Why Were There Money Changers in the Temple?

All Jewish men over the age of 20 were required to pat a half-shekel tax to the Temple by the 25th of Adar.  “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 (m. Shekalim 6: 5). One was inscribed ‘New shekel dues’ which was for that year” (Franz, 82; cf., Köstenberger, John, 105).

m.Seqal 1.3  On the fifteenth of that same month [Adar] they set up money changers’ tables in the provinces. On the twenty-fifth [of Adar] they set them up in the Temple. Once they were set up in the Temple, they began to exact pledges [from those who had not paid the tax in specie]. (Tr. Neusner, The Mishnah, 252).

Moneychangers were required because the half-shekel Temple Tax had to be paid with a Tyrian tetradrachma. Many popular preachers will explain this money exchange by observing that the Tyrian coin did not have the image of a Roman emperor who claimed to be God on it, making it more acceptable for the Jewish Temple tax (virtually every commentary says this!).

Temple Tax

But Jerome Murphy-O’Connor has disputed this majority opinion by pointing out that the Tyrian coin used an image of the god Melkart (Herakles).  Melkart (“King of the city”) was more or less equivalent to Baal of the Hebrew Bible. The coin was replaced during the revolt against Rome by the Judean shekel, indicating the rebels thought the coin was offensive.

Perhaps there was a more practical reason coins were exchanged for Tyrian tetradrachma: this coin had a higher silver content than other coins (Carson, John, 178). According to Franz, “These coins average 14.2 gm in weight and were minted with good silver” (82).

Why then does Jesus attack these sellers and money-changers? As I observed in a previous post, most people assume the vendors were making an outrageous profit by selling in the Temple. Popular preachers often use the analogy of vendors at an airport or sports arena. Since they had a captive market, they were free to price-gouge on sacrifice prices. But as Carson says with reference to the Temple Incident in John’s Gospel, “there is no evidence that the animal merchants and money-changers or the priestly authorities who allowed them to use the outer court were corrupt companions in graft” (John, 179).

Since this exchange of coins was restricted to the outer courts, Köstenberger suggests the main point of Jesus’ attack is that the sellers are taking up the area of the Temple where the Gentiles are permitted to worship (John, 106). I am not sure how many Gentiles actually came to Passover to worship and it is not certain the money changers and animal vendors took up the entire area.

But it is true the coin exchange (in order to obtain the best silver) and any profit on the animals sold was not the purpose of the Temple in the first place. Even if the vendors were providing a useful service for worshipers, they distracted from the real point of the Temple. “These activities would have detracted. . . from the proper function of the temple as a house of prayer for all nations” (Smith, 267).

How does this historical background help shed some light on Jesus’ intentions in the Temple Action? What is his symbolic action saying about the worship in the Temple?

Bibliography: Gordon Franz, “‘Does Your Teacher Not Pay The [Temple] Tax?’ (Mt 17:24-27),” Bible and Spade (1997) 10 (1997): 81-89. Barry D. Smith, “Objections to the Authenticity of Mark 11:17 Reconsidered,” WTJ 54 (1992): 267-71.

24 thoughts on “Why Were There Money Changers in the Temple?

  1. There is a lot that can be taken from Jesus’ righteous zeal and the events at the Temple. There could be many different reasons why Jesus attacked these sellers and money-changers. But I think the core reason why Jesus attacked these sellers is because of the misuse of the Temple where they should have been worshiping God, not money. There are so many passages that talk about the dangers of money, and for it to be misused so much in the Temple, it was disgraceful. An example of this can be seen in Matthew 6:25: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (NIV). After learning about the historical background of the money-changers, it does add a different aspect to Jesus’ intentions. It changes the context if the coins had other pictures of their gods on them. “Tyrian coin used an image of the god Melkart (Herakles). Melkart (“King of the city”) was more or less equivalent to Baal of the Hebrew Bible” (P.Long). If this is true, Jesus’ intentions were to show the people that they should worship God, and God only. I think this event was much more intensified because it took place in the Temple of God where worship was meant to be happening

  2. Matthew 6:24 says, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve BOTH God and money.” I think this is exactly why Jesus attacked the money changers and sellers. Jesus noticed that they were misusing their money and where not using the temple for the right reasons. Also, the images used on the face of the coins were images of other Gods. As P. Long said, “Tyrian coin used an image of the god Melkart (Herakles). Melkart (“King of the city”) was more or less equivalent to Baal of the Hebrew Bible.” Seeing these coins traded in the temple did not make Jesus happy and made sure to make people know that the temple was for worshiping and not for money and greed.

  3. Jesus’ intentions in the temple incident were clearly out of righteous manners. It is interesting to see that it was not uncommon nor shocking to have vendors in the temple. It shows how important temple rules were for all of them. They couldn’t even tithe with the money they were paid with, which was the main reason for the vendors. I think that Travis is right on point about the reason Jesus was so frustrated with the vendors was not for the profit that they were making but the fact that it could easily enhance the idea of money being a god. The fact that there was to be only one god was so prevalent to the Jews at this time which is more of the reason Jesus was upset. “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3).

  4. I wonder if the whole system of paying for an animal made it overtly too easy to fulfil the letter of the law. And instead of the temple being a place filled with prayerful and heartful worship; the system created a more casual attitude towards the tradition?

  5. I think what the action symbolizes is that the heart was not for worshipping God at all, but for making more money. It is interesting to know that the intention of the Temple in the first place was not to be a coin exchange and the profits were not either, I think we can all realize that.

  6. I agree that by selling animals in the temple it was taking away from the purpose of the temple, using it for worship. The temple was made to worship God, and using it for other things, especially as a market place may have seemed wrong in this day. I agree with Cody saying that the people were making money their master over the one true God. It is not necessarily the fact that they were selling anything but the idea that they were not doing it for Godly purposes and were letting money dictate them. It is obvious that selling things in general would not be wrong, even doing it in the temple, but the people’s hearts seemed to be selfish and their priorities were not straight. Luke 19:46 says. “He said to them, ‘The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be a house of prayer,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves.”’ The temple was not being used as it was intended and it was being used by dishonorable people.

  7. I think the Smith quote that says selling anywhere in the Temple would be distracting to the purpose of worship is Jesus’ main point. The same could basically be said about a church today. It’s not necessarily a sin to sell something inside a church, but it is a distraction to the purpose of the church-worship, fellowship, prayer, etc. These sellers may not have been “sinning”, but they were being distracting, if nothing else. I think it was Jesus’ intention to point this out, and I think it is a simple one.

  8. This is really interesting. If the money changers were in fact taking the space reserved for Gentiles to worship, then would that mean that Jesus’ actions were actually symbolically proclaiming that he came to bring salvation to both the Jews and the Gentiles? He could be making a point that it is just as important that Gentiles worship God since Jesus came to bring salvation to both. I know that, according to Strauss, it was one of Jesus’ messianic aims to bring salvation to both Jew and Gentile (Strauss 489). Although in that chapter of Strauss, he talks about Jesus cleansing the temple and bringing salvation to both Jew and Gentile, yet does not make the connection that these could be related.

  9. I was very intrigued when you presented a different argument behind why there were money changers in the first place. I had always heard the argument that the Roman coins couldn’t be used due to the image of the godlike emperor. Yet this argument doesn’t make much sense if, like you said, the new coins also had a false godlike image. The argument of the silver content seems much more compelling to me, and also makes more sense given the severity of Jesus’ actions. In this context, the money changers would be converting the currency, likely making a profit off the top, however small, and the Temple (which was already quite wealthy) would be receiving coins that were inherently more valuable. The benefit was not to the worshippers themselves but to the money changers and the Temple. All this was at the expense of the worshippers, who were not only being charged extra for no reason, but also had to deal with the physical and spiritual disruption of having commerce take place in the Temple courts. Jesus was likely not too keen on the Temple having this tax at all (Matthew 17:24-27 demonstrates His attitude toward this), but was more upset at the completely unnecessary distraction from worship – the very purpose of the Temple.

  10. I think that probably the most significant point of Jesus clearing out the temple is the fact that it is a distraction. The point of the temple was entirely to worship God, and the fact that there were money changers and vendors crowding around the entrance was completely distracting from this. While the money changing and the selling may have been convenient, and may not have been a sinful thing, it was getting in the way of the Temple in a couple of ways. First, it was simply a visual distraction. When a person walked into the temple, it seems that they would have had to walk through all of these people crowded around the vendors and money changers, which would obviously have been incredibly frustrating. Second, it created a distracting environment, emotionally for people. The temple was supposed to be a place specifically set aside for worshiping. The problem here is that, i assume, the people around the money changers, as well as the animals, were not trying with all their might to be quiet, and as such it was a very noisy entrance into the temple, which creates tension for a person to quiet their heart, and mind; in order to focus on God.

  11. Phillip, you seem to be insisting on Jesus’ Temple action as symbolic. I realize that may fit best with traditional views based on the agenda (care to distance Jesus-followers from the Jewish rebels – Zealots, mainly – who had caused the horrendous war and destruction of the city and Temple) of the Evangelists. But, a turn was taking place by the time of Schweitzer’s first (1906, Eng.) book on the historical Jesus, and growing since, especially since the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the last 50 (+/-) years a growing number of scholars (only a few of whom I’ve read extensively) is seeing “behind” the major historical re-writes of the Gospels, in terms of Jesus’ mission and the beliefs and practices of his immediate disciples after his death (as you know… background for other readers).

    More deeply understood, Kingdom of God activism and the widespread hatred of Roman occupation (like Seleucid before it), lets us see Jesus in that line quite solidly, and his arrest and execution as clearly for sedition against Rome, whatever exact form his resistance and agitation took…. To me, even the Gospel record preserves the reality that it did involve force and included armed, resisting supporters (Luke, and 1 or more of the other gospels report this). So, even if symbolic in nature, the “cleansing” was intended to lead ultimately to God’s intervention to bring in the Kingdom (a spiritual one only as accompanied by the earthly freedom of Israel).

    We can and should draw spiritual lessons, including the value of loving one’s enemies, etc., from the Gospels, but not at the expense of looking open-eyed and clearly at the actual history…. Evangelicals are especially concerned with the historicity of the Bible, so that must include critical issues like this.

    • I think Jesus really did some kind of protest against the Temple, and the action was laced with religious and political overtones – hence symbolic. This is similar to my (not very uncommon) view of the feeding of the 5000, Jesus is evoking wilderness images in order to create a new Israel around himself. The temple action is like Jeremiah 7, a prophetic condemnation of the Temple as empty worship by corrupted priests, etc. Equally radical (IMHO) is Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors, sharing food with the unclean. That open attitude toward the sinner challenged the pharisees and created the atmosphere that would eventually result in his execution.

  12. I have sat under many different preachers who demand money and tell people they are going to hell because they can’t pay their tithes. The tithe was an animal sacrifice, not money, and I believe the Pharisees had set up these tables to tell the people their sacrifices were not without blemishes and they would have to purchase an animal from them instead, thus making the Pharisees rich so they could enlarge the borders of their garments to show how rich they had become. They were scamming the poor people like the widow with only 2 mites to give. She was not aware that she was giving to the Pharisees who had gained control of the Temple. I believe this is why Jesus destroyed the Temple. If I had not become poor because of my husbands bad health I may have never noticed that some preachers today are also becoming rich off the people and even demanding the widow’s mite as well to go on fancy trips and live the high life!

    • Actually in Exodus 30:13-16 God actually did tell them to give a money offering. There are many other scriptures that tell us to give to God. I am a pastor and know many others that work a secular job just to make ends meet. I don’t know any that are are even close to be considered rich.

      • There are far more pastors working hard at several jobs in order to shepherd small congregations than pastors in massive (profitable) churches. Unfortunately, it is the mega-church rock star pastor that gets all the headlines! You are pastoring the church the way Paul and the other early church leaders did!

  13. I think the woman who cast her last mite gives us the best insight into Jesus anger at the temple. His family were poor travelers and Jesus understood he pain of poverty. God hates unjust weights and measures. But made allowance to give to Ceaser what is Ceaser’s. The “purity of the temple” argument doesn’t sound like Jesus, who often looked passed sins of temptation (he ate with adulterers, prostitutes and tax collectors), but railed against extortion, (Corban before family care, etc.), My belief is that the temple coins were being debased, robbing the poor of their means to sacrifice before God as a sign of their trust. Jesus said that the love of money is the root of all evil, and history showed him true, as almost all suffering and war has risen out of economic devastation due to the use unequal weights and measures.

  14. I like Köstenberger’s reading that suggests that the moneychangers were operating in the part of the Temple reserved for gentiles since it gets at a fundamental tension running between traditional Judaism and Christianity and comes out in other elements of this narrative. The shekel offering is both a method of counting the Jewish people (emphasizing their cohesion/uniqueness), and a way to allow them to all equally (as Jews) participate in the upkeep and offering of the Temple. The Temple was a particularistic institution at heart that made limited gestures toward universalism (by allowing gentiles to bring offerings, creating a physical space for them, etc). Jesus preached a more universalistic message, especially later on when his movement stopped preaching exclusively to the Jews and began to focus primarily on gentiles. Instead of being an antisemitic story about Jewish avarice it really can appear to be a story about the tensions between universalism and particularism that continue to resonate until today.

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