Sunday, April 19, 2015

Jesus and the Temple Tax

The Temple incident portrays Jesus as deeply upset with the Temple's administration, but it is not clear - as I discuss in my book, Jesus and the Temple - why Jesus was upset or why Jesus offended. Biblical scholars have developed a remarkable number of possible explanations for this and many surmise that Jesus was offended by corruption in the Temple. It is not difficult to envision a pious and passionate Jesus offended by over-commercialization in the house of God.

It seems fitting, therefore, to consider whether economic motives and implications lay behind Jesus’ action in the Temple and a high priestly plot against him. Some scholars have suggested that Jesus objected to the annual half-shekel Temple tax (Exod 30:13) required of all Jews. The Qumran community, in particular, opposed the annual collection of the tax, holding that the tax should only be paid once, when a man reached the age of 20 (4Q159). Did Jesus also object to the annual collection of the tax? 

Alternatively, it has been suggested that Jesus objected to the pagan iconography of the Tyrian shekel, but there is no evidence to support this theory. Some scholars have suggested that Jesus thought that he was above paying the tax because some priests were exempt (m. Sheqalim 1.4), but Jesus never claims to be a priest exempt from the tax. Other suggestions include Jesus rejecting the idea that the poor should have to pay the tax, Jesus thinking that sacrifices should be paid for by everyone through the tax, and Jesus rejecting the tax as being equivalent to his rejection of the Temple.

Many scholars focus on the money-changers and the surcharge added for the service of exchanging local coins for the Tyrian shekel, but the money-changers were a practical necessity. They exchanged foreign monies into the silver coinage of Tyre. So there does not seem to be anything particularly scandalous about a “surcharge” being added as part of an officially sanctioned economic transaction so that people could purchase sacrificial items. We never hear anything in the Gospels about Jesus objecting to the surcharge.

So what's the deal? There is only one passage in the New Testament that explicitly mentions the Temple tax (Matt 17:24-27), and here Jesus is depicted as dutifully paying it. What does this mean? The fact that the Temple tax is only mentioned in Matthew is curious, especially if we recall that Matthew is widely seen as the most "Jewish" of the Gospels. Here Jesus is portrayed as a faithful Jew who observes the Torah and endorses the Temple. Matthew's Gospel, after all, portrays Jesus as having a positive view of the Temple as illustrated in sayings about leaving a gift at the altar (4:23-24) and swearing by the Temple (23:16-22). Should we take Matthew at face value?

The Gospel of Matthew may affirm Jesus' Jewishness, but it also portrays him as rejected by his contemporaries. This Gospel contains some of the most polemical and hostile rhetorical attacks on Jews in the New Testament (Matt 27:25). According to Matthew, Jesus suggests that he should be exempt from payment, but pays the tax so as not to cause offense. But even the way that Jesus produces the tax - by "miraculously" instructing Peter to retrieve it from a fish's mouth - seems suspect. Many scholars regard this as a late saying and inauthentic. The Jesus Seminar, for example, dismisses this passage (Matt 17:24-27) as redactional. Moreover, it is Matthew 26:14-15 - and only Matthew - that identifies how Judas betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. This is the only Gospel that contains this prophetic reference (Zech 11:12-13; cf. Exod 21:32), signifying that Judas' blood-payment probably consisted of Tyrian shekels taken from the Temple's treasury - further implicating the high priests in Jesus' death.

The relationship between Jesus and the Temple is complicated. There does not seem to be any reason to think that Jesus objected to paying the Temple tax, despite how Matthew implies that Jesus shouldn't have had to. Matthew, like Mark, carefully safeguards Jesus against this charge of politico-economic sedition, but as I discuss in Jesus and the Temple, there may be other reasons for Jesus' disagreements with the Temple's administration.