When I was researching literary relationships in the Gospel of Mark and identified the relationship between the temple cleansing scene and Hosea 9, I knew it was a big deal. In fact, finding that relationship is what inspired me to begin writing the material that eventually became the book Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed.
It turns out that Earl Doherty had previously noted this relationship, though he never explored it to the fullest extent. I was unaware of Doherty’s citation of Hosea 9:15 as the literary basis for the “driving out” of people from temple when I discovered the relationship myself. But Doherty never noted the relevance of the fig tree elements in the scene to my knowledge.
I believe that the relationship between the temple cleansing scene in Mark and Hosea 9 is the single most important finding presented in Deciphering the Gospels. This is a simple and clear case of literary dependence that has significant implications on our understanding of how the Gospels were written, the historical validity of the Gospel narrative, and the validity of mainstream biblical scholarship. What I find so compelling about this particular issue is how concise, clear, and demonstrable it is. This isn’t a case of vague interpretation or debatable positions that have no ultimate resolution, etc., this is a clear demonstrable evidence-based answer to a problem.
So first let’s review the case I put forward in Deciphering the Gospels:
“We now arrive at one of the most important scenes for establishing our understanding of the Gospel called Mark and the other canonical Gospels. The reason that this scene is so important is because it is so widely believed to be historically true and it is seen as the justification for the Crucifixion. This scene is widely believed to be historically true because it exists in all four canonical Gospels, and it is not supernatural, so it is seemingly plausible. As we shall see throughout this book, however, the case against the historical validity of the temple-cleansing scene based on the literary evidence alone is overwhelming. So let’s start by looking at the literary allusion used to craft this scene.
12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written:
“‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.
19 When evening came, they went out of the city.
20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
This scene is clearly based on a passage from the book of Hosea, shown below:
1 Do not rejoice, O Israel; do not be jubilant like the other nations. For you have been unfaithful to your God; …
7 The days of punishment are coming, the days of reckoning are at hand. Let Israel know this. Because your sins are so many and your hostility so great, the prophet is considered a fool, the inspired man a maniac.
8 The prophet, along with my God, is the watchman over Ephraim, yet snares await him on all his paths, and hostility in the house of his God.
9 They have sunk deep into corruption, as in the days of Gibeah. God will remember their wickedness and punish them for their sins.
10 ‘When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your fathers, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree. But when they came to Baal Peor, they consecrated themselves to that shameful idol and became as vile as the thing they loved.
11 Ephraim’s glory will fly away like a bird—no birth, no pregnancy, no conception.
12 Even if they rear children, I will bereave them of every one. Woe to them when I turn away from them!
13 I have seen Ephraim, like Tyre, planted in a pleasant place. But Ephraim will bring out their children to the slayer.”
14 Give them, O LORD—what will you give them? Give them wombs that miscarry and breasts that are dry.
15 “Because of all their wickedness in Gilgal, I hated them there. Because of their sinful deeds, I will drive them out of my house. I will no longer love them; all their leaders are rebellious.
16 Ephraim is blighted, their root is withered, they yield no fruit. Even if they bear children, I will slay their cherished offspring.’
17 My God will reject them because they have not obeyed him;
We can see in the Gospel text that the cursing of the fig tree, the driving out of people from the temple (house of God), and the hostility toward Jesus are all related elements that are drawn from Hosea 9. All of these elements and the order in which they are presented in the Gospel called Mark are necessary to make the association between Hosea 9 and the narrative.
Most important, however, is that if we accept the fact that the Markan narrative is actually a literary allusion, then it means this scene is not based on any real event that ever took place. It means that “Jesus” never cursed a fig tree, and “Jesus” never threw anyone out of the temple. None of this actually ever happened; this isn’t a historical event. The scene is merely a literary allusion, yet every other Gospel contains the temple-cleansing scene. If the cleansing of the temple comes from Hosea 9, not from a real-world event, then the fact that it exists in all of the other Gospels means that all of the other Gospels, including John, had to have ultimately gotten the scene from Mark, as we will explore in chapter 3.
This is extremely significant because this is one of the actions attributed to Jesus that is most widely believed to be true, even by secular New Testament scholars. The fact that this scene is based on a literary allusion has not been recognized even by top theologians and Bible scholars.”
– R. G. Price; Deciphering the Gospels; pp 21-23
Let’s now compare this to some popular mainstream assessments of this same scene:
E. P. Sanders:
“Despite all this, it is overwhelmingly probable that Jesus did something in the temple and said something about its destruction. The accusation that Jesus threatened the temple is reflected in three other passages: the crucifixion scene (Matt. 27.39f.//Mark 15.29f.); Stephen’s speech (Acts 6.13f.); and with post-Easter interpretation, in John 2.18-22. The conflict over the temple seems deeply implanted in the tradition, and that there was such a conflict would seem to be indisputable.”
– E. P. Sanders; Jesus and Judaism; pp 61 (emphasis mine)
Sanders relies on the criterion of “multiple attestations”. In this case, he’s noting attestations in sources other than the Gospels in addition to the Gospels themselves. Sanders, like many biblical scholars, starts with an assumption of independence. In fact, there is significant evidence that none of these sources are independent, and that every account of the life of Jesus is based on the Gospel of Mark. The fact that the temple cleansing scene in the Gospel of Mark is based on a literary reference is just more evidence of the dependencies across all of the Jesus accounts. What Sanders has called “indisputable” is actually easily disproved by intertextual analysis.
J. P. Meier:
“In the spring of 30 A.D. (or possibly 33), Jesus journeyed to Jerusalem for his final Passover. As he entered the ancient capital of King David, he apparently chose to make a symbolic claim to messianic status by riding in on a donkey amid the acclamation of his followers (multiple attestation of Mark 11:1-10 and John 12:12-19), thus evoking the memory of a prophecy by Zechariah (9:9) about a righteous, victorious, yet peaceful king entering Jerusalem on a donkey. Jesus followed up this symbolic entry with a symbolic action in the temple, disrupting the selling and buying of sacrificial animals (multiple attestation of Mark 11:15-17 and John 2:13-17). While this so-called cleansing of the temple has often been interpreted as a call for reform of the temple and a purer worship, in the context of Jesus’ eschatological message it more likely symbolized the end of the old order, including the temple. These two symbolic actions of Jesus may have been the reason why the priestly aristocracy chose to arrest Jesus during this particular visit to Jerusalem, as opposed to his earlier stays. Jesus himself chose to press the issue, forcing the authorities to make a decision for or against him.
Various sayings in the Gospels that probably go back to Jesus show that he reckoned with the possibility of a violent death (Matt. 23:37-39; Luke 13:31-33; Mark 10:35-40; 8:32-33; 12:1-12).”
– J. P. Meier; Jesus Christ in the New Testament: Part One: The Historical Jesus behind the Gospels; pp 15-16 (emphasis mine)
Here highly esteemed biblical scholar John Paul Meier states that Jesus engaged in a series of deliberate symbolic actions based on references to passages from the Jewish scriptures. Meier has no problem stating that various sayings in the Gospels “probably” go back to things the real Jesus said. Like Sanders, Meier assumes that multiple attestations to an event give credibility to the historical reality of said event. But as is shown in Deciphering the Gospels, these multiple attestations are merely the product of copying. The fact that a single story was copied many times doesn’t lend credibility to the story, in fact it does the opposite.
“Most scholars recognize that some aspects of our accounts appear exaggerated, including Mark’s claim that Jesus completely shut down the operation of the Temple (if no one could carry any vessels, it would have been impossible to sacrifice and butcher the animals—which was after all what the Temple was for). As we have seen, the Temple complex was immense, and there would have been armed guards present to prevent any major disturbances. Moreover, if Jesus had actually created an enormous stir in the Temple, it’s nearly impossible to explain why he wasn’t arrested on the spot and taken out of the way before he could stir up the crowds. For these reasons, it looks as if Mark’s account represents an exaggeration of Jesus’ actions. But exaggerations aside, it is almost certain that Jesus did something that caused a disturbance in the Temple — for example, overturned some tables and made at least a bit of a ruckus. As I’ve noted, the event is multiply attested in independent sources.
Moreover, it coincides with Jesus’ predictions about the Temple, that it would soon be destroyed. For this reason, a good number of scholars have begun to recognize that Jesus’ actions in the Temple represented a symbolic expression of his proclamation. We should recall that Jesus sometimes engaged in symbolic acts that illustrated his apocalyptic message”
– Bart Ehrman; Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium; pp 212-213 (emphasis mine)
Starting to see a pattern? One may question whether Ehrman’s assessment here is really just cribbed from Sanders? Nevertheless, Ehrman is concluding, due to “multiple attestations”, that he is “almost certain that Jesus did something”. But as we can see, the scene is clearly a literary fabrication. The literary basis of the scene is solid actual evidence that the scene is a fictional invention of the author. The case I lay out in Deciphering the Gospels shows that the scene was invented by the author of Mark and then copied by the other Gospel writers. Thus, “multiple attestation” is meaningless as a means of supporting the reality of the narrative.
Regarding the “symbolism” of “Jesus’ actions”, I explain in Deciphering the Gospels that all of this symbolism is an invention of the author of the story; it is not an account of a real person undertaking a constant series of symbolic actions that correlate with scriptures and foretell future events. Jesus wasn’t engaging in symbolic acts to illustrate his apocalyptic message – the writer of the Gospel of Mark was creating a symbolic story about the outcome of the First Jewish-Roman War, that had just resulted in the destruction of the temple and the decimation of Judea.
So what does this tell us about the methodologies and approach of mainstream biblical scholars? This is a clear-cut case of those methodologies failing to reach the right conclusion. The approaches used by Ehrman, Meier and Sanders here are essentially text-book approaches for assessing the historical validity of Gospel accounts. They are all relying heavily on the criterion of multiple attestations to support the claim that this “really happened.” But clearly, that criterion doesn’t work and isn’t actually a reasonable indicator of historical reliability. These scholars were apparently unaware of the relationship between Mark and Hosea 9. It isn’t something that even factors into their thought process or assessment. These scholars, despite being among the most credentialed and highly regarded faces of popular biblical scholarship, completely failed in their assessment of this passage – and this is solid proof of their failure.
This also gets a why – why mainstream biblical scholarship is so wrong. This is a perfect example of how mainstream biblical scholars are so disoriented. As many people who have commented on my book have noted, I’m not a biblical scholar. I don’t have even the slightest official credentials in biblical scholarship. But yet, when I sat down to approach how to assess the historical validity of the Gospel narratives, the very first thing I did was try to identify all of the literary relationships among the texts, and particularly the literary relationships between the first Gospel and prior writings. That seems like an obvious starting point. Yet that’s not the approach used by mainstream biblical scholars, and the reason is that biblical scholarship is fundamentally rooted in Christian theology, not science, not logic, not the methods of historians or anthropologists, nor even the methods of those who study other forms of ancient mythology. No, mainstream biblical scholarship is fundamentally rooted in the rationalization of evidence to support Christian assumptions.
When you look at who all of these supposed biblical scholars are, and what their degrees are in, what you see is that they all have degrees in theology and divinity, even Bart Ehrman. John Paul Meier’s degrees come from Christian seminary schools, as do Bart Ehrman’s and E. P. Sanders’. Ehrman likes to tout the fact that he is no longer a believing Christian and that he doesn’t think that Jesus is the son of God or performed any miracles, but Ehrman’s background all comes from seminary schools. All of the approaches and methodologies he learned come from Christian theologians. You can see the influence when you compare Ehrman’s assessment of the temple cleansing scene to that of Meier and Sanders. It’s almost impossible to tell them apart – they all say essentially the same thing.
Mainstream biblical scholarship is fundamentally rooted in the rationalization of evidence with Christian assumptions and theology. It’s all about how to interpret the evidence in a way that supports Christian beliefs. Even when a biblical scholar like Ehrman, who claims not to be a Christian, approaches the subject matter, he’s still approaching it using tools created by Christian theologians that are designed to rationalize Christian theology. The toolset Ehrman was provided with at seminary school was designed to verify the historical truth of the Gospels. It’s a toolset that is clearly and demonstrably flawed – biased by design.
But while Ehrman, Meier, Sanders and hundreds of other mainstream scholars have advocated the historical reliability of the temple cleansing narrative, dozens of other scholars have called it into question for a variety of reasons over the decades. We can now see clearly that those who were advocating against the validity of the scene were right and those who maintained its credibility were wrong. That tells us that the methodologies and arguments of those who were against the historical reality of the scene have more merit than those who maintained that it was historically true.
In 1991 Burton Mack argued against the historical truth of the temple cleansing scene in his book A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins. Mack noted that the scene is built from many scriptural references (even though he was unaware of the exact relationship to Hosea 9) and that the whole scene appeared to him to be contrived for narrative effect. Mack explained the symbolism of the scene and noted that such perfect symbolism doesn’t arise in the real world.
Other arguments against the historical validity of the scene include noting that the temple was a huge well-guarded structure that someone wouldn’t just be able to go into a throw people out of. Any such disturbance would have been met with immediate police intervention, and possible immediate arrest, or at least an armed escort out of the area. This wasn’t just some church, this was “the” temple we are talking about – the one and only. It was a massive building. The temple plaza was approximately the size of six football fields and there were strict rules about who could enter the temple and rituals that had to be followed to enter into the temple itself. This wasn’t some place that people were free to just stroll into whenever they wanted. There were gates and guards and fees that had to be paid, rituals that had to be performed.
So many people have noted over the years that the scene itself is just unlikely on the face of it, yet mainstream scholars continued to maintain their certainty that it was true. Ironically, a key argument of those who conclude that this really happened has been that it “had to have happened,” because without this scene the entire narrative falls apart. Arguments like those put forward by Sanders have essentially staked the entire legitimacy of the Gospel narrative on the literal truth of the temple cleansing scene. Sanders and others have rightly noted that the temple cleansing scene is the lynch-pin of Mark’s Gospel narrative (and thus all of the other Gospels as well). The whole story drives to this point of confrontation, and this confrontation then becomes the reason for the crucifixion. The Gospel story without the temple cleansing scene is like the Star Wars trilogy without Luke’s confrontation of Vader resulting in the “I am your father” scene. Thus, Sanders concludes it must be true, because without it the story falls apart. Well, Sanders was right about one thing.
The relationship between the temple cleansing scene and Hosea 9 is real and it needs to be addressed by mainstream biblical scholars. It requires revising the models of mainstream scholarship and seriously reevaluating mainstream positions. The implications are vast and profound. The idea that it’s, “certain that Jesus did something that caused a disturbance in the Temple,” is no longer tenable. Anyone continuing to claim it is in light of this evidence should no longer be considered credible. Anyone who addresses the temple cleansing scene without addressing this literary dependency is either unaware of the most recent scholarship or intentionally ignoring it because they are unable to address it. From this point forward, addressing the temple cleansing without addressing its relationship to Hosea 9 is untenable.