Archaeologist Discover the Location Where Jesus Cleansed the Temple

The Gospel of John tells the story of Jesus cleansing the temple of merchants and money changers. These people were doing business with the large crowds who were coming to the temple in preparation for Passover and Jesus drove them out using a whip made of cords. Interestingly this is the only recorded act of violence by Jesus toward a person.

"When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” - John 2:13-17

The crowds were coming to the temple from all over Israel and the surrounding regions. In fact, people of the Jewish faith would travel from all over the world to worship at the temple. The law required these people to offer a sacrifice as a part of their worship. Rather than bring animals on the trip with them, many of these visitors would purchase the sacrificial animals once they reached Jerusalem. They would also need to exchange their local money for a more common coinage, much like today’s currency exchanges. Of course the money changers would extract a small fee for this service.

Can anything from this Biblical account be confirmed by science or archaeology? While the actions and words of Jesus are not recorded outside of the Bible, the location and setting of the events are a far different story. The events are said to have taken place on or very near to the Temple Mount, but can we confirm from sources outside of the Bible the events recorded in John were common day practices. For the location and atmosphere to be confirmed we should set several criteria to be met in order to answer yes to this question.

  • The location must be within or very close to the temple. — It is considered doubtful by many that the Jewish leaders would have allowed commerce on the Temple Mount itself, so we are looking for a location very close by, probably near one of the entrances or access points to the Temple Mount.
  • There must be evidence of commerce in the form of money exchange and the selling of animals. — There were many types of coins in use at the time and if there were money exchangers there should be some evidence of this.
  • There should also be some evidence these animals were intended for use as sacrificial offerings. — Livestock would be common both for personal transportation as well as the hauling of goods and for consumption as food. For this site to be confirmed just the presence of animals or livestock is not enough, they must be intended for sacrifice, presumably at the Temple.

Robinson's Arch

During excavations along the Western Wall of the Temple Mount archaeologists discovered a well paved avenue. This avenue ran the full length of the wall and would have been a busy thoroughfare in first century Jerusalem. Near one corner of the Temple Mount they also found evidence of a massive stairway which at one time allowed access to the Temple area above. The stairway is known as Robinson’s Arch and was a major feature of the Temple complex. Anyone wanting to ascend to the Temple Mount from this corner would have used the stairway or been forced to travel some distance to another point of access. This would have been a very busy area and a prime location for merchants wising to sell to or do business with visitors to the Temple.

Beneath the ruins of the stairway the excavators discovered a series of rectangular rooms which they believed were once a series of small shops. It is obvious from their construction and location these were not personal residences, so scholars believe they were places of business, but what type of business were they doing? Within the shops the archaeologist discovered a number of items which directly relate to the Biblical narrative of John’s Gospel.

In the ruins the researchers found coins, weights, pottery and animal bones. The weights would have been used to measure commodities such as meat, fruit, or perhaps to measure out gold or silver. Clearly signs of commerce. The coins could have been from any type of business, or from individuals visiting the shop. It is impossible to prove these shops were money changers, but the evidence certainly suggests it as a possibility. The animal bones show there was indeed livestock here, but as mentioned, the presents of livestock in itself is not enough. Fortunately, the archaeologist found something very specific to our criteria. Among the pottery were jars with crude birds drawn on the exterior. In addition to the birds the jars were also labeled with the word Korban, which is Hebrew for sacrifice. It is clear these birds were intended as sacrifices.

Birds were one of the most common sacrificial animals for a number of reasons. They were inexpensive so even the poorest of visitors could afford them. The birds were also easy to raise , inexpensive to maintain and storage was compact. A large number of birds could be kept in a small shop space, just like the ones uncovered along the avenue, thus allowing for a constant inventory and maximum profit.

“What is the price of two sparrows — one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.” —  Matthew 10:28   

[Copper coin likely referred to one assarion — a Roman coin worth 1/16 of a denarius.]

Ancient Copper Coin
These would seem to perfectly match the criteria we set for the location to be confirmed. The shops were directly adjacent to the Temple complex and were stationed at a major entrance to the complex area. The weights and coins show these shops were used for commerce and the animal bones, certainly the pottery, show these animals were intended for sacrifice. These facts show John was well aware of the temple complex as well as the daily business being conducted there. He was accurate because he was an eye witness to these facts, as well as being an eye witness to the actions of Jesus when He cleansed the Temple. 

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Bible Archaeology

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