Cleansing Temple: Why Is John So Different From Synoptics? (jn.2.14-17)

14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. 15 And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16 And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

Once Jesus (he was probably with his followers at the time) was about ready to perform the highly symbolic prophetic action of temple cleansing, he began to disperse those who turned the house of God into a profane, but profitable industry (2:14-15).

It was Jesus’ passion and commitment to purify Israel’s religion that moved him to this action (v.16-17). Jesus’ concern here seems to be very different from his motivation as described in the synoptic Gospels.[1]

For example, it is striking that the synoptics use a different quotation from the Old Testament to describe the reason for the temple cleansing. While the synoptics quote Jesus saying “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations ‘? But you have made it a robbers’ den” (Mk.11:17, Mt.21:13, Lk.19:46), John on the other hand justifies Jesus’ action in different way. We read in John 2:17: “His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” For the Synoptic Gospels the issue seems to be the loss of Israel’s meaningful engagement with Gentiles (light of the world). For John, the issue is the appropriateness and purity of the place used for Jerusalem worship.

Highlighting Jesus’ concern for purity would have been the most appropriate thing to do, if those being addressed by the Gospel of John were Qumranites or their Essene affiliate movement, the Samaritans. Purity of worship (or more particularly its lack in Jerusalem) was a highly significant issue for them.

This gospel author had a wholly different approach than did Mark, Luke and Mathew. The emphasis on the purity of the Temple (versus the loss of the Light of the Nations outlook in the synoptic accounts) argues that the audience shared these concerns and presumably would have resonated with this message. As per John’s portrayal, Jesus acted as a covenant prosecutor who has come to check the fitness of the Temple for divine service. He hereby declares the Temple in Jerusalem unfit for divine worship because it was under the failed and unfaithful stewardship of hoi Ioudaioi, the Judean ruling elite and its followers.

Of course there is another important difference that continues to puzzle conservative scholars – the timing of Temple cleansing. John puts in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, while Synoptics (Mark, Luke and Mathew) in the end. The question of when it “really” took place may be ligitimate too, but not as important as understanding why John in his story makes Jesus begin with declaring the Temple unfit for worship of Israel’s God. Let’s keep thinking together. More to come.

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© By Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Ph.D.

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[1] The obsession with harmonization of the gospel accounts has for centuries contributed to too many crucial points being missed. The reason for this is precisely because scholars concentrated their work on how to fit the passages together. In the process, they did not pay attention to the reasoning behind the sometimes significant differences in the various gospel accounts. At this point, we won’t provide an explanation of the differences between the quotations in relationship to the historical Jesus and the cohesiveness of the Gospel accounts. This is a different topic for a different time.

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  1. Rado

    It is not a linguistic problem. Jesus had a wisdom from above. He did not came to waste his time and words. At the case he realised that situation was out of sence, hopeless, he did not act, advising his disciples the same.
    But at the Temple, as it was quoted above, he was acting from all his heart, even as crazy man.

    The Temple still has existed about 40 years after Jesus death, being used also by his disciples. At the begining it was the main place to preach gospel.
    Maybe his sacrifice on the cross was also for cleansing the Temple?

    Any way, it was similar to the golden ring which husband takes back from unfaightfull wife; the ring was good, fitting for holy, sacred using. But the owner did not fit to the ring. Jesus has came also to warn the owner of golden ring.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg


  2. kostya

    Dear Dr Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

    I think the theme of purity of worship and the purity of the place of worship in Jerusalem that you highlight is very interesting and key.

    My question relates to the the rejection of Jesus in John’s gospel and how it differs from the other gospels, especially in relation to this theme of purity of worship and truth.

    In John, the events of the crucifixion focus on the people,soldiers and Roman authorities mocking Him as the King of the Jews, but also the words of Jesus to Pilate, which are about truth.

    John 18:37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

    This theme of truth is throughout John, beginning in John 1, places such as John 4 with the Samaritan woman – where it is related to worship of the Father, the Holy Spirit, and Jerusalem (failed worship you would say)- the passages on the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Truth, and now in the, events around the crucifixion.

    My questions:

    Do you think Jesus’ testimony to the truth(and true worship)is also, according to John, the main reason for His rejection and crucifixion? Is this an important difference in the gospels?

    Is the Passover theme in the crucifixion in John’s Gospel also to reinforce the rejection of true worship that Jesus came to testify to, because He was rejected as the Passover lamb?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      I will have to do a lot more work before I can say that this is indeed in case. I think in John in particularlly Jesus’ rejection as everything else should be fewed in the context of his polemic with hoi Iudaioi over the claim that they can not be in charge of Israel and he must. In hebrew threw words Kise (chair), Kis (packet/money) and kas (anger) all connected by the root. I think he got their “kas” because he threatened their “kise” and “kis”.

  3. Sonia Willats

    Thank you, as always. I am always delighted when the posting arrives, and enriched by reading the exposition and comments.

    This section brings to my mind the description of Jeshua in the temple over Passover when he was 12 in Luke, vs 49:”I must be about my Father’s business.” Hence his authoritiy and zeal.

    The synoptic gospels no doubt quoted what Jeshua SAID but John, being so close to Jesus, attributes ZEAL.

    People often notice and attribute qualities they identify with and understand. It makes sense that observers recall and highlight different aspects of the same action.

    The scene is one of great action and passion in violently rejecting the accepted status quo. Zeal is an appropriate description.

    Once again you have pointed out to us the significance of the different audience, also v. concerned with purity and having distanced themselves from the ruling elite. Thank you. I would like to learn more about the Qumran and Essene movements one day.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Hi, Sonia.

      I think you are right John really had beter informaiton being closer to the source. John usually gives more details, mode accurae details. John gets it from Jesus. Mark on which Mathrew and Luke are based, get’s it from Peter.

      Read this excellent article carefully I think you willl enjoying it

      Read this

  4. Rado

    Everything is possible; but according to Bible Jesus never said that Temple was unfit to God’s service and worship.
    Also his disciples after his death were gathering together at the Temple every day…

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Rado, please, read more carefully what I wrote. “As per John’s portrayal, Jesus acted as a covenant prosecutor who has come to check the fitness of the Temple for divine service. He hereby declares the Temple in Jerusalem unfit for divine worship because it was under the failed and unfaithful stewardship of hoi Ioudaioi, the Judean ruling elite and its followers.” With best wishes, Eli

  5. Rado

    First time I do not agree with you.Jesus has never declared that “the Temple was unfit for worship of Israel’s God”.

    It is probably your over – interpretation.
    Till the end, he was fighting to purify the Temple, and religion of Jews, as worth a lot, even his life, God’s treasures.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      I think its more like misscommunication. I meant not that Jesus was against the Temple. So when I said that the Temple was unfit for God’s worship, I mean to say that the Temple under its current administration is unfit. I think we agree that Jesus was not anti-Temple. The Temple after all was his and his Father’s idea to begin with.

      1. Eric Rodríguez


        This is correct, taking in account the fact that הכוהן הגדול Hakohén Hagadol, the supreme priest, wasn’t from Aharon’s offspring; this point, caused all the other things to be פסולים Psulim anulated, invalid, so is clear that temple in these conditions, was unfit to God’s service and worship. It’s known, that many of ‘Aharon offspring, went to Qumram awaiting for being acknown, or for becoming the real priest as the Light’s Sons. This is the context within which Yehoshúa’ said: I’m the World’s Light (John 8:12), and You are the World’s Light (Mt. 5:15)!!

        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          Good points as always, Eric. Eric, am at the Society of Biblical Literature in Chicago now, when I am back in Israel. Let’s schedule the time to talk on SKYPE. I am at Lizorkin9, please, email me after Nov. 22 to set up time to speak. Thank you. Your mother toungue is what, by the way?

  6. Graham Marks

    Dear Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg,
    Thank you for your response! I think the perspective on John’s role and the reliability of his testimony depends on whether you believe his writings are divinely inspired. In his own recollection of Jesus’s words in 16:13: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”

    If these words are true, then the stories of the cleansings in Matthew and John, both of whom Jesus addressed these words to, must be perfectly accurate. Else, the story is a lie or fiction. I’m sure you know this, but the story claims itself to be more than a standard eyewitness account, and thus cannot be spotty without being duplicitous.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Graham, I understand fully and respect your perspective. I do not think of it in the same categories as you do, however. Wishing you well. Thank you in participating in this blog’s discussions! You make a good contribution.

  7. Gerben Houtman

    Jesus was an observant Jew and so must have made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem every Passover. I suspect that John reports the first cleansing and the synoptic gospels the last one. It may very well be that there were three cleansings in total. One for each year of his ministry. He was getting rid of the leaven.

    Can you imagine what it must have been like if He came three years in a row cleansing the Temple each Passover?

    My Pastor suggested this explanation.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      All these explanations are of course possible.

  8. Graham Marks

    Excellent article. My only comment is on the issue of the timing of the temple cleansing: one plausible explanation is that he simply cleansed it twice. As a devout Jew, Jesus would have gone to the Temple every Passover, and on this particular Passover he cleansed it for the first time. Then, after the Triumphal Entry, he cleansed it a second time.

    James Jordan connects this to the “house leprosy” laws of Leviticus 14 as well, though I am not qualified to judge the accuracy of that:

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Graham, of course its possible. But I think we need to read John as John and not John as part of the Gospel canon. We get more out of it then :-). But once again yes, it is possible. I agree.

  9. Michelle

    Is it possible that there were two cleansings at the temple, one at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and one near the end?

    In a recent sermon, our pastor pointed out that Jesus didn’t pick up a whip that was laying nearby, He made the whip and it took some time. His point was that Jesus probably did a lot of thinking and praying about how He was going to deal with these people, while He was making the whip. Our pastor connected this with the verse that says God is slow to anger.

    This passage says He drove all of them out of the temple. That wouldn’t have included the priests, correct? I wonder what the priests thought when they saw overturned tables and coins everywhere, but no people. And to where would Jesus have driven the people and animals? To a particular area?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Those are all great questions. I am not sure I can be any more specific. I think the key is that the Gospel accounts like any memory recollections by the eyewitness are spotty and selective which means we are given summaries and generelization ofthen.

      1. Michelle

        Oh yes, I agree John’s account was written after the fact, and is pretty much a summary of what happened that day. I suppose I was “thinking out loud” when I typed all those questions. My visual imagination gets going when I read your articles! I can just imagine Jesus sitting there, weaving the cords together in the whip, eyeing the moneychangers, weaving the cords, eyeing the moneychangers, weaving the cords, eyeing the moneychangers… I don’t think I would have wanted to be there in the temple once He finished weaving that whip together!

        I found this article on the Court of the Gentiles and what the moneychangers actually did during Passover:

        After reading this description, I can see why you would say Jesus saw the temple as unfit for divine worship.

        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          Good short article. Thank you.

  10. Eric Rodríguez


    Yochanan is so different from the rest of the Bsorat Hatov (Gospel), because evidently, and as you say, had other readers or interest that God in his infinite and multi-shaped wisdom, designed for not leaving spaces/public/persons outside his Salvation!!! his purpose through Messiah, is to be the light of all nations untill the last place of the earth!!

    1. Maurits Tompot

      Jesus cleansed the temple three times. I would do the same being the custodian of the St.Johns church in Gouda. I don’t like shit on the floor.No doubt about that. The Word is correct.

      1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

        A little rough, but had I been the custodian of St. John’s I would feel similarly :-).