Session 8                                  THE TEMPLE TAX 

WHAT COINS WERE ACCEPTABLE FOR THE TEMPLE TAX?

In truth there was only ONE coin which was acceptable for the payment of the Temple Tax.  That coin was the Tyrian Shekel, shown here:

 pastedGraphic.png(Forum Ancient Coins of Morehead City, North Carolina specializes in the sale of ancient coins, and graciously granted me permission to include the two photographs in this session. Their webpage is: www.forumancientcoins.com)

Forum Ancient Coins describes the Shekel above (which they have for sale) as an “Early Tyrian shekel” which was minted around 107-106 B.C.  According to Bressett,1 similar shekels were minted in the city of Tyre from 126 B.C. to 65 A.D.—a period of nearly 200 years, including the time of Jesus and his disciples.  Only an expert is likely to ascertain the precise date of each coin.

DOES THIS COIN DEPICT A HEATHEN GOD?

An occasional “scholar” has argued that these coins would not be acceptable in the Temple Treasury because they depict a heathen god on the front of the shekel.  Finding these coins “offensive and idolatrous” is a solid argument against using this coin for the Temple Treasury.  Additionally, there is general agreement that the image is not of Caesar (which we might expect) but the god Melqart who was the city-god of Tyre.2

While the argument may appear sound, the Jews did not mint coins of their own during this time period.  What were they supposed to use in place of the “heathen money?”  Furthermore, the Jews took Exodus 20:4 (“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” KJV) very seriously.  They couldn’t make their own coins with a “graven image” without causing offense of one kind or another; and if there was NO graven image, what were they going to make—metal slugs?

pastedGraphic_1.pngPicture, left, is of a later Tyrian Shekel, estimated from 63-64 A.D., a few years prior to the destruction of the Temple. The weight is 6.474 grams, and the diameter is 19.8 millimeters.   The back of the coin shows an eagle perched on the prow of a ship, the symbol for the harbor city of Tyre.

WHY WAS THE TYRIAN COIN SO IMPORTANT?

The offensiveness of this “graven image” of Melqart is overcome by the quality of the coin minted in Tyre, a quality unsurpassed by other mints throughout the empire.  Coins from the city of Tyre might be counted on to maintain a consistent size and to contain a purity of 95% to 97% silver.  It was this quality and value which directed the Jewish authorities to say “This coin for the Temple of God–and no other!”

But why was the quality at Tyre so much better?  It may have been the nature of the people who founded the city.  For centuries, Phoenicians had been traders!  Their travels took them far and wide to areas where money was often poorly made and of varying quality.  But if a Phoenician offered you coins from his mint in Tyre, over a period of time everyone began to learn that all sizes and types of their coins were the most reliable coins in the world.  These coins  were highly desirable and thus made Phoenicians a people with which everyone would do business.3

 “GRESHAM’S LAW” DOESN’T APPLY

Sir Thomas Gresham, the financial adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, proposed the law of economics which says “bad money drives out good money.”  If two coins of unequal quality are legal tender, over time the “good money” will be hoarded or exported and the cheaper money used.  But the high demand for Tyrian shekels at the Jerusalem Temple assured their continued manufacture and existence.  The Temple Tax in today’s dollars may have amounted to as much as $150-200 million each year!

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1  Bressett, Kenneth.  Money of the Bible, 2nd Edition.  Whitman Publishing Co., Atlanta, 2007. See page 34.

2  Melqart is likely to have been Baal or Báʿal (בַּעַל), often condemned in the Old Testament.  I Kings 16:30-33 tells us where “Baal worship” came from:  Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him. 31 He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him. 32 He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria. 33 Ahab also made an Asherah pole and did more to arouse the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than did all the kings of Israel before him.”  The “Sidonians” (people of the city of Sidon–of “Tyre and Sidon” fame) were Phoenicians.  Temples to their god Melqart have been found as far as Carthage, Spain and the Balearic Islands.  Melqart was probably a fertility god associated with Astarte, an ancient goddess worshiped throughout the Mediterranean.  Melqart is Phoenician for “King of the Earth”  (vs. what Jesus said to Pontius Pilate: “My Kingdom is not of this world.”)  Greeks identified the Phoenician god Melqart as their god Heracles (Roman version: Hercules).  Tyre and Sidon are ancient cities, but Tyre with its major seaport the more prominent city of the two.  From King David’s time onward, the Phoenicians were a powerful commercial trading force, gathering and warehousing in Tyre the products from all corners of the Mediterranean.  One of Tyre’s claims to fame is the production of purple dye, wildly expensive, and created from the very hard to find murex shellfish.  The color was called “Tyrian purple” and normally available only to kings and the very wealthy.

 3  I have not found anyone else proffering this suggestion, but it seems reasonable given the Phoenician reputation for commerce and trade. Bressett, op. cit., page 48 says “One must also bear in mind that coins at that time were usually traded by weight, with little regard for when or where they were made.”  The purity of Tyrian coins would make them highly unusual.