Session 3 THE TEMPLE TAX
[Thanks to the Rev. Dr. James Voelz for loaning me his copy of Money of the Bible by Bressett. Jim owns a number of these ancient coins which this book describes. You might be surprised to learn that not only are reproductions of various coins available, but the actual 2000-year-old coins themselves are also on the market at reasonable prices. Museum-quality coins, however, are extremely valuable.]
RETURN FROM BABYLON: A NEW TEMPLE!
It stands to reason that if the Jewish people do not have a temple, the “Temple Tax” does not exist. Such was the case in 587 B.C. (some argue for 586 B.C.) when Solomon’s spectacular Temple of gold and marble was destroyed by the Babylonians. It had stood for nearly 400 years, but now it had become rubble, as 2 Chronicles 36:19 (ESV) says: “ They set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem; they burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there.”
According to Persian history, Cyrus the Great conquered the Babylonian Empire and marched into the city of Babylon on October 29, 539 B.C. Cyrus as a conqueror was respectful of the religions of the people he subjugated. With his conquest of Babylon by the Persians, Cyrus allowed the Jewish people to return home to Judea, under the leadership of a man named Zerubbabel.
2 Chronicles 36 also makes note of how God touched the heart of Cyrus to let His people return to Jerusalem in order to fulfill the prophecy of Jeremiah 25:12 (ESV) which says ““But when the seventy years are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Babylonians, for their guilt,” declares the LORD, “and will make it desolate forever.” Travelers to Babylon today will find very little of the city remaining.
The Second Temple was completed in 516 B.C., some 70 years after the destruction of Jerusalem!
The Old Testament books of Ezra (10 chapters) and Nehemiah (13 chapters) tell the story of the return from exile and the building of the new Temple and the new walls for Jerusalem. Nehemiah 10 relates how the people promised (verse 32, ESV) “We will not neglect the House of our God.” And one of the ways the Jewish returnees selected as a means to keep this promise is a Temple Tax. Nehemiah 10:32 says “We assume the responsibility for carrying out the commands to give a third of a shekel each year for the service of the house of our God….”
For the first time in Scripture we have confirmation of an annual tax to pay for the Temple and its maintenance. “Shekel” in Hebrew (שקל) simply means “weight.” It is thought that the “shekel” referred to in the Bible was .4 oz (11 grams). One-third shekel would be one-third of that (really? Duh!). While shekel and half-shekel coins exist, there seem to be no known one-third shekel coins.
Merriam-Webster states that a shekel is 252 grains Troy-weight (such weight is normally restricted to precious metals, especially gold and silver).1 But since a “shekel” is a unit of weight, it could refer to gold, silver, grain, or anything else of value which could be weighed conveniently.
DARIC–THE EARLIEST COIN MENTIONED IN THE BIBLE
According to Bressett, “The earliest actual coins mentioned anywhere in the Bible are the gold darics [emphasis mine] of the Persian King Darius 1, who ruled from 510 to 486 B.C. After 486, the successors to Darius issued similar gold darics, and silver sigloi, with the image of a bearded kneeling archer holding a spear and bow, and an oblong incuse punch mark on reverse.”2
1 Chronicles 29:7 states that upon hearing King David’s plea to match his generosity in preparation for building the Temple (referring to Solomon’s Temple, around 970 B.C.), the leading families of Israel and the leaders of the people provided the following: “They gave toward the work on the temple of God five thousand talents and ten thousand darics of gold, ten thousand talents of silver, eighteen thousand talents of bronze and a hundred thousand talents of iron.”3
The picture above is a gold daric from the 6th Century B.C., courtesy of Flickr.com. It weighs about 8.4 grams and is 95% pure gold.
1 A clever trivia question: what weighs more—a pound of gold or a pound of feathers? The answer is that the feathers weigh more. Why? Gold is weighed in “Troy weight” and feathers are weighed in “Avoirdupois (aver-do-pwah or aver-do-poy) weight.” One Troy ounce (ozt.)= 31.10 grams and one Avoirdupois ounce (oz.)= 28.35 grams. But when weighing in pounds, gold weighs less because there are only 12 Troy ounces in every Troy pound but there are 16 ounces in every Avoirdupois pound. So even though Troy ounces are heavier, Avoirdupois pounds weigh more because there are more Avoirdupois ounces in a pound! Yes—that’s a little weird, but true: the feathers weigh more by about 80 grams—around 3 ounces!
This crazy difference in weights and measures originated in the early middle ages. Don’t try to make sense of it—it just is what it is!
2 Bressett, Kenneth. Money of the Bible, 2nd Edition, Whitman Publishing: Atlanta, 2007, p. 30. According to the H.D.M. Spence-Jones, Pulpit Commentary, (23 volumes) specimens of the daric, both in gold and silver, exist in the Paris and Vienna Museums. When Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, he melted down all the coins he could round up and re-minted them with his image on them (some challenge the idea that these bear Alexander’s face).
3 There is some suspicion that this verse has been corrupted, since the “Daric” did not exist at David’s time. Perhaps some well-meaning scribe changed the monetary designations to one more commonly understood during his own time? The LXX translation into Greek notices the problem and merely uses the term χρυσοῦς (“gold”).