Session 7 THE TEMPLE TAX
Matthew 17:24-27 is NOT the Temple Tax for the following reasons I suggested in session #6:
- The town of Capernaum was a caravan crossroads, and as such it was a Roman tax-collection center because of the amount of commercial business there.
- “From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax?” Why does Jesus ask about the “kings of the earth” if this is the Temple Tax?
- The verse in Greek doesn’t say “shekel” but says “you will find a stater” (στατῆρα), a coin not allowable for the Temple Tax.
- In the Greek text of Matthew 17:25, the word “telos” (τέλη) is used because Jesus was asking Peter about the “head tax” AND “kensos” (κῆνσον), the Greek word from which we get our English word “census,” means a “poll tax” or the “coin used for a poll tax.”
MORE REASONS: IT’S NOT THE TEMPLE TAX!
- Why were only Jesus and Peter paying the tax? If Matthew 17 is about the Temple Tax, those collecting the tax would have been Jewish and required that the other disciples pay it also, even if they weren’t around. One suggestion proffered was that The Temple Tax only had to be paid by Jews over the age of 19, and THEREFORE all the disciples must have been teenagers except for Peter! (Talk about blowing into the wrong end of the horn!) A census tax by Roman tax collectors would generally be collected from anyone with whom they came in contact, not “absentees.”
- Dr. Voelz suggested that this is probably the wrong time of the year to be collecting Temple Taxes. While delinquents could “pay up” at any time in Jerusalem (more on this later), remember that there was a set “due date” for people, depending on where they lived. In Session #4 I gave the schedule. Those in Capernaum and the Galilee area would have their taxes come due by the end of Sivan, which is around May and June on our calendar. The verse immediately preceding the story of the tax collectors is very informative: Matthew 17:22-23 says “As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, ‘The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.’ And they were greatly distressed.” Thus, we can date Matthew 17 slightly before the Passover, and that occurs in March or early April—NEVER in May or June! Taxes for the Temple were owed by the people of the Capernaum area two months later than this story.
- Isn’t it “strange” that the author of Matthew 17 used to be a tax collector in Capernaum for the Romans? If anyone should know the difference between the Roman census tax and the Jewish Temple Tax, it should be Matthew. So why does Matthew use Greek technical language for the Census Tax if he is talking about the Temple Tax in this chapter? (And as an aside for #5 above, if Matthew had been appointed to oversee the collection of Roman taxes in Capernaum, what are the chances that Rome appointed a teenager to carry out these duties?)
- Under Roman Law, the Temple Tax was not enforceable at the time of Jesus, although the Rabbis considered it a serious sin if a person failed to pay. Furthermore, women and children were exempt, as were Jews under 20 or over 50. Dr. Voelz, however, came up with a reference from the Jewish historian Josephus, who in the first century wrote The Jewish War. In Book 7, section 218, Josephus tells us that after the conquest of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. by the Roman Army, and after the destruction of the Temple, Emperor Vespasian converted the Temple Tax into a “Head Tax” on the Jews, and forced all Jews over the age of 12 and under the age of 60 (including women) to pay the old “Temple Tax” in order to build the Roman Colosseum and the Temple of Jupiter in Rome. This was a two-drachma (1/2 shekel) tax paid annually and THIS TIME it was enforced by Rome, but apparently payable with any two-drachma coin and not restricted to a particular coin as the Temple Tax was at Jesus time. I found an additional reference in Roman History by Dio Cassius (early 3rd Century) who wrote 80 volumes of the history of the Roman Empire! In book 65, chapter 7, verse two, it reads “Thus was Jerusalem destroyed on the very day of Saturn, the day which even now the Jews reverence most. From that time forth it was ordered that the Jews who continued to observe their ancestral customs should pay an annual tribute of two denarii to Jupiter Capitoline.”1 Since the Jewish Laws did not make the Temple Tax mandatory and since most Jews paid the tax of their own volition, would the Jewish leaders have “tax collectors” in Capernaum who only collect from Jesus and Peter?
WHY THE FUSS OVER THE TYPE OF TEMPLE TAX COIN?
It would seem frivolous to reject a particular offering merely because the person had the “wrong kind of money.” After all, money is money, right? That isn’t true even in our modern world! When Shelley and I were planning to travel to Argentina, we were unable to obtain any Argentinian pesos before we left home because banks in the USA will not handle Argentina’s money. The second-largest economy in South America has a government so inept at controlling its currency that its money continues to be a pariah. This week Bloomberg reported: “Some analysts warn a large devaluation may be on the horizon despite President Alberto Fernandez’s public opposition to the idea.”
The currency of the United States used to say “Silver Certificate” which meant that the dollar bill was backed by a dollar’s worth of silver. Now our paper money is backed by “the full faith and credit of the United States.” If you still have Silver Certificates, they are worth some money. Dimes and quarters used to contain silver, but in the 1960’s precious metals were eliminated from all our coins during Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency. People called the new coins “Johnson play money.”
Quality coinage was a serious issue in the Roman Empire too. Merchants knew which coins were inferior in quality. Did the weight vary or did the percentage of silver or gold vary–or was it consistent? Some less-desirable coins minted in the Roman Empire were even copper but soldered on the surface was a thin plate of silver! God deserves better than this. But what was the solution?
1 Interestingly, the tax was revived in 1342 under the name of Opferpfennig by the Bavarian Emperor Louis IV, who ordered all Jews above the age of 12 and possessing 20 gulden to pay one gulden annually for protection. The practice was justified on the grounds that the emperor, as the legal successor of the Roman emperors, was the rightful recipient of the Temple Tax which Jews were forced to pay to the Romans after the destruction of the Temple. The Opferpfennig tax was collected on Christmas Day as an added insult.