In a pre-election interview with the National Catholic Reporter, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez cited as of particular importance to her the New Testament tale of Jesus entering the Second Temple and overturning the tables of the moneychangers. While mentioning this very well-known episode is hardly evidence of antipathy toward Jews, it’s worth noting how often it was historically wrapped up with anti-Semitism. Menachem Wecker explains:
To early Christians, [often themselves Jews, this story] cast other Jews as rejected by God, and medieval adherents leveraged it to associate Jews with money and power. Prevailing conspiracy theories of unduly influential Jews continue to mine the story. . . . The more accurate way to read the story is that Jesus criticizes some moneychangers but praises others.
Malka Simkovich, a Jewish-studies professor and the director of Catholic-Jewish studies at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union, thinks Ocasio-Cortez allows herself to be heard in certain ways without spelling metaphors out. . . . “It’s enough for her to say, ‘I like this story’ and to allow those who read it in an anti-Jewish way to interpret it,” she said. “I don’t think it’s anti-Semitic, but she’s allowing a broad tent of people to ally with her who associate Jews with power and money.”
Money changing wasn’t stigmatized in the 1st century CE, as pilgrims had to exchange their cash for Judean currency to purchase animals for sacrifice and pay Temple taxes. . . . Later interpretations “distorted” the original Gospels’ meaning, [says the historian Jonathan Karp], and an initial anti-Jewish motif of “Jews and materiality, carnality, literalism” gave way to one of Jews and money. In other words, Karp said, Jews were “missing the inner spiritual message of biblical prophecy because of an exclusive focus on the external [and] ritualistic.”
By the Middle Ages, Jews were more concentrated in commerce, including occasionally money lending. They weren’t forced to change money, but being barred from other areas, some gravitated to it. Christians began to apply New Testament texts about Jewish money changers and Judas’ betrayal of Jesus for 30 silver pieces to Jews collectively, and medieval religious plays and art represented Judas as a Jewish moneylender and money changers in the Temple courtyard as particularly Jewish, Karp said.