Just before his death, Jesus went into the temple and disrupted the business supporting the temple operations, by driving out all those who were buying and selling sacrificial animals. It was this act which led to his arrest and crucifixion.
Jesus was killed because he was a palpable and physical threat to public order. That public order was embodied in the temple in Jerusalem, where animals were constantly sacrificed to appease the desires of a bloodthirsty God — or to appease the priests, depending on your point of view. But why did Jesus do this?
The incident in the temple is often described, in countless Sunday-school lessons, as “Jesus drives out the dishonest money changers.” But it was not about the money changers. This action is one of the few events of Jesus’ life described in all four gospels, and nowhere are the money-changers at the top of the list. (In Luke they are not even mentioned.) It is those who are buying and selling who are Jesus’ targets.
“In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money changers at their business. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple” (John 2:13-14).
And what were they buying and selling? Animals to be killed as animal sacrifices. Jesus’ intentions would have been instantly understood by anyone who read Isaiah 1: “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices, says the Lord? . . . I do not delight in the blood of bulls . . . there is blood on your hands, wash yourselves and be clean.”
The Ebionites, the spiritual descendants of the first Christian community in Jerusalem, understood the incident in the temple in just this way. Jesus’ mission was specifically to abolish the animal sacrifices (Recognitions 1.54); God never wanted animals to be sacrificed or to be killed at all (Homilies 3.45). The Ebionite gospel in fact has Jesus declaring, “I have come to destroy the sacrifices” and indignantly rejects eating the Passover meat (Epiphanius, Panarion 30). Jesus says, “I require mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13, 12:7).
Think about it: it was the Romans who killed Jesus. A sectarian dispute would not interest them. An angry demonstration, at the height of the Passover season when Jerusalem was crowded with pilgrims and when riots could easily break out (and sometimes did), would interest them. Find the trouble-maker and crucify him. But the trouble that Jesus was making was an act of animal liberation.
This was originally posted on the Compassionate Spirit blog.
Featured image: a mosaic of Jesus with sheep in the St. Aloysius Parish in Detroit. Image credit Brian Wolfe, CC BY-SA 2.0.
It’s unfortunate that the canonical gospels preserve so little clear evidence as to Jesus’ position on animal sacrifice, especially if it indeed played a major role in His teachings and crucifixion. I’ve been puzzling over the issue since re-reading the gospels over Easter. I’d be grateful if you have further insights on any of the relevant passages below.
The incident in the temple appears in all four gospels, as you say, but without explanation as to His motives, and Jesus visits the temple in Jerusalem many times before and after without further incidents recorded of Him intervening to stop or discourage sacrifices. Jesus in fact seems to order a sacrifice when He tells a person with leprosy He has healed to “go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them” (Matthew 8:4). When He says, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten by God” (Luke 12:6), this can be taken two ways, with opposite implications: that every living thing is intrinsically valuable (potentially anti-sacrifice), or that even the smallest offerings are noticed by God (pro-sacrifice).
It is notable that during the Last Supper, which in three of the four gospels is described as a Passover meal, no overt mention is made of a sacrificial lamb, which would traditionally have been the main course at that time. The only possible reference is Mark 14:12, which says “And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, ‘Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?'” Yet there seems to be scholarly disagreement as to whether “they” refers to the disciples themselves having sacrificed a lamb, or rather to the temple authorities and/or mainstream Jewish society. Luke 22:7 uses more passive language, “Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed,” indicating what was customary without implying the disciples necessarily participated. Given that during the meal itself, Jesus describes the bread and wine in symbolic language referencing his coming sacrifice, one would expect Him to do the same for the flesh of a literal sacrificial animal were one present. He might say, for example, “By the blood of a lamb were your fathers saved in Egypt, but from now on eat the Passover lamb in remembrance of the Lamb of God, in whom you are saved.” That he instead makes no reference at all to the sacrificial lamb seems either a huge missed opportunity on His part, a startling omission by His biographers, or (the simplest explanation I think) evidence that the meal did not contain lamb at all.
From what I can gather, the absence of lamb at a Passover meal would have been very unorthodox for Pharisees or Sadducees, but typical of Essenes, the third major sect of Second Temple Judaism. Essenes seem to have opposed animal sacrifice and possibly to have been vegetarians or pescatarians, and there seems to be a lot of circumstantial evidence that Jesus was Himself an Essene or at least strongly Essene-influenced. This includes ideological parallels and the fact that while Jesus argued vehemently with Pharisees and Sadducees, no interaction with Essenes is recorded, as might be expected unless Jesus was Himself part of that sect and His membership taken for granted by the gospel authors (until it became forgotten). That Jesus might have celebrated an Essene-style Passover has also been proposed as a way of reconciling Matthew, Mark, and Luke with John, which has Jesus crucified on the first day of Passover meaning the Last Supper must have occurred prior. Since the Essenes followed a different calendar than the Pharisees or Sadducees, they would have celebrated Passover several days before the other two sects. Jesus could therefore have observed an Essene Passover, containing no sacrificial animal, with His disciples, and then been crucified on the day of Pharisee/Sadducee Passover at the same time as they began sacrificing animals, consistent with all four gospels.
Supporting the above theory, the Last Supper seems not to have been Jesus’ only Passover meal not containing lamb. One of His miracles with loaves and fishes was performed to feed a large crowd gathered near the Sea of Tiberias to celebrate Passover (John 6:4-14). While the story isn’t exactly veg-friendly (unless one interprets the duplication of fish flesh as foreshadowing meat replacements / cell-cultured meat), it does show that for Jesus, Passover required neither animal sacrifice nor a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, again more consistent with Essene Judaism than the other two major sects.
Even if Jesus did not perform animal sacrifice (or certain sacrifices) himself, was he absolutely opposed to them, and if so on what grounds? It’s tragic that so little evidence has been preserved, and what is recorded in the canonical New Testament (and what apocryphal material still survives) is largely ambiguous or even contradictory on the matter.
I’m no bible scholar, but It’s saddening how twisted the story of Jesus throwing out moneychangers, is used by Animal People, as a source to not slaughter and eat animals.
My dear Animal People. In plain english… The good Lord Jesus drove them out because “…make not my Father’s house a house of merchandise” John 2:16. Only you,, decide not to abide to the word but use it out of contexts for your own personal agenda.
Your understanding immediately creates contradiction, as many parts of the bible state “all living things to be as food” or something very close to this, with certain restrictions for the chosen (Jews). Genesis 9:3, I think.