Matthew’s Temple Tax – The Lowdown

It’s been about a year and a half now since I finished my ThM thesis at Regent College and I’m finally getting around to sharing it on line. As someone who worked on a thesis long distance (about an hour and a half and across the border from my school) I came to greatly appreciate quality material on obscure topics that is available online. So here is the the long awaited Matthew 17:23-27 thesis! (also linked above). Actually, nobody has been waiting for it. But here it is anyway.

Some general ramblings about my process

Ok. So first of all this is a ThM thesis, not a PhD. Some people have been confused about this and other people figure, shoot, it’s called a thesis and it’s somewhere above a Master’s Degree. Close enough. The ThM is basically between a Masters Degree and a PhD.  Full disclosure.

Also, when I say I worked on this for about three years, it wasn’t full time, but part time as I worked on other things as well. It would be fun if I had the data to do one of those “the numbers” things about what it took to get this done, but I don’t so I’ll just make some up some stuff for fun. Maybe it will bear some resemblance to reality:

  • 90 – Hours spend driving back and forth to Vancouver, BC
  • 500 – Fun hours spent in the Regent College library studying (I’m totally serious about the fun part)
  • 300 – Gallons of gas
  • 200 – Dollars (Canadian) spend on library fines. That’s what happens when you take books out of the country!
  • 1 – Extension I asked for
  • 434 – Footnotes
  • 268 – Books listed in my bibliography
  • 11 – (out of 10) Level of support from Cathy
  • 40 – Hours waiting at the border (ok, it probably wasn’t that many)

And so forth.

Too specialized?

People love to complain about how this level of study is too specialized.  “How can you write 170 pages on four verses?” or on one verse, or on a word? You know it’s been done. But I think the this is a misplaced complaint. This is because the way research works, you have to place whatever you are working on in the broader context of the scholarly discussion. You have to show how it fits, how it intersects, who has talked about it,and why anything more needs to be said about it.  By the time you are done with that, it is very likely that you have crisscrossed all over the discipline you are studying.  Take my thesis for example. I start with a general introduction to Matthew’s Gospel, then I spend a whole chapter talking about outlines of Matthew, then another chapter on the outline of the sections around my passage. Finally, in the fourth chapter I get down to the actual passage and that ranges all over the place: history, rabbinic literature, the meaning of Greek and Hebrew words, Old Testament background and current debates about several important New Testament issues. So it doesn’t really matter how narrow your research is, if you are doing it right it will also be broad.

My actual point? 

You can read the abstract and the paper if you want the low down, but here it is in common language. Matthew 17:24-27, the story about the temple tax, is often taken to be a story about how Christians should give up their rights in order to avoid offense: Some tax collectors ask Peter if Jesus pays a particular tax (it’s not stated in the passage, but it can only be the yearly temple tax). Peter says “Yes.” But when Peter gets back home Jesus challenges him on this, to the effect that neither he nor Peter is liable to pay it. But, he says, so that we don’t offend them go fishing and you will find a coin in the mouth of a fish you catch. You can use that to pay for the tax.

You can see how the lesson about avoidance of scandal could make sense. But here’s the problem: since when is Jesus scrupulous about offending the religious leaders of the day? Since never. That just doesn’t work. It’s the same people he calls things like “brood of vipers” who are behind the temple tax. Now, a few scholars have wondered whether the offense avoidance was in consideration of the individuals collecting the tax. I think that makes more sense, but the “offense” is the perception that Peter has told a fib. In Jesus’ ethical system “Yes” is “Yes” and “No” is “No”.  You don’t waffle on things. You do what you say. I think that Jesus takes this so far as to even abide by something that Peter has committed him to, even if the it was not a legit commitment. I think that is a really good explanations.

But I digress.

The real question is: what is this passage doing here? It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the material around it. At this point I need to back up a little bit and say that I follow the line of thinking that says the Gospels are well crafted documents and that its “pericopes” (literary units) were placed on purpose to interact with the material around them. That interaction isn’t always chronological. Sometimes its topical. This is not the place to defend that notion, so I’ll just state it and that will explain why one of the major agendas of my thesis was to figure out: “Why here?”  I need to give credit to my supervisor Rikk Watts too for his affirmation towards the beginning of the project that if I could figure out why the passage was placed where it was, I would unlock it’s meaning. He was right.

Here’s what is happening with the temple tax. Jesus has just announced in the preceding two verses that he is going to go to Jerusalem to die. Then in the next passage we have this theme of a temple tax, which is not owed but is paid anyway. Also, the tax in question is a kind of yearly religious obligation that pays for the daily sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple. People literally saw it as an “atonement” for the sins of the nation. That’s why the Jews were actually pretty eager to pay it. With that money they purchased symbolic participation in the  sacrifices that were made in the temple every day. That in itself is enough to point us in the right direction: Jesus has just said he is going to die and now this story about the tax hints at the meaning of his death. It will replace the temple and the atoning value of it’s sacrifices. Jesus, the Son of God, is coming to give himself once and for all for sin, and that will nullify all other sacrifices, not to mention taxes paid to support them.

That’s pretty cool, but it’s only half of the argument. The other half is that in Matthew there are three primary predictions of Jesus death. The one before the Temple Tax passage is the second one. In each of the other two predictions there is a similar pattern: a statement is made about Jesus’ impending death and then a subsequent passage alludes to some sort of redemptive substitution.  For me this seals it. It’s part of a threefold pattern that helps hint at or lead up to to the meaning of Jesus’ death. The message climaxes in the passage after the third prediction where all the hints are made explicit:

“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28)

This is just the big picture. I’ll let you look at the details in the paper if you want. This is just the big picture. It’s kind of nice to just forget about documentation for a bit!

But wait! There’s more! If you buy the temple tax pericope as a ransom interpretation for $19.95, I’ll also throw in the critique of the temple leadership for free. Yes, you heard right. For free. It goes without saying that you have to act now.

There is an odd detail in the temple tax passage. Jesus ask Peter parabolically: from whom do “the kings of the earth” collect taxes? and he uses this to say that, since kings don’t collect taxes from their sons, he (Jesus and Peter by association) are not liable to the tax in question. The Phrase “the kings of the earth” comes form Psalm 2 and it is a well known and used phrase in the New Testament. Why is Jesus using it here? Why is he using the kings of the earth as a basis for his thinking? Elsewhere in the Bible this is a negative phrase. It’s the kings of the earth who resist God and his anointed.

The answer is that Jesus is comparing the priests, whose tax is in question, with the kings of the earth hinting at the role they will play in his crucifixion. As I show in the paper, Psalm 2 is hinted at in other passages in Matthew where the priests and religious leaders plot against Jesus.

Here’s one of cool things this thesis does: It totally turns on it’s head the idea that Jesus paid the temple tax to avoid offending the high priests, the religious establishment or  that he wanted to avoid the impression that he was dismissive of the sacrifices the temple tax funded. All of these views are out there and pretty popular. It’s the other way around: Jesus is offending the temple priests by equating them with “the kings of the earth”. That was almost at the level of name calling. And he is being dismissive of the temple. His death will do away with the need for a temple. This is not a case of gently Jesus meek and mild staying out of trouble by preemptive conflict avoidance. It’s a little more aggressive than that.

Well, that’s the big picture. If you want the details check out the PDF. All this stuff is chapters 4 and 5 the rest is introduction and you can probably skip it, at least initially.

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