Money Changers, Then & Now

3 February 2010

Today I spent two hours getting money changed from one currency to another. Only one bank had the facilities to make this particular exchange (the Central Bank of Turkey, sort of like the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank), so the travel to and from the bank is what took the lion’s share of the time; the actual exchange took maybe seven minutes. Did Paul and the other early missionaries have to do this kind of thing? And would the ancient equivalent of the cabby try to “take them for a ride” and make money off the “tourists”? Probably “yes” is the correct answer to both these questions.

Excavations at Ephesus thus far have unearthed more than one agora (a “marketplace” or business district). Each of them is at least the size of JCU campus west of Belvoir. One appears to include a synagogue, so the best guess is that it was a Jewish market. There were public buildings in the government area, and various temples on the street that ran alongside it. Traditionally, temples served many of the purposes of modern banks. The wealthy could deposit funds or valuable objects there for safekeeping (sort of an ancient equivalent of our “safety deposit box”). Lenders deposited their debt instruments in the temples; one of the duties of the temple staff was to keep written records of who owed what to whom. Did the synagogues do the same? We don’t know (yet). The Temple in Jerusalem did, of course—which is why the first act of the revolutionaries in A.D. 66 was to wrest control of the Temple from the senior priests and destroy the debt records­—but it is difficult to imagine Diaspora Jews using the Temple for this purpose: it certainly would necessitate a long and arduous journey just to retrieve grandma’s jewels or silver for a dinner party.

As for exchanging money, Roman coinage probably was negotiable throughout the Empire, but many cities and regional governments also minted their own coinage. (The tetrarch, Herod Antipas is one example; follow this link to see an example of his coinage). Observant Jews, however, probably avoided using Roman money (e.g., viz. Jesus’ absence of money in Mark 12:15, and Seer John’s claims [Rev 13:17 &c.] that those who carry or use Roman coinage wear “the mark of the Beast”). Roman coinage bore images of the emperor, empress, and other “divinities,” as well as inscriptions proclaiming the divine status of the reigning emperor (e.g., Octavian is “Augustus/Sebaste” [“worthy of worship”], “Dominus et Deus “ [“Lord and God”], and “Divi Filius” [“Son of God”—i.e., son of the divinized Julius Caesar]. Claims such as these might be fine for polytheists, but they would not be acceptable to Jews. The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem minted shekels with images of flora, but they abjured images of fauna or humans—and they certainly never claimed divine honors for a human being. Whatever the shopkeepers in Jerusalem took for negotiable currency, contributions to the Jewish Temple and purchases of sacrificial animals had to be made in shekels, not Roman (or Syrian, or Egyptian) coinage. Hence the importance of the “money changers” who are chastised in what Paula Fredericksen has labeled Jesus’ “Temple Tantrum” (e.g., John 2:13-16; cf. Mark 11:15-17 & //). For Jews like Jesus, money posed a problem, not only because of its inequitable distribution, but even its very existence.

For Jesus’ early disciples, choosing which currency to use could be a matter of religious as well as economic importance. It is highly unlikely that shopkeepers in Ephesus or Antioch would take Jewish shekels. What’s a Jewish tentmaker to do? Seer John implies that the answer is to barter goods and avoid money altogether. Paul himself never explicitly answers this question, but his attitude toward foods sacrificed to pagan deities (e.g., 1 Cor 8) suggests that he would not have been troubled about using Roman money. Hence, Seer John would have no money to exchange, whether in Jerusalem or elsewhere. Paul, however, would most likely have had to make that exchange—for example, when he and the emissaries from the Gentile congregations brought their contributions to the community of disciples in Jerusalem (viz., e.g., 2 Cor 8).

Who knows whether or not Paul & Co. got a fair exchange rate from the moneychangers in the Temple? Did Jesus’ chastisement have any long-term effect? Did it resonate in the memories of those who continued to provide that financial service? We’ll probably never know. However, if Acts is correct, Paul and his companions did get taken for a ride—although not from a cabby. The Jerusalem church “laundered” the money from the Gentile communities by applying it to the cost of the redemption sacrifice for some men who were concluding the period of their Nazirite vow (Acts 21:17-26; cf. Num 6:1-21). Instead of using the contribution as an opportunity to recognize the legitimacy of Paul’s gospel that the Gentile disciples should be accepted as full members of the Jesus-believing community, rather than as second-class citizens in a Jewish church, the funds were used to reinforce the continuing validity of the Mosaic law for all of the disciples of Messiah Jesus, not only those who were born and raised as Jews.

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The Bible According to McGinn

People, places, and other points of interest relating to the Biblical texts

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