An excerpt from James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred: Liberation from the Myth of Sanctioned Violence, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991, pages 226-231.

2. Violence and Sacrifice

According to Mark, the acts and teachings of Jesus overturn many distinctions of the Jewish Law and tradition. The Son of Man is the lord of the sabbath (2:28). Healing on the Sabbath is good even when it is not essential for saving life (3:1-6). Doing the will of God is more important than family or blood relationships (3:34). What comes out of a person-what one says and does-is more important than laws of purity and diet (7:1-23). The Temple should not be a place of sacrificial substitution but of prayer (11:15-19; more on the Temple below). Jesus' exousia -- what he does out of his "substance" or "presence" -- is not as that of the scribes (1:22). For the Gospel of Mark, this means his authority does not come from the people or from a tradition validated by popular consent but from God.

Those who follow Jesus leave the crowd and go to "the other side" (4:35-41). They are to beware of the leaven of Herod and the leaven of the Pharisees (8:15). They are to understand Jesus as the new point of differentiation, as the new occasion of God's revelation and God's rule, for the Messiah-Son of God is the Son of Man as Suffering Servant (8:31-33).

It is difficult to tell whether Mark preserves a strong historical core from the actual lifetime of Jesus, with its attendant conflicts due to the colonial rule of Rome, burdensome taxation, and loss of land and heavy unemployment. (1) Some of the sayings in Q, better represented in Matthew and Luke, probably reflect the situation closer to Jesus' own time. It is more likely that Mark reflects the turmoil surrounding the period just prior to, during, and perhaps shortly after the Jewish-Roman War, 66-70 C.E. Both the Sicarii ("dagger-men") and Zealots had claimed messianic leaders. The Temple was destroyed, never to be rebuilt, and many members of the Jesus movement probably fled from Judea and perhaps from every part of Palestine. In this cauldron of disaster and change, there were undoubtedly charismatic preachers and prophets who were more troublesome than ever in their rivalry with each other, which simultaneously would have pitted individuals and groups against one another. Such must have been the prevailing conditions for Mark to have had Jesus warn the four disciples against following anyone who claims, ego eimi, "I am the one!" (13:6). Eschatological proclaimers announcing that the Christ has come are not to be believed (13:21). False Christs and false prophets will work miracles and try to lead astray the chosen ones (13:22).

The Gospel of Mark intimates that the turmoil and violence of the events Jesus prophesies are already adumbrated in his encounters with human foes and demons. Dispute over what is permissible on the Sabbath leads to a conspiracy of Pharisees and Herodians to destroy him (3:6). As already pointed out, the battle with demons was simultaneously a struggle with the scribes (or Pharisees). The expulsion of demons is reason for the people of Gerasa to ask Jesus to depart from their area (5:1-20). In spite of the difference maintained in the narrative between Jesus and John the Baptist, Herod insists on viewing them as the same; John's fate, played out in Herod's mimetic obsession both with John as an authoritative prophet and with the approval of the banquet crowd, is a foreshadowing of Jesus' death due to the preoccupation of religious and political authorities with maintaining popular order and their own status.

Jesus himself performs an act that may be viewed as "violent," the attack on the Temple. Bruce Chilton, in a forthcoming work, describes it as Jesus' "occupation of the Temple" in order to purify it. This occupation and purification is part of his program of proclaiming forgiveness as the condition of sacrifice, rather than vice versa. (2) Jesus did not reject sacrifice (e.g., Matt 5:23-24; Mark 1:40-45) but required its purification based, first of all, as stated above, on the condition of the forgiveness of sins.

Chilton's purpose is to give a plausible historical reconstruction of Jesus' attitude toward the Temple and sacrifice. Such a historical reconstruction is a feasible and worthwhile project. It is not my intention here to engage in historical reconstruction, but to focus on the Jesus tradition as it has come to the Gospel stage. I would simply make two comments on historical reconstruction as it relates to my task.

First, it is important in this study not to concede the "world without reference" of structuralism and poststructuralism -- a world utterly made up of signifiers referring to other signifiers, ad infinitum. What is wrong with this contemporary "metalanguage" is not the notion that nothing is known and communicated apart from interpretation, but that there is no beginning or point of departure that can be focused, defined, and discussed (except for some principle like Derrida's "différance," which involves starting from a discussion of a concept that is a nonconcept that cannot be discussed or debated). Thus, just as I stated in chapter 3 concerning the Exodus, reference to a historical core, no matter how transmitted, embellished, and overdetermined, is crucial for my reading of Scripture. And indeed, the Gospel texts are analogous to the Book of Exodus in that both stem from a group viewed as subversive by political and religious authorities and both revolve around an innocent victim, collective in Exodus (the Hebrews) and an individual in the Gospels (Jesus). Therefore it is important to note the trend, if not consensus, in current Gospel criticism that the protest in the Temple, however labeled, was a historical event. E. P. Sanders goes so far as to identify it as the best starting point for understanding the historical Jesus and his relation to the Jewish context of his time. (3)

Second, in placing Jesus in the context of his time, the intention of those like Sanders and Chilton is to counter the influence of prejudice in New Testament scholarship, especially in Germany, which has unduly separated Jesus from the Jewish matrix. The problem is to identify what distinguishes Jesus and the early Jesus movement within this matrix. The Pharisees, who were probably the forerunners of rabbinic Judaism, were not "Judaism" in the first century of the common era; they were one very important grouping within it. The Essenes were not "Judaism"; they were one important grouping. The Sadducees made up the priestly class, whose authority was threatened by the Pharisees and the emergence of the synagogue. There were various apocalyptic and communal movements, such as those gathered around Judas the Galilean, Simon bar Giora, and others. In other words, one cannot take a normative concept of "Judaism," such as doctrines and practices associated with the Pharisees, and say "This is Judaism in the first century C.E." These considerations lead me to the observation that not only the early Jesus movement but the Gospel themselves are "Jewish." They undoubtedly employ Hellenistic forms, and the gospel form itself is, arguably, a literary expression representing an encounter of the early movement with Hellenistic culture. But that does not mean they are any less Jewish, either in the appropriation of non-Jewish forms (4) or in terms of the historical and literary core that generated them. Even those aspects that Chilton calls "Christian haggadah" (homiletical exposition in rabbinic texts), such as the overturning of the money changers' tables, have a certain logic stemming from the Jewish core tradition, whether or not they have a historical referent.

I will therefore deal with the Temple incident in Mark's account as centrally significant for understanding Jesus and the Gospels, with full recognition that aspects of it may amount to "Christian haggadah."

First, then, back to the observation that it is reported as a "violent" act. Part of the reported action, blocking the way of traffic, perhaps involving the obtaining of animals for sacrifice, is more in the mode of nonviolent protest. Overturning the tables of the money changers may be viewed as "violent," but it should be noted that the entire protest is of very short duration. It is not narrated as though there is any intent to harm anyone, to maintain a long occupation, or to assert Jesus' power over the Temple and its dealings. It is clearly in the tradition of the prophets' dramatic representations of Israel's situation and God's word of judgment (see the second part of chapter 5). In a situation of oppression and a brewing mimetic crisis, it is impossible to avoid the taint of violence if one is to act decisively. The word decision itself, a "cutting off" or "cutting from," already suggests that the harmonious reconciliation of all persons and elements in a situation will not take place. This is the human condition in the world of differences, especially when these differences no longer manage the mimetic desire and rivalry that are ever present and effective.

As stated in chapter 7, I think Hamerton-Kelly is right in inferring that this attack was not simply in the form of a cleansing of an institution that was to be affirmed in its pristine or ideal form; it represented instead an attack on the entire sacrificial system. Moreover, in the Gospel of Mark it appears quite clear that Jesus was not simply purifying an institution of which he basically approved. (5) The framing incidents of the fig tree, 11:12-14 and 11:20-25, as well as the pronouncement in 13:1-2, indicate a more radical view, a denial of the Temple's raison d'etre in the dawning new age. What the author of Mark perceives (or receives from the earlier tradition, as the case may be) is that the changing of money was directly tied to a system of substitutions that is rooted in sacrifice. The Temple was an institution sheltering and supporting a system of substitutions whose end was the offering of animal victims to God in the place of the human offerer. (See again the discussion on the Gospel of Mark in chapter 7.)

What is crucial to grasp in the Temple pericope, and what at the same time provides a link both to the Gospel's understanding of sacrifice and the historical reason for Jesus' notoriety and death, is the combination of popular response and the reaction of the priestly authorities. "When the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching" (11:18). The crowd is the ever present factor, clamoring for "more of" Jesus, more of both his teaching and his healing power. Those identified as "chief priests and elders and scribes" (11:27) wanted to arrest him, "but they feared the crowd" (12:12). Later on they plot to arrest and kill him secretly, but not during the festival "or there may be a riot among the people" (14:2). But the crowd, those people whom the chief priests manipulated and stirred up, later shouted for his crucifixion; so Pilate, "wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified" (15:15).

The Jerusalem Temple was not simply a "religious" institution in some restricted sense; it was the basis of a system simultaneously religious, political, and economic. (6) From the priests who appropriated the offered meat and the animal skins to the officials who administered monetary exchange, acquired animals ritually clean, and distributed funds for communal use, it can surely be characterized as a socioeconomic center. As such, it was undoubtedly like other great temples in various parts of the world. The Temple was the site of exchange par excellence, and this exchange stemmed from and was centered in the offering of sacrifices.

The Temple is supervised by the priests under the chief priest, but their power and authority depends on the management of the people who come to fulfill their socioreligious duties. As stated at a number of points in earlier chapters, sacrificial ritual is the dividing point between order and confusion. The altar is the primary point of sacred space that defends the prohibitions of the community and grounds its myth. The altar and the prohibition are the spatial and verbal safeguards against the crisis that is reenacted and resolved in sacrifice. Without altar and prohibition, people "go wild" in the sameness of mimetic undifferentiation. So Moses observes when he comes down from the mountain: he "saw that the people were running wild (for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies)"(Exod 32:25). The source of the Temple's power is the obedience of the people, but if a sizable number of the latter should begin to protest in any way against the authority of the priesthood, and above all against the validity of sacrificial offerings, the situation would be understandably perceived as a real threat to the ancient order of things, to the whole system of differences that has been established between orderly and disorderly, clean and unclean, inside and outside, superior and inferior -- a threat, in short, to the total language of signs and gestures and marks that make up a culture.

It is no wonder, then, that the opponents of Jesus feared him, for in fact they feared the people who listened to him (12:12), who seemed to be ready to "run wild" under his spell.

My own surmise about the historical core of this narrated incident is that Jesus engaged in a prophetic symbolic action, a basically nonviolent protest or witness at the Temple that aroused many people and sealed his fate with both Roman and Jewish authorities. His disciples, who went underground when the authorities arrested Jesus, perceived him both as steadfast in announcing God's rule that transcended the Temple and what it stood for and as steadfast in his loyalty to them. He was one who betrayed neither his message nor his followers, and this was surely one of the main factors in their concentration on him as the center of a new community. In fact, their guilt over their betrayal in the face of his steadfast love reinforced their sense of his importance.

The author of Mark, taking up a tradition that had already filtered and expanded the meaning of Jesus for the new community, juxtaposes Jesus to the Temple as the new point of differentiation not only for the Jews but also for the Gentiles. That is, he is God's difference, the exception, the stone that has "become the head of the comer" (12:10), which offers a different kind of lutron for many. It is a "ransom" or "redemption" that releases in the way the Suffering Servant of the Lord releases those who understand him: by providing an objective, historical model that evokes a sympathetic identification with his willingness to take upon himself the consequences of our transgressions. It is liberation from the principle of punishment or vengeance that underlies any sacrificial or substitutionary system. The lutron of the Son of Man is given to end the cycle of mimetic desire and mimetic rivalry and victimization and sacrifice, for with the God revealed in the Son of Man there is no punishment; there is no violence; there is no need for exclusivistic differentiation into those who are superior and those who are inferior, those who are inside and those who are outside. Therefore when Jesus says, "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many," the Temple and all it stands for is brought proleptically to an end. The "sacrifice" offered by those who take the Son of Man for their model is not in the offering of a victim, whether a human, an animal, or even themselves as "victims," but in the willingness to commit themselves to the Son of Man and his community as formed and informed by this divine self-giving. If this commitment necessitates giving one's life in a literal sense, it is not because "martyrdom" in that sense is sought. To be authentically a martyr or witness is to seek not to be served but to serve, whatever that may entail.

"But," one may object, "if this was the intention of Jesus, or at least of Mark's Jesus, why was it necessary to use such an obviously sacrificial word as lutron?" There is no denying the force of the question, for using such a word and the concept that lies behind it seems somewhat like fighting fire with fire or poison with poison -- the strategy itself is sacrificial, based on an exchange that brings the disease or destruction to an end with a "remedy" that is just as dangerous as the problem or malady. Indeed, it may in turn have to be "managed" or "controlled" just as carefully as what precipitated its use in the first place. My response to this question has to take the form of agreeing with the thrust of the question to this extent: within a given system of language and culture (and I think probably within any system), in order to break out into new insight, new paths of discovery, new ways of forming human community, it is necessary to employ and be determined by what the system offers. If transformation of anything -- such as the principle of sacrifice -- actually occurs, then those involved must wrestle with its reality and be influenced by it. Otherwise, the result is abstract and abstruse and serves only as an ideological overlay. For example, the Priestly narrative of the Torah presents a grand vision of nonviolence in the human sphere -- as such, worthy of meditation and respect. But this vision is impaired to a great extent by its inability to account for the human condition as it actually is (see chapter 1, under "Brothers in Conflict"). And hidden behind the vision is the displacement of the problem of desire and violence to the use of animals for sacrifice.

Finally, of course, it has to be acknowledged that given language and culture as they are, one can never be absolutely certain of the "ransom," of "liberation" from the outworkings of mimetic desire. The Gospels are not an island of absolute certainty available apart from all the contaminations of the human yen for a source of uncontested power and authority. Here is where faith enters in -- faith that what is revealed there through human language and culture comes from beyond this setting where differences rage in combat with confusion, disclosing One who is different from us only in not establishing differences between God and human beings.


1. See Richard Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987)

2. Chilton, The Temple of Jesus: His Sacrificial Program (University Park, PA: Penn State, 1992).

3. E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985). However, I disagree with Sanders's hypothesis that Jesus' announcement of the Temple's destruction pre supposed, in keeping with a number of contemporary texts, that God would create a new temple in the age to come. He discounts the Apocalypse's vision of the heavenly Jerusalem without a temple (Rev 21:22): "This is clearly polemic against the normal expectation in Judaism" (86). Sanders in his own way develops a concept of "normative" Judaism. But why would every sort of charismatic leader have to fit into a normative concept? For one thing, the texts available give us little sense of popular movements. (See Richard A. Horsley and John S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus [San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985].) For another thing, there was a biblical prophetic tradition of opposition to sacrifice (see chap. 5, "The Prophets Against Violence and Sacrifice"); in Jeremiah's case, this probably extended to the very existence of the Temple, which did not belong to his vision of a new age (see Jer 3:16; 7:1-15 [Jer 7:11 is cited in Mark 11:18 and parallels]; 26; 31:27-34). Had this tradition completely died out? See further Horsley's refutation of Sanders's argument concerning a restored Temple in the eschaton, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, 289-296.

4. See James G. Williams, "Paraenesis, Excess, and Ethics: Matthew's Rhetoric in the Sermon on the Mount," Semeia 50 (1990): 163-187.

5. Mark 11:16 might seem to say the latter, namely, that Jesus was engaged in purifying an institution of which he basically approved. However, not allowing "any one to carry anything (skeuos) through the temple" is reminiscent of Mark 3:27: "But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his property (ta skeua) without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered." The binding of Satan, as expressed in the parabolic image, and the overcoming of the sacrificial cult are understood in Mark as analogous actions. See Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man (Mary knoll, NY: Orbis, 1988), 164-167, 299-302.

6. See Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, 286-287.