N.T. Wright takes the famous “den of robbers” statement made by Jesus in the cleansing of the Temple as referring to revolutionaries, which the word lestes can mean. But Peter Leithart, citing Nicholas Perrin, takes it in the more straightforward sense of “thieves.”
Here are a couple reasons why Leithart’s reading is much to be preferred. First, the original context of the phrase is found in Jeremiah.
“Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye know not; And come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, We are delivered to do all these abominations? Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, even I have seen it, saith the LORD” (Jer. 7:9-11).
The problem for Jeremiah was moral abomination, and Jesus confronts the same problem in a different era. The rulers of the Jews in the days of Jesus held to a religion of wickedness, and not to a religion of grace. It was a religion of grace on paper, sure. But Jesus didn’t care about that. There were Jews within that system who were still faithful to God, but they weren’t in real control of anything. They could not, for example, stop the rapacious selling of sacrificial animals in the Temple. And the gospel of Mark makes it clear that Jesus claimed that their dishonest love of money had chased away the love of the Gentile nations that they ought to have had. “My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves” (Mark 11:17).
Second, the counsel that Caiphas gives concerning Jesus — that it is fitting for one man to die, so that the Romans wouldn’t come and take away their place — indicates that they had a cozy set-up, and were not fired by a revolutionary fervor.
Of course, this is not just an odd little debate about whether a word means robber or revolutionary. Wright leans the way he does because of the demands of his system. The meaning of lestes presents a substantive challenge to the New Perspective. If we are to follow Sanders in refurbishing the reputation of Second Temple Judaism, seeing it as a grace-oriented religion, this is harder to do when Jesus calls them all a gang of pirates.