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Thursday, 27 December 2012

Was Jesus Against Capitalism?

Casting out the money changers, Giotto di Bondone, 14th C.
Cappella Scrovegni, Padua, Italy.
What on earth was Jesus up to when he used violence against the money changers and traders in the Temple? What was it that made him lose his temper so publicly and so spectacularly?

All four of the canonical gospels have stories about Jesus 'cleansing' the Temple so we can be sure the tale appears in the earlier sources which Bible scholars assume to pre-date the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - the so-called 'Q' and 'M' sources - so the story might well relates to something that really did happen involving Jesus or someone else upon whom the myths are partly based, and is not something which the authors inserted to serve their own political ends, as so often seems to be the case, especially where the tales differ markedly, as in the nativity, the resurrection and Jesus's ancestry.
And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves; And would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple. And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves.

And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.

And he went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold therein, and them that bought; Saying unto them, It is written, My house is the house of prayer: but ye have made it a den of thieves.

And the Jews' passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting:

And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers' money, and overthrew the tables; And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an house of merchandise.
First a little background:
The Temple was the focal point of all Jewish worship, as established in the Jewish Scripture. In Jesus’ day, Jews from around the world would come to Jerusalem to perform the animal sacrifices prescribed by the law, which had to be done in the Temple, nowhere else. Of course, people coming from long distances would not be able to bring sacrificial animals with them; these had to be purchased on site. But they could not be purchased with normal Roman currency: Roman coins were stamped with an image of the emperor, who in parts of the empire was thought to be a divine being. For Jews there was only one God, and so they were not inclined to bring the image of Caesar into the holy Temple. In addition, the law proscribed the use of any “graven images,” another reason that Roman coins could not be used. Some other kind of money had to be made available, and so there had to be a kind of currency exchange, where Roman coinage could be traded for Temple currency, which did not bear the image of Caesar. The Temple currency could then be used to purchase the necessary animals.

There were money changers who made these currency exchanges.

Ehrman, Bart D. (2009-02-20). Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them) (p. 166).
Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition.
Of course it could be that the original source for this tale could have been merely attempting to graft an earlier story from Jewish history onto the Jesus myth. A symbolic purification of the Temple-centred Jewish religion.

In the Book of Nehemiah we have:
And before this, Eliashib the priest, having the oversight of the chamber of the house of our God, was allied unto Tobiah: And he had prepared for him a great chamber, where aforetime they laid the meat offerings, the frankincense, and the vessels, and the tithes of the corn, the new wine, and the oil, which was commanded to be given to the Levites, and the singers, and the porters; and the offerings of the priests.

But in all this time was not I at Jerusalem: for in the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon came I unto the king, and after certain days obtained I leave of the king: And I came to Jerusalem, and understood of the evil that Eliashib did for Tobiah, in preparing him a chamber in the courts of the house of God.

And it grieved me sore: therefore I cast forth all the household stuff to Tobiah out of the chamber. Then I commanded, and they cleansed the chambers: and thither brought I again the vessels of the house of God, with the meat offering and the frankincense.

But if we take the Jesus story at face value, it seems Jesus took exception to a trade which was only necessary because of the laws of his own religion concerning sacrifices, blasphemy and the making of graven images. This trade existed for no other purpose. We aren't talking about loan sharks or black marketeers but about people carrying out a legitimate trade, even a service to facilitate Jewish religious observance in a Roman Empire with differing customs and traditions - a kind of necessary interface between the secular state and religious devotion.

It is very unlikely that Jesus would have taken exception to the exchange of Roman coinage for 'Temple money' as such. Nor would he have taken exception to the purchase of livestock for sacrifice - a perfectly understandable practice to avoid carrying livestock such as doves during the long journey to the Temple.

So what was his objection here?

Certainly John leaves no doubt that it was merchandising itself that Jesus took exception too with "make not my Father's house an house of merchandise" which the other three writers equate to a den of thieves. It is generally accepted by Bible scholars that John is the last to be written of the Canonical Gospels so, presumably, this author saw merchandising as thievery.

Could Jesus's objection be the profits the money changers and the traders in livestock were making? These traders needed to make a living themselves so a fair profit on each transaction would have been necessary and perfectly legitimate.

Apparently, the Temple precinct at that time was the size of about twenty-five football pitches, so there would have been no shortage of space for traders to set up their stalls and consumer choice would have been wide. According to a basic laws of economics - the 'Laws of Supply and Demand' - competition between the traders would have keep the prices low, unless there was a cartel operating or unfair trading terms and conditions were being imposed by the Temple authorities - in which cases Jesus's anger was misplaced and should have been directed at the authorities and/or organisers of the cartel, not the traders.

In microeconomics, supply and demand is an economic model of price determination in a market. It concludes that in a competitive market, the unit price for a particular good will vary until it settles at a point where the quantity demanded by consumers (at current price) will equal the quantity supplied by producers (at current price), resulting in an economic equilibrium for price and quantity.

You could understand Jesus's objection rather better if the traders had been selling goods made in their factories or workshops and were, in Marxist terms, misappropriating the surplus value of their workers' labour, but there are no manufactured goods involved here.

So, unless Jesus completely misunderstood the basic laws of supply and demand, and the need for a trader to make a fair return in order to earn his living and stay in business - something which as the (adopted) son of a carpenter who earned his living by doing just that, he should have understood - what exactly was he objecting to here?

Was he objecting to the entire Capitalist system - the very idea of earning a living by making a profit from servicing the needs of the people? Did he think the Temple authorities should have been providing this service free of charge as some sort of quasi state-run operation? Was Jesus in fact demonstrating that he thought the entire Capitalist system was corrupt and should be violently overthrown and replaced by a form of early Communism with state control of the means of production, distribution and exchange?

If so, how ironic that in America and elsewhere, fundamentalist Christianity is now firmly in bed with the conservative right, those implacable enemies of Socialism and stout defenders of Capitalism and the right of those with money to make as much as possible through unfettered trade, free from state regulation and interference.

How the biblical Jesus would have loved them and they him...

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4 comments:

  1. I think it's fairly demonstrable that the Biblical Jesus was - at least when not throwing tantrums at fig trees or murdering pigs by putting demons into them - a leftie hippie rebel against authority, such as no religious establishment could have tolerated. No wonder they crucified him, or whoever the myth of him is based on.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Well let's see:
    - he expected his followers to give up their possessions
    - it is very unlikely that a rich man will get into heaven
    - the love of money is the root of all evil

    Perhaps I'm missing something here, but this doesn't sound like Capitalism to me. And who's to say he was wrong in that?

    Sadly, it would seem that things have moved on.

    ReplyDelete
  3. You have to reread everything, he wasnt against the selling of goods just in the temple that he considered sacred. He didnt oppose capitalism. It is true that he commanded one rich man to give up all his things, yet he didnt do it with any other person. He brought back to life the daughter of a prominent person and never asked him to give anything. In the ox in the mayer story he shwos he is not opposed to sustaining yourself from your labor. And the numerous times that he taught about almsgivingh e always talked to private people and never even remotely said the government should force people to give to the needy. He was more capitalist than you think and definitely not a socialist but as God he knows way more than us and its stupid to expect him to accept our economic models.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I noticed you didn't explain what Jesus saw wrong with trading in the temple and with stall-holders making a living by providing a service only made necessary because of his Judaic cult in the first place.

      Could you not think of anything sensible either? You're not alone, mind you, the authors of the Bible didn't seem to know either.

      Delete

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