The coin in the fish’s mouth.
April 14th, 2003
Received by H.
Monday of the Passover, my dear brother: I will deal with a subject that has only remotely to do with Passover. I will answer the question that you have thought about so much lately.
[H.: You are referring to the coin in the fish’s mouth?]
Exactly. Insert here the text as it is found in the Bible. (Matthew 17:24-27)
Then when they arrived at Capernaum the Temple tax-collectors came up and said to Peter, “Your master doesn’t pay Temple-tax, we presume?”
“Oh, yes, he does!” replied Peter.
Later when he went into the house Jesus anticipated what he was going to say. “What do you think, Simon?” he said. “Whom do the kings of this world get their rates and taxes from - their own people or from others?”
“From others,” replied Peter.
“Then the family is exempt,” Jesus told him. “Yet we don’t want to give offence to these people, so go down to the lake and throw in your hook. Take the first fish that bites, open his mouth and you’ll find a coin. Take that and give it to them, for both of us.”
As you know very well, every Jew, every Israelite male, when they had reached the age of twenty, had the obligation of paying an annual tribute of half a silver shekel to the Temple in Jerusalem. Samaritans and Gentiles were exempted from this contribution, but they could give voluntary donations.
[H.: Which never happened, I suppose.]
Be careful with your judgment, my dear friend. I know that it sounds absurd that someone would pay a tax voluntarily. But you should perhaps consider it simply as a religious contribution. You have read that there was an enormous mass of people, all over the Roman Empire, who followed the religious practices of the Jews without being Jewish. They refused to accept circumcision, and so they were, for this very reason, excluded from the Jewish community properly spoken. But they participated in the synagogues. These Gentiles who did not take this last step to their integration into the Jewish religion, that is to say, those who were not circumcised, were called “God-fearers.” Those who underwent all rites of integration, including circumcision, were called proselytes. They really became Jews, according to the law, and they had access to all parts of the Temple held in reserve exclusively for Jews. The God-fearers, on the other hand, continued to be Gentiles according to the law.
But returning to the subject of my discourse: When I say the obligation of the tribute payment, I mean that there was a law in this respect. This was not so during all of Israel’s history; but many years before Jesus was born, and when the Pharisees exercised great influence over Jewish politics — more so than the Sadducees did — this formalistic and legalistic sect managed to persuade the authorities to issue a law that made this tax payment compulsory. They based this demand on the Hebrew Sacred Scriptures. Actually, there was hardly any pertinent legal base in those writings, but the Pharisees skillfully came up with a convenient interpretation.
Tax collection did not create a problem in Jerusalem itself. But you know that a large part of the Jews, even the majority of them, lived outside of Palestine, in places like Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, and in the remote Babylon. This last region did not even belong to the Roman Empire during Jesus’ earthly life, but was rather under Parthian control, the sworn enemies of the Romans.
But the Pharisees had also come up with an ingenious system to collect the money: Every year, at the beginning of the month that preceded the Passover feast, special emissaries of the Temple announced to all Jewish communities inside and outside of the Roman Empire that the time for paying the tax was approaching. They traveled through all the Jewish villages and neighborhoods of the big cities. They spoke before the congregations in the synagogues, and doing so, they were able to reach all Jews and they exhorted them to meet their obligation.
Then, by the middle of that same month, they put up their tables right in the Jewish centers, in the markets, in front of the synagogues, in the ports, in every place they considered to be a good location for cashing in the money. Of course, this work was so huge that the emissaries could not carry it out alone. Therefore, each community helped with people recognized for their honesty and who volunteered as tax collectors during ten days. After this period, it was no longer possible to pay the tax outside of the Temple district.
In Jerusalem and in adjacent regions the collected money was delivered daily to the Temple. In distant areas this was not possible, of course. There the Jews installed centers for depositing the money — habitually in the home of a community dignitary— and when the tax campaign had concluded, the tax money was shipped to Palestine. During the final days of the month of Adar and the first days of the month of Nissan, in late winter and early spring, caravans and vessels carried the revenues to Jerusalem. Of course, heavily armed soldiers or guards secured all these transports. Highwaymen and pirates abounded.
[H.: How much money did these Temple revenues amount to?]
I cannot tell you the exact amount.
[H.: But approximately.]
Well, they will have added up to some 30 metric tons of silver per year in my time.
[H.: Wow! Sounds like an enormous sum!]
Indeed. The value of silver then was much higher than it is today. As a matter of fact, it was the sum I have just mentioned and somewhat more. I will explain this shortly.
Every Jewish male of twenty years of age or older had to pay half a shekel. This amount is equal to two Roman denarii or two Greek drachmas. In other words, it was equal to two-days’ salary of a peasant worker. This was not much, of course, but you must consider that people, the Jews, had to pay this tax in addition to the other imperial taxes. However, generally they did so without offering resistance. But if one or other individual refused to obey, the Jewish authorities had the legal mechanism — thanks to the Pharisees — to obtain the payment by force. But it was rarely necessary to apply coercion. If a Jew did not pay voluntarily, it meant his marginalization in society, that is to say, he became a pariah in the community where he lived: Undoubtedly, this was not a pleasant prospect.
Now, the story in Matthew does contain a grain of truth. During all his adult life, Jesus likewise had paid the tribute for the Temple as all other Jews did. But when he had been already preaching a couple of years, it became very obvious that there were strong tensions between Jesus and the Jewish religious authorities. This is the reason why the collectors, when they put up their small folding table and their scales...
Yes. Nowadays, many central banks keep gold in their vaults to sustain and back the value of circulating money, which in bulk is just paper. But then, coins carried their own value in form of metal — gold and silver, and even copper. Their weight and their alloy determined their commercial value. A Roman denarius weighed a little less than 4 grams, the Tyrean shekel weighed four times more. Therefore, it was calculated that half a shekel was equivalent to approximately two denarii. Unfortunately, the bankers, merchants, and tax collectors used to cheat on people.
[H.: Well, they still do...]
It was not my intention to allude to anything. In those times, they often chipped off parts of the coins’ rim, reducing their weight. Then, they used the denarii they had damaged in this fashion to pay their employees or for commercial transactions. But when people came to pay their taxes, the collectors determined scrupulously the weight of the coins and they recharged any missing weight. This is why they carried scales with them.
Besides — and now I am going to answer the above question with respect to this “somewhat more” that was collected — the Temple only accepted those Tyrean coins, the silver shekels. If somebody wished to pay with other coins — and the vast majority did so — the tax collectors changed them, but they charged for the service: a quarter of a denarius for half a silver shekel. Now calculate: Half a silver shekel was worth 2 denarii. They charged a quarter of a denarius (or 4 copper ases) for the change.
In other words, they collected one eighth in addition to the tax. Some did pay in the appropriate currency, therefore, the surplus that they charged amounted to more or less 10 percent of the total tax revenues. If the collected sum was about 30 tons of silver, the moneychangers charged 3 tons of silver per year in addition. These moneychangers were employees of Annas and his henchmen, and these revenues of 3 tons of silver were theirs — this money did not flow into the Temple funds. This was not a bad business.
But now, let’s return to Kpar Nahum. In the port of the village, where they had set up their stand, the tax collectors cast the mocking question to Peter: “Hey, Peter, are you sure that your master will pay the tax?” They alluded to the tension between Jesus and the House of Annas. And poor Peter was no longer so sure, however, he replied: “Of course. What a silly question is this?”
And then Jesus explained to us that he paid the tax simply because he did not want to scandalize people. He knew that God did not need that money. However, the Temple formed a central institution for the Hebrew religion and society. The money was used for many purposes: Apart from the obvious, that is to say, apart from being used to pay the wages of those many people that worked in the Temple, to provide funds for the Temple’s maintenance and repair and for other obligations, including all those things necessary for a regular religious operation, the taxes were spent for public works, such as the repair of streets and roads, and for the maintenance of public buildings, for example. It was used for social ends. Jesus said that the common good justified the sacrifice. There was deviation of funds and shameless enrichment of some officials, we all knew that. But the alternative of not paying was not the way to solve that problem.
And so, we all went out to the street and headed to the table of the collectors to turn in our tribute.
Later, this episode was included in the gospel to justify the collection of tributes for the newborn church, which also needed funds for its operation. And even later, a Greek editor would add the miraculous story of the fish holding a silver coin in its mouth. Of course, this is a symbolic message: The fish represents Christ, or Christ’s body, that is to say, his church. In its mouth, or in its teachings, there is the coin, that treasure that miraculously comes from God and is for God.
I conclude this long message on a not very transcendent topic. I hope it may have satisfied your curiosity. Take a break now.
May God bless you always.
© Copyright is asserted in this message by Geoff Cutler 2013