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The Temple Mount and the Money Changers

Model of the Herodian Temple Mount viewed from the southeast

In John 2:14-16 we read that Jesus drove the money changers and those selling sacrificial animals out of the temple in Jerusalem. Where on the Temple Mount did that event actually happen?

In 19 B.C.E. Herod the Great doubled the size of the Temple Mount. He added large areas to the north, west, and south of the pre-Herodian complex. Above the southern wall of the Temple Mount, he built a huge colonnaded structure called the Royal Stoa. When compared with others in the Roman Empire, it is clear that this edifice served as a sacred marketplace. Normally the changing of money and buying of sacrificial animals took place in this building.

The Herodian additions were constructed around the Temple Mount that was originally built by King Hezekiah. That mount was a square of 500 cubits (861 feet, 262.50 m)  on each side. Although this area henceforth became a court inside the expanded Herodian complex, only this square area was considered the Temple Mount by the priests of that time. A tractate called “Measurements” in the Mishnah Middot 2.1, an authoritative collection of Jewish oral laws that was compiled at the end of the second century C.E., calls only that earlier square mount har habbayit, or Temple Mount. The same source indicates that the outer part of this square mount was called the Court of the Gentiles, which was separated from the centrally located sacred precincts by a balustrade, or soreg.

During the high holidays, such as Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles, certain priests took advantage of their status by setting up stalls inside the Court of the Gentiles. It would appear that, on this occasion, the market had spilled over from the Royal Stoa into the holy area. When Jesus, in parallel passages of three Gospels, declares, “My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers” (Luke 19:46; see also Matt 21:13 and Mark 11:17, which echo God’s words from Isa 56:7 and Jer 7:11), he would have been referring not to the Royal Stoa on the Herodian addition but to the profane activities that took place inside the sacred square precinct. As for Jesus’ accusation that the merchants had made it “a den of robbers,” there is abundant confirmation in the historical sources of the extortionate prices charged to those who bought sacrificial animals or who needed to change their money to pay the temple tribute.  On one occasion, Rabbi, son of Gamaliel, caused a reduction of 99% in the price of a pair of doves, as recorded in Mishnah Kerithoth 1.7.

Ancient historian Josephus calls Annas the high priest “a great hoarder up of money.” The sons of Annas had bazaars (known in the Talmud as the hanuyot bney hanan) set up in the Court of the Gentiles for the purpose of money changing and the purchase of sacrificial animals.  It was the combination of their greed, the fact that they brought in foreign coins, and that they carried out these activities in a sacred area that aroused the zeal of Jesus. This background can help us better understand why Jesus drove out these money changers and why the priests, especially those of the high house of Annas, were so opposed to his teachings.

  • Leen Ritmeyer

    Leen Ritmeyer is an archaeological architect who has excavated many sites in Israel, such as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. He has written several books, including Jerusalem at the Time of Jesus, coauthored with Kathleen Ritmeyer (Abingdon, 2010) and The Quest: Revealing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (Carta, 2012).