uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Jesus and OWS: Political and Economic Subversion, Then and Now

A dispute has broken out in response to many liberal Christians' use of Jesus imagery in connection with the Occupy Wall Street protests. Some have attacked the use of the imagery as completely inapplicable to the OWS demonstrations. To these folks, as best as I can tell, the messages in the Cleansings of the Temple (each Gospel has its own version) are wholly religious, and therefore can't be used by these folks to argue an economic or political point of view.

In fact, one writer even suggested that "Jesus never went anywhere uninvited. Even when he rebuked the money-changers in the Temple, he did not approach the institution as an antagonist, demanding entry on his own terms." This is, as the discussion to follow will show, historically indefensible.

For anyone who has read the Gospels carefully and has studied their greater context (that is, the tumultuous years of the first century in which Jerusalem was under the imperial occupation of the Romans, and the Jewish leadership was collaborating with them), this denial of any subversively political or economic dimension to the story of the Cleansing represents a radical reinterpretation that does violence to the text.


The cleansing of the Temple takes place in all four Gospels, but is represented differently in all of them, with the most significant differences existing between the Synoptics and John. Here they all are, synoptically, in the NRSV translation:


Matthew 21:12-13
12 Then Jesus entered the temple* and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 He said to them, ‘It is written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer”;
   but you are making it a den of robbers.’
Mark 11:15-17
15 Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16 and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”?
   But you have made it a den of robbers.’
Luke 19:45-46
45 Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; 46 and he said, ‘It is written,
“My house shall be a house of prayer”;
   but you have made it a den of robbers.’
John 2:13-16
13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. 15Making 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 their tables. 16He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’


The first thing one notices are the differences. It has puzzled scholars for a while that Mark, who is generally thought to be oldest and a source for Matthew and Luke, has a longer version here, meaning either they removed stuff from Mark or they all three are drawing from a common source that Mark adds to (there are still a few scholars who think Mark used Matthew, but I think they are a very small minority). The other major difference, of course, is that in John, it occurs at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, while in the other three, it occurs at the end. People have gone back and forth on which chronology is more probably (and some have even suggested it happened twice, something ruled out by the strikingly similar language used in both accounts), but we'll leave aside those issues for now.

In the synoptics, Jesus disrupts the buying and selling (in Luke, just those who sold, an interesting difference), and in the longer Mark, he even creates an embargo of sorts, disallowing "anyone to carry anything through the temple." This alone should put to rest the notion that Jesus wasn't "the occupying sort" and did not approach the temple as an antagonist. Jesus follows up this action with the famous quotations of Isaiah 56.7 and Jeremiah 7.11 that they have made the Temple a "den of robbers," i.e., the hideout for bandits after they've plundered the people.

In John, Jesus takes even more aggressive action (is it not "antagonistic" to hurl about a whip of cords?), and specifically objects to the Temple authorities turning it into a "marketplace," (an ἐμπόριον, cognate with our emporium). This is the case in Mark and Matthew too, as the Greek word for "buyers" is ἀγοράζοντες, that is, people conducting business in an agora, or market.

The incident appears to have happened in the Court of the Gentiles, an open-air market where goods were sold (including for sacrifice) and money exchanged. In fact, the only reason money changers had to be there to begin with was because of Roman occupation: Roman money had to be exchanged for Tyrian shekels, the only currency accepted in the Temple. So it's particularly interesting that Jesus specifically targets these individuals in three of the accounts.
Detail from the Arch of Titus

The Temple was not just a "house of prayer," however, but the "political-economic center of power," as the Oxford Annotated Study Bible puts it. Indeed, ancient societies, including those of the Jews and the Romans, did not separate the two as we often do, with the exception of certain accommodations the Romans sometimes made to ameliorate the Jews (like Caligula's backing down on setting up a statue of himself in the Temple). The Romans did not later destroy the Temple just to rid the Jews of their house of prayer. It was a symbolic destruction of any semblance of political independence, and the plunder of it was significant enough to make it on to the Arch of Titus in Rome.

So the fact that Jesus went to the Temple, the political and commercial seat of imperial collaboration, and overturned the very mechanization of that collaboration, the money-changing going on, was indeed an act of political subversion, both subversion of the local Temple authorities and of the Roman occupation. He did, in fact, seem particularly perturbed, in all four Gospels, at the commercialization of the Temple, which again, was not just the religious center of Jerusalem, but the political center as well.

If the chronology of the Synoptics is true (and I hold with that view), then this act was, as Mark himself notes immediately after his episode, a key part of why he was executed. That said, there are many who point out that this incident, in the vastness that was the Temple, might have been noticed only among those in the immediate vicinity, and thus might not have had the importance that Mark ascribes to it (and here I hold with Paula Fredriksen and others, who rather see Jesus' entry into Jerusalem with shouts of "King of the Jews" as the political impetus of his crucifixion).

But regardless, one can't excise the Cleansing of the Temple from its political context. Jesus seems to have objected to the commercialization of the Temple, the political center of Jerusalem, and so in that he is not after all very different  from those at Occupy Wall Street who likewise feel like the moneyed interests of Wall Street have unduly influenced the political process here in the United States. Indeed, many see Wall Street as a modern-day "den of robbers," the hideout for those whose irresponsibility in fleecing the public at large with junk mortgages led to the economic calamities now facing increasing numbers of families. What's worse, they continue to do so not only in collaboration with, but also with the financial backing of, our elected leaders in Washington.

Like Jesus, the Occupiers hope their presence on Wall Street and in other economic centers of the country will upset and disrupt the normal order of business, which they feel has been unjust to a great many Americans. And like Jesus, they have a radically different vision, where the poor are blessed and the last will come first.

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