Jesus and Violence


Sicily mosaic Jesus and the money changers

John 2:15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned thei

Introduction- Theological Significance: 

In this post, I reflect on the depictions of violence in the Gospel of John, specifically in the scene where Jesus drives out the personnel of the Jewish temple, an incident that in all the Gospels provokes his arrest. I am adding this introduction in order to frame the event theologically.

Historically, the Gospels give evidence about the charges brought against Jesus. The temple incident causes suspicion since Jesus protests the injustices of the institutions of his day. Theologically, if we believe the Christian teaching that Jesus takes on the sufferings and sins of human beings in order to relieve and forgive them, then Jesus Christ is innocent and without crime himself. However, he is put to death as a criminal, both on political grounds (by the Roman governor) and on religious ground (by the temple priesthood).

In this light, theologically, Jesus Christ takes the side of the criminal and the person unjustly accused.  Jesus experiences the associated burdens of this plight.  Those who are guilty of crimes — large or small — and those who are unjustly accused or persecuted may both find a friend and advocate in Jesus Christ so long as one takes full responsibility for one’s life and deeds and offers genuine repentance and amendment in turn.

Now, onto the post where I raise questions about depictions of violence in this scene.

Gospel of John #25

The one who preaches “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9) also advises, “the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one,” while proclaiming, “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.” (Luke 22: 36, 38; Matthew 10: 34).

How shall we understand Jesus’s references to violence in the Gospels? Certainly, It could be that Jesus is simply predicting social disruption as a consequence of the Gospel or that he is advising self-defense rather than overt aggression. In the incident where Jesus drives out the money-changers, John’s Gospel accentuates the assertiveness of Jesus — or violence–as compared with the other gospels.

Only John gives Jesus a whip for driving out the Temple personnel, an implement exhibits the acrimony between Jesus and the religious establishment in this Gospel.  Just as Jesus throws people out of the Temple, so later in the Gospel those who confess Jesus (being his disciples) are thrown out of the Jewish synagogue. The controversies between the Jesus movement and the Jewish establishment in the Gospel of John, are fierce and polarized.

As to the whip, many critics claim (on the basis of the Greek word used) that the kind of whip cited, here, is meant only for animals. This kind of whip drives out cattle (the sheep and the oxen) but it is not intended for human beings. The grammar, say these critics, makes this point plain. Other critics maintain that the whip is symbolic of divine rage against the Temple’s corruption. This symbolism does not imply, as a matter of historical fact, that Jesus threatened actual harm. Still other critics minimize the actual damage that this whip could have caused by arguing that the Greek word for whip, in this context, indicates a scourge of small cords. Such a diminutive implement could not have done great damage.

The scene may have been constructed so as to fulfill prophecies from the Old Testament as to God’s righteous judgment. As Malachi 3:1 describes, with the advent of the expected Messiah (who is Jesus Christ according to this Gospel), the Lord will descend upon the Temple to make it a holy and worthy place for the divine to dwell. In doing so, the money changers had to be driven away not because their business was illegitimate but, presumably, because they charged exorbitant interest rates.

The money changers had the job of converting the coins offered by pilgrims (from many lands) into a Jewish currency for use at the temple. Thus, any law-abiding Jew who came to perform worship at the Jerusalem Temple would have no choice but to pay the fees set by the moneychangers. Some social and economic critique is likely implied by Jesus’s challenge.

Even granted the various theological rationale, which makes apologies for and defenses of Jesus, it is quite striking that the Gospels record an act of overt assault by Jesus. This assault would be fair grounds for suspicion by the religious authorities.

The Gospels employ symbolism. Symbolically, the assault on the temple indicates a prophetic protest against injustice. In deriving a message of faith from the Gospel, it should not be supposed that violence or direct assault are encouraged or warranted. Jesus teaches the commandments of God. He preaches that even anger in the heart should be overcome since anger is the seed of violence.

In summary, while the Gospels offer a picture as to why Jesus might have been controversial — based on prophetic protests of this kind — we ought to balance the teachings throughout. Peace and non-violence are at the center of the message of Jesus Christ.


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