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Jesus' message was totally unacceptable to the religious leaders of his day, both regarding the Kingdom of God, and his subversion of the national vision that the Messiah, the Promised One of Israel should be a military hero and ruler in the image of King David. This is quite clear from any reading of the four Gospels, and indeed Jesus' own statement at the house of Zacchaeus, where he stated that he had come for the lost of the people of Israel (see Chapter Seven of this book). Most of the religious leaders do not appear to have understood Jesus at all – as we see from Nicodemus' visit in John 3 – Jesus was evidently astonished at this great man's lack of understanding of spiritual matters.
The authorities saw Jesus' great popularity as a serious threat to their position, and they sought by every means possible to deny his credentials as a Teacher of the Law (a Rabbi). They tried to undermine his popularity by publicly challenging him with what they took to be un-answerable legal questions. A Rabbi who could be induced under pressure to give what they saw as flawed answers to serious questions would quickly lose his credibility. Many of the questions they asked Jesus were the subject of heated debate within Judaism at the time, so the direct answers he gave were all the more astonishing to them. In fact, it was his ability to demonstrate a far superior understanding of Mosaic Law that had the effect of undermining the authority of his opponents! The people were astonished and delighted with the straight answers he gave. “He wasn't like the teachers of the Law; instead he taught with authority.” (Matthew 7:29 GNB). John's Gospel notes that early on, the Sanhedrin (Glossary9 were meeting to discuss how they might lawfully dispose of him (John 7).They had already given up any realistic chance of defeating him in public debate. However, on his final journey to Jerusalem, passing through Capernaum, an ideal opportunity presented itself to discredit him:
When Jesus and his disciples came to Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Does your teacher pay the temple tax?” “Of course,” Peter answered:
When Peter went into the house, Jesus spoke up first, “Simon, what is your opinion? Who pays duties or taxes to the kings of this world? The citizens of the country, or the foreigners?” “The foreigners,” answered Peter. “Well, then,” replied Jesus, “That means that the citizens don't have to pay. But we don't want to offend these people. So go to the lake and drop in a line. Pull out the first fish you hook, and in its mouth you will find a coin worth enough for my temple tax and yours. Take it and pay them our taxes.” GNB
Passing from town to town on his journey, Jesus and his disciples (and their by now quite large group of followers) would have hospitality and financial support provided by the better-off of their local devotees. Capernaum was a rich city, and they would hope to receive assistance to help them on their way. For the whole group this was quite an important stop. They would, however, have realised that on entering the city just before Passover (Glossary), they would risk meeting the collectors of the temple tax. This tax was to pay for the upkeep of the daily ceremonies at the temple in Jerusalem, and for the sacrificial system which atoned for the sins of the nation. (Again, this account betrays the writer's detailed knowledge of many of the legal niceties of Judaean society before AD 70.)
The temple tax was considered a correct and honourable tax for a Jew to pay. It consisted of a half shekel (Glossary) for each male over the age of 20 (Exodus 30:11-16) and should ideally be paid in the highest quality Tyrian (Glossary) coinage of full weight in silver. The Romans produced a similar low-grade coin in Antioch and elsewhere, which was rather under weight. If you paid the temple tax with a Roman “stater” (pronounced “statta”) you were required to pay an “agio” – a small additional percentage to make up the full value. In the run-up to festivals throughout the year, Tyrian coinage was in high demand. The temple shekel was officially the good quality Tyrian stater, which was sufficient to cover the tax for two men. However, if one man paid for himself and a poor man, as a charitable act, then the Antioch shekel, without any agio, was acceptable for the two.
The temple tax collectors (as opposed to those collecting taxes for the Roman occupying forces)were Jews of good character who – while not experts in the Law – would nevertheless be highly regarded in society. They would be reluctant to approach a Rabbi direct, as someone who might be difficult to handle, and in particular they would be reluctant to approach Jesus. They would know that, in general, Rabbis were exempt from the temple tax, but in Jesus' case they would be uncertain of his precise status, and by that stage Jesus' responses were known to be highly unconventional. Rabbis were definitely people to be wary of, as many of the most senior ones had the standing of High Court Judges in Jewish society at the time. So the collectors approached Peter instead, as the evident leader of the disciples. His response to tax collectors was a typically impulsive one: “Yes, of course we pay taxes!”
Peter then approaches Jesus, but etiquette requires that he must wait for Jesus to raise the matter with him (Matthew 17:25). Jesus would be aware that the approach had been made, and asks the question “From whom do the Kings of this world collect taxes? From their children, or from strangers?” Peter replies correctly, “From strangers.” Jesus says, “Then the children are free...” KJV. Most commentators refer to the idea that the Romans collected taxes from their subject nations in order to provide “bread and circuses” and freedom from taxes for Roman citizens in Italy. In fact this is incorrect because the Romans – like all Kings of this world – collected tax from their own citizens as well. Here Jesus is actually referring specifically to the Royal household, the King's own administrative staff – who are the only ones in the Kingdom who don't pay tax – because the taxes are raised for the purpose of sustaining them!
Jesus is alluding to the priestly system in the Temple, by which the priests were sustained by the tax payers, and were themselves free of tax. Over the years it had become established practice for this exemption to be applied to Rabbis and their disciples, too. Jesus is well aware that legally he and his disciples are not really required to pay the temple tax. However, he is also aware that, were he to refuse, he might be detained in Capernaum while the tax collectors referred to the authorities in Jerusalem for a ruling on the issue. Given the chance, his opponents in Jerusalem would insist he must pay – thus hoping to de-value his status in the eyes of the people of Capernaum. Jesus knows that the collectors would then be forced to commit an unlawful act, exacting tax from someone who was not liable to pay it – so, should he refuse to pay, Jesus would be putting them in the position of committing a sin.
The translators have misunderstood this passage, with Jesus saying “We must pay, lest we offend them...” He is not in the least concerned about offending people. He is much more concerned about the collectors and their relationship with God. So he instructs Peter to go down to the lake, and catch a fish. “The first one you take, open its mouth and look inside, take the stater that you find there, and pay the tax for you and for me.” (To pay the tax from the common purse, held by Judas, would not be appropriate. The tax was not legally due, so that would be considered misappropriation of funds.)
This was an instruction to Peter alone. It was Peter alone who went down to the lake and did what he was told. At first sight it may seem odd that we are not told whether he found the coin in the fish's mouth and the miracle actually happened. But if Peter went alone, no-one else would have witnessed the event, and the account could not be proved to be true in a Court of Law. The absolute honesty of Matthew would prevent him from reporting the find when he wrote about the incident.
The catfish in Lake Galilee grow very large (over a metre). They are never eaten by the Jews as they have no scales and are therefore forbidden under Mosaic Law (Leviticus 11:11). You can easily catch them in East Africa today, with a big hook and a piece of aluminium on the end of it. They have very poor eyesight, lie in the shallows at the edge of the lake, and will lunge at bright objects fluttering down in the water. Scavengers, they tend to lie around quays and places where fishermen land their catches, in order to benefit from the offcuts of the fish cleaning process. An object the size of a stater would not be easy to swallow and might easily lodge in the gills at the back of the mouth.
Under Jewish Law, property which is truly lost becomes the property of the first finder49 Nothing could be more truly lost than a stater in a fish's mouth – so every aspect of the Law is covered perfectly by the events recorded with such integrity by Matthew – himself once a tax collector. This was just one of the stories in the great number of oral accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus which would really appeal to him – he was certainly part of the group when it happened.
Not understanding the Jewish legal background in this situation has led modern scholars down numerous blind alleys in their attempts to understand this story. Unfortunately, almost all our theological scholars come to Biblical studies from a university education in the Classics, mainly consisting of Latin history and Greek mythology. Coming from that background to study the Hebrew Scriptures, although written in Latin and Greek, is a poor preparation. It is as if, say, an Indian who has studied French literature, in French, from the age of 7-21, starts learning English for two years from age 21 and then embarks on a study of Shakespeare, in English. It is unlikely that the work produced would compare favourably with similar work by someone with an entirely English education and background. Dr. Vermès has stated that “without the help of Jewish exegesis it is impossible to perceive any Christian teaching in its true perspective”. It is the absence of theologians with a properly equipped Jewish background that has left New Testament scholarship in the hands of people who have permitted themselves liberties which in other parts of the intellectual world would be thought extraordinary50
The principles of law regarding taxation in this account are quoted in Buddhist legal arguments documented around AD 150, showing already an extensive knowledge of the Gospels in India in that period. I believe Derrett was the first to describe the legal implications of the situation of the tax collectors. It seems to me that ignorance of so much of pre AD 70 Jewish culture and law really has clouded much of our understanding of Jesus' actions and sayings.
It was fascinating to discover that around 1960 a hoard of a consignment of temple dues was found by accident at Isfiya on Mount Carmel. It consisted of 3,400 Tyrian shekels, 1,000 half shekels, and 160 Roman denarii. It is thought that the 160 Roman coins represent 8% on the 1,000 half shekels, which is approximately the “agio” mentioned by Rabbi Meir in the Mishnah(Glossary). This shows that in one community 1,700 men could pair up to pay their tax, and at least 1,000 could not.51
Then everyone went home, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early the next morning he went back to the Temple. All the people gathered round him, and he sat down and began to teach them. The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees brought in a woman who had been caught committing adultery, and they made her stand before them all. “Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “This woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. In our Law Moses commanded that such a woman must be stoned to death. Now, what do you say?” They said this to trap Jesus, so that they could accuse him. But he bent over and wrote on the ground with his finger.
As they stood there asking him questions, he straightened himself up and said to them, “Whichever one of you has committed no sin may throw the first stone at her.” Then he bent over again and wrote on the ground. When they heard this, they all left, one by one, the older ones first. Jesus was left alone, with the woman still standing there. He straightened himself up and said to her, “Where are they? Is there no-one left to condemn you?” “No-one, sir,” she answered. “Well, then,” Jesus said, “I do not condemn you either. Go, but do not sin again.” GNB
Although this story now appears in the Gospel of John, it only starts to appear in the copies of John being produced around AD 250. Previously it had been attached to Luke, at the end of Chapter 21, as one of the final major events in Jesus' last week of teaching at the Temple, immediately before his arrest. During that week he seems to have been teaching in one of the porticos of the courtyard, and early each morning large numbers of people would go to hear him (Luke 21:37-38 “Early each morning all the people went to the Temple to listen to him.” GNB). It seems to me that the original placing in Luke, rather than its current place in John, is the point in his ministry where this account actually belongs. Jesus' lecture is interrupted by a crowd of “Scribes and Pharisees” (which is likely to be an inclusive term for all his opponents). Scribes were lawyers with widely differing views – there were different sorts of Pharisee, as we have already noted, and Teachers of the Law, who wished to put other points of view across. Judaism prior to AD 70 was a remarkably fractured entity, all pulling in different directions, but largely united in their opposition to Jesus, whose welcome of repentant sinners was totally unacceptable to them all.
This particular account relates what is obviously a conspiracy to trap him into saying he is not serious about sin. Anti-nomianism (Glossary) seems to have been a charge levelled at certain sections of the Christian church throughout its history. So this gang burst in on Jesus' meeting – a colossal breach of etiquette when a Rabbi was in the middle of a discourse with his students. The text indicates that the interruption was extremely aggressive, loud, and insistent. The unfortunate woman they dragged before him had apparently been caught in the act of sexual relations with someone who was not her husband. Her accusers were pointing to the Law of Moses and demanding that she be stoned to death. In fact the Law seemed to require that both offenders, the man and the woman, should be stoned to death, but it was common practice at the time for the man to buy himself out of trouble with a suitable bribe. A wife, not having funds of her own, would not be in a position to do so. In this case the male offender seems to have declined to have bought her out of trouble as well, as had also been known to happen52
So far as the Scribes and the Pharisees were concerned, this was an open and shut case – no question. There had to be two or three competent male witnesses, of a suitable age, who had witnessed the whole event, and could describe precisely what happened. There was no doubt in their minds that this woman was guilty. The consent of a Rabbi had to be obtained before the death sentence could be carried out. Since the verdict was clear, their reason for bringing the case to Jesus was an obvious attempt to discredit him, to see if he would disagree with the Law of Moses. False Teachers were dealt with severely within Judaism and there were many precedents of their being summarily stoned to death. According to legal precedent, Jesus could be stoned too, if he could be shown to be teaching contrary to the Law of Moses.
These were not nice people. They had a mob at their back who wanted to take part in killing this unfortunate woman. The impertinent insistence of the questions thrown at Jesus regarding this matter were a tremendous test. The text shows that Jesus had no intention of engaging in a shouting match with this group. He very calmly stooped down and wrote some Hebrew letters in the dust with his finger.
I should explain at this point that Rabbis were experts in Jewish customary law; in the Hasidic tradition of the inter-testamental period, this customary law was based on the original legal principles established by Moses in the Pentateuch (Glossary). Discussions about these legal issues are summarised in the Mishnah, which is a written collection of debates between Rabbis on various matters. A very live issue during Jesus' lifetime, and one much debated, concerned matters dealing with sexual immorality, how to deal with husbands and wives, grounds for divorce, etc.
Previous decisions in specific cases would often be relied upon by a Rabbi in presenting a particular point of view, much as in the case of English legal argument today. When I had to appear in Bow Street Magistrates' Court on a charge of “obstruction of the highway”, after (quite legally!) preaching in Leicester Square, London, I gave notice that in my defence I would be relying on the leading case of Nagy v. Weston. Just referring to this case by name meant that my defence would depend on a decision by the then Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Lane: in four detailed paragraphs he had set out the High Court's definition of what would or would not amount to the offence of “obstruction” within the meaning of the Highways Act 1959. Simply quoting “Nagy v. Weston” imported a whole set of principles which did not have to be explained to the Judge hearing my case. Counsel for the Police also recognised that they would be likely to lose, and withdrew their prosecution. I was awarded substantial costs – without having to go through the specific details of Lord Lane's judgement, which both sides already knew and understood. In the same way, the letters Jesus wrote in the dust may have been a reference to a legal precedent.
One situation very much discussed at the time of Jesus was the famous case of Susanna. A young woman, she was apparently the victim of an arranged marriage to a rather unpleasant old man who was disappointed and offended by her apparent unwillingness to fulfil his fantasies. He exacted his revenge by bribing two witnesses to accuse Susanna of adultery. Their plot was unmasked by an extremely clever young Rabbi named Daniel, who showed that the accusations were untrue. As a result, the Sanhedrin, who were sitting in judgement, sentenced the husband and the two accusers to suffer the penalty they had intended for Susanna53
Rabbi Daniel relied on Exodus 23:7 to establish their guilt: “Do not make false accusations, and do not put an innocent person to death, for I will condemn anyone who does such an evil thing.” GNB. The other verse relied on by Rabbis in similar cases was Exodus 23:1-2 “Do not help a guilty person by giving false evidence. Do not follow the majority when they do wrong, or when they give evidence that perverts justice.” GNB. Derrett thinks that the first writing that Jesus made would have been a number of Hebrew letters referring to Exodus 23:1-2, and the second writing would have been a similar group of letters referring to Exodus 23: 7. The first writing would not have disturbed this woman's accusers particularly, but the second one definitely would. The implication was that if they did stone her, they would then need to prove to him that their accusations were true. Failure to do so might well incur a similar penalty for them.54
There was also the question as to why the witnesses had not sought to prevent the woman from sinning, and thus saved her from such awful consequences. Not having done so made them appear very much as collaborators in the offence that had taken place.Jesus stood up straight and said,“Whichever one of you has committed no sin may throw the first stone at her”. This really did give them pause for thought. It was the second writing which led to the withdrawal of the woman's accusers. One imagines them sullenly leaving, one by one, the older ones first – fairly quickly, angry and disappointed. They certainly were not prepared to face the likely consequences of their proposed actions.
Eventually the woman is left there, all alone. Jesus asks “Where are they? Is there no-one left to condemn you?” “No-one, sir.” she replies. Jesus says “I do not condemn you either. Go – but do not sin again.” GNB.
This final statement by Jesus in front of all his original audience was a serious public rabbinical warning to anyone guilty of a first offence of adultery. Effectively, he was putting her on probation.If such a thing were to happen again, she would undoubtedly suffer the death sentence – she wouldn't stand a chance, a second time. The Law of Moses required that any woman guilty of a first offence of this nature must be released with a warning55 The question about whether she had been given such a warning is not mentioned, and therefore we assume that she had not received one. At this time the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law do not seem to have been operating strictly within Mosaic guidelines. This case really does underline the responsibility that God's people have towards one another.
As a body, scholars have failed to understand this story, which only admits a Jewish exegesis (Glossary). In the eyes of ordinary people, Jesus' astonishing ability to trump “the Scribes and the Pharisees” absolutely every time, with such regularity, clarity and quiet authority, diminished their opposition greatly and greatly reduced their standing and their credibility as Teachers of the Law – in just the way they sought to reduce his. The judicial murder they were plotting against him – a desperate scheme only very reluctantly acquiesced to by the Romans – was really their only hope of removing him from the scene. The stature of Jesus with the people by that stage was so great, they had to eliminate him somehow, to recover their credibility with the population.
49 Derrett, J. Duncan. M. (1970): Law in the New Testament. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. Ch. 11
50 Derrett, J. Duncan. M. (1970): Law in the New Testament. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. p. 265
51 Derrett, J. Duncan. M. (1970): Law in the New Testament. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. p. 250
52 Derrett, J. Duncan. M. (1970): Law in the New Testament. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. Ch. 7
53 Derrett, J. Duncan. M. (1970): Law in the New Testament. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. p. 185-186
54 Derrett, J. Duncan. M. (1970): Law in the New Testament. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. p. 181
55 Derrett, J. Duncan. M. (1970): Law in the New Testament. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. p. 174