Session 10 THE TEMPLE TAX
THE JERUSALEM TEMPLE AS THE CENTRAL BANK
The Jerusalem Talmud (תַּלְמוּד יְרוּשַׁלְמִי) is a 2nd Century compendium of Jewish life, regulation, and tradition. The jewishvirtuallibrary.org interprets much of what the Talmud says, and explains how practical necessity dictated the use of the Temple rooms as depositories or safe-deposit vaults for vast sums of money brought into the city from all corners of the world.1
Our familiar Epistle Lesson for the Feast of Pentecost, Acts 2:9-11 ESV, reminds us of the world-wide crowds gathered together in Jerusalem during such festivals: “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians…”
All these people brought with them money for the Temple Tax as well as money for their food, their lodging, and other necessities such as T-shirts and refrigerator magnets, etc.2 They would naturally travel with larger denominations of money. Those in charge of the Temple Vaults could provide smaller change and also keep the balance of these monies safely while paying a small amount of interest. The שולאני (Shulhani—literally “table-keepers” because they sat at tables; our English word “banker” may have derived from the word for “bench-keeper” for similar reasons) was the name given to these money changers in the Temple courtyards. The standard fee charged by the Shulhani for monetary exchange seems to have been between 4 and 8%.3
The Romans had heard rumors of this vast storehouse of wealth and eagerly awaited the chance to loot the Temple. Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book 6, section 281 tells about Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem: “They also burnt down the treasury chambers, in which was an immense quantity of money, and an immense number of garments, and other precious goods there reposited; and, to speak all in a few words, there it was that the entire riches of the Jews were heaped up together, while the rich people had there built themselves chambers [to contain such furniture].”
JESUS & THE MONEY-CHANGERS: THREE DIFFERENT WORDS?
Shulhani were not sitting at tables in order to collect Temple Taxes. There were repositories for that. When Jesus overthrew the tables of the “money changers,” he was overturning the banking operations within the Temple Courtyard!4 The Shulhani had three primary tasks: 1) exchange of foreign currencies, 2) breaking large denominations into smaller and more usable sizes and 3) general banking for safe keeping of monies deposited. The New Testament uses three Greek words for “money-changers” and these three words correspond roughly to the three primary tasks of the Shulhani!
First, Matthew 21:12 “And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.” For the word “money-changers” the Greek here uses κολλυβιστής which Strong’s Lexicon says is derived from κόλλυβος meaning “a small coin” or “a rate of exchange.” These would be “money-changers” who dealt with the exchange of foreign currency.
Secondly, John 2:14 says “ In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money.” The Greek is κερματιστὰς καθημένους which does NOT mean “money-changers” but means “the coin dealers sitting at tables” or more precisely “ones who cut large into small” (which is #2 above: breaking large denominations into smaller and more useable sizes).5
Finally, the third word for “money-changer” used in the Gospels at Matthew 25:27: “Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.” Here the Greek word τραπεζίτης (“trapezites”—we get our English word “trapezoid” from this Greek word which denotes a “table or counter for money”) which means “money-changer, broker or banker.” Here in this unique Biblical usage is the third duty of the Shulhani: general banking operations within the Temple courtyards.
Josephus, Wars of the Jews, book 6, chapter 4, section 7, describes the eagerness of the Roman soldiers during the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. to loot the Treasury because of the stories of such great wealth there. Josephus tells us that the immense private wealth held in the Temple vaults was loaned out at high interest rates by the Shulhani (bankers!).
Thus, to say “Jesus overthrew the tables of the money-changers” is not entirely wrong, but it is not entirely accurate either. The Greek text of the Gospels often depicts these events more precisely as the tables of people engaged in banking activities within the Courtyards of the Temple itself.
1 Romans also had money changers, called argentarii, surprisingly similar in many ways to the Jewish money changers. Being the capital of the Empire, Rome attracted various people from all over the world with business to conduct. Each of these people would have different currencies and have a need to exchange their money for “Roman money.” Stalls have been discovered within the Roman Forum where the Roman argentarii conducted their banking business.
2 Often we don’t think of the traveler at Jesus’ time exhibiting habits similar to our own. Do you travel for any length of time broke and with the attitude “God will provide?” Or do you plan ahead, have cash and credit cards for “just in case.” There is no reason to believe that the 1st century traveler did not anticipate his expenses in advance and plan accordingly.
3 If you have purchased foreign currency through your bank, you know that the “exchange rate” is something which frequently changes. The bank will lose money if they are not current in the value of foreign currencies. This was true also in 1st Century Jerusalem, and The Shulhani were expected to maintain up-to-date evaluation of foreign monies coming into the Temple bank.
4 When Herod the Great completed his Temple in 19 B.C., according to Ritmeyer, he doubled the size of the Temple Mount. On the south side of the Temple grounds, above the southern wall of the Temple, he built a huge colonnade which was intended as a “sacred marketplace.” This is where the purchasing of animals for sacrifice and the banking operations took place. For more information on this topic, see https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/the-temple-mount-and-the-money-changers. Leen Ritmeyer is a Ph.D. from the Univ. of Manchester and has spent decades in Jerusalem, studying archeology on the Temple Mount.
5 κερματιστὰς derives from κερματίζω which means “to cut small” according to Abbott-Smith Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament. Liddell and Scott, BAG and Strong all keep the meaning less precise as “money broker.” Generally, translations are often loathe to be overly precise because the meaning will be unclear without additional information to the reader.