Session 6 THE TEMPLE TAX
THE MIRACLE OF THE TEMPLE TAX COIN?
We now turn to a passage in the Gospel of Matthew which has been described as a story about Jesus paying the Temple Tax. Let us examine the text.
Peter is confronted by tax collectors in Matthew 17:24-27 (ESV): “When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”1
Commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew claim, almost universally, that this is a reference to the Temple Tax. For example, Hendriksen’s Commentary entitles this section “The Payment of the Temple Tax.”2 And the new Concordia Commentary by Gibbs gives his comments about this section of Matthew thusly: “The Temple Tax Has Become…Optional?”3
Is this the Temple Tax? Most of the theological world says it is, but I don’t think so! If the Temple Tax was being paid for two men, Jesus and Peter, “one shekel” is the correct amount (one-half shekel each).
The Tetradrachma shown on the left was minted in Tyre and was sized between our nickel and a quarter. Other places in the Empire also minted these coins in varying sizes, depending on the silver content. Picture courtesy of Flickr.com
But this is NOT a story about the Temple Tax but the Census Tax!
A TALE OF TWO TAXES!
Wondering if I might be looking at this text incorrectly, I contacted my friend Dr. James Voelz to explain my thinking and to see if he also thought there was something “fishy”! He said “Let me look at it and get back to you.” Saturday night Jim called with details confirming much of what I had discovered, but also adding information to substantiate the idea that the vast majority of scholars were wrong: this is NOT the Temple Tax for the following reasons: (more reasons in session #7)
- Jim pointed out that this event occurred in the town of Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum was a caravan crossroads. It was a Roman tax-collection center because of the amount of commercial business going through this area.
- Jesus asks Peter: “From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax?” Why would he bring up the secular authorities if the tax is religiously based? The kings of the earth have nothing to do with the Temple Tax. This would make Jesus’ question a non sequitur (not logically connected) and extraneous.
- The text says Peter will find a “shekel” in the fish’s mouth. In verse 27, the ESV has translated “you will find a shekel.” They have taken liberties with the translation; the verse in Greek says “you will find a stater” (στατῆρα) which is the Greek word for a Tetradrachma (the picture shown above) which is the Latin name of the coin valued as four drachmas.3 The translators should have known better because in verse 24 they mention “the two-drachma tax” in their translation. You could NOT pay the Temple Tax with this coin!4 (More on that later—remember the “temple money changers?”)
- “The collectors of the two-drachma tax” The word “custom” (KJV) or “duty” (NIV) is a translation of the Greek word “telos” (τέλη) which means “head” or “sum” or “end of a thing.” Jesus was asking Peter about the “head tax!” The second of the two words in 17:25 is “kensos” (κῆνσον). Jim pointed out that this is the Greek word from which we get our English word “census!” According to Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, this word means “an evaluation of property according to a census” and according to The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament by Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich,5 the word is a loan word from Latin and means “a poll tax” or “the coin by which the tax is paid.” (more to come on this topic in the next session!)
- Kenneth Bressett, in his book Money of the Bible, p. 76 says “Finding such a coin in the mouth of a fish was miraculous, but not unnatural. Perhaps it was a variety of the African Mouthbrooder. They have the unusual habit of holding eggs in their mouth for protection during incubation. It could have been a natural instinct for such a fish to retrieve a shiny lost coin and hold it in its mouth.” I’m really unable to evaluate such a statement, but it IS interesting. Another theory I uncovered is this one: the fish was probably a Tilapia (also called “St. Peter’s Perch”) which has a pouch beneath its mouth where small fish can hide from danger. According to the website, https://thehealthyfish.com/the-biblical-origins-of-tilapia/, tilapia are abundant in the Sea of Galilee, where Peter would have caught the fish which Jesus speaks of in Matthew 17:27.
- Hendriksen, William. New Testament Commentary; Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973. Pages 677-680 claims in part: “However, the story told by Matthew—by him alone—has nothing to do with taxes exacted by Rome. It concerns redemption money…which every Israelite, twenty years and over, was by the Lord order to pay, and which was used for the maintenance of the sanctuary….” Such comments are typical: a bold statement with no evidence to support it!
- Gibbs, Jeffrey A. Concordia Commentary; a Theological Exposition of Sacred Scripture: Matthew 11:2—20:34 (Volume 2). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2010. On page 884, Gibbs says “The unnamed persons who have the responsibility of collecting the temple tax assume that Jesus is in the habit of paying this annual levy….” No such assumption appears in the text!
- Edersheim claims you could pay with this coin because it was silver, but gives no evidence to support this claim. He also notes, ii-112n, that Karl Georg Wieseler, Th.D., a German Lutheran theologian who died in 1883, claimed that this was the census tax and not the Temple tax. Edersheim goes on to say that if Wieseler was not such a credible theologian, this idea wouldn’t be taken seriously as a possibility! Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Oxford University in two volumes, 1886. First printing in one volume, 1971. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980 reprint.
- I don’t have the latest version of Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich, updated and revised by Fred Danker (with a lot of uncredited help and support from Jim Voelz I might add!). List price $175.00. Us poor retired pastors can’t afford all the latest theological reference books!