How Wealthy Was The Temple In The First Century?

When Jesus described the Temple as a “den of robbers,” he was attacking a healthy economic system that developed around the Temple in the first century. Josephus (Antiq. 14.105-109) reported that in 54 B.C. the Roman general Crassus raided the Temple, taking cash reserves weighing about 2000 talents (about 176,000 pounds or 80,000 kilograms, although the “low end” estimate for the value of a talent is a bit less, a total of 151,200 pounds!) Eleazar the priest attempted to give Crassus a gold bar worth tens of thousands of drachmas, but Crassus raided the sanctuary anyway. Most scholars consider these values exaggerated, but no one denies the Temple was very wealthy at the time. A second line of evidence is found in Cicero commenting on the amount of gold confiscated by the Romans in 62 B.C. From The Romans confiscated 220 Roman pounds (165 British pounds) from Apamea, Laodicea, and Adramyttium. Cicero says so much money was being sent out of the Roman provinces to Judea that the Jews in these regions are “impoverished.” This would not have been nearly all of the money being sent to the Temple, but only the money sent by the regions surrounding these three cities.

Jesus with a WhipThe Temple had significant expenses. This income was used to pay the priests and Levites as well as buy the supplies needed for the sacrificial system. The Temple needed a large supply of incense as well as cloth, cooking vessels, vessels for carrying blood, etc.  Small business owners of Jerusalem contracted with the Temple to supply these needs. The Temple also contributed to the local economy by having ongoing building projects right up to the time of the Jewish War. Josephus indicates that when the building on the Temple was finally completes just prior to the outbreak of war, 18,000 men were put out of work.

The sale of required animals for sacrifice was another major factor in the economy of the Temple, and the very practice attacked by Jesus.  While we know very little about the sale of birds and other animals in and around the Temple (Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 86 refers to Leviticus 22:17-15 and Philo, Spec. Laws 1.166),  we do know that most worshipers would not have brought the animal with them as the traveled for fear it might be injured on the trip and be rendered unclean (the animal must have no broken bones.) Most animals would therefore have been supplied locally and inspected for purity at the Temple itself. A worshiper may have bought an animal from an “authorized” seller on the Temple premises itself. If an animal was brought in from the outside, the gatekeepers (Levites) could have inspected the animal for defects and passed or rejected it before it was brought into the Temple courts.

Perhaps I am being cynical, but this amount of wealth moving through the Temple had to be a major contributing factor to maintaining the status quo in Jerusalem. Anyone attacking the Temple was threatening the economy of Jerusalem as well as the central symbol of Judaism. In what ways does Jesus challenge the wealth of the Temple?

16 thoughts on “How Wealthy Was The Temple In The First Century?

  1. “The temple was the center of Israel’s religious life” (Strauss 125). It was so important to the history of the Jewish people as well. Everyone knew the importance of the temple historically as it related to its job to host the ark of the covenant, and to make appropriate sacrifices. Solomon’s temple was destroyed in 587 BC , and Zurubbabel rebuilt it after the exile (Strauss 126). The people of Israel did all that they could to make sure that there was a sacred place of worship for the God of Israel. Through the centuries of the temple it gained wealth and it gained tradition. It was the epicenter to Jewish life, “it was also a center for judicial, religious, and community life” (Strauss 127).
    Jesus came and became very familiar with the temple from the beginning of his life. In Luke 2 while Jesus and his parents are in Jerusalem, Jesus stays back and hangs out in the temple instead of going home. He became accustomed to what happened, the good and the bad, in the temple. Later in His life he storms into the temple and turns over tables and is furious of what is happening in the temple in John 2:13-20. He tells everyone to get out of the temple, and then He goes on to explain that He is going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days. He challenged the wealth in his proclamation that He would destroy the temple and rebuild it.

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  2. Reading your blog on this topic has been eyeopening to the wealth that was truly a part of the Temple. It almost makes sense because of the amount of transactions that took place with the buying and selling of blameless animals. Not only that, but think of the wealth actually found in the structure of the Temple itself. Strauss, reflects on this when he quotes from Mark 13:1, of the Temple, “Look Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings.” But isn’t our God worthy of the wealth found in the Temple? Shouldn’t Jesus have commended the people for putting their wealth into something that was meant to glorify Him? After all, “not only the beauty but also the design of the temple was meant to reflect the holiness and majesty of God” (Strauss, 126). Perhaps, however, Jesus was more concerned with the hearts of the people in the Temple than the offerings they were bringing. Jesus knew the hearts of the money changers in Matthew 21:12, knowing that they were in love with money rather than the God of the universe. As a result, his justice drove against them and he overturned their tables to make an example of what the true purpose of the Temple was. Likewise, instead of seeking out the greatest offering, Jesus made an example of the offering brought from a pure heart in Mark 12:41-42. Jesus points out to the wealthy Temple goers the heart of the elderly woman who gave two small coins, which was all she had. The love of money, not money itself, is the root of all evil and that is what Jesus wanted to challenge in regards to the Temple.

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  3. Good subject to explore! After decades of studying the Bible, focused mostly on the NT and in recent years on the Gospels and Acts, I haven’t been able to get real clear exactly what Jesus did or what the intention was in the “cleansing of the Temple” incident. Mark makes it pretty apparent (more than Matt. or Luke) that it was a major disruptive incident that either the Temple police (Jewish) or the Roman soldiers (ultimately in control) could not let go “unpunished”. Mark indicates that at least a major portion of the vast temple area was under Jesus’ control, necessarily involving a good number of followers. It appears to have been Jesus’ most provocative act against the Temple “establishment” and what ultimately got him arrested.

    Whether that was his intention or not, it’s hard to tell. But it seems clear he was doing more than making a mere symbolic statement against the Temple system, visible to only those in the immediate vicinity. And being of peasant (or “working class”) upbringing far from Jerusalem or Judea, it makes sense he would have been sensitive to any exploitation going on, probably viewing it as a corruption of what God intended in a just and fair economic system, interwoven with that of the sacrificial system.

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    • The Temple Action has to be symbolic, since it is only a small portion of the Temple area that is effected (a corner of the court of the Gentiles?), and far away from where the priests were sacrificing. The economic system may be the main focus of the action, but really it is a commentary on the whole hierarchy of the Temple authority from the Hasmoneans on!

      I would suspect you would not particularly find the John version of the Action historical, since it is at the beginning of the ministry. Craig Blomberg suggested in his book on the Reliability of John that there were in fact two actions, and the earlier one took place as an economic protest over the relatively new practice of selling in the court of the Gentiles. I am not totally convinced there were two such actions, but it is at least a possibility.

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      • I somehow missed seeing this response yesterday. Right… I find it hard to take much of John as historical. I have limited direct exposure to Blomberg’s work. But from what I’ve seen and heard about him, he may represent a particularly strong “holdover” (from my perspective) of traditionalists who (while NOT Rom. Cath., ironically) base much on accepting traditions formed in the late 2nd to 4th centuries… the “need” to harmonize virtually everything of potential significance in the Gospels being one key feature.

        And yes, per the synoptics, it’s pretty hard to fit in an early, separate Action incident. If indeed Blomberg, recognized as exceptionally brilliant from what I hear, is still trying to harmonize everything, he’s being “too clever by half” and either his ego or something else is keeping blinders on him. (I tend to pay attention to particularly brilliant people, but I’ve found they are as prone to common perception and analysis distortions, to often unwarranted pre-suppositions, etc., as anyone else… and often able to defend such more cleverly, fooling a lot of less knowledgeable people.) I am discriminating in choosing the scholars I pay particular attention to (time is precious) and still weigh them one against another.

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      • I realize you may intend to develop this more later, but since we’re on it here: Is there wording somewhere (Synoptics) by which we can know “it is only a small portion… effected”? I know the entire courtyard area was vast, but none of the accounts seem to specify a section. Mark is the most detailed, both in pre and post setting and in the incident itself. (I believe it’s the oldest as well, and that Matt. and Luke probably purposely abbreviate from it or from a common source[s]). In Mark particularly, you hear of an incident, if symbolic, of such forceful symbolism (basically closing down all sacrifice-related commerce – 11:16 – for what reads like more than just a few minutes…. This would have required a LOT of bodies and/or coordinated verbal challenges… tho the accounts make clear SOME physical action was involved, at the least. This would certainly have provoked more of a reaction than “… began looking for a way to kill him” by chief priests, etc.

        Perhaps Mark (inadvertantly?) picks up another part of the story with ref. to “the insurrection” (KJV, or “uprising”, NIV) in which Barabbas was captured and in which at least 3 rebels (“them” plus Barabbas) committed murder in “the insurrection”. Luke adds that apparently the same insurrection was “in the city”. (I.e., not a “lestai” operation in a rural area… our English “thief” misleads re. the two crucified with Jesus actually being “lestai”, insurrectionists. Can such an insurrection have been more than days before the crucifixion? Not if I understand Roman “justice” and crowd control properly, or that of most any occupying force.)

        Why don’t any expository preachers ever (that I heard in literally thousands of sermons and teachings by such) explore these curiosities and “blank spots”, along with the confusion about armed resistance by the disciples, etc.? (I think I can answer that but won’t here.) No wonder books like “Zealot” (Aslan) are so intriguing to people, and so controversial.

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      • “Only a small portion” is an inference from the size of the court of the Gentiles and the fact Jesus acts alone. One man crying out in an area the size of a football field bustling with visitors and people selling animals for sacrifice. It might not be total chaos, but an action on one end of the plaza might go unnoticed on the other end.

        As Craig Evans says, “The temple precincts were (and the site still is) immense, running some 450 meters in length and approximately 300 meters in width,” (WBC 34B, 171). Even if he attacked some money-changers directly, “His actions were symbolic; he did not bring all trafficking to a standstill. But he did catch the attention of many, including the ruling priests” (181). Here I think Evans puts his finger on the issue, while Jesus was in Galilee he was just another peasant rabble-rouser. But now that he has starting flipping tables in Jerusalem, he must be dealt with as an insurrectionist (as you say!)

        Why don’t any expository preachers ever explore these curiosities? No time for in-depth preparation? Laziness? Sometimes good scholarship ruins a great sermon? I really do not know. What I have experienced is an overwhelming acceptance of my teaching in a local church when I do dig into cultural and historical details that really illuminate the text. Possible some preachers to not care to dig beneath the surface (but this one does!)

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  4. When Jesus described the temple as a “den of robbers”, he was showing his disgrace with the lack of purpose and focus that was the true intent of the temple. Scripture says, “Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” He said to them, “ ‘My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it ‘a den of robbers” (Matthew 21:12-13). Jesus overturned the tables which is sometimes alluded to a “righteous zeal”, but by doing this Jesus showed his frustration with the state of the temple because they were treating the temple more like a business rather than a place of prayer and worship. I have no problem with agreeing that the temple was an economic staple at the time, but it was not giving glory to God in the right way. At this point, the temple was seen more as a business than a place of worship, and the focus of it had been lost in wealth and greed. At first sight, this seems like this doesn’t relate to us because animal sacrifice isn’t as popular now as it was in Jesus’ time. But this same principal is found everywhere in our world today. For example, many churches have lost their focus of what a place of worship should be and have turned it into a business where money is the goal. I think every church should see itself as a business to some extent in order to be good stewards of their finances so they can continue to operate. If the financial position of a church is ignored or neglected, the church could easily lose its capital and ultimately die off. But when the main focus is lost and it is transitioned into making money, they are no longer glorifying God. So by Jesus taking a stand in one of the most financially prevalent areas of the time, he was showing the loss of focus and purpose of the temple and ultimately the places of worship we have today.

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  5. It’s incredible to me how much the temple regulated in order to make sure that not only the Mosaic Law was followed, but also the traditions of the day. I agree that it does seem like an awful lot of cash flow going through one system and the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:10). This would no doubt have been a temptation to all in charge of the “worship” of the temple. But it seems the people in charge of regulating what went on in the temple were also tempted to succumb to the temptation of convenience in worship. Providing animals that could be bought on site at the temple so that fulfilling the law was easier was probably another point that caused such apathy in the people at the time of Jesus. If worship is not a sacrifice, it isn’t worship. As soon as it’s convenient it loses its meaning to us.

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    • Jessica makes a good point to say that the money was probably a distraction from actual worship in the temple. Tradition was very important to the law of the time, in Strauss and the book of Luke we see Jesus being brought to the temple as a boy to engage in purification rites. Although it seems that Jesus’ ministry focused more on matters of the heart rather than rituals Jesus still followed the laws as they were holy and spiritual. We know that Jesus thought of the Temple as very holy and spiritual and wanted it to hold respect. It seems that the money may have taken over the purpose of the temple and the purpose of worshipping. These people would have been a lot like the Pharisees in that they paid too much attention to the outward appearance and pride, and not enough to spiritual matters. A lot of Jesus’ ministry involved correcting this mindset and getting the people to focus on eternal things. Even today this could be a valuable lesson, because many times the modern church loses sight and focuses too much on insignificant drama as opposed to focusing on God’s Kingdom.

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  6. If anybody is yet reading this post, I want to reiterate: There is no substitute for reading the text closely and in context (including a whole Gospel) on any given issue, including and especially one as important as the “cleansing of the Temple”. And also reading a given event in comparison to accounts in other Gospels… which are not always able to be “harmonized”, tough as that is to accept for some.

    In this case, the cleansing of the Temple — one way or another at the core of Jesus’ message — don’t skip looking closely at the account in Mark. And particularly, try to fully grasp what is claimed in 11:15-16…. Combine that situation with some understanding of what Phillip has presented and what the physical structure and size of the Temple and its courts were. It opens some very interesting and puzzling questions… “clues” that are important, though what they imply is not immediately obvious and remains somewhat clouded in mystery.

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    • Obviously I agree with you about close reading of the text in context, and that context includes culture, sociology and political factors, etc. I will eventually get to the Temple Action, but I will suggest the larger context is the triumphal entry (11:1-11) followed by a “Markan Sandwich” the curse of the fig tree (11:12-14, 11:20) framing the Temple Action. While I will try to give more details later, the key to understanding the Temple Action is the framing parabolic miracle. Jesus came to a tree expecting fruit, it had none, so it was cursed until the end of the age. The Fig Tree is Israel, or at least the current aristocratic temple authority.

      As I said, more later!

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  7. When Jesus went into the temple and flipped tables, he was obviously showing that the temple was being used for something it was not originally intended to be used for. It was originally made to be used to worship the Lord and as a place of sacrifice only, but over time it was turned into a place of business which could also be used for worship.
    This is what the temple had turned into and this was Jesus’ response to it. “The central symbol of the national life was under threat, and unless Israel repented it would fall to the pagans”(Wright 65).
    At this point during the development of the temple and what it had turned into, the only way Jesus would be able to get the attention of the people is if He made a scene that ruffled as many feathers as it did. Because the temple was so central to the people of Jerusalem, the only way someone could challenge the masses would be to do it in the temple cause the people are always there. Plus, during this time, there were so many people in Jerusalem that no matter what time he did it, there would be a large amount of people there.

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