The Economics and Commercial Activity within the Temple Complex

The following is an excerpt from Alfred Edersheim’s book Life and Times of Jesus. He lived between 1825-1889 so all the references to the value of money are only applicable to his era and would be vastly increased if we could convert that monetary value into 21st Century figures.

For, all Jews and proselytes – women, slaves, and minors excepted – had to pay the annual Temple-tribute of half a shekel, according to the ‘sacred’ standard, equal to a common Galilean shekel (two denars), or about 1s. 2d. of our money…

…From the 15th to the 25th Adar the money-changers had stalls in every country-town. On the latter date, which must therefore be considered as marking the first arrivals of festive pilgrims in the city, the stalls in the country were closed, and the money-changers henceforth sat within the precincts of the Temple.

All who refused to pay the Temple-tribute (except priests) were liable to distraint of their goods. The ‘money-changers’ made a statutory fixed charge of a Maah, or from 1½d. to 2d.(or, according to others, of half a maah) on every half-shekel. This was called qolbon. But if a person tendered a Sela (a four-denar piece, in value two half-shekels of the Sanctuary, or two Galilean shekels), he had to pay double qolbon; one for his half-shekel of tribute-money, the other for his change. Although not only priests, but all other non-obligatory officers, and those who paid for their poorer brethren, were exempted from the charge of qolbon, it must have brought in an immense revenue, since not only many native Palestinians might come without the statutory coin, but a vast number of foreign Jews presented themselves on such occasions in the Temple. Indeed, if we compute the annual Temple-tribute at about 75,000l., the bankers’ profits may have amounted to from 8,000l. to 9,000l., an immense sum in the circumstances of the country.

But even this does not represent all the facts of the case. We have already seen, that the ‘money-changers’ in the Temple gave change, when larger amounts than were equivalent to the Temple-tribute were proffered. It is a reasonable, nay, an almost necessary inference, that many of the foreign Jews arriving in Jerusalem would take the opportunity of changing at these tables their foreign money, and for this, of course, fresh charges would be made. For, there was a great deal to be bought within the Temple-area, needful for the feast (in the way of sacrifices and their adjuncts), or for purification, and it would be better to get the right money from the authorised changers, than have disputes with the dealers.

We can picture to ourselves the scene around the table of an Eastern money-changer – the weighing of the coins, deductions for loss of weight, arguing, disputing, bargaining – and we can realise the terrible truthfulness of our Lord’s charge that they had made the Father’s House a mart and place of traffic.

But even so, the business of the Temple money-changers would not be exhausted. Through their hands would pass the immense votive offerings of foreign Jews, or of proselytes, to the Temple; indeed, they probably transacted all business matters connected with the Sanctuary. It is difficult to realise the vast accumulation of wealth in the Temple-treasury. But some idea of it may be formed from the circumstance that, despite many previous spoliations, the value of the gold and silver which Crassus carried from the Temple-treasury amounted to the enormous sum of about two and a half millions sterling. Whether or not these Temple money-changers may have transacted other banking business, given drafts, or cashed those from correspondents, received and lent money at interest – all which was common at the time – must remain undetermined. 

Readers of the New Testament know, that the noisy and incongruous business of an Eastern money-lender was not the only one carried on within the sacred Temple-enclosure. It was a great accommodation, that a person bringing a sacrifice might not only learn, but actually obtain, in the Temple from its officials what was required for the meat, and drink-offering. The prices were fixed by tariff every month, and on payment of the stated amount the offerer received one of four counterfoils, which respectively indicated, and, on handing it to the proper official, procured the prescribed complement of his sacrifice.

The Priests and Levites in charge of this made up their accounts every evening, and these (though necessary) transactions must have left a considerable margin of profit to the treasury. This would soon lead to another kind of traffic. Offerers might, of course, bring their sacrificial animals with them, and we know that on the Mount of Olives there were four shops, specially for the sale of pigeons and other things requisite for sacrificial purposes. But then, when an animal was brought, it had to be examined as to its Levitical fitness by persons regularly qualified and appointed. Disputes might here arise, due to the ignorance of the purchaser, or the greed of the examiner. A regularly qualified examiner was called mumcheh (one approved), and how much labour was given to the acquisition of the requisite knowledge appears from the circumstance, that a certain teacher is said to have spent eighteen months with a farmer, to learn what faults in an animal were temporary, and which permanent.

Now, as we are informed that a certain mumchehof firstlings had been authorised to charge for his inspection from four to six Isar (1¼d. to about 2d.), according to the animal inspected, it is but reasonable to suppose that a similar fee may have been exacted for examining the ordinary sacrificial animals. But all trouble and difficulty would be avoided by a regular market within the Temple-enclosure, where sacrificial animals could be purchased, having presumably been duly inspected, and all fees paid before being offered for sale.

It needs no comment to show how utterly the Temple would be profaned by such traffic, and to what scenes it might lead. From Jewish writings we know, that most improper transactions were carried on, to the taking undue advantage of the poor people who came to offer their sacrifices.

Thus we read, that on one occasion the price of a couple of pigeons was run up to the enormous figure of a gold denar (a Roman gold denar, about 15s. 3d.), …

This leads up to another question, most important in this connection. The whole of this traffic – money-changing, selling of doves, and market for sheep and oxen – was in itself, and from its attendant circumstances, a terrible desecration; it was also liable to gross abuses. But was there about the time of Christ anything to make it specially obnoxious and unpopular?

The priesthood must always have derived considerable profit from it – of course, not the ordinary priests, who came up in their ‘orders’ to minister in the Temple, but the permanent priestly officials, the resident leaders of the priesthood, and especially the High-Priestly family. This opens up a most interesting inquiry, closely connected, as we shall show, with Christ’s visit to the Temple at this Passover. But the materials here at our command are so disjointed, that, in attempting to put them together, we can only suggest what seems most probable, not state what is absolutely certain.

What became of the profits of the money-changers, and who were the real owners of the Temple-market? 

To the first of these questions the Jerusalem Talmud gives no less than five different answers, showing that there was no fixed rule as to the employment of these profits, or, at least, that it was no longer known at that time. Although four of these answers point to their use for the public service, yet that which seems most likely assigns the whole profits to the money-changers themselves.

But in that case it can scarcely be doubted, that they had to pay a considerable rental or percentage to the leading Temple-officials. The profits from the sale of meat- and drink-offerings went to the Temple-treasury. But it can hardly be believed, that such was the case in regard to the Temple-market.

On the other hand, there can be little doubt, that this market was what in Rabbinic writings is styled ‘the Bazaars of the sons of Annas’ (Chanuyoth beney Chanan), the sons of that High-Priest Annas, who is so infamous in New Testament history. When we read that the Sanhedrin, forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem, transferred its meeting-place from ‘the Hall of Hewn Stones’ (on the south side of the Court of the Priest, and therefore partly within the Sanctuary itself) to ‘the Bazaars,’ and then afterwards to the City, the inference is plain, that these Bazaars were those of the sons of Annas the High-Priest, and that they occupied part of the Temple-court; in short, that the Temple-market and the Bazaars of the sons of Annas are identical. 

If this inference, which is in accordance with received Jewish opinion, be admitted, we gain much light as regards the purification of the Temple by Jesus, and the words which He spake on that occasion. For, our next position is that, from the unrighteousness of the traffic carried on in these Bazaars, and the greed of their owners, the ‘Temple-market’ was at the time most unpopular. This appears, not only from the conduct and words of the patriarch Simeon and of Baba ben Buta (as above quoted), but from the fact that popular indignation, three years before the destruction of Jerusalem, swept away the Bazaars of the family of Annas, and this, as expressly stated, on account of the sinful greed which characterised their dealings. And if any doubt should still linger in the mind, it would surely be removed by our Lord’s open denunciation of the Temple-market as ‘a den of robbers.’

Of the avarice and corruption of this High-Priestly family, alike Josephus and the Rabbis give a most terrible picture. Josephus describes Annas (or Ananus), the son of the Annas of the New Testament, as ‘a great hoarder up of money,’ very rich, and as despoiling by open violence the common priests of their official revenues. The Talmud also records the curse which a distinguished Rabbi of Jerusalem (Abba Shaul) pronounced upon the High-Priestly families (including that of Annas), who were ‘themselves High-Priests, their sons treasurers (Gizbarin), their sons-in-law assistant-treasurers (Ammarkalin), while their servants beat the people with sticks.’

What a comment this passage offers on the bearing of Jesus, as He made a scourge to drive out the very servants who ‘beat the people with sticks,’ and upset their unholy traffic! It were easy to add from Rabbinic sources repulsive details of their luxuriousness, wastefulness, gluttony, and general dissoluteness. No wonder that, in the figurative language of the Talmud, the Temple is represented as crying out against them: ‘Go hence, ye sons of Eli, ye defile the Temple of Jehovah!’ These painful notices of the state of matters at that time help us better to understand what Christ did, and who they were that opposed His doing. 

These Temple-Bazaars, the property, and one of the principal sources of income, of the family of Annas, were the scene of the purification of the Temple by Jesus; and in the private locale attached to these very Bazaars, where the Sanhedrin held its meetings at the time, the final condemnation of Jesus may have been planned, if not actually pronounced. All this has its deep significance.

No figure is better known in contemporary Jewish history than that of Annas; no person deemed more fortunate or successful, but none also more generally execrated than the late High-Priest. He had held the Pontificate for only six or seven years; but it was filled by not fewer than five of his sons, by his son-in-law Caiaphas, and by a grandson.

1. Annas I AD 6-15
2. Eleazar (son): AD 16-17
3. Caiaphas (son-in-law): AD 18-36
4. Jonathan (son): AD 36-37
5. Theophilus (son): AD 37-41
6. Matthias (son): AD 42-43
7. Annas II (son): AD 61-62
8. Matthias (grandson): AD 65-68 (son of Theophilus)

And in those days it was, at least for one of Annas’ disposition, much better to have been than to be High-Priest. He enjoyed all the dignity of the office, and all its influence also, since he was able to promote to it those most closely connected with him. And, while they acted publicly, he really directed affairs, without either the responsibility or the restraints which the office imposed. His influence with the Romans he owned to the religious views which he professed. to his open partisanship of the foreigner, and to his enormous wealth.

The Sadducean Annas was an eminently safe Churchman, not troubled with any special convictions nor with Jewish fanaticism, a pleasant and a useful man also who was able to furnish his friends in the Praetorium with large sums of money.

We have seen what immense revenues the family of Annas must have derived from the Temple-booths, and how nefarious and unpopular was the traffic. The names of those bold, licentious, unscrupulous, degenerate sons of Aaron were spoken with whispered curses. [a Pes. 57 a.]

“Woe to the house of Annas!
Woe to their serpent’s hiss!
They are high priests;
their sons are keepers of the treasury,
their sons-in-law are guardians of the temple,
and their servants beat people with staves.”

Without referring to Christ’s interference with that Temple-traffic, which, if His authority had prevailed, would, of course, have been fatal to it, we can understand how antithetic in every respect a Messiah, and such a Messiah as Jesus, must have been to Annas.

He was as resolutely bent on His Death as his son-in-law, though with his characteristic cunning and coolness, not in the hasty, bluff manner of Caiaphas. It was probably from a desire that Annas might have the conduct of the business, or from the active, leading part which Annas took in the matter; perhaps for even more prosaic and practical reasons, such as that the Palace of Annas was nearer to the place of Jesus’ capture, and that it was desirable to dismiss the Roman soldiery as quickly as possible, that Christ was first brought to Annas, and not to the actual High-Priest.

Josephus also wrote about the House of Annas

“Now the report goes, that this elder Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons, who had all performed the office of high priest to God, and he had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests” (Ant 20:198)

This is what Josephus wrote about Annas II

“Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned” (Ant 20:200).

“a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who were rigid in judging offenders” (Jos Ant 20:199)

“As for the high priest Ananias, he increased in glory everyday, and this to a great degree, and had obtained the favour and esteem of the citizens in a signal manner, for he was a great hoarder of money; he cultivated the friendship of Albinus (the Roman governor), and of the high priest (Jesus) by making them presents. He also had servants who were very wicked, who joined themselves to the boldest sort of people, and went to the thrashing floors, and took away the tithes that belonged to the priests by violence, and did not refrain from beating such as would not give these tithes to them. So the other high priests acted in the like manner, as did those his servants without anyone being able to prohibit them, so that (some of the) priests, that of old were wont to be supported with those tithes, died for want of food” (Ant 20:9:205-207).