The Half Shekel Tax
This incident took place less than thirty days before the celebration of the Passover in Jerusalem at which Jesus was delivered to be crucified by the Jewish authorities. That may sound like a strange statement and one is immediately drawn into the passage to see just where I can find justification for such an assertion, but there it is if one knows where to look.
I shall save the discussion about the exact time of this incident until the section entitled ‘The Half Shekel Tax’ but it’s important that we grasp that the time of Jesus’ suffering and death is imminent and that, from here to the end of Matthew 27:61, we are looking at a period of around four weeks - that is, Matthew will have devoted ten chapters to the last four weeks of Jesus’ life before the resurrection and, previously, fifteen chapters to the first three years of His ministry to Israel (Mtw 3:1-17:23).
The Gospel is, therefore, lop-sided but deliberately so.
Billy Graham used to say that he only had one message when it came to preaching but that he had numerous introductions to demonstrate to people the centrality and importance of the cross of Christ and of the offer of the forgiveness of one’s sins. To the author of Matthew, also, what precedes the cross is important and necessary but it mustn’t detract from the importance of the last week in Jerusalem which is more detailed and expansive that any other passage of Scripture covering the same amount of time.
The incident occurs only in Matthew’s Gospel before a long discourse provoked by the disciples arguing amongst themselves as to who was the greater (Mtw 18:1 Cp Mark 9:33-34) and takes place in the city of Capernaum. It seems likely that, having now returned from their journeys and ministries into the tetrarchy of Philip, they were taking a short rest at home before the final journey to Jerusalem for the Passover (Mtw 19:1-2) which would also mean a time of ministry to the Judeans in the wilderness.
Little more needs to be said about the passage that isn’t covered in the text below.
The Half Shekel Tax
The Half Shekel tax is something which seems to have changed from the early days when Moses first commanded it in the wilderness (Ex 30:11-16), through an implementation of an annual practice at the time of king Jehoash (II Kings 12:4, II Chron 24:5) and a decrease in the amount paid under Nehemiah (Neh 10:32), and to finally end up as a yearly half shekel contribution towards the upkeep of the Temple in first century Israel.
It would be wrong to skip over some of these details for they demonstrate to us how a commandment in the Mosaic Law became an annual event which it appears not to have been - and we will also be able to see how the collection of the tax in Capernaum at this time is evidence which indicates that there were less than thirty days before the Passover at which Jesus was to die.
We’ll start with the first mention of the tax in Ex 30:11-16, a passage which seems not to say too much about the periodicity of the tax and is remarkably quiet as to the detailed reasons for its implementation.
YHWH begins with the instructions to Moses (Ex 30:11) that the Half Shekel tax is connected with taking
‘...the census of the people of Israel...’
which seems to come out of the blue and is unexpected here seeing as this is the first time the English word ‘census’ actually occurs. It appears, then, that there were already plans by Moses or a direct commandment by God to take a count of all those males in Israel who were twenty years old and upwards. This may have been the command recorded for us in Number 1:1-3 and which appears out of chronological order here.
However, it doesn’t read like this. While we might find it an easy justification to assert that Leviticus was a compilation of Levitical laws which were given throughout their wilderness wanderings and which were brought together into one coherent form in this scroll, Exodus has the feel of a chronological commentary of the people’s wanderings.
Besides this, Ex 38:25-28 speaks of the total quantity of silver which was collected from the people numbered in the census and the use to which it was put in the tabernacle’s construction. It is impossible that these items were made after the tabernacle was erected for they represent the ‘bases of the sanctuary’ and the ‘hooks for the pillars’, without which the whole structure would not have been able to have been put up!
There would appear, therefore, to have been a census at the mountain of Sinai at the time of the construction of the tabernacle and that Numbers 1:1ff which refers to that which took place
‘...on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt...’
Even so, it’s strange that the exact number of males is the same in both these censuses (Ex 38:26, Num 1:46) something which would be unlikely even if they had been taken some two years apart.
There would then appear to have been three censuses of the children of Israel and not the two as is usually asserted (Num 1:1ff, 26:1ff). Necessary to note also is that nowhere in these two censuses is either the collection of money or a half shekel of silver ever mentioned - which leads one on to think that the census mentioned in Ex 30:11-16 was supposed to have been a one-off contribution at that particular time so that a resource might be reaped from the nation to construct the tabernacle and its furniture.
It appears to be a wrong assumption that, when the ‘service of the tent of meeting’ is mentioned in Ex 30:16, the Scripture is pressed to make it sound like a continued service is being implied. As we’ve seen above where the money is listed that was collected, how it was spent was solely on the tabernacle’s construction and not so much as the smallest of divisible amounts was set aside for what one might be able to claim was an offering or sacrifice.
In the Exodus passage, there’s certainly nothing about the periodicity of the offering being commanded and the importance of it is seen in that it is considered to be ‘ransom money’ (Ex 30:12) which atones for the Israelites (Ex 30:15) by bringing them to remembrance before the Lord (Ex 30:16).
How this offering could ‘atone’ for the people isn’t easy to understand and there’s no one explanation which I’ve read that seems satisfactory. Edersheim in ‘The Temple’ offers what’s possibly the simplest explanation even though it isn’t without its problems. He states that
‘At the very outset there was the barrier of sin; and in order to gain admittance to the ranks of Israel, when the sum of the children of Israel was taken after their number, every man had to give the half-shekel...’
and sees the contribution as being some sort of payment which admitted the payee into a participation in the tabernacle and its service. It was solely that as a person paid into the tabernacle’s construction that they therefore became a shareholder in its mediation for Israel before God. Supporting this is the fact that each person paid the same (Ex 30:15) and the truth is brought out that each Israelite is not to be considered anymore worthy or in need of cleansing before God than any other.
Because all pay the same, all are remembered before the Lord with equal weight (Ex 30:16).
Political leaders who have used this passage to justify the imposition of a ‘poll tax’ have been somewhat misguided, for one should realise that it was solely as a reaction to a command of God that the collection was made and, even then, it was spent on the fulfilment of a divine command which provided for the mediation of the priests between God and the nation. I obviously shan’t comment on the positive and negative effects of such a system of taxation suffice to say, in the UK, it had to be radically overhauled from a very early stage because of the opposition from those being taxed.
Besides, a half shekel was a small amount of silver to be given over towards the construction of the tent of meeting whereas political taxation on the same principles normally assesses the amount due to be paid as a significant proportion of the annual income of the household.
Overall, this Half Shekel tax recorded for us in Ex 30:11-16 is a far cry from the modern day collection of Poll Tax to fund local councils!
So far, we’ve seen that the implication of the commands in Exodus is that the Half Shekel tax was to be a one-off payment in silver towards the construction of the tabernacle. This is the first and last we hear of the tax until we come to the reign of Joash in II Kings 12:4 and II Chron 24:4-10, the latter of these passages being the most informative and the one which I shall be referring to the most.
The temple had fallen into a state of disrepair by this time - even worse, Athaliah had set about deliberately destroying the building and using the dedicated vessels in the service of her own gods (II Chron 24:7). Therefore, Joash (or ‘Jehoash’) ordered the priests and Levites to take up an offering amongst the nation for the restoration of the Temple. His words recorded in II Chron 24:5 run (my italics)
‘Go out to the cities of Judah, and gather from all Israel money to repair the house of your God from year to year; and see that you hasten the matter’
It’s quite obvious from the king’s words that the Scriptures were either understood to mean or made to mean that there should be a yearly tax imposed upon the nation and that this collection should be used to maintain the temple. However, this changed with almost immediate effect when the Levites failed to bring the money in from the country (II Chron 24:5) and the king ordered that a chest be made into which the people could drop their contributions (II Chron 24:8-9). This appears to have been different to a strict annual collection of the Half Shekel tax, however, for II Chron 24:11 records (my italics) that
‘And whenever the chest was brought to the king’s officers by the Levites, when they saw that there was much money in it, the king’s secretary and the officer of the chief priest would come and empty the chest and take it and return it to its place. Thus they did day after day, and collected money in abundance’
And this continued until the restoration of the temple was completed (II Chron 24:12-13) when the residue was used to make utensils for the service of God (II Chron 24:14). It appears, therefore, that the idea of the Half Shekel tax being collected annually was a temporary measure and that it was specifically instituted for a time while the temple was being restored. Joash’s statement that it was to be collected ‘from year to year’ seems to be a statement that the collection should continue until the temple was completed and not one which was meant to be continued afterwards.
It’s difficult to be sure, however, because the annual collection was turned into a daily freewill offering due to the dishonesty (?) of the priesthood. Perhaps, even, the Levites were unable to collect the tax due to the nation’s unwillingness to either give or to trust that the collection would reach its required destination.
Whatever, this tax appears to have been turned into a freewill offering for a specific time while the buildings were being restored.
Another silence follows on after this mention until the time of Nehemiah and the return of the exiles from captivity. This subsequent mention may not actually be the Half Shekel tax referred to in Exodus at all but it’s near enough to warrant comment and to see how it was being changed on its reintroduction. Neh 10:32-33 reads
‘We also lay upon ourselves the obligation to charge ourselves yearly with the third part of a shekel for the service of the house of our God: for the showbread, the continual cereal offering, the continual burnt offering, the sabbaths, the new moons, the appointed feasts, the holy things, and the sin offerings to make atonement for Israel, and for all the work of the house of our God’
The cost per head was reduced to just one third part of a shekel (of silver) and the contribution was now committed to be used for the running of the temple rather than for building repair and restoration work. This marks a significant change from the previous two examples where it was collected, the first for the construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness and the second for the reconstruction of the damaged temple. The restoration of the temple in existence when Nehemiah was around had been supplied out of both what the Jews and their neighbours had (Ezra 1:4-6), out of the royal treasury and storehouses (Ezra 1:7-11) and from the revenue which was being collected as the king’s tribute in the area ‘Beyond the river’ (Ezra 5:8).
If we were to take this tax as having been originally meant to fund the national offerings, we would get a different understanding of what YHWH must have meant about the money making an atonement for the nation (Ex 30:12,16) for it would be seen that each person could have felt themselves a part of what they had contributed to in part and so, logically, the offerings on behalf of the nation would have become their own personal offering.
Unfortunately, however, this isn’t so much as implied in the original commands!
There’s no census mentioned here at all, either. II Chron 24:5 may imply that such a census was taking place because the priests and Levites are commanded to go out into the cities but here there’s nothing that would indicate that the collection was tied up with the performance of an annual census. It’s logical, however, to understand that it would be impossible to collect the tax unless they wrote down the names of those who had contributed and marked them off year by year, adding new names as people came of age and striking them through as they died. It may, then, have indirectly been a census.
Again the records fall silent for numerous years even though we can be fairly certain that the collection of a yearly half shekel contribution was required to be paid by all Israelites from sometime in the Hasmonean period and, therefore, had been continuing for over a hundred years by the time we read of the situation that Peter finds himself in when confronted by the collectors of the tax in Mtw 17:24-27.
The tractate Shekalim in the Mishnah deals with shekel contributions and, having scan read it, I can affirm that it has very little of interest for the NT reader except the very first few verses, the first of which (Shekalim 1:1) reads
‘On the first day of Adar they give warning of the Shekel dues [that is, the Half Shekel tax]...On the 15th thereof they read the Megillah [Book of Esther] in walled cities and repair the paths and roads and pools of water and perform all public needs and mark the graves...’
These last services are all done mainly for the sake of the travelling Israelites journeying to Jerusalem for the compulsive festivals which begin the following month with Passover on the 14th. It appears logical to presume, therefore, that it was not generally expected that travel would take place to Jerusalem until after the restoration of the roads and the like were completed and this must have ended less than one calendar month before Passover (the repair work began on the 15th of the twelfth month, the festival began on the fourteenth of the following, the first, month).
Shekalim 1:3 goes on to speak of the Half Shekel tax collection and notes that
‘On the 15th [of Adar] the tables [of the money changers] were set up in the provinces; and on the 25th thereof they were set up in the Temple’
So, although warning was given on the first day of the twelfth month, the collection began in provinces such as Galilee on the 15th, just under one month from the beginning of the Passover festival. We can be fairly certain that the collecting of the tax had already begun because Jesus, when providing for the payment, instructs Peter to take the coin (Mtw 17:27) and
‘...give it to them for Me and for yourself’
There could not have been more than thirty days left, therefore, between this incident and the event of the crucifixion. What exactly happened when the Jews had to add a thirteenth month on a regular basis as they did to straighten out their calendar is difficult to be certain about. However, the restoration of the roads and other services would have still been required to have been undertaken with as little time as possible left before the journeying, simply because any earlier would have placed them in the time of the latter rains when work would have been both difficult and possibly washed away.
This second month of Adar, the thirteenth month, would seem to be the one to which collection and repair was transferred to when it occurred.
The Dead Sea Scrolls refer to this Half Shekel tax and take issue with the principal of the main congregation of Israel that it was to be paid by every male each year. In 4Q159, it’s recorded that a man is only liable to pay it
‘...once in his life’
and this seems to be a more logical and Biblically based command seeing as the atonement spoken of in the Law seems to have been instructing the nation that the contribution caused them to be a part of the service of God. However, annual payment of half a shekel was the religious obligation of the Jew laid down by the scribes and Pharisees (the Sadducees asserted, according to Matfran, that it was not binding upon the nation but I don’t know where he gets his information from. I did an overview of Sadducean belief here and found no such evidence to substantiate this view).
The RSV translates the Greek word used for the ‘didrachmon’ (Strongs Greek number 1323) as ‘Half Shekel tax’ whereas the AV is a little bit more non-committal by rendering it ‘tribute money’. We need to be certain that this is the tax as we’ve asserted above that it is (perhaps it would have been better to have done this at the very start of this article!) but the word means, literally, ‘two drachmas’ and is the normal Greek word which would have been employed to refer to a monetary worth of half a shekel.
When Jesus talks about a coin being found in the mouth of the fish in Mtw 17:27, the word used is ‘stater’ (Strongs Greek number 4715), which represents a monetary value of twice the didrachmon, a value which one would expect seeing as it was to be offered as payment for two people.
This monetary equivalent is what Josephus tells us when dealing with Moses in Antiquities 3.8.2 where he writes that
‘...when [Moses] had gathered the multitude together again, he ordained that they should offer half a shekel for every man, as an oblation to God; which shekel is a piece among the Hebrews, and is equal to four Athenian drachmae’
If one shekel equals four drachma, then the half shekel is the double drachma or ‘didrachmon’.
Matmor comments in a footnote that Josephus in Antiquities book 18 speaks of the half shekel tax being paid as a didrachma but that, by the time of Christ, (according to another source) the coin was rarely in circulation and that the tetradrachma was normally submitted as payment for two people - but, try as I might, I can’t find it in Josephus’ work!
Incidentally, Matfran asserts that both Rabbis and priests were exempt from paying this tax even thought Shekalim 1:6 speaks of a situation where someone pays the half shekel on behalf of a priest and this must, therefore, be an incorrect statement. The statement in Shekalim 1:4 is ambiguous and should be treated with caution which says that the priest committed no sin if he paid it for, immediately following on, another Rabbi says that a priest committed sin if he didn’t pay it! There appears to have been a difference of opinion but there is the possibility that Jesus could have reasoned that, because He was a Rabbi, then He was not bound to pay the tax - even without the considerations concerning His unique relationship with God the Father.
Returning to the question put to Peter in Mtw 17:24, the best way of taking it is in the words which run
‘Does not your teacher pay the didrachmon?’
and this is to understand it as a request for payment of this tax simply because nothing else that we know fits in with the systems which were being legislated throughout Israel. The question which Jesus asks Peter regarding tribute being paid to YHWH naturally assumes that the money was being paid for God’s service rather than directly to Imperial Rome and this confirms our interpretation.
There are a couple of consequential pieces of information which come about as a result of our discussion above about the Half Shekel tax. The first is no more than an idle observation in that Peter must have been at least twenty years old to have been subject to pay the tax - we shouldn’t infer, however, that, because the disciples aren’t mentioned, that they were under this age.
Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, the recording of this story would seem to imply a composition of Matthew’s Gospel which was before 80AD when news about the destruction of the Temple and the redistribution of the Half Shekel tax began to be made known.
With the fall of Jerusalem and the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70AD, the half shekel was diverted towards the upkeep of the temple of Jupiter in Rome (War 7.6.6). If this had been the set up at the time of writing, it’s more likely that the author would have included a line or two to explain the relevance of the contribution as, for instance, Mark does in Mark 7:3-4. If it had been left as it stands now, the generation of readers may have understood Jesus’ contribution to have been as a donation towards the idolatrous practices of the Roman Empire.
Even though many commentators would see the Gospel as being written late in the first century AD or even into the second, this passage stands as a firm testimony against such late dates and points us towards the understanding that it must have been compiled prior to 80AD and, perhaps, to a date significantly before 70.
The story of this incident is so tantalising to the reader if they’re of an inquisitive nature for it seems to give an insight into the way the new was already being seen to conflict with the old and, yet, still doesn’t quite give us the full picture.
For instance, that Jesus knew He wasn’t obligated to pay the Half Shekel tax is obvious but that He also chose to do so that He might not cause a problem to the establishing of the Kingdom of Heaven through what was to Him an incidental.
But did Jesus ever intend to pay the Half Shekel tax that year or would He rather simply not have visited the tax collectors’ tables to hand in His payment? And did Jesus ever pay it in previous years? As we saw above, the Sadducees and Essenes refused to pay it annually through their own belief in what the original Scriptures had to say so would a similar interpretation have guided Jesus in what had preceded this year?
Unfortunately, the passage is as tantalising as it is informative but it does show us that, to Jesus, there were issues which the believer could contribute to which, although denying absolute truth, weren’t necessary to take a stand on. That’s not to say that one could think that adultery was alright for one and theft for another - there still needed to be a moral lifestyle in the believer - but that there were certain things which were only incidentals and weren’t necessary to argue over.
Peter is a great character here. Having already confessed (Mtw 16:16) that Jesus is
‘...the Christ, the Son of the Living God’
we would naturally have expected him to have thought through the implications of that great revelation from the Father (Mtw 16:17) but it appears that, for Peter, what he’s received, he has no intention of developing any further and of applying it into the situations in which he will subsequently find himself. Therefore, though he’s just confessed that Jesus is God’s King, He whose rule is to be obeyed, he immediately goes on to remonstrate with what Jesus begins to proclaim is necessary (Mtw 16:22).
Here, also, there are implications in what’s being asked him that Peter hasn’t thought through. It is, perhaps, a little unkind to think that Peter should have applied his revelation to this situation seeing as the contribution towards the Half Shekel tax had not taken place since he made that first pronouncement - and the phrasing of the questioning from the tax collectors would naturally have put Peter on his guard against getting his master into trouble. It’s like ourselves being asked
‘Doesn’t your mother pay Income Tax?’
and we instinctively reply with a defence when we’ve probably never seen her wage slips or, perhaps, even have no idea that she earns too little to have to pay it. Peter’s reaction is more like a knee-jerk reply that he knows he’d best give in defence of Jesus.
And good for Peter! There will come a time when he will be confronted by a choice - as he sees it - of association with Jesus and suffering or of His rejection and escape (Mtw 26:69-75). At least we can see here that, although Peter might have got it all wrong, at least there’s some substance to His claim at the Passover table that he was willing to stand up and be counted and to die for Him (Mtw 26:33-35).
This sudden reaction without thinking appears to be confirmed also by the word Matthew’s Gospel uses in 17:25 which the RSV renders (in italics)
‘And when he came home, Jesus spoke to him first...’
This Greek word (Strongs Greek number 4399) is better translated ‘anticipated’ for it implies that Jesus beats Peter to bringing up the subject again. It appears, then, that Peter wasn’t altogether sure that his response was correct and had already decided to ask Jesus what His stand on the Half Shekel tax was when he got an opportunity.
But Jesus anticipates the conversation and begins it before Peter has the chance. Whether this came about because Jesus overheard the conversation or because He had it revealed to Him by the Father is uncertain - there is even the possibility that another disciple might have reported the incident to Jesus and we should note that the text nowhere says that Jesus was out with the twelve when the incident happened. It could just as easily have been that Peter was off down the market to get some food for the evening meal when he was accosted by the collectors of the tax who noticed that Peter and Jesus’ name on their records had not yet been ticked off as having paid the half shekel!
Whatever the exact dynamics of the knowledge, we shouldn’t feel compelled to necessarily consign everything to supernatural causes and there are numerous scenarios which could have given Jesus the knowledge without a direct revelation from the Father.
Jesus doesn’t comment on the rights or wrongs of whether the Half Shekel tax should be taken up annually (as the Pharisees), once in a life time (as the Essenes) or never at all (as the Sadducees) but is more concerned to bring out His relationship to its payment that Peter might get an understanding which he would be able to apply to other situations which would confront him.
This is the sign of a good teacher, it has to be said - not to fill the lives of those who hear you with rules and regulations that have to be rigidly obeyed but to show why certain things are done so that a full understanding can be grasped. Many would stand up and proclaim loudly that one shouldn’t commit adultery but there would be fewer who could adequately explain why it’s wrong and obnoxious to God. Better a follower of Christ understands the principles of the Kingdom than to have his head filled up with ‘thou shalts’ and ‘thou shalt nots’ which only tend to legalism.
Jesus’ question allows Peter to begin to think through his position. The Half Shekel tax is paid by the servants of God through intermediaries to God Himself for the upkeep of the Temple in Jerusalem. That the collectors recovered the money from the people shouldn’t belie the fact that it was, in effect, being paid to God.
Jesus’ question to Peter, therefore, has this as its background and, as Jesus points out, it wouldn’t be right that earthly kings would tax their own immediate family but would require payment be made for the upkeep of their relatives from others who went ‘unknown’ before them, who weren’t part of that familial structure. Therefore, it would be superfluous for God the Father to expect the tax to be paid by His Son, a connection we’ve noted above that Peter had already made.
But Jesus doesn’t stop here and we need to note well His words for He doesn’t reply to Peter’s statement by saying
‘Then the Son is free’
‘Then the sons are free’
We may be going too far to say that this was a deliberate statement to include Peter in it, for Jesus has already used the plural ‘sons’ in his questioning and it’s necessary here to bring to a conclusion the teaching, but it’s necessarily true that God doesn’t tax His sons - whether that be sons by adoption (Rom 8:15-17) of which Peter is a part or the Son by birth who would be Jesus.
Here, then, is an early indication that the Mosaic Law was coming to an end and that it was to have no demand or claim on the believers of the New Covenant. Contributions under the new were to be more on the basis of freewill than upon a command (see my notes here for a brief overview of the types of giving).
Besides these considerations, it’s obvious that the support of a sacrificial system which was brought to an end by Jesus’ once-for-all-time offering of Himself could never wholeheartedly be supported by believers once the full implications of His work were begun to be perceived. That day is still a long way off at this point, however, and no objections to the contribution to the Temple’s upkeep are raised on these grounds.
Jesus isn’t saying here that because He is exempt He won’t pay but neither that because of the predicament Peter has put Him in that He has to. He gives a precedent here, rather, that certain things - like paying taxes - should be done in order not to stumble men and women in their acceptance of the Gospel. He taught the same in Mtw 22:15-22 in Jerusalem, much to the Pharisees and Herodians’ dismay. As Matfran points out, this story is
‘...an illustration of Jesus’ willingness to comply with the conventions of the society to which He belonged rather than cause unnecessary offence...’
even though some conventions were vehemently opposed by Him - such as the washing of the hands before the eating of food (Mtw 15:1-9). In both places - here as well as there - a spiritual principle would have been compromised, but here it’s considered to be of no consequence whereas there it is fiercely opposed.
It’s not correct simply to say that christians should comply with society’s conventions, therefore, because the individual must decide for themselves which should be opposed when encountered.
One final word needs to be said about the miracle of Mtw 17:27 where Jesus tells Peter to take a (line and) hook, go to the Sea and to catch a fish, inside of which he’ll find a stater (a coin valued at one shekel) and that he is to pay the tax for both of them.
It’s plain to the reader that, although this command is given to Peter, the author doesn’t go on to tell us that this actually took place and Matfran comments that
‘...it has been plausibly suggested that Jesus’ words were merely a playful comment on their lack of ready money’
but, if this is the case, it’s difficult to see how Jesus could ever have paid the tax that year. Matmor notes that others take the phrase to mean something along the lines that Peter is to be more concerned with fishing and that the tax will look after itself but he concludes, however, that
‘...if this is what Matthew meant, he has recorded it in a very strange way. It is better to understand him [or ‘Him’?] to mean that there would be a real coin in the mouth of a real fish’
and this is the easiest of all the options. Just because the miracle isn’t recorded as happening needn’t imply that Jesus’ words meant anything other than that the incident would occur.
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