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. Ruth Harvey

    We need to acknowledge that there is much in Scripture we do not and may never understand fully but that does not detract from the fact that we either believe this is the inspired Word of God or not and for me, it is, as it stands and not messed with by misinterpretation or maybe this or that or God didn’t mean which is what we are seeing so much of in these last days. Thank you Dr Eli for helping us to understand more, to discuss and be challenged and to give us this time in John’s gospel. There is so much out there on the Synoptics and it is so good to study John. Jesus cleansed the temple which had a corrupt leadership. When God cleanses His temple – the body of Christ now, it is not always easy or pleasant but has to be done. I like the comment about Him making the whip – for my church at the moment a very pertinent thought

  2. Eric Rodríguez

    It is simple how can we explain the apparent discrepancy between the Synoptics and the Gospel of John about how the quotation of Psalm presents: קנאת ביתך אכלתני (Qin’at beytjá ‘ajaláti, “The Zeal for your house eats me “): in fact you can see that in both cases, Jesus made ​​the statement, but in John, is plotted as a lesson for the disciples … it’s as if he had said: to his disciples was reminded that this was written … or/and: that was the meaning of that writing …

  3. L. Marmitt

    Unless I’m mistaken at this time Jesus was still under the old covenant, the old law. His reason was to save the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Until His death on a cross, resurrection, accension then coming back to give the great commission to thise who were once cut off. I dont really understand stand this commentary of yours. If you go back to the woman with a flow of blood for 12 years by Jewish law she would be considered unclean yet she came to Jesus for her healing, his response Daughter your faith has made you well. But in another, the woman who said Lord even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters table Jesus said woman be it done to you, thus there was a difference to how he addressed those who were Jewish and those who were not as the time was not yet for the Gentiles to be let in but He still rewarded her faith. Even the Spirit lead Him not into certain areas where He was not allowed to go. He did not turn away those who came to Him Jewish and Gentile, even those were not yet the ones to be yet spoken too. Its just my opinion. Thank you for your input and for putting up with mine. Shalom.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear L. Marmitt,

      I can follow your words, but not sure I follow the logic. Especially in that where do you actually finding a fault with my reasoning :-). I am happy to learn and to interact with you, but you must be more clear. What do I write that you find problematic. While I would not use the terminology you are using I think it imprecise and unhelpful, but there is not much difficulty that I see with actual meaning. So please, clarify your issues and I will be happy to interact further. About not understanding “this commentary of” of mine :-), did you read it from the beginning? if not, I encourage you to do so. A lot will begin to make sense than. It is meant to be a continues read. Blessings and peace, Dr. Eli

  4. David Gibbons

    Sorry it has taken me a while to copy this comment over from the other forum.

    Jesus’ anger at those who sold in the temple is twofold: 1) They were not asking a fair price (or, in the case of the money changers, giving a fair exchange rate) during the festival, and 2) they had expanded the area used during the festival to where it was hard for gentiles (who could only use that court) to have space to worship.

    Interestingly, the people who benefited from the trade were the Sadducees. The Pharisees detested it and would have loved to do what Jesus did, they just didn’t have the guts, basically. That leads them to ask where Jesus got the authority–in this case perhaps more sympathetically than at other times.

    One further thought, many have questioned whether there were one or two temple cleansings. My personal view is that there was only one. The reasons? 1) It seems very very unlikely that an as-then unknown Galilean preacher could get away with it so easily so early, 2) The passage in John appears to be out of sequence for internal contextual reasons (not that it was ever in a different position in the book as we have it), 3) The interview with Nicodemus follows very logically (he is, basically, following up in private on the “by what authority” question) but his introductory remarks fit better a later time frame. Since none of the Gospel writers are overly concerned with chronology, it is not a problem to posit the accounts are all of the same event.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      David, hi. You may be right. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. Blessings and peace,


  5. Henry von Blumenthal

    The synoptics place the reason for Jesus action on his own lips; whereas John gives the reason as something which the disciples thought of, or remembered, afterwards. This suggests (as is commonly thought for other reasons) that John was written later. If so, the difference in the stories may arise because the synoptics were writing when the Temple still stood and hoped it would become a Temple for All Nations; whereas by the time John was writing this hope had perished with the destruction of the Temple.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Henry, thank you very much for your comment. I think you reasoning is another good example of another interpretive option. I tend to think because of other reasons that John simply had a different perspective.

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