Monday, May 11, 2009

Goodacre's "Dating Game" 4: The Historicity of the Temple Incident

Of course, some scholars have disputed the historicity of various elements of the account of Jesus' action in the temple. Some particularly skeptical scholars have seen the entire episode as pure fiction.[1] One representative of this theory worth highlighting is Burton Mack, who succinctly summarizes his argument against the historicity of the episode as follows:
The temple act cannot be historical. If one deletes from the story those themes essential to the Markan plots, there is nothing left over for historical reminiscence. The anti-temple theme is clearly Markan and the reasons for it can be explained. The lack of any evidence for an anti-temple attitude in the Jesus and Christ traditions prior to Mark fits with the incredible lack of incidence in the story itself. Nothing happens. Even the chief priests overhear his ‘instruction’ and do nothing. The conclusion must be that the temple act is a Markan fabrication.[2]
In sum, because the temple incident bears remarkable similarity to Mark’s larger focus it was likely invented by him. Furthermore, because the story is seen as originating with Mark, the accounts in Matthew, Luke and John must be considered dependent on his Gospel, which thus means that it alsofails to meet the criterion of multiple attestation.[3] Finally, it is considered improbable that Jesus would have been able to “get away” with such an action.

Other arguments might also be mentioned. Some have made the case that Jesus’ citation of Jeremiah’s oracle unlikely claiming that there is little evidence that the temple in Jesus’ day was corrupt. Others have claimed that the reference to Isaiah signals the hopes of the early church. Still others maintain that it is unlikely that Jesus acted the way the Gospels describe.

While at first glance these arguments appear convincing, under close scrutiny they seem less than convincing.

Let us keep in mind that one cannot prove or disprove the historicity of the event. What we are talking about here is likelihood or probability. The question is: is the story likely to be historical. I think so.

Handling our Sources
Before I get into the minutia of the arguments let me begin by highlighting something I’ve discussed elsewhere (e.g., here and here), namely, the genre of the Gospels. As most scholars agree, Richard Burridge is probably right that the Gospels are likely ancient biographies. That means that they were written first and foremost to tell us about Jesus. They are not first and foremost written to tell us about the theology of the early church. If they were, they would clearly look much different―e.g., Jesus would be addressing issues such as circumcision, the kosher laws, the role of the spiritual gifts, etc.

Of course, from the recognition of the Gospels' genre as ancient biographies it does not necessarily follow that they are accurate. One could clearly write an inaccurate ancient biography, incorporating fictional elements. Thus careful examination is needed. But here we have to read the Gospels as we do other ancient biographies. Rather than assuming that the Gospels are mostly legend with only a kernel of truth behind it all―vis-à-vis the old form-critical model―we need to ask another question: Is it more likely that what they tell us represents history or is it more probable that they are fiction? Here we are specifically asking: Is the account of the temple incident more believable than dismissing it as a fiction?

Upfront it should be stated that arguments for the historicity of the temple episode have been offered by others. One of my favorite treatments can be found in the work of fellow blogger Michael Bird (Jesus and the Origins of the Gentile Mission). I'd also encourage others to look at Craig Evans' commentary on Mark as well as his fine treatments in Jesus and His Contemporaries. Here I am going to simply offer to a brief treatment--much (much, much!) more of course could be said.

My essential point in doing this is to ask the larger question whether or not Mark's temple focus should be seen as the result of the events in A.D. 70. In other words, ultimately, I'm seeking to answer Goodacre's challenging questions about the implications of Mark's perspective on the temple for dating the Gospel of Mark.

To begin with let’s deal with the arguments against the story’s historicity.

Sed Contra
First, contrary to Mack’s claims, the episode is not likely a Markan creation. Mack’s argument has two principle problems. To begin with, he simply appears to assume a priori that elements “essential to the Markan plots” must not be historical.[4] Why such an assumption must be made is unclear. Is it not more believable that the core of Mark’s Gospel was in some way inspired by the memory of the historical Jesus? Recall that we are not talking about a span of generations between Jesus and Mark; Mark is writing within the living memory of those who knew Jesus.

Second, as Evans has observed, Mack’s appeal to the “lack of any evidence” in “traditions prior to Mark” depends largely on the highly speculative endeavor of reconstructing sources which we in fact do not have.[5] Of course, Mack’s argument that the episode was invented also faces another key problem: the evidence from the Fourth Gospel. In sum, the assertion that the temple episode was not found in “pre-Markan” sources―whatever one imagines those to be―but represents a Markan creation must not only rest on hypothetical reconstructions of such documents but must also necessitate the view that John’s account of the temple episode, which differs in substantial ways, is somehow dependent on Mark’s particular telling of the story. Evans’ puts it better than I ever could:
It strikes me as special pleading to prefer a more subjective source-critical theory, as source critical work in Mark must always be, owing to the fact that its putative sources are no longer extant, to a theory that on all counts should be viewed as less subjective, owing to the fact that the documents in question (i.e., Mark and John) are extant and are therefore available for comparative
Suffice it to say, it is extraordinarily hard to imagine that John’s story of the temple-cleansing was lifted from Mark. Rather, given the numerous differences between the accounts, virtually all agree that John’s account represents an independent tradition.[7] For this reason the vast majority of scholars accept that the temple episode meets the criterion of multiple attestation.[8]

Arguments against the historical plausibility of the story also fall flat. Those who insist that it is improbable that Jesus would have condemned the temple of his day as corrupt or wicked seriously underestimate and misrepresent the evidence. The Mishna includes an account of a rabbinical figure who lived between A.D. 10-80, who specifically protested the exorbitant cost of sacrificial birds sold in the temple.[9] That such corruption was in place is also suggested by Matthew and Mark who have Jesus specifically targeting those selling such birds (Matt 21:23//Mark 11:15).

But one need not point to later rabbinic sources! More importantly, the temple establishment is frequently criticized by the Qumranites (cf. CD 1:3; 3: 8-9, 18; 6: 11-21; 20:23; 4Q390 2 I, 1-12; 1Q22 1:8-10; 4Q390 1; 1QpHab 1:13; 8:9; 9:9; 12:8-9; 4QpNah 1:11). This evidence is crucial in that it makes it clear that corruption charges were not first raised in the rabbinic period. In addition, Josephus’ references corruption of priestly officials (e.g., Ant. 20.179-181, 207). All of this makes it clear that corruption charges were leveled against the temple establishment throughout the first-century.[10] The burden of proof then does not fall upon those who interpret Jesus’ actions against such a backdrop. Rather it rests on those who somehow wish to insist that the temple establishment’s reputation for corruption was known only in the periods immediately before and after him.

The historical plausibility of the episode is especially reinforced by the fact that Josephus tells us of another Jew from the first-century―another “Jesus” in fact, Jesus ben Ananias―who announced the coming the destruction of the temple. Strikingly, in doing so he also cited from Jeremiah 7! And the similarities do not end there. Evans points out a number of parallels between Jesus and Jesus ben Ananias:
―both entered the Temple (τὸ ἱερὸν; Mark 11:11, 15, 27; 12:35; 13:1; 14:49; B.J. 6.301)
―both issued condemnations linked with festivals (Mark 14:2; 15:6; John 2:23; B.J. 6.300)
―both are said to have foretold the destruction of the city (Luke 19:41-44; 21:20-24; B. J. 6.301) and the Temple (ναός; Mark 14:58; B.J. 6.301)
―both cite from Jeremiah 7 (Mark 11:17 and par. = Jer 7:11; B.J. 6.301=Jer 7:34)
―both are arrested by Jewish authorities (συλλαμβάνειν; Mark 14:48; John 18:12; B. J. 6.302), beaten (παίειν; Matt 26:68; Mark 14:65; B. J. 6.302)
―both were handed over to the Roman governor (ἤγαγον αὐτὸν ἐπὶ τὸν Πιλᾶτον: Luke 23:1; ἀναγουσιν. . . ἐπὶ τὸν. . . ἔπαρχον: B. J. 6.303), who interrogated them (ἐπηρώτα: Mark 15:4; B. J. 6.305)
―both were scourged (μαστιγοῦν /μάστιξ:John 19:1; B. J. 6.304)
―Pilate had the option of releasing Jesus, Albinus did in fact release Jesus ben Ananias (ἀπολύειν: Mark 15:9; B. J. 6.305)[11]
The similarities here are truly remarkable and make it very difficult to claim that it is implausible to imagine that Jesus could have done what the Gospels attribute to him.

Furthermore, let us consider Mack’s charge that Jesus would not have been able to get away with his action. Is it unlikely that the Jewish leaders would not have immediately responded, arresting him on the site? Not at all. The rationale for the restraint showed by the Jewish leaders provided by the evangelists makes perfect historical sense: they knew that the people saw that Jesus had claimed an eschatological role for himself―an aspect of the Jesus tradition that has a strong claim to historicity―and understood that it would have been unpopular to oppose him. Mark relates that the leaders “feared him, because all the multitude was astonished at his teaching” (Mark 11:19; Luke 19:48). This simply cannot be dismissed as fancy. That Jesus represented some threat at the very least is certainly suggested by the fact that he ended being executed!

At the same time, it should also be pointed out that Jesus does not really "get away" with the demonstration. To quote Bird and Casey, “Non-intervention and delay of intervention are not the same thing.”[12]

We could also mention more practical reasons for the lack of response. While some scholars have insisted that one of the traders would likely have reacted violently to Jesus, it is also equally likely that rather than trying to fight him off the traders’ immediate concern would have been to secure their own merchandise―some of which may have been rolling away from them (i.e., coins), sqwarking about in the court (i.e., birds) or wandering off (i.e., other animals).[13] In addition, if Jesus was a popular figure there’s another good reason to think the merchants would have refrained from assaulting Jesus―they would have simply been outnumbered![14]

More Evidence
More compelling is the fact that the action is consistent with things we do seem to know about Jesus. Above all, the action is consistent with the likelihood that he cast himself in a prophetic role.

Indeed, denying the historicity of the account also makes it difficult to explain the role of the priestly leadership in Jesus’ arrest and execution.[15] That this element of the Jesus tradition appears to be confirmed by Josephus (cf. Ant. 18.64) makes it difficult to easily it write off as another Markan creation.[16] As numerous scholars have stated, without the temple action it becomes almost impossible to explain why the temple establishment took issue with a teacher / healer from Galilee.

Other ways the incident meets the criterion of coherence could also be cited. Here we name just a few. First, as described above, since reforming the cult was often linked with royal figures it can be seen as consistent with Jesus' identity as the messianic son of David (see previous posts here, here, here, and especially here). Second, it explains the charge that he had predicted that he would destroy the temple―a tradition that receives wide support (Matt 26:61; 27:39; Mark 14:58; 15:29; John 2:19; Gos. Thom. 71). Third, an appeal to Zechariah’s prophecy fits well with the dominance of Zechariah traditions associated with Jesus.[17] Fourth, the allusion to Jeremiah fits well with the fact that Jesus is described as performing what appears to be a symbolic sign in the temple―something Jeremiah had also done. Sixth, the allusion to Isaiah may also be shown to meet the criterion of coherence in that Jesus is elsewhere seen as couching his ministry in terms taken from Isaiah’s eschatological vision as well as combining two or more passages.[18]

One could also make the case that the quotations meet the criterion of dissimilarity to Christianity. The passage from Isaiah cited by Jesus specifically relates the hope of all nations coming to the temple in the eschatological age. The argument that the use of Isaiah 56:7 fits in better with the Gentile mission of the church than the ministry of the historical Jesus overlooks a key fact―the Gentile Christians were never required to go to the temple! Indeed, it is hard to imagine the early Christians inventing a saying of Jesus along these lines.[19] Furthermore, it should be noted that the expectation of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the eschatological age was already a part of ancient Judaism; such hopes do not necessarily signal a Christian sitz em leben![20] Instead, that Matthew and Luke omit the reference to πᾶσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν ("all the nations") supports the idea that this element of the saying was likely seen as problematic. It is also significant that nowhere else in early Christian literature do we find the use of Jeremiah 7 to describe the coming destruction of Jerusalem―its deployment is thus in this way dissimilar to Christianity.

In conclusion, there are no good reasons to assume the story is unhistorical and in fact strong reasons to believe that it is authentic. Is the episode more likely to have been invented by the Christians or to have originated with Jesus? The evidence points in the direction of the later.

Where does this leave us? Here we have to make a critically important observation: Jesus apparently cited eschatological prophecies of the temple while at the same time predicting the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. The question then that remains is this: is there any indication that the historical Jesus believed the new temple would be something other than the Jerusalem temple?

To this will shall turn in the next post in this series.

[1] Especially fiercely opposed to the historicity of the temple action are David Seeley, “Jesus’ Temple Act,” CBQ (1993): 263–83; idem., “Jesus’ Temple Act Revisited: A Response to PM Casey,” CBQ 62 (2000): 55-63; Robert J. Miller, “The (A)Historicity of Jesus’ Temple Demonstration: A Test Case in Methodology,” Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers 1991 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991), 235-52; Burton L. Mack, A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), 292; cf. also 11, 282.
[2] Mack, A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins, 292;
[3] Mack cites J. R. Donahue (“Introduction: From Passion Traditions to Passion Narrative,” The Passion in Mark: Studies on Mark 14-16 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976], 8-10) who argues that John was directly dependent on Mark’s Gospel.
[4] See Casey, “Culture and Historicity,” 329: “This argument excludes by method even the possibility that there was a real event which was later written up with secondary material. That method is contrary to the nature of historical research into a culture in which the rewriting of history was normal. It is especially disastrous in dealing with the cleansing of the temple, which has a Sitz im Leben only in the life of Jesus and is surrounded with the cursing of the fig tree, so strongly reminiscent of Jewish tales of strange trees [citing Telford, The Barren Temple and the Withered Tree, 186-93].
[5] See also the points made by John Kloppenborg, “Tradition-history is not convertible with literary history” (The Formation of Q, 244).
[6] See Evans, Jesus and His Contemporaries, 347-8.
[7] See, e.g., Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke, 2:1264; Bird, Jesus and the Origins of the Gentile Mission, 144; Witherington, The Christology of Jesus, 110; etc.
[8] See Meier, A Marginal Jew, 2:892-94 and 985 n. 62: “Hence the theory of David Seeley… that Mark created the story of the cleansing of the temple, falls to the ground because of the independent attestation by John.”
[9] “Once in Jerusalem a pair of doves cost a golden denar. Rabban Simeon b. Gamaliel said: By this Temple! I will not suffer the night to pass by before they cost but a [silver] denar. He went into the court and taught: If a man suffered five miscarriages that were not in doubt or five issues that were not in doubt, she need bring but one offering, and she may then eat of the animal-offerings; and she is not bound to offer the other offerings. And the same day the price of a pair of doves stood at a quarter-denar each” (cf. m. Ker. 1:7).
[10] Of course, it should be noted, the Qumran community was not alone in the belief that the high priesthood had been corrupted. For a fuller discussion see, Craig Evans, Jesus and His Contemporaries, 319-44.
[11] Evans, Jesus and His Contemporaries, 360-61; idem., Mark 8:27―16:20, 176-77. Furthermore, on the unlikelihood that this account from Josephus was based on the Gospel narratives, see Evans, Jesus and His Contemporaries, 361 n. 48.
[12] Bird, Jesus and the Origins of the Gentile Mission, 146; Casey, “Culture and Historicity,” 320. Casey goes on to show that the Gospel portrait of a delayed response to Jesus’ action is especially intelligible given the political climate of his day. He cites an example from Josephus, who describes the way Archelaus dealt with a protest emerging during Herod’s reign (cf. B.J. 2.5-13; Ant. 17.206-218). First, the temple establishment was urged to calm the people―an effort he sees as parallel with the Jewish leaders confrontation of Jesus in Mark 11:27-33 and par. When such efforts failed Archelaus responded by sending in a cohort with a tribune at Passover time, who were attacked and killed. Finally, as a response to this action, Archelaus sent in an army which ended up massacring about 3,000 Jews during the feast. Casey believes the temple officials were trying to avoid a similar scenario, in which a cohort would also be resisted by the people in favor of a Jewish prophetic figure. Casey writes that Judas “solved their problem by enabling them to arrest Jesus without causing havoc. As for the Romans, they were confronted with a minor disturbance at which a Jewish preacher persuaded most Jews to follow his view of what should and should not be done in the court of the Gentiles. This did not give them enough reason to risk life and limb or to cause carnage. They would surely need the chief priests and scribes to tell them whether or not Jesus' action should be regarded as seditious. When the Roman governor was told that it was, he had Jesus crucified.”
[13] See the vivid description offered by Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 424-5.
[14] See, e.g., Julius Wellhausen, Das Evangelium Matthaei übersetzt und erklärt, 90; Walter Grundmann, Das Evangelium nach Markus (ThHKNT 2; Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1959), 230; Collins, Mark, 527.
[15] See Holmén, Jesus and Jewish Covenant Thinking, 238: “There is one overarching criterion of authenticy to be named in this connection: ‘Rejection and execution.’ Jesus’ action in the Temple, if anything, is nowadays pictured as the reason why the itinerant teacher Jesus of Nazareth was sentenced to death. Depriving the Gospels’ story of Jesus of this instance simply makes no plausible history for him.”
[16] Specifically, Josephus relates that Jesus was condemned by Pilate “because of an accusation made by the leading men among us” (Ant. 18.64). Elsewhere in Josephus the term is applied to members of the priestly ruling class (cf. Ant. 11.140-141; 18.121). Although scholars dispute different aspect of this Testimonium Flavium most agree that there is no reason to reject the authenticity of this dimension of the passage. For example, see Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:65; Evans, Jesus and His Contemporaries, 350.
[17] Again, see especially Evans, “Jesus and Zechariah’s Messianic Hope,” 374-88 and the other sources cited in n. 302 above. What makes such a case especially compelling is the fact that different Zecharian traditions are highlighted by the different Gospel writers. To imagine that this is all coincidence is a kind of special pleading. Rather it makes much more sense that the emphasis on Zecharian traditions comes from Jesus himself. In addition, see the fuller discussion in Fiensy, Jesus the Galilean, 225-226.
[18] The clearest example such conflation is Jesus’ use of Isaiah 61 in Matthew 11:4-5//Luke 7:22 (cf. also Luke 4:18-19). See Evans, Jesus and His Contemporaries, 362 n. 49: “Allusion to two or more passages of Scripture is characteristic of Jesus.” Likewise, see Bruce Chilton, “Ciaphas” in ABD 1:806 who explains that the “mixing of scriptural elements in that manner is characteristic of Jesus, not of those who shaped the tradition after him.”
[19] In addition, see Bird, Jesus and the Origins of the Gentile Mission, 147.
[20] See the discussion in 1.2.8 above and, in particular, the primary texts and discussion in secondary sources in n. 256. Thus Bryan (Jesus and Israel’s Traditions of Judgement and Restoration, 207) writes: “…Jesus’ citation of the Isaiah text implies nothing more than what was a common if not universal expectation within Second Temple Judaism―the influx of Gentiles into the eschatological Temple.


Mike Koke said...

This is a very good post. I am happy that you deal with Mack's "A Myth of Innocence", because I think it is an important book that deserves a thoughtful response from fellow Christians, especially how it links Mark's "myth of origins" with western Christian imperialisms. And I think you are absolutely right about the historicity of the temple incident. I could add that another argument for historicity is that Jesus saying that the temple will be destroyed (and restored?) appears to embarrass later Christian theology (it was only a "false accusation" = Mark 14:57-58, it was only a "symbol" for His body = John 2:20-22).

Bob MacDonald said...

Somewhere I read that Mark copied the Jesus ben Ananius - it was a text on intertextuality by a well known retired US teacher. I may still have it somewhere - in email from 4 or 5 years ago.

Has anyone suggested that Josephus was citing a story that he did not see first hand but which was based on Mark's Gospel and lost something of its historical roots in the retelling?

Michael Barber said...

Mike Koke,
Thanks for your kind comments. I agree that there is an element of embarrassment here as well--good point!

Bob MacDonald:
Thanks for your comment. If you can find that source I would be interested to know about it. However, I think the idea that either text is dependent upon the other strains credibility. Such a claim would seem to make the a priori assumption that two people in the first century could not have predicted the destruction of the temple. While the accounts are similar they certainly are not the same. I think the fact that Jesus (of Nazareth) ended up being killed while the other was not executed is a pretty big deal!

Bob MacDonald said...

Found it - in two parts available through the Yahoo group crosstalk files section
Two Jesuses: Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus of Jerusalem and Markan Mimesis. Part One1
Theodore J. Weeden, Sr.

link may not work unless you join the group

steph said...

Bob: That link doesn't work and I'm a member.

I don't doubt Jesus of Nazareth predicted the temple (which was burned) would be torn down stone by stone and I don't doubt Josephus that Jesus ben Ananias predicted that the temple would be destroyed as well. It would have been a pretty reasonable prediction in the first century. Weeden thinks he has already established that Mark is not historical and is also late, neither argument with which I have been convinced.

I'm confused by your mention of Jesus' execution Michael. I don't think Jesus was arrested because he predicted the temple would be destroyed. I think his whole mission was headed towards that end and the Pharisees did indeed plot against him as Mark records in Mark 3.

Bob MacDonald said...

Sorry the link doesn't work directory - I think then you must navigate to the group and link to the files directory where you will find both of Weeden's articles. I have little patience with such teaching though it sure thinks it is is clever plausible and even disciplined in its speculation.

Simon Smelt said...

One point, i think, overlooked in the discussions over this area is that Jesus was enacting an element of Passover by his actions.

As leaven (symbol of sin) was to be avoided over Passover, the tradition was (and is to this day) that at the beginning of the period, leaven would be removed from the house. The eldest son symbolically removed a piece of leaven from the house in the sight of his father.

On the correct day (as I understand it), Jesus went to His Father's house and removed some leaven (sin) from it. Both the crowd and the priesthood (unlike modern theologians) would understand the symbolism.

As the gospels variously indicate the support of the crowd for Jesus, the authorities would be reluctant to pursue Him on this and would fear losing the argument.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for the interesting post, Michael, which I have only just found time to read, hence this late comment. I agree with a lot of what you say and I am not inclined myself to dispute the historicity of the temple incident, though I remain bothered about the question of placement, John vs. Mark, and I don't think that one is easy to put to one side. (I hope to be blogging about that in the coming days).

The point of the temple focus material in my "Dating" paper was to stress the literary function of the theme in Mark, which makes very good sense in the post-70 setting, rather than to discuss the historicity or otherwise of the traditions. The point is actually subtly made in your post here, with respect to the Jesus ben Ananias prophecy in Josephus. You assume its historicity, perhaps rightly, but it appears in a post-70 document. So the interesting feature about that prophecy in the context of dating documents is not so much the historicity of the incident as the literary function of the incident in a post-70 text.

Looking forward to the next instalment.

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Thomas Louw said...

I look at the previous comment it seems mine would not be read.
I’m busy with my MA. on the historical reliability of Mark 11:11-25.
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Especially when questions the authenticity of verses 24 and 25.
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