The Whip of Small Cords

A note on John 2. 15

A much misunderstood incident in our Lord's life is that recorded by John as occurring during the early stages of His ministry, the cleansing of the Temple. The other three evangelists record a similar incident that took place much later. The one now considered is spoken about in John's Gospel and mentions the whip of small cords. The generally accepted impression is that Jesus, entering the Temple and finding it given over to all manner of merchant trading connected with the ritual sacrifices made Himself a whip (more properly a flail or scourge) and drove out the traders by the use of sheer physical violence. This action so contrary to the general tenor of His conduct and teaching that it has been made the basis of argument to the effect that the Prince of Peace sanctioned the use of violence. A brief study of the passage in question reveals the false premise upon which this conclusion rests. Jesus did not in fact assault the traders with His flail at all. He drove out the beasts, the cattle and sheep, and then returned to upset the money-changers' tables and utter those burning words of denunciation which cause the guilty men before Him to slink out of the Temple precincts, quailed and cowed under the heavy fire of His indignation.

The Authorised Version is at fault in rendering the passage "When he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep and oxen" (John 2.15) The Revised Version corrects this mistranslation "He made a scourge of cords, and cast all out of the temple, both the sheep and oxen." This is confirmed by the following translations:

"So he made a whip from cords and drove all the animals out of the Temple" (GNB)
"So he drove all the sheep and bullocks" (Weymouth)
"He drove them all, sheep and cattle together"(Moffatt)
"So he made a whip of cord and drove all the sheep and bullocks out of the Temple Court" (20th Century).

The sheep and cattle were driven out and their owners were left to round them up as best they could. The money changers had sat bartering pilgrims' coins of all nations, for the Jewish coin in which alone the Temple tribute could be paid. Now they grovelled on the ground seeking to recover their ill-gotten and scattered gains; while the sellers of doves for the sacrifices of the very poor quickly carried their cages away. His piercing voice rang in their hearts, "Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an house of merchandise." The time was the Passover. Every orthodox Jew had within the past few days scrupulously searched his house for hidden leaven and anything else that might defile, and attended to his own ceremonial cleanliness that he might keep the Passover according to ritual. Now there appeared one who took to Himself the role of a prophet in Israel and commanded men to cease from desecrating the Temple of their God. With that inborn awe of a man who spoke to them in the name of God, they hastened to remove themselves from the Court that they knew was defiled by their presence. The fact of Christ's indignation joined to their own knowledge that their conduct was indefensible, was sufficient to empty the Court of the Gentiles of its trafficking crowd. It was not until after the occasion had passed and the cupidity of these men once again overcame their temporary confusion that they began to ask of Him a sign. They wanted a miracle to establish His right to act as He had done in claiming the authority of a prophet in Israel.


Editor's note:

Professor William Barclay commenting on this passage says that the temple tax was half a shekel valued at 6p. A labourer's wages for a day was 4p. Pilgrims came from all over the Roman world with silver coins from Rome, Greece, Egypt and Tyre. Every time a Jew from another part of the empire exchange money for the half shekel the money changers made 4p out of him - value of a day's wage on top of the tax. They made a fantastic profit which the Roman general discovered ran into millions of pounds in today's currency.

Professor Blaiklock draws attention to the records in the Gospels of a similar incident just before the crucifixion when Jesus quoted Jeremiah that God's house was a place of prayer for all nations but these Jerusalem Jews had made it a den of thieves. He goes on to say that the implication for us lies in Paul's words concerning the keeping of the Temple of God clean and offering "a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God."

It is further interesting to note Jesus' attitude to this Temple, which in boyhood He called His Father's house; he was now showing true righteous indignation that trading was going on.