NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 12c: He flipped over the tables that belonged to those who were exchanging different kinds of money for Temple shekels. And He turned over the tables of those who were selling doves.
Rabbi Moses Maimonides gives us a detailed explanation of what these chests looked like and what they were used for:
“In the Temple, there were always thirteen chests, each chest shaped like a ram’s horn. The first chest was for the new shekels of the present year; the second for the old shekels of the previous year; the third was for all those who were obligated to bring an offering of two turtle doves or two common doves, one as a burnt offering and one as a sin offering. The funds for these offerings were deposited in this chest. The fourth was for those who were obligated to bring doves as a burnt offering only. They would deposit the funds for these offerings in this chest. The fifth was for those who volunteered to buy wood for the altar; the sixth, for those who donated money to purchase frankincense; the seventh, for those who donated gold for the covering of the ark. The eighth was for the money left over after purchasing a sin-offering – i.e., a person set aside funds to use to purchase a sin-offering, and money remained after purchasing it. Those funds were deposited in this chest. The ninth was for the money that remains after purchasing a guilt-offering; the tenth, for the money that remains after purchasing the pairs of doves necessary for the offerings of zavim,1 zavot,2 and women after childbirth; the eleventh, for the money that remains after purchasing the offerings of a Nazirite;3 the twelfth, for the money that remains after purchasing the guilt offering of a leper; the thirteenth, for a person who pledged money for an animal to be brought as a burnt offering.”4
So we can see, that the sale of doves was an elaborate exercise for both the buyer and seller. But what made it so despicable was the fact that doves were the sacrifices of the poor. It was all they could afford. And even they were being exploited. It was the prophet Malachi who foresaw this event, “The Lord All-Powerful says, ‘I am sending my messenger to prepare the way for me. Then suddenly, the Lord you are looking for will come to His temple. Yes, the messenger you are waiting for, the one who will tell about my agreement, is really coming! No one can prepare for that time or stand against Him when He comes. He will be like a burning fire. He will be like the strong soap people use to make things clean.”5
The buying and sacrificing of these offerings were complicated. The following instructions were given by the Rabbis: “Whoever needed ritual ingredients would go to Rabbi Yohanan who was in charge of the stamps and would give him the appropriate amount of money and would receive a stamp from him in return. He would then go to Rabbi Ahiyah who was in charge over the ritual ingredients, give him the stamp and receive the ritual ingredients from him thus saving anyone requiring to bring an offering the trouble of finding and bringing the necessary ingredients produced in purity. In the evening they would meet, and Ahiyah would take out the stamps and would receive the corresponding amount of money for them from Yohanan. If there was a surplus of money in the hands of Yohanan the surplus goes to the Temple treasury, but if there was a deficit, Yohanan would pay from his personal funds; because the Temple has the upper hand. If one lost his stamp he would wait until the evening when Ahiya and Yohanan would meet if they found extra money corresponding to the value of his stamp they would give him ritual ingredients, otherwise, he did not get any.”6 We should all be glad that we do not need to go through this procedure today in order to approach God when we are in need of forgiveness.
Not only that, but there were provisions just in case a mistake was made: “The following rules apply when a sin-offering of fowl is brought because of a doubt and then it is discovered that the woman is definitely obligated to bring the sacrifice. If she realized this before killing the bird from the back of the neck by severing the spine was performed on the dove, it should be offered with certainty and eaten. If she did not discover this until after killing the bird was performed, the sprinkling and presentation of its blood on the altar should be completed. Then it should be burnt, so that it will not be said that a sin-offering of fowl brought because of a doubt is eaten. For at the outset, this offering was brought because of a doubt.”7 This is what Jesus encountered when He walked into the Temple courts. There was no doubt confusion and chaos reigned as Jesus flipped one table, chest, and bench after another. When the Master finished, no doubt somewhat out of breath, He looked around and quoted loudly from Scripture.8
Our Lord’s anger was not against the payment of the money to purchase the sacrificial animal, this was instituted for a reason: This way a poor person who did not own any animals could still obtain a sacrifice, and allow those who traveled a long distance to purchase their sacrifice without the trouble of bringing the animal or ingredients with them. Money exchanges were not only set up in the Temple but in the provinces as well.9 However, there was subversion of this practice. The Temple shekel was inflated on purpose so that the Temple authorities could then use the different currencies collected because the Temple shekel was worthless on the open market.10
We are told that they used the Tyrian shekel because it had a higher silver content. Perhaps this is why they inflated the value.11 In fact, the exchanges had gotten so outrageous that one Rabbi vowed to drive the price down at all cost. We read: “At one time, in Jerusalem, a par of doves cost a golden denar. Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel said: ‘So help me, Temple! I will not suffer the night to pass by before they cost but a silver denar.”12
I’m sure the buyers and sellers were stunned. But at the same time, they knew He was right. I wonder how close we have gotten to this when viewers and listeners are told by ministers that if they send in a donation there will be special prayers offered for them, or when parishioners are told that as a result of a confessed sin they must put a certain amount of money in the alms box in order to secure prayers for their forgiveness? Christ did not establish the church to become a money-making enterprise, but that it serve in this dark and sin-filled world as a lighthouse of worship; a life-saving station; a soul-winning center; freely offering healing and comfort to all who come. But of paramount importance is that they become known as a house of prayer, not entertainment. Matthew doesn’t say what happened next, whether the merchants set things back up or not. But no doubt one thing did happen. The Temple authorities were immediately notified, and they knew they had real trouble on their hands.
In the future, this same refrain of the Temple being a house of prayer would be repeated, but under different circumstances. When King Demetrius son of Seleucus began to reign on the coasts of Italy, he sent one of his henchmen named Bacchides to invade Judah. We read: “Then the king sent Nicanor, one of his honored princes, who hated and detested Israel.” Nicanor went up to Mount Zion where he mocked those who made him welcome. He was there to conquer, so he gave them an ultimatum, and if it wasn’t answered he would return and burn the Temple down. That’s when the priests went and stood before the altar and the Temple, and as they were weeping they cried out to God: “You chose this house to be called by your name, and to be for your people a house of prayer and supplication.”15
Chrysostom sums this up in one of his sermons: “John’s Gospel also reported this, but at the beginning of his narrative. But now in Matthew, we are coming to the end of the narrative. Thus it is probable that this was done twice and on different occasions. That there was a first cleansing of the temple and then a second is apparent from much evidence. In John’s Gospel, He came at the time of the Passover. Here it was before Passover. In John, the Jews said, ‘What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’ In Matthew, they hold their peace, though reproved, because he was marveled at among all the population.”16
Bible scholars agree that this is one position where the Gospel according to John differs inexplicably from the others. It says that Jesus went from Galilee to Jerusalem three times during his ministry (John 2:13; 5:1; 12:12). By John’s account, the ministry of Jesus lasted for at least three years. For some time it has been a general consensus of NT studies that the Synoptic Gospels are in typically more historically reliable, while John’s is a more ‘symbolic’ or spiritual gospel which arranges things to suit its theological agenda. But which of the accounts is likely to be true to the actual chronology of Jesus’ life? Any observant Jewish male would have visited the city each year for the three main pilgrim festivals (Passover, Hannukah, and Succoth), so unless Jesus’ public ministry lasted less than a year, this is prima facie evidence that John is likely to be correct here. But there is another important clue in Matthew17 and Luke.18 Both include a saying of Jesus where He longs to gather Jerusalem as a hen gathers her chicks.
So Chrysostom continues: “If this happened on two different occasions, this becomes a heavier charge against the Jewish leadership. He did it not only once but a second time, and still, they continued their buying and selling and called Him an opponent of God. They should have learned from the first cleansing to honor His Father and His own power. They could see His works agreeing with His words, and they could behold His miracles. They could hear the prophet pointing to Him. They could see the children attesting Him in a manner beyond their age. But all this did not persuade them. Instead, ‘they were indignant.’ So He brings in Isaiah as their accuser when He says, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer.’”19
Remember, none of the Gospels were diaries where a day to day account was written down. They were composed years after Jesus ascended and depended on the memory of the writer. Does this make them less reliable? No! The Holy Spirit inspired the authors to write down what God the Father wanted to be recorded for future believers. So not mentioning one of the trips Jesus made to Jerusalem does not change the Gospel’s story. Besides this, Jesus was under no obligation of the Law to attend, so missing a festival or two is not a detrimental factor in recognizing Him as the true Messiah.
1 This is in reference to those impurities that needed to be rectified by the priests which are outlined in the Mishnah, Sixth Division: Tohorot, Tractate Zavim, and mostly involve body infections and drainage.
2 Related to Zavim, but applying mostly to women.
3 These were usually tied to the Nazarite vows and need for purity.
4 Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, op. cit. Sefer Zemanim, Tractate Shekalim, Ch. 2, Halacha 2
5 Malachi 3:1-2
6 Mishnah, Second Division: Mo’ed, Tractate Shekalim, Ch. 5:4-5
7 Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Sefer Avodah, Tractate Pesulei Hamukdashim, Ch. 7, Halacha 11
8 Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11
9 Mishnah, op. cit. Second Division: Mo’ed, Tractate Shekalim, Ch. 1:3
10 Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, op. cit. Sefer Zemanim, Tractate Shekalim, Ch. 3:1
11 The Jewish Annotated New Testament by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Oxford University Press, 2011, loc. cit. Kindle Edition, loc. 20831
12 Mishnah, op. cit. Fifth Division: Kodashim, Tractate Kerithoth, Ch. 1:7
13 Isaiah 56:7
14 Jeremiah 7:11
15 I Maccabees 7:1-38
16 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 67.1
17 Matthew 23:37-39
18 Luke 13:31-35
19 Chrysostom: Ibid.