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!).
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.