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XXI

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The Temple Tax

by J. Grande

According to the Mosaic law, every year, Jewish males over the age of 20, paid a half shekel tax in silver for the upkeep of the tent of meeting and later the Temple in Jerusalem.  In Exodus 30:13-16 we read:

“This is what all those who are registered will give: a half shekel by the standard shekel of the holy place. Twenty geʹrahs equal a shekel. A half shekel is the contribution to Jehovah. Everyone registered who is 20 years old and up will give Jehovah’s contribution. The rich should not give more and the poor should not give less than the half shekel as a contribution to Jehovah to make atonement for your lives. You are to take the silver money of the atonement from the Israelites and give it in behalf of the service of the tent of meeting, that it may serve as a remembrance before Jehovah for the Israelites, to make atonement for your lives.”

At this early period in mankind’s history there was no coinage.  In fact, even when the temple was constructed by Solomon there was no coinage as we would recognize it.  Coins, with symbols and values weren’t invented until 6th century BCE.  So how was the tax to be paid?

Originally a shekel was a unit of weight which equaled about 11.4g, although the weight fluctuated over time.  In Jeremiah 32:9 we are told that he “weighed out” the silver in order to purchase a field.  In 1 Samuel 9:8 we read that Saul has nothing to give as a gift to Samuel.  His attendant tells him he has “half a shekel of silver in my hand.”  So early on, silver was used to barter for goods and services and would have been loose nuggets or perhaps cast ingots.  An agreed upon set of weights would be used on a scale to ensure each party got what was agreed upon (Lev 19:36; Prov. 11:1).

By the 5th century BCE coins replaced these rough nuggets or ingots as currency.  Just like today, each coin contained symbols or marks of value that everyone understood and had confidence in.  When it came to paying the temple tax, the Talmud* required the money to be of high purity silver.  By the first century BCE, the silver coin that met that purity standard was the Phoenician tetradrachm of Tyre, also known as a shekel of Tyre.  Tyre also minted half and quarter shekels on the same standard.

But there was a problem.  The Tyrian shekel had pagan images on them.  Not only pagan images, but pagan gods.  On the obverse was a portrait of the patron god of the Phoenicians, Melkart.  He was the equivalent of the Roman Hercules.  On the reverse was an Eagle with the legend ΤΥΡΟΥ ΙΕΡΑΣ ΚΑΙ ΑΣΥΛΟΥ (of Tyre the holy and inviolable).   Clearly these coins went against God’s law on images (Exodus 20:4; Deut. 4:15-19) and yet this was the only currency acceptable for use at the temple.  This is why money changers were located in the temple, to exchange foreign currency into these acceptable shekels.  To get around this obstacle of pagan gods, the rabbis decided that it was more important to pay the tax at the right weight and purity regardless of what was depicted on the coin. 

In around 18 BCE Rome closed down the mint in Tyre, ending the supply of acceptable Tyrian shekels and half shekels.  It appears that a new mint was opened in or near Jerusalem which was given permission by Augustus to continue minting “Tyrian” coins that met the silver purity.  These coins, minted in Jerusalem, remarkably continued using the image of Melkart and the eagle.  They most likely kept these images because people from all over the Mediterranean recognized them as being acceptable at the temple and of high purity. These “Jerusalem” shekels can be distinguished from true Tyre shekels by the KP mint mark in the right field (thought to be short for Caesar in Greek) and by their crude style.  Many times, the obverse die (with Melkart) was over used and worn so that his image was not clear when struck on the coin.

This temple tax coin is referred to in Matthew 17:24. “After they arrived in Ca·perʹna·um, the men collecting the two drachmas tax approached Peter and said: “Does your teacher not pay the two drachmas tax?”

Two drachms were equal to a half shekel.  In verse 27, when Jesus tells Peter to pay the tax for both of them, it must have been a shekel (tetradrachm; 4 drachms) of Tyre.

These shekels of Tyre are also the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas Iscariot.  How do we know? At Matthew 26:15 it reads “What will you give me to betray him to you?” They stipulated to him 30 silver pieces.”  Then when Judas feels remorse and tries to give the money back, Matthew 27:3-8 says “So he threw the silver pieces into the temple and departed. Then he went off and hanged himself. But the chief priests took the silver pieces and said: “It is not lawful to put them into the sacred treasury, because they are the price of blood.” After consulting together, they used the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for strangers.”

The excuse given was that it was blood money, not that it didn’t meet the standard.  So, we can be confident that the 30 pieces of silver given to Judas was the Tyrian shekel. 

“Tyrian” shekels continued to be minted in or around Jerusalem right up until it was surrounded by Vespasian’s army.  The zealots who were trapped inside, then began striking new coins with new designs.  These coins had the image of a chalice with a beaded rim. In Hebrew it read “Shekel of Israel” and a date.  On the reverse "Jerusalem the Holy" with a sprig of three pomegranates.  They also started a new dating system beginning with “Year 1”.   Shekels and half shekels were struck many times right over earlier coins.   Once the temple was destroyed, there was no longer a need for Tyrian shekels and they were never minted again.

 

Tyre half shekel minted in Tyre

Laureate bust of Melkart right

ΤΥΡΟΥ ΙΕΡΑΣ ΚΑΙ ΑΣΥΛΟΥ (of Tyre the holy and inviolable)
Eagle standing left on prow; palm over shoulder, club to the left, flanked by date LM (40) and monogram Δ to the right.


Tyre; Year 40= 87/86 BCE
6.98g

Sear 5921; BMC 225

From the J. Grande Collection.

 

Tyre shekel minted in “Jerusalem”

Laureate bust of Melkart right, aegis draped about neck (very worn die)

ΤΥΡΟΥ ΙΕΡΑΣ ΚΑΙ ΑΣΥΛΟΥ (of Tyre the holy and inviolable)

Eagle standing left on prow; club before, flanked by date PM (140) and KP to right, above monogram.

KP Jerusalem mint

PM Year 140 (14/15 AD).

13.29g

Hendin 919, RPC 4655

From the J. Grande Collection


JUDAEA. First Jewish War

Omer Cup with pearled rim, "Year 2" in Hebrew above, "Shekel of Israel" in Hebrew around

Sprig of 3 pomegranates, "Jerusalem the Holy" in Hebrew around

Jerusalem

Year 2 (67/68 AD). 

13.17 gm

Hendin 1358

Forum Ancient Coins Photograph

*The Talmud is a collection of the teachings and opinions of thousands of rabbis (dating from before the Common Era through to the 5th century) on a variety of subjects, including ethics, philosophy, customs, history, lore and many other topics.