In his book Jesus, Interrupted, Bart Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, posed the following as the first of many errors and inconsistencies in the Bible:
The Gospel of Mark indicates that it was in the last week of his life that Jesus “cleansed the Temple” by overturning the tables of the money changers and saying, “This is to be a house of prayer…but you have made it a den of thieves” (Mark 11), whereas according to John this happened at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry (John 2). Some readers have thought that Jesus must have cleansed the temple twice, once at the beginning of his ministry and once at the end. But that would mean that neither Mark nor John tells the ‘true’ story, since in both accounts he cleanses the temple only once. Moreover, is this reconciliation of the two accounts historically plausible? If Jesus made a disruption in the temple at the beginning of his ministry, why wasn’t he arrested by the authorities then?
Ehrman concludes by dogmatically asserting, “Historically speaking, then, the accounts are not reconcilable.”1
Is Ehrman right? Is this just one more in a litany of errors made by a pseudonymous gospel writer? Or is this just indicative of a professor gone wild?
First, it is not only uncharitable but unquestionably wrong-headed to suggest that neither Mark nor John (who Ehrman demeans as “illiterate”) could be telling the “true” story had the temple been cleansed twice. As is no doubt obvious to even the most unlettered of Ehrman’s students, neither gospel writer provides an exhaustive account of everything Jesus said or did. As the apostle John communicates in hyperbolic parlance (no doubt lost on a wooden literalist), “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25 NIV).
Furthermore, the gospel of John itself provides a more than historically plausible insight as to why Jesus might not have been arrested during an initial temple cleansing. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back leading to the arrest and trial of Jesus would quite logically have resulted from a late, not an early, temple cleansing. Not only so, but the Jewish leaders did not arrest Jesus in the early stages of His ministry for fear of the multitudes who were in awe of Christ’s teachings and miracles (Mark 12:12; John 7).
Finally, as even a cursory reading reveals, John not only kairologically (see below) orders his gospel by theme (e.g., seven signs, seven-day opening, seven-day account of the passion, etc.) but presents a more developed Christology than that offered in the Synoptics. As such, John says that the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us (1:14), which fulfills the Old Testament promise that God’s glory would again return to His temple (e.g., Malachi 3:1). Moreover, John reinterprets the meaning of Passover by revealing Jesus as the quintessential Passover lamb (John 1:29, 36). As such, it could be logically (and charitably) surmised that John might introduce his account of Christ’s temple cleansing early in his gospel narrative—and within a context in which Jesus is revealed as the substance that fulfills the types and shadows of temple, priest, and sacrifice. While such a notion does not set well with a fundamentalist reading of literature, it accords well with a nuanced and highly sophisticated reckoning of time particular to the ancients (i.e. a kairological interpretation, which reckons time not in terms of our familiar chronological ordering but in terms of a quality of purpose in which an event is said to occur at “just the right time” [cf. Genesis 1 and 2]). In other words, even if there was only one historical temple cleansing, one might logically assume that John communicates it kairologically as opposed to chronologically.
The very fact that a number of plausible resolutions have been forwarded precludes the charge that the gospel accounts are contradictory.
Hank Hanegraaff is president of the Christian Research Institute and host of the Bible Answer Man broadcast heard daily throughout the United States and Canada. For a list of stations airing the Bible Answer Man, or to listen online, log on to www.equip.org.
1 Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know about Them) (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 6–7.