By Gordon Franz
“Does Your Teacher Not Pay the [Temple] Tax? ” (Mt 17:24-27)
Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “… in this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.” What was said in 1789 is still true today. Franklin, however, was not the first to address these issues. The Lord Jesus spoke of the certainty of death (Luke 12:20; cf. Heb. 9:27; James 4:14, 15) as well as the certainty of taxes. He addressed the issue of the civil tax to the Roman government (Matt. 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26) as well as the religious tax, called the Shekalim, paid to the Temple in Jerusalem (Matt. 17:24-27).
Matthew, the tax collector (Matt. 9:9-13; Mark 2:13-17; Luke 5:27-32), was employed by the Roman government to collect civil taxes. He is the only gospel writer to record the incident of the Temple tax.
This paper will explore several aspects of this saying. First, the saying will be put in its chronological setting. Second, the shekel will be examined in light of First Century Jewish use for the Temple tax. Third, fishhooks from the area of the Sea of Galilee will be analyzed. The kind of fish caught by Peter will be the next subject. Finally the purpose of this saying will round out our search.
The Chronological Setting
The Temple tax incident took place in Capernaum soon after the Transfiguration of the Lord Jesus on Mount Hermon. This event occurred in September of AD 29, right before Succoth (the Feast of Tabernacles). As the disciples walked back to Capernaum with the Lord Jesus, they engaged in a heated theological discussion among themselves, “Who is the greatest?” (Mark 9:33, 34). Before the Lord Jesus addressed that question, He demonstrated Biblical greatness by paying the Temple tax for Himself and Peter.
The Shekel ( Stater)
During the Second Temple period, the Temple institution collected a half- shekel tax annually. This tax was designated for the daily and Shabbat (festival) sacrifices, their libations, the omer, the two loaves of bread, the show bread, the communal sacrifices and other needs of the Temple ( Mishnah Shekalim 4:1-4). The rabbis linked the annual half- shekel tax to the half- shekel offering in the Pentateuch (Liver 1963: 184).
This half- shekel was mentioned in Exodus 30:11-16. There seems to be a hint in the Bible that this tax became a permanent institution during the First Temple Period (Je(ho)ash – II Kings 12:4, 16 // II Chron. 24:4-13; Josiah – II Kings 22:3-7 // II Chron. 34:8-14). The one-third shekel seems to be the Persian equivalent of the half- shekel (Nehemiah 10:33, 34). Josephus, the First Century AD Jewish historian, likewise understood the Temple tax to be the same as the one decreed by Moses in the wilderness ( Antiquities 3:193-196; LCL 4:409-411; 18:312-314; LCL 9:181).
A warning was given on the first day of Adar (around the month of March) that the half- shekel was due ( Mishnah Shekalim 1:1). On the 15th of the month, the tables were set up in the provinces in order to collect the tax.
One might assume, since Capernaum was a major Jewish center in Galilee that one of the tables was in that city. By the 25th of Adar, the tables were set up in the Temple ( Mishnah Shekalim 1:3). If one chose to pay the tax in the Temple, there were 13 shofar-chests in the Temple court which were used to collect different offerings ( Mishnah Shekalim 6:5). One was inscribed “New Shekel dues: which was for that year. Another was inscribed “Old [ shekel dues]” in order to collect the tax from the previous year if it had not been paid.
Every Jewish male, 20 years old and up, voluntarily paid this tax once a year. He was to pay the tax either in his province or in the Temple in Jerusalem ( Mishnah Shekalim 1:3). The tax was always paid in the Tyrian coinage ( Mishnah Bekhoroth 8:7; Babylonian Talmud Kiddushim 11b). These coins average 14.2 grams in weight and were minted with near pure silver.
Leo Kadman describes an important discovery relating to these Tyrian shekels. He reports: “In the spring of 1960, a hoard of about 4,500 ancient coins was discovered near Isfiya on Mount Carmel; 3,400 of the coins were Tyrian Shekels, about 1,000 Half-shekels, and 160 Roman Dinarii of Augustus. The Shekels and Half-shekels are dated from 40 B.C.E. to 52/53 C.E. … the bulk of them from 20-53 C.E. … In the middle of the first century C.E., there was only one purpose for which the exclusive use of Tyrian Shekels was prescribed: the Temple-Dues of half a Shekel, which every male Jew of 20 years of age and above had to pay yearly to the Temple in Jerusalem. … The disproportion between the 3,400 Shekels and the 1,000 Half-Shekels is to be understood from the prescription of the Mishnah that each payment of a Half-Shekel for one person was liable to an agio1 of 4-8%, while the payment of a Full-Shekel for two persons was exempt from the agio. … The 160 Dinarii exactly represents the agio of 8% on the 1,000 Half-Shekel found in the hoard (1962:9, 10).
This hoard of coins was probably from a community of 30,000 Jews living in Phoenicia. The coins were most likely hidden on Mount Carmel when the caravans realized they could not make it to Jerusalem in May AD 67, because the Romans controlled the road from Megiddo to Jerusalem (Kadman 1962:11).
Those in authority approached Peter in September of AD 29 to inquire if he and Jesus were going to pay their Temple tax for that year. Apparently, Jesus did not pay the Temple tax the previous spring because the only time He was in Capernaum before Passover was on Shabbat (John 6:4, 59). As an observant Jew, He would not have handled money on that day. The Temple tax from Mesopotamia was due in September for Succoth (Kadman 1962:11). Those who received the Temple tax in Capernaum probably wanted to send what they collected since Passover along with the caravans going up to Jerusalem for Succoth that year.
Only a few fishhooks have been discovered in archaeological excavations in the region of the Sea of Galilee. Two were found in the traditional “St. Peter’s House” in Capernaum (Corbo 1972:73, 74, fig. 26; 1975:83, photo 32). These fishhooks come from the destruction level of the fourth century structure and not the floor of the first century house. Most likely the hooks were placed there by pilgrims wanting to commemorate the event from the life of Peter (Taylor 1993: 278). Another fishhook, made of iron and measuring 2.5 inches long, was found at the site of et-Tell, identified by the excavators as Bethsaida (Kuhn and Arav 1991:102, 105, plate 1:13). The hook is most likely first century or earlier. However, in the first volume of the excavation report, there is no mention of this fishhook (Arav and Freund 1995:27, 28, Fig. 17, 244, 245).
A tourist visiting Israel usually has an obligatory fish dinner at one of the fish restaurants around the Sea of Galilee. The fish usually served, head and all, is called the “St. Peter’s” fish, known as the Musht (or “comb” in Arabic, for its long dorsal fin) fish. Sometimes a modern shekel coin is found in the mouth by someone in the tour group, usually one of the children. Of course, the waiter put it in the mouth!
Early Christian tradition says that the musht fish was the one caught with the hook by Peter (Sapir and Ne-eman 1967:7). One of its characteristics is that the mother fish carries the fertilized eggs in her mouth for three weeks until they hatch. For several days thereafter, the young fry swim near the mouth. Any sign of danger, the mother opens her mouth and the fry swim back inside the mouth for protection (Nun 1989:6, 7). This fish, the reasoning goes, has a big enough mouth to hold a shekel coin. The problem with this tradition is that the musht fish is a plankton eater and caught with a net and not a hook and line. The most likely reason this fish got the name “St. Peter’s” was because the local eating establishments, catering to the pilgrims to the Holy Land, found the name very marketable and good for tourism! (Nun 1989:46-48).
Only two other fish are possible, the catfish and the barbell fish. The catfish, a scavenger, is possible because it feeds off the bottom of the Lake, and thus could pick up the coin. It can also be seen along the rocky shore near ancient Capernaum. If it was the catfish, the reason Jesus instructed Peter to open the mouth of the fish (Matt. 17:17) was because it was non-kosher (it has no scales, Lev. 11:9-12) and would have been thrown back by the fisherman without even looking inside (Matt. 13:48).
Most likely, however, the fish caught by Peter was the Barbel fish. This fish, in the carp family, has barbs at the corner of its mouth, thus its name. It is a predator and “bottom feeder” and would go for a baited hook (Nun 1989:86). It is usually caught along the shore during the autumn (Dalman 1935:134), the chronological setting of this event.
The Purpose of This Incident
A lesson is most effectively taught if the teacher demonstrates the idea in a practical way. The Lord Jesus, the Master Teacher, demonstrated Biblical greatness before He answered the question put to Him by His disciples.
In His omniscience, Jesus knew of the conversation between Peter and the individuals who received the Temple tax. They asked if Jesus paid the tax or not. Peter answered in the affirmative. When Peter entered the house, Jesus put the question to Peter whether the sons of the kings or strangers paid taxes to kings of the earth. Peter correctly responded that the strangers did. Jesus reinforced this fact by stating that the sons were free. Not wanting to offend the tax collectors though, Jesus instructed Peter to cast a hook in the lake and take a shekel that would be found in the mouth of the fish and pay the Temple tax for Him and Peter. Why did He do this?
Jesus was demonstrating humility and servant hood, the true characteristic of Biblical greatness, to Peter and his fellow disciples (Mark 10:42-45). Jesus, following up on Peter’s great confession made at Caesarea Philippi (Matt. 16:15-17), was God manifest in human flesh (I Tim. 3:16 NKJV). He did not have to pay the Temple tax because in the analogy that He made to Peter, He was the king’s son. The Temple was His Father’s House and He was greater than that Temple (Matt. 12:6; Matt. 21:12, 13; Mark 11:17), yet He voluntarily, and in humility, paid the tax. What a lesson in humility!
Jesus demonstrated another principle of humility when He paid for Peter as well. He did not have to do this either, but He did. I suspect, but can not prove, that Jesus singled out Peter because he was full of pride after having seen the Transfiguration. I wonder if Peter was not the one who first raised the question, “Who is the greatest?” It is quite possible that this is the incident that the Apostle Paul had in mind when he described the humble “mind of Christ” when he wrote: “In lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 3:3, 4).
Jesus exemplified humility when He paid Peter’s tax as well. These words were penned in the context of the Lord Jesus humbling Himself by His death on the cross of Calvary (Phil. 2:1-11).
This event records the first time the disciples asked the question, “Who is the greatest?”, but it was not the last. On the way to Jerusalem for Passover in AD 30, they raised the question in Jericho (Matt. 20:20-28; Mark 10:35-45). Later, just before Passover, Jesus addressed the scribes and Pharisees on this issue (Matt. 23:11, 12). The disciples, however, still did not understand the answer to the question. At the Last Supper they were still arguing the question (Luke 22:24-30). Jesus again gave a practical demonstration of humility by washing the feet of His disciples (John 13:1-20).
These examples of humility finally broke through to Peter. Years later, as he reflected on them, he admonished his follow elders to … “shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, … [not] being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock (I Pet. 5:2, 3).
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1 An agio is a fee paid for exchanging money. One might call it a commission.