Was Jesus just an angry young man?

Problem

We have been encouraged to think of Jesus as being a gentle and tolerant person but when we read the gospels we discover that this might not be the whole truth. There seems to be a side to Jesus where he becomes violent at the least provocation and shows cruelty to those who disagree with him. If this image of Jesus is true then he is not someone to follow but someone to be avoided.

Summary answer

Jesus is not the weak and non-confrontational figure that he is sometimes portrayed as being. It is true that sometimes Jesus does not hold back in his criticism of certain members of the religious establishment in first century Israel. However Jesus is severely provoked by those same authorities. Quite often Jesus does not respond when the authorities set out to trick him into saying something he should be executed for but occasionally he is keen to tell things like they are. I admire this quality in him.

Also the stories that are claimed to show his violent nature do nothing of the sort. Although Jesus does get angry we see him as a controlled person who is ready to stand up for what he believes is right. He does not use violence to get his point across but does use drama to emphasise something that is very important to him.

Fuller answer

Some have claimed that they cannot follow Jesus because they believe he was violent. We explore the answer to this question.

Is there any evidence to support the claim that Jesus was violent?

I'm not sure it is really fair to call someone in their 30's a young man (implying that he is a revolutionary teenager - not that there is anything wrong with being a teenager) but some people have tried to argue that Jesus is not the nice and gentle figure we have heard about. They want to suggest that Jesus was actually a very violent person who had treated his opponents appallingly.

It is quite true that Jesus does not hold back from criticizing the religious leaders of his day, he uses some pretty strong language about them. However this is usually in response to them trying to trick Jesus into saying something that will turn his followers against him. The message of Jesus is that the religious leaders have gone the wrong way and instead of leading people to God they are taking people in the opposite direction. The responses that Jesus gives are not angry outbursts but measured responses by someone who is not afraid to speak their mind. If you are asking if Jesus is a polite englishman who would rather suffer excruciating embarrassment than say anything out of place then the answer is no. If you are asking if Jesus is someone who knows his mind and has no reluctance in expressing it then the answer is yes.

Jesus forced the traders to leave the Temple

But perhaps the main reason Jesus is accused of angry violence is because in the gospels there is a story of how Jesus clears the temple, in particular it is the story from John that upsets people.

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 out 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)

It is the bit about the whip of cords that critics find alarming. However nowhere in the passage does it say that Jesus whipped anybody, it doesn't even say that he pushed anybody. All it says is that he made a whip (this may well have been a pretty small harmless whip - the kind used to persuade animals to move along) and drove the animals out of the temple. It then says that he scattered the coins and overturned tables. Now I grant that this is very dramatic stuff and Jesus is not holding back from making his point, he is certainly angry about what he sees in the temple. But it is a very long way to go from overturning tables and driving out animals to say he is inflicting grievous bodily harm on anyone. Sadly sometimes even Christians have missed this point.

Jesus gets angry but not violent

Why did Jesus get so angry? Well this is the Temple, the place where the presence of God lives within the nation of Israel. Here the Jewish people come to make sacrifices to God, it is the most Holy place of all. The temple authorities had allowed traders into the Temple so they could charge for the privilege of selling there. Also every visitor to the Temple had to pay a temple tax and this could only be paid in the right coinage because the roman coins - the currency everyone used outside the temple - had the head of the emperor on them and no image was allowed in the temple. Now you might think that these traders were providing a valuable service, from what Jesus says we can see that there is a certain degree of dishonesty among the traders but John makes it clear that this is not the real issue here. The issue is that traders have been allowed in to the temple at all.

Within the temple there were different areas. Only Jewish men were allowed to enter the inner part of the temple and only the priests into the heart of the temple. The outer court was where the women and non-jews (gentiles) were allowed. This is where the traders had set up shop. The authorities had stopped a large number of people finding God and Jesus found this unacceptable and a reason to get angry. Makes me angry just thinking about it.