After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”
“Yes, he does,” he replied.
When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”
“From others,” Peter answered.
“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”
— Matthew 17:24-27
After reading this short story in Matthew about the efforts by the temple tax collectors to get Jesus to commit to paying the tax, my curiosity was aroused to see what the temple tax was and where it came from in the Scriptures. As is usually the case, there are some very interesting hidden details in the story that are only revealed when you look them up in the Old Testament.
The origin of the temple tax is found in Exodus 30:11-16 and 38:26 (see also 2 Chronicles 24:9 for a later mention). When Moses was taking the census of the Israelites in the desert, God told him to collect a tax from each male twenty years and older to pay for the construction and upkeep on the Tabernacle. The amount to be paid by each person, regardless of wealth or standing, was to be half a shekel. At that time the shekel was not a coin, but was a unit of weight for silver and gold. The age of twenty was significant because that was the age at which an Israelite male was subject to military service (see Numbers 13).
What is the significance of the Exodus events on the story about Jesus in Matthew? This tax was still being charged in the same way to the Israelites in Jesus’ day to pay for the activities of the Priests and Levites and for the upkeep on the temple. The amount charged was still the same half shekel weight (now in a 2 drachma coin) per person. This tax amounted to one to two days wages for an average worker. Some translations of Matthew 17:24 say 2 drachmas and others say half shekel, but they are both the same amount.
In verses 25-27, Jesus asked Peter, ”would the Kings of the Earth collect taxes on their own family or would they collect it from the rest of the population?” Jesus was implying that He, Peter and the other disciples belonged to God’s royal household, so they really were exempt from paying the tax. He seemed to say this in a joking, lighthearted manner. Jesus, so as not to offend anyone, had Peter go catch a fish in the Sea of Galilee and told him to look in the fish’s mouth for a coin large enough (4 drachmas) to pay the tax for both he and Peter.
The interesting punch line for this story is that if he only gave Peter enough money to pay for the temple tax for two of them, then they were the only two in their group that were twenty years old! The rest of the disciples weren’t to that age yet! This revelation sure pokes a hole in your mental image of the bearded, middle age disciples! Also, it adds weight to the theory that Jesus’ disciples were very young men that were from 15-20 years in age. This was the typical age of young men that would follow and apprentice under a rabbi. I think we have really missed something in making Jesus’ disciples old men. By the time they finished their mission to carry the good news of the gospel to the ends of the age, they definitely had reached mature ages. But when Jesus told them, ”Follow me and I will make you fishers of men”, he was taking some very young and inexperienced talmidim to train to be like Him. This story is yet another reminder of the importance of the Old Testament Scriptures to our understanding of Jesus’ life and ministry.