"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 3 New Beginnings

Section 3.2: Renewing the Temple (Jn 2.13-25)

GENERAL COMMENTS


This segment of the gospel immediately suggests some questions of chronology. First, we have had until now very clear time indications in the text. But 2.12 signalled a change by beginning merely '[a]fter this'. Although 2.13 specifies that the Passover was 'near', any close temporal relationship between this Passover and the week from 1.19-2.11 has been broken by 2.12.

However although the Evangelist has not provided the same sort of clear indication here as earlier, it seems clear that he meant to indicate that the Passover of 2.13 comes not too long after the call of the disciples in chapter 1. This creates an immediate conflict with the Synoptic tradition. The cleansing of the Temple, which here in the Fourth Gospel appears to be one in a series of inaugural events signalling new beginnings, is in the Synoptic Gospels part of the last week of Jesus' life, following shortly after his entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21.12-13, Mark 11.15-17, Luke 19.45-6). As long ago as the 12th century the Benedictine commentator Rupert of Deutz pointed out that there are only two alternatives: one or the other dating rests on a mistake or else there were two cleansings. He chose to posit two cleansings rather than to think any of the evangelists was in error. I think most modern commentators would choose the former option.

While citing commentators on both sides of the question, Brown 1966 seems to have tried to have it both ways, arguing that it is a 'plausible hypothesis' that Jesus spoke of the destruction of the Temple at the start of his ministry but only actually drove the animal-sellers and money-changers out at the end. The order and position of both events in the Fourth Gospel he attributes to the editorial process (see p 118). Certainly it is possible to see strong arguments on both sides of the question. One of the greatest difficulties about the Johannine chronology is why, after such a demonstration, the authorities were not immediately more antagonistic toward Jesus. On the other hand the act itself seems to fit well with the beginning of Jesus' ministry, when he was arguably most under the influence of the more confrontational John the Baptist. It is a question to which it is perhaps not possible to give a completely satisfactory answer.

The request for a sign is very important. When the authorities ask for a sign of Jesus' authority for what he has done, the sign he offers is 'Demolish this temple and in three days I will raise it.' Not even the disciples understood this sign at the time, not realising what was meant until after the resurrection. This is the first example of the delayed understanding motif, which is popular with the Evangelist, but what is more significant here is that Jesus' statement itself designates the resurrection itself as one of the signs selected for inclusion by the author so that we the readers might believe. This in turn makes most of the gospel a Book of Signs and not just, as is often argued, chapters 2-11.

 

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COMMENTS ON SPECIFIC VERSES


Bultmann shows that the disciples' allusion to Ps 69.10 also points to the end, or goal, of Jesus' saving work (Bultmann 1971 p 124): '...the meaning [of devour] can scarcely be that Jesus' action was an example of his consuming zeal (ie that καταφάψεσθαι [has devoured] is taken to refer to his consuming emotions). Rather the Evangelist (or the Editor) is looking forward to what is to come - or alternatively at the whole of Jesus' ministry - and he means that Jesus' zeal will lead to his death.'

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Verses 23-5 set the stage for the visit of Nicodemos that follows. He will be an example of those that put their trust in Jesus because of the signs that he did, whom Jesus himself nevertheless does not trust. Nicodemos, as we shall see, is at this point in the story deficient in his understanding of who Jesus is and what Jesus' mission from the Father is. Although he becomes a stronger follower of Jesus later in the gospel at this stage his role is strongly characterised by ambiguity (see below).

Perhaps the more significant ambiguity here, however, is that expressed by the Evangelist. How are we to harmonise Jesus' distrust of those who have seen the signs in Jerusalem and put their trust in him with the apparent purpose of the signs expressed in 2.11 and much later in 20.31? It is possible that some of the answer lies in the difference in situation: the disciples referred to in 2.11 had already made the first steps toward a relationship with Jesus by following him before the sign of the water into wine 'revealed his glory'. The 'many' of v.23, on the other hand, were basing their relationship of trust on the signs alone. We are apparently being warned that, important as signs are, a trust relationship exclusively based on signs is not enough.

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