Just What Is “A Den Of Robbers” Anyway?

There was a wonderful piece in The Christian Century magazine last week by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. It’s entitled “Collision Course” and it traces the events of Holy Week in the Gospel according to Mark.


It begins on Palm Sunday, of course, and speaks of two processions toward Jerusalem on that day. The first procession came from the western city of Caesarea. That procession was headed by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, astride his war horse. Ever since a couple of riots had taken place in the Holy City on or around Passover, a cohort of Roman soldiers had been sent up to Jerusalem to reinforce the troops there and quell any possible trouble.

The second procession, from the east, was – of course – headed by Jesus, astride his donkey, acting out the prophecy from Zechariah which speaks of a king of peace on a donkey, banishing the war horse and the weapons of war from the land.  The two were on a “collision course:” Jesus versus Pilate — the nonviolence of the kingdom of God versus the violence of the Empire. The authors say that Lent and Holy Week are about Christians repenting for being in the wrong procession! We too often line up with the empire when we should be lining up with Jesus!

Palm Sunday night finds Jesus entering the temple, looking around, and then heading out of town to Bethany with his 12 friends. It was late by that time, and you don’t conduct demonstrations when nobody is around. So, he returns on Monday and matches his demonstration against Roman political power with one against the temple authorities. They had collaborated with the imperial system, and profited from it.

So, he turns the tables on them on Monday and calls the temple a “den of robbers.” I had never thought about it, but a den of robbers is not where robbers rob, but a “safe house” to which they return after having robbed somewhere else. It’s not what they were doing in the temple that was the problem. It’s what they were doing to the poor in their daily lives!

On Tuesday  Jesus gets into a series of conflicts with the temple authorities and finally ends up with what we sometimes call the “little apocalypse” in Mark 13 where he warns of the eventual destruction of the temple. He would have been arrested right then except that he was protected by the “pro Jesus” crowd who actually did regard Jesus at least as a prophet. So the authorities let him alone and he went away.

On Wednesday, the authorities give up and simply hope Jesus will eventually return to Galilee and leave them alone. But Judas, perhaps concerned about this as well, offers to find Jesus one evening so that they can arrest him without his supportive crowd. On Thursday night, Jesus shares a final meal with his closest friends and is arrested in a wooded area later that night.

His interrogation, torture and execution, of course, take place on Friday. That event is even recorded in extra-biblical history. The Jewish historian Josephus writes, “Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified.”

Jesus is put to death by imperial power. Only to be raised, three days later, by divine power. The powers-that-be said “No” to Jesus. But God said “Yes.”  And it is that divine “Yes” that we are preparing to celebrate this week!

7 Responses to “Just What Is “A Den Of Robbers” Anyway?”

  1. Jamie Says:

    I had the pleasure of attending a weekend seminar given by Marcus Borg in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago. I found him fascinating as always, although there were places that he went where I’m not sure I could follow him. In my most recent blog post, I tried to pull some of these thoughts together in the context of thinking about miracles.

  2. Margaret Moore (sharecropper) Says:

    How fascinating, C, that the den of robbers is really a safe house and Jesus was condemning what they did outside that safe house. We’ve been saying the Litany of Penitence every night during Lent, and I find that what I do outside my “safe house” can be very bad for my soul – uncharitable thoughts about our neighbors, love of comforts, …. But, in my house, I don’t usually worry about those things; they don’t go outside the door. Unless, of course, I let Jesus in the door to point out that it is a “den of robbers”. Thanks for sharing

  3. ecubishop Says:

    Jamie: Yes, I find Borg, Crossan and certainly some other members of the so-called “Jesus Seminar” going “farther” than I am prepared to go as well. But I do appreciate their scholarship into first century culture enlightening and appreciate their often fresh reading of the texts.

    Margaret: Right! Always “dangerous” to let Jesus into the temple of our souls!

  4. Linda in Iowa Says:

    Perhaps if we are all honest, we all live in such dens.

    But God is not content to leave us there! Thanks be to God!

  5. Lucas Says:

    Im a grd 9 student and i recently was made to do a project on the temple, so i ahve to give information on how exactly the temple was used by robbers as a safe house and so on but what i thaught was that jesus was mad at them because the people were selling goods like livestock and jewelry outside the temple walls i never actually thaught that robbers used the place as a safe house. So i would like to have some clarification on that if you wouldent mind.

    regards Lucas. rsvp 🙂

  6. ecubishop Says:


    I believe that our Lord was referring to the “religious establishment” (chief priests and all) as the “robbers.” But Crossan and Borg’s point is that it was not so much what they were doing in the temple that was the problem. Selling doves and such was just part of the sacrificial system of the day.

    Their real “crime” was capitulation to the occupying Roman Empire and selling out their own people. Then, they would retreat to their “safe house” and act religious!

    At least I think that’s the point…

  7. Lucas Says:

    Lol thx, religion teacher behold my awesome report. 🙂

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