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.
About the author:
Bob is the creator of this site and a disciple of Ray Vander Laan. Along with his wife of 50 years, he teaches a Bible study at Christ’s Church in Roswell, NM. He is also an avid hunter and fisher.
Brethren, it is good we search Gods word to look for the truth on what is being said. There is some history that you are not aware of and I know little. Your assessments are in error. You may contact me.
What do you mean?
Oh wow!! This link is 4 years old. Is it still “alive”? This subject has very recently come “alive” for me again. I have a question, and I hope its Ok for me post my thoughts here & now?? (I believe I already have some insight on this fascinating dilemma!?) Obviously Jesus could not afford to fail anywhere – ever. He always had to have an answer, immediately. (His only “delay” was when He wrote in the sand – and even then, this could only have been the “Perfect” response – to let everyone “cool off”!! Perfect meaning “Could not possibly be improved. upon” Although this is perhaps a different subject, on another occasion, a woman was buried under a pile a rocks for merely “gathering firewood” on a Sabbath. (“The Law was The Law”?) How could Jesus “sidestep” this historical fact without “breaking the Law” Himself??? Oh sure – He went to the Cross. But then why wasn’t the woman gathering firewood given this latitude too? I know – who am I to question God? But really, can anyone do any better than that? I believe God to be 100% consistent too!!) Jesus’ answers always had to be the “correct” answer too. Yes Jesus recognized His obligations. (See John 12:6 in which Jesus would not waste a fragment of the food He’d just miraculously created. Any why not? Elijah ran 40 days on a meal directly from God. Should any of this be wasted? As I understand it, God “formed” the man from dirt, whereas God “created” the woman from nothing – although God has limitless “energy” and by modern day Physics we can suppose God can convert energy into matter – and also have complete control of it too, all the way down past the cellular to the atomic level. Is it any more difficult for God to create “Supernatural Food”? But I digress.) Also, Jesus was 100% responsible for how every penny in His Treasury was utilized. (By comparison, you and I can accidentally drop a penny and not expend the effort to bend over to retrieve it, say “Oh well…” and walk away. I believe Jesus did not have this “luxury”, simply because it would not meet the definition of “Perfect”. (Does anyone honestly imagine that Jesus was “poor”? He not only supported his mother – which He responsibly handed off in John 19:26-27 – but 12 Disciples too, most/all of whom had left their full time job and also had wife and family to support. Further, Judas was constantly stealing from His Treasury??? How much was in the bag for none of the other Disciples to even notice??? (I assume Judas was a fulfillment of Scripture. If God didn’t tell Jesus to put a stop to it, Jesus had to leave it alone – although in Luke 18:22 Judas seemed a hairbreadth of being replaced.) That all being said, the Tax Collectors basically told Peter that they (Jesus and his Disciples) were all “Tax Evaders”. Peter’s Pride took hold and he went to make a “withdraw” from Jesus’ Treasure to fix that!! (Apparently all of the Disciples were on the “Honor System”? There was no “Payroll”?) But Jesus was never one to be caught unaware. First, Jesus established that they were all exempt. But second (as to not make Peter a liar) Jesus performed a miracle so that, yes – the Temple Tax would be paid, but no – it most certainly was NOT coming out of Jesus Treasury!! (Yet again Satan set up quite an elaborate “trap” for Jesus – and yet again Jesus outsmarted Satan.)
Why was the Temple Tax being collected in Capernaum?
I have the same question as Chris Braun: why is the temple tax being assessed on Jesus in Capernaum?
Great question! If this is a ‘temple tax’ then why is it not levied in Jerusalem?
I think we get some idea when we look at the origin of the tax. Ex 30:12 commands this tax to be levied when a census was taken. Since this was a religious tax (and not a Roman civil tax), I’m left assuming some type of religious census was being performed. Then, this idea of a religious census makes me wonder if that was why Jesus was back in Galilee during this period. I think His choice to go to Capernaum was so that Peter would get asked about the tax.
The part of this story I don’t understand yet is why did Peter have to go catch a fish? Why not go find the coin in a tree or dig a random hole in the ground and find it there? To me, Jesus is referring to another story where something came out of the mouth of a fish (Jonah?) and is using that to teach us something. I just don’t know what that is yet.