In this series of posts, I’m exploring some of the points raised in Hector Avalos’s 2015 book The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics, as well as what exactly is the “New Atheism.” In this post, I want to examine in greater detail one aspect of an interpretative problem from Scripture that has plagued commentators, theologians and biblical scholars alike: was Jesus himself a pacifist—and thus should serve as a model for pacifists?
Or should his actions in cleansing the Temple in John 2 condone violence by Christians? Historically, this argument has been advanced by Christians seeking to justify their actions in going to war, for example, or persecuting those named as heretics.
Did Jesus Ever Do Anything Wrong?
The central argument of Avalos’s work can be found in the following question: did Jesus ever do or say anything wrong? Opinions on this question are, of course, wildly divergent, and are highly offensive to conservative evangelicals. One cannot be seen to question Jesus—in the view of evangelicals, it’s blindingly obvious that he never did or said anything wrong, as the sinless son of God.
The answer to that pointed question has profound implications, not just for Christian (or New Testament) ethics, but furthermore it impacts upon the issue of Jesus’s sinless nature, as the God-man of classical orthodox Christian theology. On this issue, Avalos remarks, for example: “If one reads almost any treatise on Christian ethics written by academic biblical scholars, one finds something extremely peculiar: Jesus never does anything wrong.”
Why do so many NT scholars, ethicists and Christian pacifists believe that Jesus should stand as a shining example of ethical and moral virtue? How is it that he never did anything wrong? Historically, within Christian orthodoxy and ethics, Jesus has been held up as an “original thinker” who stated new and profound truths, never-before heard in the world of antiquity. Statements by Jesus, such as “love your enemies” are displayed as a completely original statement. This, unfortunately, is not actually the case; one can find similar sentiments going back to Ancient Near Eastern literature centuries before Jesus.
But there is another hermeneutical issue or theological bias operative here, as Avalos points out: “So how is it that most current academic biblical scholars still do not consider anything that Jesus does as wrong or evil? The answer, of course, is that most biblical scholars, whether in secular academia or in seminaries, still see Jesus as divine, and not as a human being with faults. Their Christology is high enough to exempt Jesus from any evil sentiments or ethical malpractice.”
In other words, while a “high Christology” sounds good in principle, it can blind a person into overlooking Jesus’ potential faults—that is, if he was truly human. Herein lies the crux of this issue. Did his supra-human status (as the God-man) preclude him from being genuinely human, and therefore incapable of making mistakes? And is a “mistake” (something we flawed humans all do on a near-daily basis) the same thing as a “sin”? This could end up being a “slippery slope” argument in the eyes of conservative evangelicals. Admit that he made a mistake–however tiny–and you’re well on the way to admitting that he may not be perfect. The implications are huge: therefore, it could be argued, Jesus’s death on the cross as the “sinless and perfect sacrifice” isn’t efficacious for humanity’s salvation.
Many Christians, for example, are extremely wary of even admitting that Jesus may not have known something that was ostensibly taking place in the future. I’ve heard theologians and professors grudgingly admit that Jesus’ statement that “not even the Son of Man knows the day and the hour” of his future return (Matthew 24:26) is down to the fact that Jesus, as a human, would not have known what the future held.
But surely this is proof of Avalos’s point: when Jesus makes a plainly-worded statement like this, it clearly can’t be denied that even he doesn’t know some things about the future. That is proof positive that he, as a human like us, has his limitations in certain areas of life. They are extremely reluctant to be seen as fudging on that point, because once the door is open to Jesus not knowing something, from their point of view, it’s a Pandora’s box of problems that has huge implications for Jesus’s sinless nature.
Jesus Cleansing the Temple: A Model for Pacifists, or Justification for Violence?
When it comes to Jesus and his “cleansing” of the Temple, which is encountered only in John 2, this becomes one of the “problem passages” in the NT. Alexis-Barker remarks that “Since antiquity, theologians and church leaders have cited the temple incident for many purposes, including condemning usury and greed, critiquing merchants, promoting anti-Semitism, and calling for inner conversion. Perhaps the most ubiquitous use of the temple incident, however, has been to justify Christian violence. From just war to Crusades to executing heretics, Jesus’ action in the temple has provided fuel for righteous violence and killing.”
Was Jesus a political revolutionary who identified with the Zealots? Did he act alone, or did he enlist the help of his followers to drive out the money-changers and merchants from the Temple courts? And if he did use a whip to achieve his ends, what sort of a whip was it? A weapon made of leather thongs, similar to a Roman whip, or was it a softer version of that same weapon, made from reeds or soft cords? Did he only strike only the animals with his whip, or did he strike the merchants also?
Finally, can Jesus be viewed as a violent reactionary, or has he been fundamentally misunderstood from this sole passage? Should he be held up as a non-violent example of ethics, or can his actions justify Christian violence? Can Jesus’s actions be taken as permission for Christians to engage in violence, or “holy war,” such as, for example, “The Machine Gun Preacher” type of model? These and other interpretative issues have long divided commentators and ethicists alike.
Croy, for example, in his article “The Messianic Whippersnapper,” takes the following line in his interpretation of the John 2 passage: Jesus made a soft whip of reeds (not leather), and did not strike any human beings. Rather, (if he did strike anything) it was the animals, not the merchants. He argues:
Likewise the money changers are probably still present. Spilling their coinage and overturning their tables disrupted their operation. Would they have fled from the area with their monetary resources scattered on the ground? More likely they would have hastened immediately to collect their currency, to gather up the spilled coinage. As for the sellers of the sheep and oxen, even if the whip had not been applied to them directly, they would likely have followed their livestock. In this way, Jesus’ driving out of the animals would have simultaneously effected the removal of the sellers. The structure of w. 15-16 thus implies a threefold strategy: (1) Jesus drove off the livestock with the whip, an action that effectively routed the sellers; (2) he overturned the tables of the money changers and spilled their coinage on the ground; and (3) he ordered the sellers of doves to take them away, presumably by carrying off their cages. I readily acknowledge that this dramatic reconstruction involves filling the gaps of the narrative, but it is guided, I believe, by explicit and implicit elements of the text itself.
Jesus and The Whip: A Weapon, or Not?
If Jesus did employ a whip at all, argues Croy, it was only because the larger animals like cattle required such an implement to get them to move out of the Temple precinct. He argues that due to the lack of evidence in the other Gospels that demonstrate any violence on Jesus’s part, this is proof positive that Jesus used the whip on the animals alone. Therefore, he concludes, Jesus should be viewed as a model of non-violence. This is in distinction to the many scholars and theologians over the centuries that have made use of the John 2 passage to justify Christians engaging in violence.
Alexis-Barker’s reading of the passage is remarkably similar to that of Croy’s. He maintains that although the Greek word for “whip” would indicate a weapon of torture, designed to inflict pain, “It is unlikely, however, that Jesus had this kind of weapon or inflicted that kind of punishment on those in the temple. First, weapons were forbidden in the temple area.” His argument is that Jesus would not have been allowed in the Temple precinct, since if he had tried to enter with such a weapon, he would have been quickly intercepted and arrested by Temple guards before any trouble broke out.
Unfortunately for this argument, however, Avalos points out that there are other historical examples from this time period that demonstrate there were others who successfully carried weapons into the Temple courts. For example, a group of young Jewish men once smuggled in axes to smash a Roman eagle put up by Herod, and successfully carried out the operation. They were not “quickly stopped” or arrested, and in fact it took quite a bit of time for the guards and Roman soldiers to restore order.
Moreover, violent groups such as the Sicarii assassins had no problems smuggling weapons into the Temple, either. He comments, “This episode [the Sicarii smuggling in weapons to assassinate people] clearly contradicts the idea that temple guards would have intervened immediately before any real trouble occurred, and it shows that weapons were not so easily detected.”
In Alexis-Barker’s reading of the passage, however contrary to other historical examples of weapons used in the Temple courts, Jesus did not carry the weapon in with him. Rather, he fashioned an ad hoc weapon with whatever materials were to hand: soft reeds that were used to bind up the animals for sale, perhaps, or straw used as animal bedding. And if he had used a weapon similar to that of a Roman flagellum, he maintains, the temple guards and nearby Roman soldiers would have acted swiftly to put a stop to the violence.
After a lengthy discussion of the Greek grammar of the passage (as compared to other NT passages of similar construction), he concludes by stating that other commentators in the past were correct to understand the passage as demonstrating a nonviolent Jesus. Indeed, he maintains that
“We might go further and deny that Jesus committed ‘violence’ against the sheep and cattle, since a makeshift whip of rope would hardly do much more than get them moving out the door, their owners following after them to keep them from running amok. In a real sense, the narrative does not depict Jesus beating the animals; but instead he saves their lives from sacrificial slaughter in a monetary and religious system.”
What is striking about these two examples that seek to interpret the John 2 passage to promote a pacifist Jesus who only struck animals with a soft version of a whip is this: they completely ignore the plain point of the passage. And that is that Jesus, whether or not he used a whip on the merchants or only the animals, drove out the merchants from the Temple. That is certainly the bottom line here, regardless of how the actions were carried out.
Yes, they both correctly point out that this passage has been used and abused over the centuries to justify all kinds of horrific violence on the part of Christians, from whipping or killing “heretics,” justifying the Crusade’s occupation of Jerusalem, or supporting the actions of American soldiers in various wars as justifiable.
In our podcast on this issue, Avalos points out the absurdity of the situation: Jesus came into the Temple and disrupted the normal system. What would we think today if a person made a whip (or used a gun, in modern parlance), entered a church, a synagogue or a mosque and drove everybody out, overturning tables and smashing up the place? And justifies his actions on the basis that the people inside were worshiping God incorrectly, or were guilty of making a profit off of God by selling things such as Bibles or Qur’ans in the foyer of the church, mosque or synagogue? Such a person would no doubt be arrested and possibly institutionalized as a religious nut.
Avalos asks, “Would these New Testament scholars [like Croy and others who read the passage from a non-violent point of view] see it as a peaceful act if someone entered their churches and overturned their altars and benches even if he did not hurt anyone physically? If that person described them as participating in some perverted worship while destroying their property, would they be as willing to say that this person was simply acting prophetically or would they apply a wider definition of violence to these actions?”
Regardless of whether we want to apply modern ethical standards to this story of a violent or non-violent Jesus, we must return to the question with which this post began: did Jesus ever do anything wrong? Were his actions in cleansing the Temple, in other words, wrong? Was he so consumed with “zeal for his Father’s house” (as his disciples seemed to view the situation anyway afterwards) that his anger overcame his reason? Recall that this incident was one of the major ones that set Jesus on a self-destructive path with the religious establishment, that eventually ended up with them plotting his death—and succeeding.
Moreover, the two nonviolent readings of the passage above demonstrate the bias that Avalos accuses NT scholars and ethicists of displaying. While trying so hard to “prove” that Jesus embraced nonviolence, to the point of creating a soft whip and only striking animals—not the merchants—they go far beyond simply a fairly straight reading of the passage.
Jesus did succeed in clearing out the Temple courts, regardless of by what means; the question remains: was he right or wrong to do so?
 Avalos, Hector. The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics (Sheffield: Phoenix Press, 2015): 1.
 Avalos, The Bad Jesus, 7.
 Alexis-Barker, Andy. “Violence, Nonviolence, and the Temple Incident in John 2.13-15.” Biblical Interpretation 20 (2012): 73-74.
 Croy, N. Clayton. “The Messianic Whippersnapper: Did Jesus Use a Whip on People? (John 2.15)?” Journal of Biblical Literature 128, No. 3 (2009): 562-3.
 Croy, “The Messianic Whippersnapper,” 566, 567.
 Alexis-Barker, “Violence, Nonviolence,” 87.
 Avalos, The Bad Jesus, 116.
 Alexis-Barker, “Violence, Nonviolence,” 94.
 Avalos, The Bad Jesus, 125.