Why is the cleansing of the temple at the beginning of John and at the end of the Synoptics? What were John’s motivations for placing it earlier? Also: How do you harmonize the different gospel accounts amidst editing and audience? I’m taking a class that is picking the gospels apart and I would like a good resource to help me see how they come together.
For your first question, there are two possible answers, and I really do not know which is the correct answer. The two possibilities are that the temple was cleared by Jesus twice or John puts the event in the wrong chronological place.
It is not at all unlikely that Jesus would have “cleared” the temple twice. If so, the events happened three years apart. I am aware that some dismiss this idea out of hand, but I believe this is an example of bias, not of careful thought. Has there ever been an example of selfish, greedy people being sent away by conscientious people, only to return when the heat is off? Is it possible that the ones in charge of the temple the second time were different from those in charge the first time? Yes, because there were 24 “courses” of priest, working on a rotating basis in Jerusalem at the temple. If Jesus returned to a newly-defiled temple, might he have scattered the money-changers a second time? Clearly.
The details in John and the Synoptics favor (but certainly do not prove) the conclusion that Jesus scattered the capitalistic Jews twice. In John 2:13f Jesus scatters the coins but there is no evidence of him overturning the tables (although lack of evidence is not evidence of lack, but it is worth noting). In John he made a whip, but there no mention of this in Mattthew 21:12-13. Again this is not proof but it certainly leaves room for the perfectly reasonable possibility that Jesus drove out the salesmen and money-changers twice. We should not be intimidated by liberals who scoff at this possibility. Such scholars are clearly biased. There is NOTHING in the two stories that demand they be describing the identical event and it is absolutely reasonable to imagine Jesus repeating his rebuke of those using the temple as a source of cash.
Of course, there is the other possibility, which is that John puts the event in the wrong place, chronologically. I believe this is possible, but, personally, I believe it is the less likely possibility. If so, then John is putting the event rather significantly out of its chronological place, as he has the event quite early in the ministry of Jesus. It is debatable how long the ministry of Jesus was, but given the different accounts of the Passover in John, it is traditional to accept that the ministry of Jesus was three years long, more or less. If this is the case, why would Jesus put it so early in his account? One thing that John emphasized more than the other gospel writers is the level of animosity and even enmity of Jesus toward the leaders of the Jews. It is possible that, wanting to establish this theme early in his story, John would have moved the account of the clearing of the temple to near the beginning of his account.
For several reasons, we know that John was less concerned with exact chronology than the synoptics–especially Luke. Even Luke appears to be rearranging his material at least a little bit. To the ancient Near-Eastern writers, the Western insistence that stories should be chronological (either that or give clear indication of material which is not chronological) was not part of the culture. The rhetorical value of the story was more important than attention to chronology. Rearranging facts to create a more compelling story was the norm. Hearers of such histories in ancient times did not assume strict chronology, so neither should the reader of the New Testament. If we apply a Western, linear, analytical, scientific approach to ancient Near Eastern literature we will be disappointed and we should not hold the accepted means of narration in ancient times be a reason to conclude that what they wrote is not inspired.
Nevertheless, it is still my opinion that it is more likely Jesus sent away the Jews who were defiling the temple twice–three years apart. Although John does not stick to strict chronology, moving a story at the end of Jesus’ ministry to the beginning seems a bit extreme to me. However, that is just one person’s opinion.
For your second question, you ask John’s motivation for doing this. This presumes that he did in fact move the story for dramatic reasons. I do not assume this is the case, but I have already suggested that if he did, it was for thematic reasons–establishing early on the antipathy between Jesus and the leadership in Jerusalem. Of course, we see the opposition to Jesus from the Jews in the synaptic gospels early on, but this was in Galilee, not necessarily in Jerusalem. I am speculating here and, besides, I am speculating about a reason for something that I believe probably did not even happen, so take it for what it is worth.
As for harmonizing, this is a very broad question, and without a specific question to respond to, it is nearly impossible for me to give a helpful response. What aspect of harmonization are you asking about? Harmonization of theme? Harmonization of how Jesus interacted with outsiders? Harmonization of how he interacted with the apostles? Harmonization with details of fact? Harmonization with chronology? This is a huge question, making it really hard to answer. Let me give you a suggestion. I am a huge fan of the book “Four Portraits: One Jesus”. It is by Mark Strauss. He dies a masterful job of describing the differences in tone, theme, content and emphasis in the four gospels. This will really help you to understand how Luke, as opposed to Matthew, chose his content. Matthew was trying to explain Jesus as the fulfillment of the messianic expectation. John was trying to present Jesus as revealed by his miracles and claims. Luke revealed Jesus as the saviour of the disenfranchised, the Gentile, and the weak. To me, it is not so much the audience but the intention of the gospel writers which determined the content and, to some extent, the chronology of the gospel writers. If you read Matthew, understanding that he is revealing Jesus as the fulfiller of the Jewish messianic expectation (whether or not his reader is Jewish) you will answer almost all questions of what material he chose. If you understand John as attempting to explain who Jesus is through his miracles and his public claims, you will understand, for example, why he has so many more interactions with outsiders and such long dialogues with individuals. I could go on and on here, but, not knowing the exact issue you have in mind, I will stop and let you ask the specific questions that have come up for you.
In any case, I cannot emphasize too strongly how helpful Strauss’ “Four Portraits” will be for you. It is scholarly, readable and conservative, yet not to the point of ignoring other perspectives. You can get a used copy on Amazon for perhaps $20. I hope this helps.