In this article we deal with questions concerning the paying of temple tax.  Alfred Edersheim explains the tax like this:

“…annually, on the 1st of Adar (the month before the Passover), proclamation was made throughout the country by messengers sent from Jerusalem of the approaching Temple tribute. On the 15th of Adar the moneychangers opened stalls throughout the country to change the various coins, which Jewish residents at home or settlers abroad might bring, into the ancient money of Israel. For custom had it that nothing but the regular halfshekel of the sanctuary could be received at the treasury. On the 25th of Adar business was only transacted within the precincts of Jerusalem and of the Temple, and after that date those who had refused to pay the impost could be proceeded against at law, and their goods distrained, the only exception being in favour of priests, and that ‘for the sake of peace,’ that is, lest their office should come in disrepute. From heathens or Samaritans no tribute money was to be received, the general rule in reference to all their offerings being this: ‘A votive and a free-will offering they receive at their hands; but whatever is not either a votive or a free-will offering (does not come under either category) is not received at their hands.’ In support, Ezra 4:3 was quoted. The law also fixed the rate of discount which the money-changers were allowed to charge those who procured from them the Temple coin, perhaps to obviate suspicion of, or temptation to usury—a sin regarded as one of the most heinous civil offences. (Edersheim 19)“

At first glance this list of laws may seem fair and balanced for the collection of a tax to upkeep the temple in Israel.  The temple, reconstructed and altered by King Herod, received praise as an architectural marvel.  Even the disciples spoke praise of it saying, 

And as he went out of the temple, one of his disciples saith unto him, Master, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here! And Jesus answering said unto him, Seest thou these great buildings? ... (Mark 13:1-2)”

In Edersheim’s description he mentions that those who refuse to pay the impost could be proceeded against by law and have their possessions seized.  The Pharisees, through collusion with the previous Hasmodean government over Israel, had created a civil law mandate concerning the paying of a tax to the temple.  Edersheim explains:

It had only been a century before, during the reign of Salome- Alexandra (about 78 B.C.), that the Pharisaical party, being then in power, had carried an enactment by which the Temple tribute was to be enforced at law. It need scarcely be said that for this there was not the slightest Scriptural warrant. Indeed, the Old Testament nowhere provided legal means for enforcing any payment for religious purposes. The law stated what was due, but left its observance to the piety of the people, so that alike the provision for the Temple and for the priesthood must have varied with the religious state of the nation (Mal 3:8-10). But, irrespective of this, it is matter of doubt whether the half-shekel had ever been intended as an annual payment. Its first enactment was under exceptional circumstances (Exo 30:12), and the mode in which, as we are informed, a similar collection was made during the reign of Joash, suggest the question whether the original institution by Moses was not treated rather as affording a precedent than as laying down a binding rule (2 Chron 24:6-11). At the time of Nehemiah (Neh 10:32-34) we read only of a self- imposed ‘ordinance,’ and at the rate of a third, not a half-shekel. But long before the coming of Christ very different views prevailed. ‘The dispersed abroad’ regarded the Temple as the one bond of their national as well as their religious life. Patriotism and religion swelled their gifts, which far exceeded the legal dues. Gradually they came to regard the Temple tribute as, in the literal sense of the words, ‘a ransom for their souls’ (Exo 30:12). So many were the givers and so large their gifts that they were always first brought to certain central places, whence the most honourable of their number carried them as ‘sacred ambassadors’ to Jerusalem. The richest contributions came from those crowded Jewish settlements in Mesopotamia and Babylon, to which ‘the dispersed’ had originally been transported. Here special treasuries for their reception had been built in the cities of Nisibis and Nehardea, whence a large armed escort annually accompanied the ‘ambassadors’ to Palestine. Similarly, Asia Minor, which at one time contributed nearly 8,000 pounds a year, had its central collecting places. In the Temple these moneys were emptied into three large chests, which were opened with certain formalities at each of the three great feasts. According to tradition these three chests held three seahs each (the seah = 1 peck 1 pint), so that on the three occasions of their opening twenty-seven seahs of coin were taken.( Edersheim 19)

The DiDrachma from the Fish

The historical information provided by Edersheim builds a template to understand the words of the Messiah to Peter concerning the paying of this tribute:


And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute?  He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers? Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free. Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee. (Matt 17:24-27)”

Peter quickly acknowledges the duty of an Israelite to pay the temple tax; however, Yeshua asks a biting question, “whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute”?  Here we see Yeshua informing Peter that the ones who demand payment are “kings of the earth” and not the King of heaven.  We know the Pharisees created the tax, and we can infer from the Messiahs words that he recognizes the Pharisees as a group of foreign kings who reign over Jerusalem demanding tribute from the children of Israel all over the world.  Nevertheless Yeshua agrees to pay the tribute as not to offend the foreign kings which would also lead to legal actions interfering with the ministry of Yeshua.


Overturning the Money Changers Tables

Consider the actions of the Messiah upon finding the money changers hard at work in the temple:  


“And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them. (Matt 21:12-14)”

Upon arriving he threw out those who provided the service of exchanging coinage so arriving pilgrims could pay the temple tax, and started immediately the righteous and proper duties of those who minister in the temple; for instance, the cleansing of Leprosy as described in Leviticus 14.  Here we also see him label the Pharisees as thieves, which he reiterates at another time when he refers to them as the ones who bind the strong man and rob his house. (Matt 12:29)

In conclusion, concerning the temple tax, Yeshua makes it clear he disagrees with the Pharisees insistence that all Israelites pay the temple tax.  Yeshua even goes so far as to refer to the temple they force money into as “a den of thieves.”



Pharisees Paid Through the Temple Tax

Edersheim explains how the money collected for the temple was actually spent:

The Temple revenues were in the first place devoted to the purchase of all public sacrifices, that is, those offered in the name of the whole congregation of Israel, such as the morning and evening sacrifices, the festive sacrifices, etc. This payment had been one of the points in controversy between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. So great importance was attached to it, that all Israel should appear represented in the purchase of the public sacrifices, that when the three chests were emptied they took expressly from one ‘for the land of Israel,’ from another ‘for the neighbouring lands’ (that is, for the Jews there resident), and from the third ‘for distant lands.’ Besides, the Temple treasury defrayed all else necessary for the services of the sanctuary; all Temple repairs, and the salaries of a large staff of regular officials, such as those who prepared the shewbread and the incense; who saw to the correctness of the copies of the law used in the synagogues; who examined into the Levitical fitness of sacrifices; who instructed the priests in their various duties; who made the curtains, etc.,—not omitting, according to their own testimony, the fees of the Rabbis. And after all this lavish expenditure there was not only enough to pay for the repairs of the citywalls, the roads, and public buildings, etc., about Jerusalem, but sufficient to accumulate immense wealth in the treasury!(Edersheim 19)

Now also the reader can see that the Pharisees themselves received payment for their services directly from the temple’s treasury.  Nowadays we call that a conflict of interest.  Edersheim explains:

…the case of people leaving the whole of their fortune to the Temple is so often discussed, that it must have been a by no means uncommon occurrence. To this practice Christ may have referred in denouncing the Scribes and Pharisees who ‘devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayers’ (Matt 23:14). For a good deal of this money went in the end from the Temple treasury to them, although there is no evidence of their intriguing for personal gifts.(Edersheim 19)