During the time of Yeshua, the Sadducees were the priestly sect in charge of the Jewish state and worship in the Temple. The Temple in Jerusalem functioned as a ritual slaughterhouse for Jewish worship via animal sacrifice. Animals were sacrificed literally around the clock. During holy pilgrimage festivals, such as Passover, the rate of sacrifice increased to unimaginable levels due to the influx of pilgrims from all over the world. During Passover, all these pilgrims needed to purchase acceptable animals for sacrifice in the Temple. It was a rule of the Temple that all sacrificial animals had to be purchased with native Jewish Temple coinage as opposed to Roman or any other country’s money. This is why there were money changers in the Temple.
These money changers were sanctioned by the Sadducees and provided a necessary service for Jewish pilgrims. The money changers exchanged foreign currencies into acceptable Temple monies so Jewish pilgrims could purchase their Passover animal sacrifice. The money changers were sanctioned by the Sadducee Temple authorities. Thus, they fulfilled three major functions: (a) foreign currency exchange, (b) the changing of large monetary denominations into smaller ones, and vice versa, and (c) banking. While loaning money for interest is against Jewish law, the first two services mentioned above were performed for a fee of between 4% to 8% and were perfectly legal and necessary for the purchase of sacrificial animals by pilgrims.
So let’s take a look at the Temple cleansing story in Mark. Note that Mark “sandwiches” the story of the Temple cleansing between two “before and after” stories of a cursed fig tree. This is a literary structure unique to Mark, wherein the before and after stories expand on the meaning of the story in between. Most scholars agree that the Temple cleansing, in conjunction with Yeshua’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem before the adoring crowds, were the actions that pushed the Sadducees over the top to conspire with the Romans to have Yeshua “done away with”. In the end, Yeshua died because of his strong Essene convictions against the practice of animal sacrifice.
Mark 11: 12-26
Yeshua Curses the Fig Tree – The next day, as they came back from Beit-Anyah, he felt hungry. Spotting in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came up to it, he found nothing but leaves; for it wasn’t fig season. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” And his talmidim (disciples) heard what he said.
Yeshua Cleanses the Temple – On reaching Yerushalayim, he entered the Temple courts and began driving out those who were carrying on business there, both the merchants and their customers. He also knocked over the desks of the money-changers, upset the benches of the pigeon-dealers, and refused to let anyone carry merchandise through the Temple courts. Then, as he taught them, he said, “Isn’t it written in the Tanakh, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all the Goyim (a non-Jew, the nations) . But you have made it into a den of robbers!” The head cohanim (priest) and the Torah-teachers heard what he said and tried to find a way to do away with him; they were afraid of him, because the crowds were utterly taken by his teaching. When evening came, they left the city.
The Lesson from the Withered Fig Tree – In the morning, as the talmidim passed by, they saw the fig tree withered all the way to its roots. Kefa remembered and said to Yeshua, “Rabbi! Look! The fig tree that you cursed has dried up!” He responded, “Have the kind of trust that comes from God! Yes! I tell you that whoever does not doubt in his heart but trusts that what he says will happen can say to this mountain, ‘Go and throw yourself into the sea!’ and it will be done for him. Therefore, I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, trust that you are receiving it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive your offenses.”
The actions performed by Yeshua in the temple are; 1) he drove out people buying and selling sacrificial animals, 2) he overturned tables to stop the money changers, 3) he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the Temple, and 4) he cursed the Sadducees for turning the temple into “a den of robbers”. In the Gospel of John, Yeshua performs the additional actions of beating people with whips made from cords and driving the animals from the Temple as well. This is more than just being upset with monetary transactions within the temple precincts. Yeshua’s goal is literally to STOP sacrificial worship at the Jerusalem Temple and he seems to be very passionate and violent about the lengths he is willing to go in stopping this practice. Many people fixate on money related issues in relation to sacred buildings when reading this story, but it is likely that the money changers were targeted simply because of their connection to the Sadducees and their supporting role in Temple sacrifice.
So what’s going on with the fig tree? It is clearly a metaphor for the role of the Jerusalem Temple in worship. Yeshua looks for “the fruit” of the fig tree and seeing none, curses it for lack of productivity. The Temple, like the fig tree, was simply existing without being productive in Jewish spiritual life. It was just “going through the motions” of empty ritual which was condemned by the prophets. The Temple and its Sadducee overseers were not fulfilling their mission of guiding the Jewish people into a communion with god. The fig tree is literally dead and the temple is “spiritually dead”. Yeshua ends with a lesson on the role of faith and persistence in following a true productive path to God, the sin forgiving atonement practices of Teshuvah and Shalach.
One last passage that re-enforces Yeshua’s lack of enthusiasm for a “dead” Jerusalem Temple. It turns our the Romans would make the passage below come true. In 70 AD they would destroy not only the Temple, but Jerusalem itself after 10 years of Jewish revolts. Jerusalem’s total destruction ended Jewish Temple blood sacrifices in deference to the rise of rabbinic Judaism and Yeshua’s spiritual practices. The passage below from the Gospel of John follows immediately after the Temple incident.
John 2:18-22 – So the Judeans confronted him by asking him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove you have the right to do all this?” Yeshua answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again.” The Judeans said, “It took 46 years to build this Temple, and you’re going to raise it in three days?” But the “temple” he had spoken of was his body. Therefore, when he was raised from the dead, his talmidim remembered that he had said this, and they trusted in the Tanakh and in what Yeshua had said.
Yeshua, like the prophets, did not sanction blood sacrifice, in any form, as a practice for the forgiveness of sins and communion with God. Yeshua’s teachings center around the spiritual necessity described by the two Aramaic words Teshuvah, meaning return to God through repentance, and Shalach, meaning release from the consequences of sin. The daily practice of Teshuvah was the commitment or vow symbolized in the baptism of John. It was a form of spiritual atonement performed by each person every day. Individual Teshuvah was Yeshua’s doctrine for achieving the forgiveness of sins and (at-one-ment) atonement with God.
Below are links to excellent articles on this topic from online Jewish Encyclopedias.