John 2:15: He drove out all, both the sheep and the oxen

The second chapter of the fourth gospel records Jesus’ visit to the temple in the early part of his ministry, which is commonly known as the “cleansing of the temple.” He found in the temple those selling oxen, sheep and doves and money changers sitting at their tables (v. 14). The next verse, v. 15, is controversial because, depending on the way a certain phrase is understood, there are two interpretations, as reflected in the following representative translations:

  1. “So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle” (NIV).
  2. “And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen” (ESV)

In the first translation, “all” refers to the oxen and the sheep while, in the second, “all” refers to the traders referred to in the preceding verse (v. 14). Therefore the first translation has Jesus using the whip only on the animals, but the second has Jesus using it on not only the animals but also the traders. Which is correct?

The first part of v. 15 reads in the Greek kai poiēsas phragellion ek schoiniōn pantas exebalen ek tou hierrou ta te probata kai tous boas. The words kai poiēsas phragellion ek schoiniōn mean “having made a whip of cords.” pantas is the accusative, plural, masculine form of the Greek word pas, meaning “all,” “every.”  exebalen is the third person, singular, second aorist (a Greek past tense), active, indicative form of the Greek verb ekballō, meaning “to throw out.” The phrase ek tou hierou means “out of the temple.” The last six words are ta te probata kai tous boas and admit, grammatically, of the following two possibilities of understanding and it is that which gives rise to the two possibilities of translation as above.

A. ta te probata kai tous boas can be understood as “both the sheep and the oxen,” resulting in the translation “He put all out of the temple, both the sheep and the oxen” (my preference).

On this interpretation, te and kai are correlative conjunctions closely joining the words “the sheep” and “the oxen” as a unit and these words are in apposition to pantas, (“all”). (Click here for the meaning of “apposition.”)

B. ta te probata kai tous boas is an addition to pantas and can be rendered “and the sheep and the oxen,” as it is in the KJV, which is more idiomatically rendered in some such manner as “with the sheep and the oxen” (e.g., ESV). On this interpretation, pantas refers to the merchants and te is a coordinate conjunction meaning “and” (a sense it can have in Greek) and effectively joins the sheep and the oxen to pantas as an additional object of exebalen, i.e., “he put pantas (= the traders) and the sheep and the oxen out of the temple.”

At first sight it may seem natural to take “all” in v. 15 as including the traders, since they are mentioned in v. 14, the immediately preceding verse. But there are two objections to this view:

  1. An examination of the construction te…kai in the rest of the New Testament points to the phrase ta te probata kai tous boas as being in apposition to pantas.
  2. The flow of the narrative and logic are against “all” being a reference to the traders.

I will elaborate on these objections in order.

The words ta te probata kai tous boas are in apposition to pantas

A definition of apposition is a “construction in which a noun or noun phrase is placed with another as an explanatory equivalent, both having the same syntactic relation to the other elements in the sentence.” For example, in the sentence “Paul, an apostle of Christ, preached the gospel to all,” “an apostle of Christ” is in apposition to “Paul” and explains what Paul is, and both are syntactically related to the other words of the sentence as the subject of the sentence. We may further expand the sentence as follows: “Paul, an apostle of Christ, preached the gospel to all, both Jews and Gentiles.” Now there is another pair of phrases in apposition: “all” and “both Jews and Gentiles.” The latter phrase is in apposition to the former and describes what “all” consists of. It describes the parts of the whole. For that reason, this type of apposition is called partitive apposition. Greek would express such a relationship with correlative conjunctions, such as te … kai.

There are many examples in the New Testament of the use of te … kai to express partitive apposition. Some examples are given below.

  • “those slaves…gathered together all they found, both good and evil [ponērous te kai agathous]” (Matthew 22:10)
  • “the council of the people assembled, both chief priest and scribes [archhiereis te kai grammateis]” (Luke 22:66)
  • “all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks [Ioudaious te kai hellnēas]” (Acts 19:10)
  • “all, both Jews and Greeks [Ioudaious te kai hellēnas pantas], are under sin” (Romans 3:9)

The last two examples are especially relevant to our discussion in that a form of pantes occurs in both and is explained by a te…kai construction in apposition to it. In view of this evidence, it is most reasonable to conclude that the words ta te probata kai tous boas are co-referential with pantas and is epexetical of it, i.e., these words explain pantas.[1]

Logic and narrative flow support the “animals only” interpretation

We are told that Jesus drove out “all” with a whip which was made on the spot using materials available to him there. Now a whip is more naturally used to drive out animals, not humans. This favours the view that only the animals were the object of Jesus’ action with the whip. The sequence of events as narrated by the writer further favours that view:

  1. Making a whip out of cords, he drives out “all” (v.15)
  2. He pours out the money of the moneychangers and overturns their tables (v.15)
  3. He says to the sellers of the doves to take their birds away (v.16).

If “all” refers to the merchants who are put out of the temple as per v. 15, how come the sellers of the doves are still around for Jesus to tell them, “Take these things away” (v. 16)? Doesn’t that sound inconsistent? There are other difficulties with that interpretation. If “all” refers to the traders, why did Jesus have to drive out the animals too? When the traders were being driven out, they would naturally have taken their livestock out with them. The same goes for the moneychangers: As they were going out, they would have taken the money out with them and there was no need for Jesus to overturn the money tables. Indeed such an action would have delayed their exit. The interpretation that takes “all” refer to the animals only entails no such difficulties and results in a  logical sequence of events and a smooth-flowing narrative:

  1. Jesus drives out the sheep and the oxen, probably with the help of his disciples, and their owners follow them out of the temple.
  2. He orders the sellers of doves, who are still around, to take their birds out. This is because the birds were kept in cages and Jesus could not directly put them out.
  3. He overturns the tables of the moneychangers, which sends them scampering for their money and then out of the temple.

Jesus’ actions are directed only towards the animals and inanimate objects and he follows a course of action more expected of a sane person in the circumstances and, of course, consistent with his own teachings on non-violence. Once Jesus started driving out the animals, their owners would have naturally followed them out of the temple. Further, the traders were far more likely to have tolerated what Jesus did if his actions were directed only towards the sheep and the oxen than if he assaulted the traders with the whip.

There are those who think that “all” in John 2:15 refers to the merchants but that the account is silent about whether Jesus actually used the whip on people. In answer to this, it may be said that, if “all” refers to people, the particular construction of the sentence makes it unlikely that Jesus did not use the whip on people or that, at least, he did not intend to do so.

Can pantas grammatically refer to the sheep and the oxen?

pantas (“all”), as mentioned above, is the accusative, plural, masculine form of the Greek pronoun pas. Some think that the use of the masculine form indicates that the writer meant to refer to the people mentioned in the preceding verse.

[pantas] (masculine) indicates that Jesus drove out all the men engaged in trade; if ta te…boas…had been intended as a merely epexegetical phrase we should have had [panta] not [pantas]. [2]

There are, however, two types of animals mentioned of two different grammatical genders. The grammatical gender of probata, “the sheep”,” is neuter and that of boas, “the oxen,” is masculine. Therefore the writer had two options for the gender of the pronoun “all”: masculine and neuter. The grammatical rules in Greek, if they could be called that, governing the gender of pronouns and modifying words where more than one noun is involved are rather complex, and suffice it to say that such “rules” as may be observed in ancient Greek do not preclude the possibility of the use of the masculine form of the pronoun “all” in the passage under discussion in referring to the animals. [3]

Comparison with parallel gospel accounts

The other three gospels, called the synoptic gospels, too contain accounts of Jesus’ cleansing of the gospels (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-19; and Luke 19:45-48), the main difference between them and the fourth gospel being the time setting: The fourth gospel places the incident at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry whereas the other three place it in the final week of Jesus’ earthly existence. This difference, along with certain other differences, has caused some to conclude that Jesus cleansed the temple on two different occasions. This seems most unlikely and it is better to think that all four gospels refer to the same incident but assign two different periods to it. The gospel accounts demonstrably do not always follow a chronological order.

According to the synoptics, it was the traders and buyers whom Jesus put out of the temple. A form of the same Greek verb ekballō is used in all three accounts, but this does not necessarily support the interpretation that in John Jesus used the whip on people. What we have in the synoptics is an abbreviated version of the cleansing of the temple, in which details are omitted and the final result of Jesus’ actions in the temple is stated, i.e., the expulsion of the merchants with their merchandise, which was the ultimate object of Jesus. [4]

Note that in the synoptics there is no mention of a whip or the sheep and the oxen. Is this not significant? Jesus is reported to have used a whip only in the account (John) where the sheep and the oxen are mentioned, which favours the view that the whip was meant only for these animals.

Notes

  1. For more a more detailed treatment of the grammatical issues discussed in this article, see N. Clayton Croy’s “The Messianic Whippersnapper: Did Jesus Use a Whip on People in the Temple (John 2:15)?”, Journal of Biblical Literature 128, no3 (2009): 555-568. The article is available online at http://www.sbl-site.org/assets/pdfs/JBL1283.pdf.
  2. C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to John—An Introduction with commentary and Notes on the Greek Text (London: SPCK, 1978), pp. 197-8.
  3. For more details on this, see the abovementioned article.
  4. Although the number of the accounts in the synoptics of the cleansing is three, comparison shows that the same basic tradition obviously underlies all three accounts. It is a reasonable surmise that the account of Mark is the basis for Matthew and Luke.