later, if the Jewish leaders allowed merchandising back into the temple again.

John Oakes

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