In the Gospel of John, Jesus begins his public ministry by cleansing the temple of the moneychangers. But in the synoptic gospels, the temple cleansing takes place near the end of his ministry. Did the author of John make a chronological mistake?
Looking at the temple cleansing in the four gospels, we can see there are significant differences between them. One possible explanation for this is that Jesus cleansed the temple twice, one at the beginning of his ministry, and one near the end.
In the synoptics, the temple cleansing is preceded by Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. It is after this he storms into the temple, whilst in John, there is no mention of the triumphant entry until chapter 12.
The synoptics also do not record the same words of Jesus. He calls the temple a house of prayer and rebukes the moneychangers for making it a den of robbers. But in John, Jesus makes a whip out of cords and forcefully drives them out. He does not speak about a den of robbers or a house of prayer, but simply tells the moneychangers not to make the temple a house of trade. John’s version of the temple cleansing is also the only one to include Jesus’ declaration that he will raise up his body in 3 days after it has been destroyed.
Andreas J. Kostenberger suggests the account of the temple cleansing in John, “…may represent a “doublet,” a certain type of event occurring more than once during Jesus’ ministry… If so, Jesus cleared the temple twice, with John recording only the first instance, and the Synoptists only [recording] the second.” (John: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, 2004, pg. 111; See also: D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 1991, pg. 178)
While this explanation is a good possibility, I think there is a deeper and more profound explanation as to why John moved the cleansing to the beginning of the ministry.
Johannes Beutler argues that John’s account of the temple cleansing would make more sense if it was originally in John chapter 11. “…Jesus continues to visit the temple, and, in the following eight chapters, he makes it the preferred place for his teaching and preaching. A conflict in this place with the Jewish authorities is easier to understand at the end of Jesus’ public life than at it’s beginning…
The danger to which Jesus exposes himself when he sets out to go and find his friend in Bethany, and the readiness of the disciples to go and die with him (John 11:16), are more easily understood in connection with Jesus’ action in the temple than in connection with the miracle of raising Lazarus.” (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 2017, pg. 84)
So in the sources John was drawing on to compose his gospel, his version of the cleansing would have been initially located in chapter 11. It appears that John has moved the cleansing to chapter 2 in order to make a theological point.
The temple cleansing in John is split into two chunks that display similar structure. The first chunk, verses 13-15, frame the narrative and describes the cleansing. Verse 16 gives the words of Jesus. Verse 17 then describes the disciples remembering a Word from scripture (from Psalm 69:9).
In the second chunk, verse 18 gives the question of authority from the Jews, 19-21 is Jesus’ dispute with them, and verse 22 describes the disciples remembering a Word from scripture.
The concluding verses (23-25) bind the whole chapter together with the Passover Feast, and the wedding in Cana, which was mentioned before the cleansing. The themes that appear to be communicated here are the signs Jesus performs (11, 17, 23) and belief and remembrance in the scriptures (17, 22).
John wished to send a theological message by placing the temple cleansing earlier on:
Jesus’ citation of the Old Testament being placed early in John’s gospel is clearly intentional on the authors’ part. As Rudolf Bultmann states, “…the meaning can scarcely be that Jesus’ action was an expression of his consuming zeal. Rather, the Evangelist (or the Editor) is looking forward to what is to come – or alternatively the whole of Jesus’ ministry – and he means that Jesus’ zeal will result in his death.” (The Gospel of John, 1971, pg. 124)
Given that Jesus routinely said to his followers to keep quiet about him in the early stages of his ministry, a public cleansing of the temple, likely causing outrage amongst the locals and the Jewish authorities would seem to contradict this.
So, we have at least two good reasons as to why John rearranged the order of events in his gospel. I personally think both are good enough, but the theological argument appears to be stronger and more reasonable than two temple cleansings. So therefore, John’s placement of the cleansing at the beginning of the gospel is not a contradiction in the Gospel accounts.
Kerruso Apologetics: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCrQomNYP7r7J-u1IZJkF-Tg
In John chapter 1, the Pharisees confront John the Baptist and ask him if he is the prophet Elijah, who was prophesied to return before the coming of the Messiah. However, John denies being Elijah, while Jesus declares in Matthew 17 that John is Elijah. How do we reconcile this apparent contradiction?
Well, it’s important to remember that there are two prophecies in the Old Testament being used in relation to John and Elijah: Malachi 4:5 and Isaiah 40:3.
Malachi’s prophecy says, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes”. Isaiah’s prophecy says, “A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
There is no reference to Malachi’s prophecy in the Gospel of John, while all three of the synoptics use it. What is also interesting is that John is the only Gospel that has John the Baptist saying the words of Isaiah, while in the synoptics, it is the authors who say it.
The Gospel of John may then just be telling us what John the Baptist said, but not what Jesus or the apostles believed. It is important to differentiate between the prescriptive – what is being prescribed as biblical truth and doctrine - verses the descriptive – what is being described in a historical narrative. It is possible that, although John knew he was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, he did not know he was fulfilling the prophecy of Malachi.
When he is thrown in prison, he sends his followers to ask Jesus if he is the Messiah (Luke 7:19). Clearly, John was in error about Jesus’ lordship whilst he was in prison. Given that he could make such a mistake, it is easily possible he was simply mistaken when he said he wasn’t Elijah and the Gospel writers are merely recording what he said, not prescribing the doctrine that John was not Elijah.
As D. A Carson says, “The Synoptic Gospels report that Jesus identified John the Baptist with the promised Elijah, but they never suggest that John the Baptist himself made that connection. Here he refuses to make it – a refusal which, when placed beside the synoptic evidence, suggests that he did not detect as much significance in his own ministry as Jesus did.” (The Gospel According to John, 1991, pg. 143)
Another explanation could be that John’s denial of being Elijah is simply a humble refusal of being as great a prophet, so that the people could focus on Jesus and not him as the messianic forerunner.
He even says in John 3:30, that Jesus must increase, while he must decrease. John’s willingness to step down after the arrival of Jesus shows his humility, which suggests that John, although acknowledging his role as the new Elijah, believed himself to be unworthy of the title of Elijah and so rejected it when the emissaries questioned him.
As Alexander J. Burke Jr says, “It is because of his deep humility that John refuses the role of Elijah… John’s Gospel seeks to confine the Baptist’s role to that of witness and to establish his great humility. It would not have been in John’s nature to identify himself with such a great figure of Jewish tradition as Elijah.” (John the Baptist: Prophet and Disciple, 2006, pg. 132)
John appears to be distancing himself from the prophets of old, so that people would focus on Jesus and not this new prophetic figure. John’s denial of being Elijah is likely a denial of what the Jews believed Elijah would be like. The Jews expected that it would literally be Elijah himself back from heaven, but this is not implied by the text. John met the spiritual characteristics of Elijah and satisfied the prophesy that Elijah would come before the messiah "to restore all things". John the Baptist came in the spirit and power of Elijah, to the point that it could be said that Elijah had come.
Jesus himself says about John’s role, “If you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah.” (Matthew 11:14). In other words, identifying John as Elijah is not predicated upon him being the actual man Elijah, but upon the people’s response to his role as a messianic forerunner. To those who were willing to believe in Jesus, John the Baptist functioned as Elijah, because they believed that Jesus was the Christ. To the religious leaders who rejected Jesus, John the Baptist did not perform this function.
This is why a future day yet remains for the return of Elijah. Upon Jesus’ second coming, the nation of Israel shall repent at Elijah’s calling and accept Jesus as their Messiah. This will also fulfil Paul’s promise in Romans 11:26 – “And in this way all Israel will be saved.”
So to conclude: John denies being Elijah for several possible reasons:
Kerusso Apologetics: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCrQomNYP7r7J-u1IZJkF-Tg