By Peter Amsterdam
June 11, 2019
At the end of Matthew chapter 17, we read of an incident which occurred in Capernaum.
When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?”1
Two drachmas was the Greek monetary equivalent of the Jewish half-shekel tax, which every adult Jewish male over the age of 20 was expected to pay each year for the maintenance and upkeep of the Jewish temple. It was the equivalent of two days’ wages. In some Bible translations, this yearly tax is referred to as the “temple tax.” It was paid by Jewish males both inside and outside of Israel.
This tax originated in the time of Moses.
The LORD said to Moses, “When you take the census of the people of Israel, … each one who is numbered in the census shall give this: half a shekel … Everyone who is … twenty years old and upward, shall give the LORD’s offering. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when you give the LORD’s offering to make atonement for your lives. You shall take the atonement money from the people of Israel and shall give it for the service of the tent of meeting, that it may bring the people of Israel to remembrance before the LORD, so as to make atonement for your lives.”2
There are also references to this tax elsewhere in the Old Testament.3
In Jesus’ day, a special coin from Tyre was used to pay this tax, which is one reason that there were money changers in the temple courtyard,4 to exchange the local currency for the coin. Those who traveled to Jerusalem for Passover made this payment in person, but it was collected a month early from those who would not make the journey to Jerusalem and from those who resided outside of Israel. This annual temple tax/contribution was paid in the month of Adar, which corresponds generally to the month of March. On the fifteenth day of Adar, money changers set up their tables throughout Israel and collected these funds. After 10 days, the money changers stopped their local collections, although collections continued in the area around the temple in Jerusalem.
Most likely Jesus was staying at Peter’s house in Capernaum, and therefore these Jewish tax collectors naturally approached Peter as the head of the household responsible for those living under his roof. It was the time of year to pay the tax, and since every Jewish male was required to pay it, they wanted to collect it from Jesus. In response to their question, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” [Peter] said, “Yes.”5 We’re not told why Peter said yes; perhaps because he knew that Jesus had paid this tax over the years, or he was confident that He’d pay it just like other Jews did.
After speaking with the half-shekel tax collectors, Peter went into his house to tell Jesus of the encounter. However, before he could say anything, Jesus brought the topic up. Perhaps He had heard the conversation from inside the house, or perhaps He was aware through divine knowledge.
When [Peter] came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?”6
Jesus posed a question to Peter and asked his opinion. It’s interesting that while Jesus gave Simon the name Peter, He only addressed him as Peter twice in the Gospels.7
In asking Peter this question, Jesus used an analogy regarding the policy of taxation by kings. He mentions both toll and tax. A toll (telos in Greek) was a tariff or duty on goods which were imported or purchased. Tax (kēnsos in Greek) referred specifically to the Roman tax levied on all people who were under direct Roman rule.
All kings and governments need to raise revenue, and thus they require taxes. In this case, Jesus focused His question on who is taxed—the ruler’s sons, or others. Who would qualify as “sons” and “strangers” would depend on which governing authority was being referenced. For Roman taxation purposes, there was a division between Romans and foreigners under Roman control, in which case “sons” would refer to Romans, and strangers would be everyone else. However, not all rulers govern over foreigners, so most rulers levy taxes on their own people. In that case, the “sons” would likely be their own family members. It’s most likely that Jesus was referring to the latter, making the statement that the actual sons of the ruler were exempt from paying taxes.
In answer to Jesus’ question, Peter responded,
“From others.” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free.”8
Following this reasoning, the king’s sons and their dependents have a different status in relation to taxes than the rest of the population and are exempt from taxes. Since Jesus was the Son of God, He didn’t have to pay taxes to the temple of God, and His close servants were exempted as well.
Jesus then said,
“However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”9
Even though Jesus was exempt from paying the temple tax due to His status, that wasn’t the only issue in what was a more complex situation. If He paid the temple tax, He would not be acting as a “son,” as the sons of the ruler were free from paying taxes. If He refused to pay the temple tax, it might be understood by others that He rejected the temple and what it stood for. However, until Jesus’ death and resurrection, the temple was the legitimate place to worship God. By insisting that He was exempt from paying the temple tax, He would create potential problems for those who were commissioned to collect the tax, and He didn’t want to give offense to them.
While Jesus was willing to pay the tax, they apparently didn’t have funds on hand to pay it, and Jesus instructed Peter to go to the lakeshore and cast out a line with a hook—in other words, to go fishing. (This is the only reference to catching fish with a hook in the New Testament; all other references speak of using nets.) Jesus instructed Peter to check the mouth of the first fish he caught, as he would find a shekel (also known as a stater and translated as such in some Bible versions), a coin worth four drachmas—enough to pay both Jesus’ and Peter’s temple tax. Some authors point out that the coin would satisfy the temple tax collectors, and at the same time, since it was “found,” it technically didn’t belong to anyone and therefore wasn’t an admission that Jesus was liable to pay the tax.
There’s no account recorded in Scripture of Peter going to the water’s edge to go fishing, of the first fish he catches having a coin in its mouth, or of the taxes being paid. There are, however, plenty of instances within the Gospels where things happened at Jesus’ word, so it’s safe to assume that Peter followed through with His instructions and that the events Jesus said would occur did actually happen.
While in Capernaum, Jesus paid this temple tax to the local collectors, who then forwarded the coins to the temple in Jerusalem. These collectors were likely pious local people who were doing their duty in collecting the contributions. However, later in this Gospel it becomes clear that the high priestly families who were supported by this tax grew wealthy, and it’s likely that their ostentatious display of that wealth put this annual contribution in a bad light. The money changers in the temple area who converted currency into the coin used to pay this tax were also making a profit, at the expense of faithful worshippers of God. Later in this Gospel, when Jesus went to Jerusalem shortly before His death, He violently showed His displeasure for those who used the temple for their own gain, who made it a den of robbers.10
An interesting historical fact is that once the Jewish people rebelled against the Romans, some decades after Jesus’ death, the Roman soldiers destroyed the Jewish temple. At that time the Roman emperor enacted a law which demanded that all Jews throughout the empire continue to pay the temple tax as they had been, but these funds went into Rome’s coffers.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 Matthew 17:24.
2 Exodus 30:11–16.
3 2 Kings 12:5–15, Nehemiah 10:32–33.
4 John 2:14.
5 Matthew 17:25.
6 Matthew 17:25.
7 I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me” (Luke 22:34).
8 Matthew 17:26.
9 Matthew 17:27.
10 Matthew 21:13.