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Themelios 20.1 (October 1994): 20-23.
[Reproduced by permission of the author]
Professor Sandnes is Professor of New Testament at the Free Faculty in Oslo. He has also been a lecturer at the Stavanger School of Mission.
The early church was involved from its very beginning in the question of how to interpret the death of Jesus. This was not an easy matter since the crucifixion of Jesus formed a stumbling block to Gentiles as well as to Jews. This is clearly indicated by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:23 and its immediate context. To the Gentiles, the cross of Jesus was regarded as shameful (cf Heb. 12:2). Proclaiming a crucified Saviour was not in keeping with the heroic ideals of Greco-Roman antiquity. They considered it foolishness. Justin Martyr describes well how the message of a crucified Saviour appeared to the ancient world: 'They say that our madness consists in the fact that we put a crucified man in second place after the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of the world' (1. Apology 13:4). This message was no more acceptable to the Jews. They considered the death of Jesus a sign of God's punishment upon a deceiver. Scriptural proof was provided by Deuteronomy 21:23: 'a hanged man is accursed by God' (cf Gal. 3:13).
In this situation, the early church made known how they saw Jesus' death. The NT itself witnesses that they had a number of options, or models, to bring out the meaning and significance of this event: the Passover Lamb; the dying and rising servant of Isaiah 53; the suffering righteous one (Pss. 22; 69); the Temple cult; prophets suffering by the hand of the people even to the point of death (the deuteronomistic pattern of the prophetic ministry); Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac (the so-called 'Akedah', the binding of Isaac); releasing of slaves (ransom); the Greco-Roman ideal of friendship (philia). Jesus' willingness to die for the good of others represents an example of a man laying down his life for his friends (cf Jn. 15:13; Phil. 2:4~8).
The presence of all these models fully demonstrates that the meaning and significance of Jesus' death was not easily formulated. Although these models all have their place within the early Christian project of unfolding the meaning and significance of Jesus' death, they were not all of equal importance. Speaking from a general NT perspective, some of these models were, if taken alone, unable to give an adequate description of the theological aspects involved in Jesus' death. The models which stand out in the NT are those which interpret Jesus' death as in some way righting the wrongs of human sins. It here suffices to evoke texts like Matthew 26:68; 1 Corinthians 15:3; 1 Peter 3:18; Revelation 7:14. All these texts are pieces of old liturgical material, and should therefore be given weight.
How did the early church come to think of Jesus' death in terms of the expiation of sins? This is the question addressed by this article. Three observations will be suggested as forming the basis and point of departure for this theological enterprise. Two of them are taken from the ministry of Jesus, while the last concerns his meeting with his disciples after the resurrection.
Jesus must have expected an unhappy end for himself. He could not escape the conclusion that the way ordained for him was death. He found himself involved in conflicts with all the influential Jewish groups: conflicts over crucial issues such as Sabbath observance, purity rules and the Temple. Certainly after what happened to John the Baptist, his own fate must have become quite clear to him. Jesus' death did not come as a surprise to him, but was a result of his mission and his messianic activity. Wrestling with this threatening possibility was painful indeed, and he hoped till the very end that another way would be found. As Jesus prepared himself for this painful end of his life, the disciples were hardly left uninformed about the issue, although they only came to understand it fully later.
Jesus Exercising Forgiveness of Sins Outside the Cult
The soteriology of Jesus is very much dependent upon how he saw himself, and the role of Jesus himself is a key issue in any
presentation of his thoughts about salvation. In all the Gospels, the basis for his ministry is the key role Jesus assigns to himself in questions of salvation: '...everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will acknowledge before the angels of God; but whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God' (Lk. 12:8-9 = Mt. 10:32-33; cf Mk. 8:38). Jesus further announces a blessing upon anyone who takes no offence at him (Mt. 11:6; Lk. 7:23), and he prepares his followers for sufferings to come for the sake of him and his name (Mt. 5:11). In choosing 12 disciples, he assigns to himself a key role in the restoration of God's people. These texts make the question of salvation entirely dependent upon people's relationship to Jesus himself. It is not necessary to discuss the authenticity of each individual saying referred to above. They witness to the historical role of Jesus which makes his ministry as well as his death intelligible. If Jesus thought of himself in highly exalted and important terms, he is also likely to have redefined salvation with reference to his own person. This forms an adequate starting point for considering the historical basis for the NT's attempts to define the meaning of Jesus' death and, in particular, sheds light on the forgiveness offered by Jesus in his ministry; in other words, the basis for the atonement theology found in the NT.
The Gospels have preserved a variety of indications that forgiveness of sins was an essential part of Jesus' ministry. His name is explained in terms of forgiveness (Mt. 1:21), he is depicted as associating with sinners (Mk. 2:13-17 par.; Lk. 15), and also as exercising forgiveness of sins (Mk. 2:1-12; Lk. 7:36-50; 19:1-10). In other words, this element of his ministry is found in material of different genres, thus suggesting its authenticity. Of special interest are Mark 2:5-7, 10 and Luke 7:48, which speak of Jesus as, not proclaiming, but exercising forgiveness of sins. Sin is an offence against God, therefore he alone can give acquittal. In a biblical context, the exercising of forgiveness is due either to a direct message from God ministered by an angel or a prophet (2 Sa. 12:13; Zech. 3:3; Is. 6:13 (the last-mentioned text is related to the cult)), or it is transmitted by sacrifices performed within the cult. At the time of Jesus, emphasis should be given to the cult and the role of the priest. In Jesus' words in Mark 2:5 and Luke 7:48, 'your sins are forgiven', the perfect tense expresses completed action, while the passive voice is indicative of God's action. Jesus speaks as though he knows God's disposition at this point of time, and as though he has been given the right to make this come true now. What Jesus actually says is something that the priest could say in the Temple to those who brought a sin offering, or what could be accomplished in a ritual washing (cf Mk. 1:4-5). The priest had the right to forgive sins, but within the sacrificial ritual prescribed by God himself. Jesus exercises this right outside the prescribed rituals. His forgiving words are based neither on cult nor on ritual washing, but on his own presence and powerful words. By his words Jesus was, by implication, identifying his role with that of the sacrificial system of atonement for sins. He embodied in himself the function of the cult for the expiation of sins. His Christology and his soteriology are closely connected.
The So-called Cleansing of the Temple (Mk. 11:15-19)
The significance of the Temple in Jesus' time - in religious, national and political terms - can hardly be overestimated. This is seen in the fact that the Temple moved the Jews to take up war even against the Roman Empire. The presence of God was intimately connected with the Temple as the place where sins were put right. Josephus says that it was impossible for any Jew to forgo the offerings, and that they would rather give up their lives than this worship (Ant. 15:248).
In all probability we have in the Temple act a scene in the life of Jesus. The incident is told both by the synoptic gospels and by John, as well as in Oxyrhynchus Papyrus fragment 840. Furthermore, the Temple act should not be considered a large and far-reaching incident. Jesus was hardly involved with all the merchants in the place. It was most likely a prophetic symbolic action, allowing a small-scale act to be given a large-scale meaning. Finally, it is very unlikely that primitive Christianity would invent a text about Jesus taking any sort of violent action in the Temple. Desecrating a temple was regarded as very serious in antiquity.
The traditional interpretation of the Temple act is that Jesus intended to purify the Temple. The act is then understood in terms of restoration. Jesus wanted to purify the place of defiling trade - hence the common name of this event as 'the cleansing of the Temple'. This is supported by a number of reasons, of which the most important are the following:
1. 'Den of robbers' suggests that the trade and not the cult as such was the target of Jesus' criticism.
2. Scriptural expectations that the Messiah would restore the Temple: e.g. Zechariah 6:12; 2 Samuel 7:13; PsSol 17:30-32. This restoration involved a prior destruction before rebuilding, as can be seen in most of the texts telling about reforms of the cult (1 Ki. 18/2 Chr. 29; 2 Ki. 23; 1 Macc. 4:36-61; 2 Macc. 10; Ant. 12:316-322; cf. Ne. 13:6-9). A 'two-step programme' emerges: the Temple is criticized even to the point of destruction, and is then reformed or rebuilt. The destruction is then part of the restoration programme. Zion is being made ready for its eschatological function, to display the glory of God not only to the Jewish nation but to the Gentiles also: 'And he [the royal Messiah] shall purify Jerusalem, making it holy as of old; so that nations shall come from the ends of the earth to see his glory' (PsSol 17:30). This hope is clearly expressed in Jesus' Temple act (Mk. 11:17) by quoting Isaiah 56:7.
3. Traditions such as those found in Matthew 5:23-24; Acts 2:46 and 21:26-30 argue that the disciples continued to attend the Temple services even after the Temple act, which then suggests that Jesus' intention was not judgment but cleansing.
Before I make my own position clear, I will advance some comments:
1. General OT and Jewish expectations about the Messiah are not necessarily proper guides for interpreting Jesus' deeds. He frequently, sometimes decisively, broke with expectations laid down in the tradition. If Jesus intended a restoration of the Temple, that has to be suggested not only by expectations in the OT and Judaism, but by analysis of the text itself as well as by being indicated by his ministry in general. This can be exemplified by the mentioning of the Gentiles in the Temple act. No doubt this is an element of expectations commonly found in Judaism. But in the light of Jesus' ministry these expectations have been reshaped and redefined. The Gentiles will come in large numbers not to Jerusalem and the Temple, but to the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus himself (Mt. 8:11 par.). This way of re-reading the scriptural expectations should make us cautious about thinking that Jesus just copied given expectations.
2. Most of the texts usually referred to as suggesting a cleansing interpretation speak of purifying the Temple from pagan rites and practices taking place within the precincts of the Temple. 2 Maccabees 10:1 may serve as an example: 'Now Maccabaeus and his followers, under the leadership of the Lord, recaptured the Temple and the city, and pulled down the altar erected by the aliens in the market-place, as well as the sacred enclosures.' The cult is purified from pagan practices. Whether this is a relevant background for Jesus expelling the money-changers and dove-sellers is to be questioned. Furthermore, the texts usually mention both steps, criticism/destroying and some kind of rebuilding. In Jesus' Temple act, the second step is not easily found, if at all.
3. As for the relationship to Jewish practices and the Temple, this was a much-disputed issue in the early church. Primitive Christianity was not a harmonious movement in every aspect, in particular concerning these issues. An ambivalent attitude towards Jewish practices clearly emerges in the NT. In fact, the Jesus tradition leaves traces of both continuity and discontinuity. The reluctant attitude, generally speaking, that is found concerning the Temple cult is in itself surprising within a Jewish context, and demands some explanation. Concerning the Temple, the Christians seem mainly to have taken the attitude that it was a house of prayer and preaching (e.g. Acts 3:1; 4:1; 5:20), not a place providing the necessary offerings for sin.
These observations now lead me to present an alternative interpretation. The context in which Mark has embedded Jesus' Temple act represents the first written interpretation of it. The story of the Temple act is framed by the story of the fig tree.
Thus Mark signals some connection between the fate of the Temple and that of the cursed fig tree which will no longer bear any fruit. The evangelist clearly intends his readers to see in the doomed and dead fig tree a picture of the Temple. This is certainly a picture of judgment and destruction. The most appropriate model for interpreting Jesus' Temple act seems to be symbolic actions usually performed by prophets. These actions were dramatic embodiments of the prophetic message. Symbolic actions usually consist of two elements, the action itself followed by its oral interpretation:
This list (cf. 1 Ki. 11:29-36; 2 Ki. 22:11) suggests a close relationship between the symbol and its interpretation. The symbolism of the prophetic action speaks almost for itself. The action chosen as a symbol already indicates and suggests the verbal interpretation. In particular, this is clear in Hosea 1 and 3 in the names given to the prophet's children. There the symbolic action (i.e. the names) in itself embodies the interpretation.
The action chosen as symbol in the Temple act is that of driving out (ekballein) and turning over (katastrephein). In the light of the material presented above, this action should by itself suggest the proper interpretation. According to a 'two steps restoration model', a cleansing interpretation cannot be ruled out; but it is not likely. Keeping to the observation that the interpretation is embodied in the action itself, that questions the traditional cleansing interpretation. The act of overturning and driving out can hardly be seen as referring to more than the first step. In fact nothing suggests the second step. Cleansing is not a very likely interpretation of the action performed by Jesus. The action itself carries the entire message, and in this action I can hardly see a reference to the second step. The positive, constructive side of a cleansing might in a biblical context have been symbolized in an additional way, e.g. by water or fire (Ezk. 36:25; Zech. 13:1-2, 9; 2 Ki. 23:4, 6). In short, if we keep to the principle that the action itself embodies the appropriate interpretation, then this action of Jesus primarily signals the disqualification of the Temple. Some scholars say that overturning some tables is not self-evidently a symbol of destruction. This act should, however, be taken together with Jesus driving people out of the Temple. Particular emphasis should be paid to whom he is driving out, and to their role within the Temple precincts.
The presence of the money-changers and the pigeon-sellers was intimately connected to the main function of the Temple, as the place where sacrifices were offered. Both groups were required for the sacrifices to go on. The money-changers made it possible to change foreign currency with forbidden images (cf Ex. 20:4) into the coinage accepted by the Temple, and the pigeon-sellers provided poor people with the offering demanded in the OT (Lv. 5:7; 12:8; Nu. 6:10; Lk. 2:24). The business arrangements represented by the people Jesus was driving out were essential and necessary if the commandments about sacrifices were to be obeyed. Jesus actually expels the necessary apparatus of the sacrifices. This is why I have questioned the relevance of texts speaking about reforming and purifying the Temple from pagan practices. Here something quite different is going on. The target of Jesus' action is the means necessary for the divine institution of expiation of sins to continue. Jacob Neusner refers to relevant Jewish texts (Mishna Sheqalim 1:3 and Tosephta Sheqalim 1:6) showing that the money-changers not only provided the so-called half-shekel demanded in the Temple. For doing this they charged a sum which served through the coming year to provide the public daily whole offerings in the Temple. They thus served for the atonement of Israel's sin. Neusner says that Jesus' action 'will have provoked astonishment, since it will have called into question the very simple fact that the daily whole offering effected atonement and brought about expiation for sin, and God had so instructed Moses in the Torah'. Jesus' action makes the claim that there is a means of atonement other than the sacrifices in the Temple. This suggests that Jesus' Temple action was based upon the conviction of replacing the atoning function of the Temple, making it available to all nations, as emphasized in the first part of the scriptural quotation.
I have argued on the basis of the immediate context given to Jesus' Temple action by Mark as well as by taking the very action itself to carry the entire message of the episode. It seems correct therefore to say that Jesus attacked the sacrificial system and indicated a replacement of its atoning function. Now this interpretation has to be confronted with the oral interpretation laid down in Mark 11:17. Of particular relevance is the last part, the citation of Jeremiah 7:11. My interpretation is challenged by this quotation, since it is not quite obvious that it continues the attack on the sacrificial system; rather it seems to point to some moral deficiency. Craig E. Evans takes the expression 'den of robbers' to indicate an attack on the priesthood, and advances the following question: Why is an attack on the sacrificial system followed by a reference to the greed of the priests? Evans correctly expects a continuation here. Since this apparently fails to appear, Evans favours the view that Jesus was concerned about moral deficiency. But 'den of robbers' is not an obvious reference to a prophetic critique of the priests. In Jeremiah 7:11 it clearly refers to the people in general.
I would like to take another approach to understand 'den of robbers'. Jesus' vocabulary brings to mind the words of Jeremiah about the impending judgment upon the Temple. It was a common feature in contemporary prophecy, Jewish as well as Christian, to use conventional biblical phrases as part of the prophetic rhetoric. Jesus Son of Hananiah did this (Jewish War 6:300-309). This prophet entered the Temple in AD 62 and proclaimed the impending judgment on the place. For seven years and five months he continually uttered his message against the city and its holy place. In his message he also used the phrase 'a voice against bride and groom', which surely is reminiscent of Jeremiah's prophecies about the destruction of the city and the Temple Ge. 7:34; cf. 16:9; 25:10). The prophet deliberately used conventional phrases from the OT as his rhetoric style. This may be a satisfactory explanation of Jesus' words in Mark 11:17 as well. Jesus acts and speaks like a prophet; Matthew's version actually says so (Mt. 21:11). Where could Jesus find a more appropriate language than in Jeremiah's speech against the Temple and its worshippers? This means that the reference to 'den of robbers' (v. 17) is rhetorical rather than a description of the Temple of Jesus' own day.
That Jesus' Temple act involved more than a traditional restoration programme is finally suggested by the claim of Jesus that 'something greater than the Temple is here' (Mt. 12:6), as well as by his sayings about the destruction of the Temple (Mk. 13:1-2; 14:57-58; 15:29; Acts 6:14; Jn. 2:18-22). In these sayings, an element of rebuilding is clearly found, but that refers not to the actual Temple but to another. The concept of rebuilding the
Temple is here redefined in terms of a replacement. By the principle of multiple attestation this saying should be considered authentic. Furthermore, these sayings of Jesus then correspond to his action in the Temple. A correspondence between sayings and action indicates that the interpretation of the Temple act presented here is correct. This saying about destroying the Temple played a major role in the trial of Jesus. Obviously, Jesus' Temple act had provoked the anger particularly of the priesthood and Temple authorities (cf Mk. 11:18).
The Disciples' Post-Easter Meeting with Jesus
Jesus' unconditional forgiveness of sins as well as his symbolic act of replacing the cultic institution formed a starting point for interpreting his death as a means of righting the wrongs of human sins. The NT emphasizes, however, a close link between the salvific effect of Jesus' death and his being raised from the dead. The resurrection was a divine manifestation of his death as valid and effective. Thus the resurrection meant an intensification and assurance as to how Jesus' death was to be interpreted. This close link between a soteriological interpretation of his death and his being raised is clearly stated by Paul: 'If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins' (1 Cor. 15:17; cf vv. 3-4; Rom. 4:25). Special attention should here be paid to the disciples' meetings with Jesus after his resurrection. These post-Easter encounters were a decisive factor in assuring them of the result of his death being one of atonement for sins.
All the Gospels give an unfavourable picture of the disciples during the passion. In Gethsemane they fell asleep, leaving their Master alone in his agony. When he was arrested, they left him behind. The climax of their failure was Peter's threefold denial which strongly contrasts with his words in Mark 14:29, 'Even though all become deserters, I will not'. This information is certainly historical, not only on the basis of multiple attestation, but also because it was a constant reminder of the failure of the leaders of the church. It is impossible to imagine that this embarrassing piece of tradition was invented by anyone in the church.
When Jesus met his disciples after the resurrection, their unfaithful attitude must have been a painful obstacle for them to full rejoicing. The Gospels only hint at this aspect of their meeting. But in the major and special role assigned to Peter in these traditions (Mk. 16:7; Lk. 24:12, 34; Jn. 20:21; 21:15-19), it can clearly be seen that Jesus offered the disciples, and Peter in particular, a new beginning based upon forgiveness. This can be substantiated by means of one of the oldest texts in the NT. In the creed quoted in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, Paul mentions the witnesses of the risen Lord. Verse 5 distinguishes between the appearance of Jesus to Peter and to the other disciples: 'He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.' This is a clear reminder of the role of Peter in the passion and resurrection story. The saying refers to Peter's sin and his being restored by forgiveness. Without this narrative background the special mentioning of Peter in this creed becomes meaningless. The creed here calls upon the passion story for further information. Peter's role in the creed can be substantiated by taking the context into consideration. Paul's use of the creed is due to his strategy of gaining a basis for his apostolic ministry. He counts his Damascus revelation as equal to the Easter appearances to the disciples. The stereotype ôpthê ('he appeared' + dative) which he keeps even in verse 9 underlines this. Paul leaves his readers in no doubt as to the essential nature of this event: it was a meeting of forgiveness. The persecutor became the apostle by means of God's grace (cf Gal. 1:15-16). Paul compares his Damascus experience to the twelve's Easter appearances. Paul's logic in the text allows a related line of comparison to be drawn. Jesus appeared with forgiveness to Paul as well as to Peter and the disciples. That Jesus died for sins, which is the first part of the creed, is exemplified by Peter. The mentioning of Peter separate from the twelve thus substantiates what it means to say that Jesus died for sins. Paul adds himself as another related example. This experience of the leaders of the church should not be underestimated; it played an important role in reaffirming the interpretation of Jesus' death as providing expiation for sins.
This article has emphasized that an adequate understanding of Jesus' death is dependent upon the role Jesus assigned to himself in questions of salvation. He exercised forgiveness of sins outside the sacrificial system, and thus embodied in himself the function of the sacrifices. This perspective naturally sheds light upon Jesus' Temple act, in which he was driving out those who were essential and necessary for the prescribed cult to go on. Mark, representing the oldest written interpretation of the Temple act, clearly understood it as a judgment scene. The aspect of rebuilding the Temple I found to be absent in the scene. It was, however, found in Jesus' sayings of destroying the Temple; but there it is redefined into a disqualification and replacement of the present Temple. To the disciples who were naturally confined to the traditions, the redefinitions presented by Jesus must have appeared more suggestive than obvious. They were, however, finally convinced and assured in their post-Easter meetings with Jesus, in which he gave them his forgiveness of their unfaithfulness and offered them a new beginning.
 In Qumran this text is transferred to the person executed by crucifixion (11QTemple 64:3-13). Without explicitly quoting this text, Trypho the Jew says that Jesus' crucifixion was a sign that the curse contained in the Law of God fell on him (Dial. 32). For a general reference to crucifixion in antiquity, see Martin Hengel, Crucifixion In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).
 See L. Michael White, 'Morality between Two Worlds: A Paradigm of Friendship in Philippians', in Greeks, Romans, and Christians: In Honor of Abraham J. Malherbe (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), pp. 201-215.
 This has been pointed out by Dale C. Allison Jr., 'Jesus and the Covenant: A Response to E.P. Sanders', JSNT 29 (1987), pp. 57-78 (particularly pp. 66-68) and Ben Witherington Ill, The Christology of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990).
 This is pointed out by Daniel J. Antwi, 'Did Jesus Consider His death to be an Atoning Sacrifice?', Interpretation 45 (1991), pp. 17-28.
 See George W. Nickelsburg and Michael E. Stone, Faith and Piety in Early Judaism, Texts and Documents (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), pp. 51-88, and Per Bilde, 'Templets Betydnind i Jødedommen på Jesu Tid', Religionsvidenskapeligt Tidsskrzft 4 (1984), pp. 41-68.
 A forceful renewal of this interpretation has recently been presented by Craig A. Evans, 'Jesus' Action in the Temple: Cleansing or Portent of Destruction?', CBQ 51 (1989), pp. 237-270.
 This position has recently been advocated by E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), pp. 61-71.
 James D.G. Dunn, The Parting of the Ways: Between Christianity and Judaism and their Significance for the Character of Christianity (London: SCM Press/Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991), pp. 47-49, minimizes the significance of Jesus overturning the tables, and more or less leaves out the aspect of 'driving out'.
 Jacob Neusner, 'Money-Changers in the temple: The Mishna's Explanation', NTS 35(1989), pp.287-290(quotation on p.289); see also his Jews and Christians, The Myth of a Common Tradition (London: SCM Press/Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991), pp. 97-104. Neusner says that the table of the money-changers was replaced by the table of the Eucharist ('table for table'). This is somewhat far-fetched. It is more natural to say that a new way of putting sins right is transparent in this text, in particular if it is seen within the larger perspective of Jesus' ministry.
 Martin Hengel, The Atonement, The Origins of the Doctrine in the New Testament Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), p. 67, touches upon this.