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31. The Temple Tax Coins

A reconstructed image of the Temple Mount in the time of the Temple after the renovations of king Herod "the Great" © Eilat Mazar

The Jewish Temple, reviewed in the previous post ( #30), was also a major economical centre. By Jewish law, as commanded in the Bible itself (Exodus 30:13; 38:25), every male Jew over the age of 20 had to give an annual contribution to the temple, of “half a shekel”.

A shekel was equated in the first century AD with the Greek tetradrachm (equal to four drachms), which was a silver coin of the weight of nearly 14 grams. Half a shekel therefore would be in the value of nearly7 grams of silver, and could be equated with the Greek didrachm (equal to two drachms).

What is the value of about 7 grams of stamped silver? The New Testament provides an estimated value of a similar silver coin. In one of his parables Jesus mentions the wages of a day’s work in a vineyard to be “one Denarius” (Matthew 20:2). The Roman denarius was about 3.4 grams of silver, and so half a shekel would be worth about 2 days of labor in a vineyard. Comparing this with labor wages in agriculture in Israel today, I would estimate the half a shekel contribution to be worth about 50-75 USD.

Tyrian Shekel from the 1st century AD. Since the priests of the temple in Jerusalem accepted the temple tax only in this currency, money changers around the Temple offered their services, converting foreign money to this coin type. Apparently the charge for this service was high, and it is this Jesus referred to when he said, “It is written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer’, but you are making it a den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13). (C) Danny Herman

If the Jewish population was estimated to be 8 to 10 million in the first century AD, and the adult males to be about a third of this society, I estimate the half a shekel temple tax provided an annual income of about 150,000,000 USD. And as if that was not enough, various sources document many additional donations and contributions made by individuals to the temple in Jerusalem. In fact Mark 12:41-44 documents Jesus praising a widow giving two leptons to the temple treasuries:

“Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything all she had to live on.”

A lepton is the smallest denomination in Greek currency, equal to the nickels and dimes of today. And yet Jesus praised the widow for her contribution.

Bronze Lepton coin. Such a coin is likely mentioned in Mark 12:44, and is known in modern research and literature as one of the ‘widow’s mites’. Its obverse shows an eight ray star, and its reverse depicts an anchor. The text along the edges reads (in Greek and Hebrew, or Aramaic): “[of] king Alexander. (C) Danny Herman

What did these coins look like?

Although the official name of the temple tax coin was half a shekel, Jewish sources record that the only coin type the priests acknowledged was the one called the Tyrian shekel. That silver coin was minted by the Phoenician city of Tyre, and research proved that the priests knew why they insisted on accepting only this currency – The Tyrian Shekel

(unlike the Roman Denarius) always had a high level of silver, between 90 and 95 percent. The lepton was the smallest denomination of Greek coins. It is identified with a 1.5-2 gram coin minted in large numbers by the Hasmonean king Alexander Yannai (Jannaeus). Such coins can be found in large numbers even today, in antiquity stores around the old city of Jerusalem.