Richardson, Peter. “Why Turn the Tables? Jesus’ Protest in the Temple Precincts.” In Society of Biblical Literature 1992 Seminar Papers, edited by E. H. Lovering, 507-23. Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers 31. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992. Also in Building Jewish in the Roman East, 241-51. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2004. [Israel/Herod]
In March of 4 BCE, two Jewish men removed a Roman eagle from he gate of Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem and were burned alive in Jericho by Herod for their trouble. Author Peter Richardson argues in this paper that a similar zeal for the sanctity and purity of the Temple motivated Jesus’ action, noted in all four Gospels and called the “cleansing” of the temple. For Richardson it was not a formal cleansing. He maintains that two innovations in the second Temple Period regarding the Temple tax were important factors in igniting the ire of Jesus.
He begins with an assessment of three early Christian and six modern interpretations of the temple “cleansing” and finds that each failed to produce “a sound social-historical background” of the story. (p. 244) To fill the gap he turns to the paying of the temple tax or dues, as the correct background of the episode.
The Old Testament book of Exodus specified that Moses was to take a census of Israel and those males over twenty years of age were to pay a “half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary” as an offering to the Lord. (Ex. 30:11-16, and 38:25-26) The money was not for the priests but for the service of the sanctuary. In the days of Nehemiah in the post-exilic Second Temple, the assessment was to be yearly and was to be one-third of a shekel. (Neh. 10:32-33) Theses passages do not specify the payment should be in sliver, though the phrase “after the shekel of the sanctuary” may imply that because other assessments in Exodus were to be made in silver.
By the Second Temple period two innovations were in effect regarding the tax. First, the half-shekel was to be paid via the Tyrian silver shekel as specified by a number of passages in the Mishnah. In some regards the Jews were in a bind over the Tyrian shekel because they were not allowed to mint coins themselves and Roman coins were considered even worse than the Tyrian shekel. Interestingly, during the Revolt of 167 BCE, the Hasmoneans immediately printed a silver shekel with the image of the temple in the place of Melkart.
The second innovation concerned the frequency of the payment. Exodus did not specify the frequency, but Nehemiah charged his people to do so annually and it is generally thought he did so because this was the practice back to the time of Moses. However, there was resistence to this in some quarters, especially in the Qumran Community who argued that the tax should only be paid once, for life. Richardson concludes that both innovations “could be thought to be relatively recent and both equally unacceptable” to Jesus and some other Jews. (p. 248)
In an extensive analysis, Richardson shows why the Tyrian shekel was particularly onerous. It was the only acceptable coin with which to pay the tax because it was convenient and of high quality silver and it was not politically charged. So moneychaners were required to convert various currencies into the Tyrian shekel.
The problem was that the shekel had the image of the Tyrian god Melkart (Heracles) on one side and an inscription on the other which read: “Tyre the holy and inviolable” on it. Richardson argues that this was a double offence to Jesus. First, it violated two provisions of the Decalogue; those against making images and of idolatry. Second, it spoke of the pagan city of Tyre as holy and for Jesus true holiness lay in the sacred space of the Temple in the city of Jerusalem.
Richardson concludes the essay with an assessment of the episodes involving Jesus and Peter paying the temple tax (Mt. 17:24-27), and the tribute to Rome (Mk. 12:13-17) and concludes that the primary issue of these episodes is the imagery on the coins, because that imagery entails ownership. Therefore, it was making an offering to a pagan god in the Temple of Yahweh. The issue was the sanctity and holiness of the temple. (p. 250) The Jewish leadership of the temple were complicit in the changes which brought about these two violations of the commandments and accepting a coin that by implication rivaled Jerusalem and its temple, thus making the Temple a “den of thieves.” Richardson concludes that Jesus did not want to do away with the temple or replace it. His action was that of “a reformer’s anger at recognition of other gods.” (p. 251)