Saturday, July 12, 2008

Chapter 11 - The Temple Tax & the Seventh Year

Sometime shortly before the final Passover, which we find mentioned by all four gospels, while Jesus and his followers were staying in Capernaum, one of the moneychangers from the Temple approached Peter and inquired "Doth not your Master pay tribute?"[1] It was the custom of the moneychangers to go out into the rural districts soliciting the temple tax. They carried their tables with them and were called "the men of the tables." By the time the moneychangers concluded their business, waves of people enlarged by the Sabbatical year would start their pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. The moneychangers would also travel to Jerusalem and return to their stations in the temple court.

A half-shekel tax was the annual rate paid by every adult Israelite male over the age of twenty years. Some priestly groups considered themselves exempt from the tax payment. When Peter approached Jesus for payment, Jesus reasons with Peter that he, as regent of the sabbath year, should also be exempt. Nevertheless, Jesus relents for the sake of peace and directs Peter to go fishing in order to obtain the necessary amount. Fishing as an industry was exempt from the restrictions of the seventh year, because one does not have to work the land. However, trade requiring the exchange of money had to be exchanged in some extraordinary manner.[2] Thus it seems likely that the coinage "found" in the mouth of the fish signaled a transaction between Peter and a willing recipient.

The temple tax was a public works tax. The tax revenue supplied the funds required to repair the roads and whitewash the grave markings that had been washed out by the winter rains. Ordinarily the tax revenue would also be used for construction or repairs to the aqueducts carrying water to the land and the cities. But in the seventh year, the revenue was reserved to compensate the watchmen who guarded the holy produce and to obtain the grain required to bake the fresh loaves used each week in the temple.

The historian Josephus tells us that Pontius Pilate became embroiled in a dispute with the temple authorities over the payment for construction carried out on the viaduct.3 Here, Josephus has neglected to explain the reason for widespread public concern. The historian merely records, "Pilate also introduced water into Jerusalem, paying for the work with the sacred money (corban), and brought the water a distance of two hundred furlongs. However, the Jews were not pleased with what was done about the water; and myriads of the people assembled together and made a clamour against him, and insisted that he should abandon his intention." The causes for such deep concern originated from seventh-year circumstances. The sacred money was not only being misused, but the normal flow of water had been diverted from the channels designed to irrigate vineyards, orchards, self-sown grain fields, and grazing areas.

Pilate would not tolerate any objection towards Rome's program to turn "stone into bread" and paid no attention to the initial protest. He waited until the moneychangers had deposited the collected taxes into the temple treasury shortly after the first of Nisan, and then demanded that the hired workmen receive their wages. The outburst against Pilate was so severe that he resorted to a brutal method to disperse the protesting crowds. Pilate permitted members of his troops to disguise themselves in civilian dress. Then, upon a given signal from Pilate the troops, uncovered their clubs and proceeded to bludgeon the people. The crowd was struck with panic. Some were indiscriminately slain and others were trampled to death. Josephus concludes, "Thus an end was put to this insurrection."

Here, Josephus omits another major detail. He fails to tell how this particular Passover was charged with messianic expectation, since it would be climaxed by a jubilaic fiftieth year. Four such Jubilees or, if one preferred to say, a jubilee of heavenly days had passed, since the time when the Maccabees had driven off the Greek Seleucid military occupation and cleansed the Temple. Given these circumstances, the Herodians and Roman military forces necessarily prepared themselves against any possible Zealot uprising. The Sadducees supported the Herodians, while the Pharisees appeared ready to defer to the power of the ruling authorities.

Josephus immediately picks up his historical account following the insurrection with the much-contested passage concerning Jesus, "a doer of wonderful works."[4] Even if this passage may have been either altered or inserted by Christian redactors, the chronology of events need not be discredited. The gospel records confirm the fact of how an insurrection[5] and the final period of Jesus' public ministry occurred together. The mutual corroboration between the gospels and Josephus, coupled with the peculiarities concerning the aqueduct and the seventh year will be taken as ample evidence to assume, "Now about this time" Jesus started towards Jerusalem. The gospel record adds that the disciples were amazed; "and as they followed, they were afraid."[6]

[1] Matthew 17:24
[2] Trade in the seventh year ? Mishna, Shebiith 3 - 5
[3] Josephus, Antiquities XVIII, iii, 2.
[4] Josephus, Antiquities XVIII, iii, 3
[5] Luke 13,1-5;23:18-19,25,39-41; Mark 15.7
[6] Mark 10:32a

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