In the Gospel of John, Jesus begins his public ministry by cleansing the temple of the moneychangers. But in the synoptic gospels, the temple cleansing takes place near the end of his ministry. Did the author of John make a chronological mistake?
Looking at the temple cleansing in the four gospels, we can see there are significant differences between them. One possible explanation for this is that Jesus cleansed the temple twice, one at the beginning of his ministry, and one near the end.
In the synoptics, the temple cleansing is preceded by Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. It is after this he storms into the temple, whilst in John, there is no mention of the triumphant entry until chapter 12.
The synoptics also do not record the same words of Jesus. He calls the temple a house of prayer and rebukes the moneychangers for making it a den of robbers. But in John, Jesus makes a whip out of cords and forcefully drives them out. He does not speak about a den of robbers or a house of prayer, but simply tells the moneychangers not to make the temple a house of trade. John’s version of the temple cleansing is also the only one to include Jesus’ declaration that he will raise up his body in 3 days after it has been destroyed.
Andreas J. Kostenberger suggests the account of the temple cleansing in John, “…may represent a “doublet,” a certain type of event occurring more than once during Jesus’ ministry… If so, Jesus cleared the temple twice, with John recording only the first instance, and the Synoptists only [recording] the second.” (John: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, 2004, pg. 111; See also: D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 1991, pg. 178)
While this explanation is a good possibility, I think there is a deeper and more profound explanation as to why John moved the cleansing to the beginning of the ministry.
Johannes Beutler argues that John’s account of the temple cleansing would make more sense if it was originally in John chapter 11. “…Jesus continues to visit the temple, and, in the following eight chapters, he makes it the preferred place for his teaching and preaching. A conflict in this place with the Jewish authorities is easier to understand at the end of Jesus’ public life than at it’s beginning…
The danger to which Jesus exposes himself when he sets out to go and find his friend in Bethany, and the readiness of the disciples to go and die with him (John 11:16), are more easily understood in connection with Jesus’ action in the temple than in connection with the miracle of raising Lazarus.” (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 2017, pg. 84)
So in the sources John was drawing on to compose his gospel, his version of the cleansing would have been initially located in chapter 11. It appears that John has moved the cleansing to chapter 2 in order to make a theological point.
The temple cleansing in John is split into two chunks that display similar structure. The first chunk, verses 13-15, frame the narrative and describes the cleansing. Verse 16 gives the words of Jesus. Verse 17 then describes the disciples remembering a Word from scripture (from Psalm 69:9).
In the second chunk, verse 18 gives the question of authority from the Jews, 19-21 is Jesus’ dispute with them, and verse 22 describes the disciples remembering a Word from scripture.
The concluding verses (23-25) bind the whole chapter together with the Passover Feast, and the wedding in Cana, which was mentioned before the cleansing. The themes that appear to be communicated here are the signs Jesus performs (11, 17, 23) and belief and remembrance in the scriptures (17, 22).
John wished to send a theological message by placing the temple cleansing earlier on:
Jesus’ citation of the Old Testament being placed early in John’s gospel is clearly intentional on the authors’ part. As Rudolf Bultmann states, “…the meaning can scarcely be that Jesus’ action was an expression of his consuming zeal. Rather, the Evangelist (or the Editor) is looking forward to what is to come – or alternatively the whole of Jesus’ ministry – and he means that Jesus’ zeal will result in his death.” (The Gospel of John, 1971, pg. 124)
Given that Jesus routinely said to his followers to keep quiet about him in the early stages of his ministry, a public cleansing of the temple, likely causing outrage amongst the locals and the Jewish authorities would seem to contradict this.
So, we have at least two good reasons as to why John rearranged the order of events in his gospel. I personally think both are good enough, but the theological argument appears to be stronger and more reasonable than two temple cleansings. So therefore, John’s placement of the cleansing at the beginning of the gospel is not a contradiction in the Gospel accounts.
Kerruso Apologetics: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCrQomNYP7r7J-u1IZJkF-Tg