Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out all the people buying and selling animals for sacrifice. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves. He said to them, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves!”
Matthew 21:12-13

It’s easy to read is text and find yourself thinking “Jesus! What are you doing!?!” One of the most common questions I hear in association with this verse is: How on earth could he become so angry over the marketplace in the temple?

Well, answering this question requires that we understand a little something about the historic and cultural context. For Jewish people, the temple was an incredibly important thing. The priesthood was way up there, too. These were parts of their religion that were heavily associated with God. Every member of the priesthood was supposed to be from the line of Aaron, Moses’ brother, and from the family of Zadok. Zadok was a family that God blessed with the priesthood later because they opposed the pagan religions during Isaiah’s ministry. In the several hundred years previous to this story, this had ceased to be the case. The system had become corrupt. The high priesthood eventually became a position that was for sale. Over time, the Sadducees began to dominate the high priesthood because they were quite wealthy. They, in turn, allowed the courts of the temple to be used for commerce. The Mishnah (Jewish commentary on rabbinical debates in the ancient world) indicates that the folks running the market were from the family of the high priest. So, the high priest is a corrupt jerk who bribes the king to get his job. He then allows his family to run the special market in the courts. Sound kosher? It probably shouldn’t. It gets worse though. The high priests decided that the only money that could be could be used in the temple was a special temple currency, which you had to get from them at a modest exchange rate. So, they were skimming off the top of the offerings. This was a corrupt system and pretty much everyone knew it. What made it worse is that it was happening in the temple. The most holy place in the world. Christ became enraged and took action. He was passionate about God’s house.

Does the text take on different meaning for you now? Is it clearer? The next rule of Biblical interpretation is to pay attention to the historical and cultural context. This one requires a little work. Lots of what makes this happen is reading and studying. However, it’s quite do-able and many of the best books that fill in these sorts of blanks are available online for free. A little bit of research goes a long way toward understanding the meaning of a passage based on the context. Often times, a reader can turn to a good commentary to obtain information on the matter. The information is out there and ever more accessible with the Internet.

This is particularly important because it is very easy to force a 21st century value system onto a text. This is often seen in responses to the Bible that refer to it as evil, based on interpreting rules and events by our worldview rather than considering the ancient context. One obvious example is the tendency to look at the accounts of the year of jubilee and criticize the people for having slaves. The Jubilee regulations indicate that in the year of the jubilee all slaves were to freed and all debts washed away. This happened in Israel, but nowhere else in the ancient world. Other nations didn’t free their slaves. The Jews did. It’s easy to criticize and miss the fact that everyone had slaves in the ancient world. What makes the scriptures pretty unique is that they present a fairly progressive perspective. This is easily missed when considering them out of their cultural context.

Geographic understanding also helps with properly interpreting the scriptures, which is why Bibles come with the book of maps. Knowing the place things took place makes certain elements of the text more vivid. For example, the story of the good Samaritan involves a man being robbed and left for dead on the road. A priest and a scribe pass him while moving from Jerusalem to Jericho. They crossed to the other side of the road to avoid the man. Here we have a geographical joke built into the text. Both are mountain towns. This would have been a mountain road. These roads were not superhighways wide enough to give a big berth. Rather they were fairly narrow and so crossing to the other side was not a huge step. In fact, in some spots it may have been step.

So, where do we learn this stuff? Well, a good study Bible will cover most of these bases. After that, we have a glut of resources at our disposal if we merely spend some time to ask the right questions to get us going in the right direction. Here are a few decent sites for research and reading to check cultural, historical and geographical context: also available as an AppStore app. this one is a little more advanced and much tougher to use
For iPad, iPhone and android users the logos app is really good, but better if you have a logos package purchased.
For a good cultural overview of the New Testament era I would recommend the New Testament Milieu by A. B. Du Toit. It offers an overview of the history building up to the coming of Christ and the social setting. Reading this one will give you most of the contextual information you will ever need.
Alfred Edersheim wrote several excellent books on the New Testament setting. I use his book on the temple and the Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah.