Money in the New Testament
Whether you worship money as if it were the golden calf or regard it as filthy lucre – it affects everyone in some way or other. So it is hardly surprising that questions revolving around money also occupy those who are concerned about the salvation of people's souls: the religions.
This DVD deals with the Christian religion and examines the question of what the New Testament has to say about money and the right way to handle it. And lo and behold, in the scriptures there are more answers than you might think. Here you will find out in pictures and text not only which coins were in circulation in Judaea when Jesus was alive ...
- 1 Intro
- 2 And it came to pass ...
- 3 Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's
- 4 A denarius for a day in the vineyard
- 5 The widow's offering
- 6 And Pilate washed his hands before the multitude ...
- 7 And they covenanted with him for 30 pieces of silver
According to our calendar, it probably happened on April 7 in the year 30 AD: the execution of three alleged criminals in Jerusalem on Calvary Hill. Among them was the man who called himself the Son of Man. With his death, Jesus of Nazareth led a myriad of people to a new beginning. His followers became known as Christians because they carried the word of Jesus Christ to the world. Their gospel spoke of the pointlessness of chasing after money, possessions and material security. After all, who would go on hoarding treasures when the Day of Judgment was fast approaching? Jesus had told His followers that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter into the Kingdom of God. In His sermons, Jesus frequently spoke sophisticatedly about the financial situation and the economic system of His time. He used numerous images of money, profit and payment. Throughout the New Testament, money played an important role. We can deduce the date of Jesus’ birth from a tax assessment.The betrayal by Judas was rewarded with 30 silver coins. These incidents and other examples make us curious. What kind of society, in which the Romans collected taxes, did the Jews live? What did the coins look like that Judas received from the chief priests? The following presentation will attempt to answer these and other questions.
- And it came to pass …
The Gospel according to Luke, chapter 2, verses 1-3.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone went to his own town to register.
We know the exact date of this first tax assessment or census. It took place in 6 BC and the Syrian governor, Publius Sulpicious Quirinius, might indeed have been responsible for it. The tax assessment had become necessary in 6 BC since large parts of the Jewish territory had been re-districted by the Romans and renamed the “Province of Judea”. According to the Romans, one of Herod’s sons had proven to be incompetent; therefore, the Romans took away from him a large part of the country stretching from the coast to the Sea of Galilee, including the town of Jerusalem.
But what are we to make of the fact that it was Herod’s successor who had to retire before the first tax assessment? This causes difficulties for careful New Testament readers when they try to calculate the date of Jesus’ birth. They find the following hint in the Gospel of Matthew:
The Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 2, verses 1-2.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
According to history, King Herod died in 4 BC, that is roughly 10 years before the first tax assessment in Judea.
One would think that either Matthew or Luke were all wrong. However, there are more “truths” than just historical truth. The authors of the Gospels wanted to prove everything the Old Testament prophets had prophesied about the Messiah with concrete evidence from the circumstances of Jesus’ life. And to them it was a matter of fact that the Messiah needed to be born in Bethlehem.
The Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 2, verses 4-6.
When [Herod] had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea”, they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”
However, the Book of Judges also said that the Messiah would be called a Nazarene, that is, a man from Nazareth. Matthew resolved this contradiction by writing that Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus escaped from the infanticide of Bethlehem – which, by the way, never took place – by taking God’s warning to heart, travelled to a new home in Nazareth.
The Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 2, verses 22-23.
But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said by the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.”
Luke aligned the Messiah’s two different home towns by means of an incident which was still present in Jewish tradition in the years 80-90 AD, which is when Luke wrote his Gospel: the first tax assessment, or census, as the Romans called it, which was taken in the Province of Judea.
- Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s …
For the first time in the history of the Roman Empire, under Augustus’ reign all inhabitants of the empire and their possessions were registered and tax lists were made. To that end, huge land registers were drawn up containing the location and a precise description of every piece of land. This census did not occur throughout the breadth and width of the Roman Empire in the same year. One province at a time was registered, and it was Judea’s turn soon after its annexation in the year 6 AD.
In order to register property with the tax authorities, each man had to return to the town of his original citizenship or where his family came from. There must have been an enormous mass exodus since many Jews had left the birthplace of their ancestors. That’s why the tax assessment remained in people’s minds as the year when, following Roman decree, a vast number of Jews were on the road. With this census, it was obvious that everyone detested being ruled by the Romans. Nothing, not even the smallest possession, could be hidden from the Roman masters. Every piece of land, every vine and olive tree had to be accounted for. Even people who did not own anything had to pay tax on their ability to work, which amounted to one denarius per man capable of work. Women, children and old people had a tax reduction but still had to be registered and were liable for payment.
The Romans were in control of Judea in terms of taxes and the people hated the Roman tax as much as they hated their dependence on Roman grace. They wanted to be free, which is what Jesus preached. However, not all of the people in Christ’s audience understood which freedom He meant. Many of His followers hoped that He would be the man to free the Jews from the Romans’ yoke. The Pharisees used exactly this hope to ask Jesus a trick question.
The Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 22, verses 15-22.
Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher”, they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said: “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” – “Caesar’s”, they replied. Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
We are quite certain which coin it was that the Pharisees showed to Jesus. It was a denarius of the Roman emperor Tiberius. Millions of them had been minted. And coins like this one were common in all of the provinces. The poll tax – which each man had to pay – was exactly this denarius.
On the front we see the emperor’s head facing right with a laurel wreath on his head representing the victories which Tiberius had won for the Roman people. The inscription: “Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus”, means: “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus”. On the back we see a female figure on a throne, facing right. We are not sure who this woman is. She is probably not an historical person but rather some goddess symbolising certain virtues of the ruler, perhaps justice or piety. The inscription on the back is: “Pontifex Maximus”, which means, “Supreme Priest”.
Actually, this coin in and of itself was an insult to the Jews. It clearly violated the Jewish prohibition of graven images. In addition, there was the emperor’s presumption on the back that declared, “Pontifex Maximus, Supreme Priest!” From the time of Augustus, all emperors carried this title and thus were presumed to be the supreme judge on all religious questions. This did not just apply to Rome, but to the entire empire. This was an incredible insult to a faithful Jew! And Jesus presented himself as a faithful Jew. He made fools of the Pharisees who wanted to trap him in a Catch 22 situation.
What is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?
This question was dangerous. If Jesus said no, then he was in trouble with the Romans. If he said yes, then he would lose part of his followers who were hoping for freedom from Roman oppression. Therefore, Jesus answered the question with a question.
Show me the coin used for paying the tax. Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?
With this response, Jesus kept his challengers at bay. The hidden message was: Jesus was himself a pious Jew; He did not own this sacrilegious coin which violated the prohibition of graven images. However, those who asked the question had already broken this law by claiming that they owned one of the sacrilegious coins. Jesus pretended not even to know what was pictured on the coin in question. Thus, when the Pharisees told him that it was the emperor’s picture, Jesus rejected the coin: How could a pious Jew hold something in his hands which was against God’s law?
Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s.
- A denarius for a day in the vineyard
What do you think a denarius was worth then? Jesus of Nazareth, and those who wrote about His work, knew exactly what a denarius was worth. We find the exact value repeated over and over again in the New Testament.
From the parable of the workers in the vineyard, written in the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 20, verse 2.
He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
From the parable of the Good Samaritan, written in the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 10, verse 35.
The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. “Look after him”, he said, “and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.”
From the account of the anointing at Bethany, written in the Gospel according to Mark, chapter 14, verse 5.
The oil could have been sold for more than 300 denarii and the money given to the poor.
One denarius was the equivalent to a day of hard labour. Two denarii was advance payment for board, lodging, and care for an injured man. However, 300 denarii was the price for a tiny bottle of the finest oil, which wealthy people used with their daily hygiene. Jesus of Nazareth lived in a world of opposites – between the poor day labourer who had to feed his entire family on a single denarius per day – and a rich woman who could afford to break a bottle of precious oil to anoint her adored master’s feet.
- The widow’s offering
The denarius was the emperor’s money – money which a pious Jew would not touch if he wanted to abstain from worldly things. Of course, the denarius was still circulated in the provinces, but there were other coins which were seen as being more godly.
From the Gospel according to Mark, chapter 12, verses 41-44.
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 put in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two lepta, worth about a quadrans. 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 that she had to live on.”
The poor widow put two lepta into the offering box. Mark, writing for a Roman audience, had to convert the amount in order to be understood. In Roman currency, the two small copper coins, were the equivalent of one quadran. The quadran was the smallest nominal value in the Roman coin system; 64 quadrans were equal to a Roman denarius, which could not buy more than half a loaf of bread. The widow’s two lepta were worth half a day’s food.
We are quite certain what the two small coins looked like, which the poor widow put into the box. They were small, plain copper pieces which had been circulating in Judea for many generations. They were minted by a Jewish king named Alexander Jannaeus, who reigned from 103 to 76 BC.
On the front of the coin we see an anchor and the inscription “Basileus Alexandru”, which means: “The coin of King Alexander.” The back is graced with a star. It is surrounded by an inscription in Aramaic, “King Alexander” with almost the same the inscription on the front with the reigning year that the coin was minted.
Here we can compare it to a prutah from the same ruler and which is the Jewish equivalent of the Roman quadrans. Such coins were not only issued by Jewish rulers, but the Roman procurators also minted these common coins. Some procurators managed to adapt to Jewish thinking. Others, like the famous Pontius Pilate, provoked the pious Jews with images on the coins – either deliberately or inadvertently.
- And Pilate washed his hands before the multitude …
The first person to mint coins for the Province of Judea was the prefect Coponius. In 6 AD – the year Judea became a Roman province – Coponius issued a series of coins and chose the images on the coins very carefully.
On the front we see the innocuous ear of corn, which had previously appeared on Jewish coins. The back shows a date palm, another familiar image for the Jews.
Coponius’ successors imitated these coins and chose similar images – so as not to offend pious Jews. All of Coponius’ successors did this except for one: Pontius Pilate.
This man was allegedly a favourite of Seianus, who at that time was the most powerful man in Rome. Historical sources attribute to both Pontius Pilate and Seianus an exaggerated hatred of Jews. Pontius Pilate’s dislike of anything Jewish became clearly visible during his term as the prefect of Judea between 26 and 36 AD. More than once, a scandal arose from the violation of Jewish ritual laws.
From Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, book 18, chapter 3, verse 1.
But now Pilate, the procurator of Judea, removed the army from Caesarea to Jerusalem to take their winter quarters there. His intention was to abolish the Jewish laws so he introduced Caesar’s effigies, which were upon the ensigns, and brought them into the city. The former law forbade the very making of images; on which account the former procurators were reluctant to make their entry into the city with such ensigns bearing those ornaments. Pilate was the first who brought those images to Jerusalem. He set them up in the night time, without the knowledge of the people, but as soon as they knew it they came in multitudes to Caesarea, and interceded with Pilate many days. They argued and pleaded that he would remove the images; and when he would not grant their requests, because it would tend to the injury of Caesar, they persevered in their request. On the sixth day he ordered his soldiers to have their weapons at the ready and when the Jews petitioned him again, he gave a signal to his troops to encompass them. They were threatened that their punishment would be immediate death, unless they ceased disturbing him, and make their way home. But they threw themselves upon the ground, and laid their necks bare, and said they would take their death very willingly, rather than that the wisdom of their laws should be transgressed. Pilate was deeply affected with their firm resolution to keep their laws inviolable and presently commanded the images to be carried back from Jerusalem to Caesarea.
Not quite as scandalous as this deliberate disregard for the prohibition of graven images, but nevertheless extremely provocative were the coins issued by Pontius Pilate. One issue shows the minting year inside a wreath. We learn that these coins were made in the 17th or 18th year of Tiberius’ reign, which according to our calendar was 30 or 31 AD.
On the front there is a lituus, a crook like the ones which the Roman augurs held when they searched the sky for a sign from the gods.
The picture on this coin dated 29 AD is also taken from the Roman religion. The Romans called this kind of ladle a simpulum. It played an important role in their sacrificial rituals.
The front of this coin shows three ears of corn, which at least was a relatively harmless image, and would have been acceptable to a Jew.
Whether Pontius Pilate specifically chose these images for his coins because he wanted to deliberately insult the Jews, or whether he was simply too convinced of the superiority of Roman customs to have any interest in the religious thoughts of his subjects, we do not know. In any case, he kept provoking revolts. The reason for Pilate’s final recall was a seemingly unfounded bloodbath of Samaritans who had gathered for a sacrificial ceremony. This went too far – even for the Roman central government. Now an unsuccessful civil servant, Pontius Pilate was dismissed and called back to Rome. He never again received an office. If we trust Eusebius and his Church History, Pilate may have even committed suicide.
- And they covenanted with him for 30 pieces of silver
The Jews did not only have to pay taxes to the Romans! The temple tax, which all pious Jews had to pay annually, was significantly higher than the Roman poll tax. It was twice as expensive as the tax which citizens of the Roman Empire had to pay to the authorities: namely two denarii, or half a shekel.
From the Book of Exodus, chapter 30, verses 11-16.
The Lord said to Moses, “When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the Lord a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them. Each one who crosses over to those already counted is to give a half shekel, according to the sanctuary shekel, which weighs twenty gerahs. This half shekel is an offering to the Lord. All who cross over, those twenty years old or more, are to give an offering to the Lord. The rich are not to give more than a half shekel and the poor are not to give less when you make the offering to the Lord to atone for your lives. Receive the atonement money from the Israelites and use it for the service of the Tent of Meeting. It will be a memorial for the Israelites before the Lord, making atonement for your lives.
As the Lord apparently commanded through Moses, the priests set the exact weight of one shekel and the degree of the silver’s purity used for it. Ritually, it was very important that neither the weight nor the silver’s purity varied. That is why in the first century BC priests chose the typical shekel as the precise currency in which the temple tax had to be paid. The coins issued in Tyre, a commercial centre in Phoenicia, were considered to be the most reliable currency in the known world at that time.
In Tyre, the Jewish authorities did not seem to care about the prohibition of graven images, even though these coins unmistakably showed a pagan god on the front. It was the supreme god of the citizens of Tyre: Melquart. Melquart had originally been a Phoenician sun god who over time became more and more identified with the Greek god Zeus and his son Hercules. Melquart is pictured with a laurel wreath and a lion’s hide with the paws tied around his neck. Unfortunately, most of the coins from Tyre do not show the lion’s hide because the dies used to mint these coins were bigger than the pieces of silver to be minted.
On the back we see an eagle which the Greek identified with Zeus. In front of the eagle is a club, which was symbolic of Hercules and served as a sort of heraldic symbol for the city of Tyre.
It seems surprising that the very coins which, according to Jewish tradition would have been a “Baal”, were used to fulfil religious obligations. However, this contradiction did not seem to bother anyone. The temple tax was a sign that a Jew belonged to the temple in Jerusalem and it was paid voluntarily by many Jewish communities in Diaspora. Matthew the evangelist tells us that even though Jesus did not think the temple tax was necessary, he nevertheless took the trouble to perform a miracle in order to pay this tax for him and Peter.
The Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 17, verses 24-27.
After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma 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 sons or from others?” – “From others,” Peter answered. “Then the sons are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not offend them, 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.”
Here we meet an unusual Jesus. Had it ever been important to the man from Nazareth not to offend others? Indeed, things were very different when Jesus was confronted with the practical implications of the temple tax inside the temple of Jerusalem.
The Gospel according to John, chapter 2, verses 13-16.
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove them all out of this temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said: “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market?”
In these verses, John describes what we know to be true in many places of pilgrimage: that faith and commerce exist side by side. Each Jew who wanted to make his offering at the temple in Jerusalem had to buy his cattle at the temple. Only that way, claimed the priests, could they guarantee the ritual purity of the sacrifices.
In this context – that of the temple tax – the money changers are more interesting than the merchants. Their task was to change the coins that the visitors had with them into Tyrian shekels, which were then used to pay temple tax.
Since the money in the Jewish temple mainly consisted of Tyrian shekels, many Biblical interpreters concerned with numismatics assume that the 30 silver coins which Judas Iscariot received for his betrayal would have been Tyrian shekels.
The Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 26, verses 14-15.
Then one of the Twelve – the one called Judas Iscariot – went to the chief priests and asked: “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?” So they counted out for him 30 silver coins.
The 30 silver coins take us back to the Old Testament. The 30 shekels were a symbolic sum. This was the legally fixed atonement price for a slave who had died in an accident.
The Book of Exodus, chapter 21, verse 32.
If the bull gores a male or female slave, the owner must pay thirty shekels of silver to the master of the slave.
Only Matthew records the number of coins. All of the other evangelists simply write that Christ was betrayed for money. The lust for money was then declared to be one of the seven deadly sins; the pursuit of money and riches was demonized and spiritual independence from material security was praised as being the way to Christ.
Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, chapter 6, verses 6-10.
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
The church itself would get caught up in the web of greed after many believers, moved by the words of Christ and his apostles, parted with all of their possessions and entrusted them to the church. But that is another story…