It is common to hear the accounts of Jesus’ encounter in the temple in which he turns over the tables of the money changers (Matt 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48, John 2:13-16) referred to as examples of righteous anger or righteous indignation. According to this view, Jesus displays here a form of anger that is not sinful but rather rooted in a strong sense of justice on behalf of those being taken advantage of by the temple authorities.
Yet some scholars raise the question: was Jesus was actually angry in this instance? Take, for example, the undergraduate professor who invited his students to discuss this issue. When many of the students, influenced by the traditional understanding of the passages, insisted that Jesus must have been angry, the professor overturned the table in the classroom and calmly noted, “I’m not angry.” He later told the class that he had done that to make a specific, memorable point.
Indeed, none of the accounts of this event (leaving aside the issue of historical accuracy) indicate that Jesus was angry. We do have a specific example of Jesus expressing anger (Mark 3:5), but such references are absent in the temple passages. He is said to have simply entered the temple, overturned the tables of the money changers and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple. If Jesus cannot be described as angry, then what exactly is going on here?
Scholars are divided on whether this episode reflects an attempt at reforming the temple by cleansing it of the social injustice symbolized by the money changers or a prophetic, symbolic action symbolizing the end of animal sacrifice and, ultimately, the destruction of the temple itself. Many scholars have pointed out the economic and political role that temples played in the ancient world. The money changers provided the proper coinage for the temple tax, and those buying and selling were assisting in the sacrificial function of the temple. An expansion of this perspective is that, rather than seeking to initiate a reform of the temple, Jesus was performing a prophetic action: by upsetting the transactions of the money changers and driving out those buying and selling, Jesus would have symbolically, if only temporarily, brought animal sacrifices to a halt, thus symbolizing the destruction of the temple and the end of sacrifice therein, by the Romans in 70 C.E.
None of this, of course, helps us know if Jesus was angry or not. But this should give us pause when reflecting on this matter of righteous anger. While the words of Jesus do indicate that he was critical of the commercialization of the temple system, it may be better to think of his actions here as prophetic rather than to consider them an attempt to initiate reform. As the undergraduate professor’s antics suggested, perhaps Jesus was not angry but simply performing an action to make a point.