Most of those who have been raised in the Christian tradition are aware of the events of Holy Week--the period of time that begins with Palm Sunday and extends through Easter Saturday.
The biblical account of this last week of Christ's life is very important to scholars as they try to understand the political and religious events that took place. What changed the cheering, well-wishers of Palm Sunday into the jeering mob that mocked Jesus as he stumbled under the weight of the cross? What finally brought the leaders of the religious establishment to the point where they felt compelled to take action against him?
Jesus had been inveighing against the priests, the Pharisees and the Sadducees from the time he began his ministry and had always been aggressive in his condemnation of their legalistic practices and pious pretensions. And large numbers of people had always been willing to listen to what he said. But the religious leaders in Jerusalem were used to dealing with dissenters and were generally tolerant of them. There had always been itinerant preachers and reformers who felt the need to proclaim their message in the Holy city, and they came from all over Palestine to do that.
It was not what Christ said during the week before he died that brought the wrath of the Establishment down on him. It was what he did that led to his crucifixion. The Gospel account of that event follows.
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the Temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables, exchanging money. So he made a whip of cords and drove all from the Temple area, 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! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market? (John 2:13-16 NIV)
The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew,Mark,and Luke) as well as the Gospel of John, record this event. It is the only time that Jesus is reported to have committed an aggressive act. And it was the slaughter of animals, in the name of God, that led to this uncharacteristic action.
Most Christians know about this incident which is euphemistically called "the cleansing of the Temple." But few realize that it is the pivotal event of Holy Week. It set in motion the arrest, trial, and death of Jesus because in trying to end the slaughter of animals, he was attacking the economic foundation of Jerusalem. The Holy City had become the center of sacrificial religion 600 years earlier when the Temple there had been declared the only legitimate place for sacrifice.
The entire city and all its inhabitants were dependant upon the Temple for their survival. Laborers, artisans, craftsmen and farmers were as committed to the maintenance of the sacrificial cult as were the priests, Levites, and others directly involved in its daily activities. In modern terms, ancient Jerusalem would be classified as a tourist-dependent city.
There were always many pilgrims in the Holy City and three times a year, during the major religious observances of Judaism, the many became a multitude. And never more so than during Passover. Because such great crowds would be gathered in Jerusalem, it was the perfect time for Jesus to carry out his assault on the sacrificial system. Not only would there be many witnesses to what he did, thousands more would hear about it as the story of what took place was passed around among the pilgrims lodged in and around the city.
Mark's Gospel makes it clear that the attack on the sacrificial system was a planned event, not an impulsive act. After describing the triumphal entry into the Holy city when the crowds called "Hosanna," his gospel reports that "Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the Temple. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went on to Bethany with the twelve." (Emphasis added)
The action Jesus planned was to be a very public spectacle. But by the time he had gotten past the cheering crowds who thronged the entry road to Jerusalem, most people had returned to their homes or to the overcrowded inns that housed them during the Passover season. So he went on to Bethany, where he would spend the night at the home of Lazarus.
But before Jesus left the city for the night, when he "looked around at everything," he would have seen the animals who were jammed into the Temple enclosure. The next day was the 10th of Nisan, the traditional day that the male head-of-the-household picked out the animal who would be killedemdash in honor of its Creator.
The victim was chosen according to a strict protocol: the number of people eating together dictated the size of the animal they could eat. But the animal purchased on the 10th of Nisan would not be killed until the 14themdash the eve of Passover. Because each man killed his own animal at this season, the number of sacrificers and the number of their victims was so great that the purchase and the killing could not be carried out on the same day.
From ancient records, scholars have reconstructed the events that took place on the day of sacrifice. The killing began at three p.m. and by sundown about 18,000 animals would be dead. Because the Temple could not accommodate all the "worshipers" at the same time, the victims had to be killed in three shifts.
Approximately 6,000 people comprised each shift and since the sacrifice was a yearling, the men usually carried the lambs on their shoulders. Once in the place of slaughter, they lined up in long rows next to a row of priests. The shofar would sound and the men would wrest the lambs to the ground, slitting their throats. As they bled to death, the priests standing next to them would catch the blood in large buckets. When these were full they would be passed up the line to those who stood by the altar. They would throw the blood against the side of the altar. The empty buckets would be recycled and refilled with the blood of more lambs.
Although it was set up efficiently, neither the human nor the nonhuman creatures who were part of the slaughter process always behaved efficiently. Sometimes the knife was not sharp enough, or the lamb struggled too hard, and although the blood had started to flow from its throat, a frantic yearling had to be wrestled into submission before a better cut could be made.
Of course the slaughtered animals lost all control of their bladders and kidneys. The smells, the frenzy of the dying creatures, and the endless buckets of blood thrown on the altar in the name of God, make it obvious that this ritual of terror and violence was the worship of an idol. This god-of-the-slaughter was created by human beings in their own, fallen image.
Because this slaughter of the innocent was idolatrous worship, Isaiah and the other Latter Prophets had called for the end of sacrificial religion. But they had not taken action against the Temple cult. Now, hundreds of years later, Jesus Christ, who began his ministry claiming to be the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy (Luke 4:16-20) took direct action against that system.
From the time that Christ began his ministry, neither he nor his followers offered animal victims at the Temple. But although the repudiation of animal sacrifice by Jesus is undeniable, scholars direct attention away from this fact by inventing counterfeit issues to explain his cleansing of the Temple. Among these non-issues is the claim that the Lord was annoyed at the policies of the moneychangers, whose tables he overturned. But Matthew's Gospel (22:17-21) shows that Jesus was not concerned with the monetary practices of his time. He even had a tax-collector among his disciples at a time when such men were despised by the Jewish people.
The subsequent development of Christianity attests to the fact that it was the slaughter of God's creatures in his "Father's House" that led Jesus to free the animals who were to be killed. His disciples always understood this prohibition; even after his death, animal sacrifice was never a part of Christianity.
Faced with the reality that Christ, and the Christians who came after him, refused to take part in sacrificial worship, theologians have found a way to "explain" this refusal. They tell us that the slaughter of countless animals, over thousands of years, was not enough to satisfy God's "justice." But when His son became the victim--"The Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world"--the Creator was finally satisfied. So there is no longer any need to sacrifice animals.
And mainstream Christianity still teaches that in the past it was legitimate to kill God's creatures on His altars; that it was God who commanded this violent, murderous worship. This perverse characterization of a loving Creator who demanded the murder of both human and nonhuman beings, is blasphemous. These modern descendants of the Scribes and Pharisees make a mockery of the loving God whom Jesus came to reveal. And they make a mockery of his attempt to end the horror of animal sacrifice; an attempt that ultimately led to his death.
Preaching against the religious establishment was one thing; trying to overthrow the sacrificial system which was its foundation, was another. After he did that, nothing would be forgiven him. Jesus disrupted the Temple worship on 10 Nisan. By the 14th, he was dead. Like the innocent animals he tried to free he, too, was killed--in the name of God.
Reprinted from the March/April 1997 issue of Humane Religion. Copyright 1997 by Viatoris Ministries.
This article is available in pamphlet form which may be reprinted and distributed for educational purposes.