Is Matthew's Account of the "Two-Drachma Tax" Fishy or Authentic?
Upon examination, Matthew appears to have extremely specific and detailed information about Jewish law, tax policy, and monetary value in first century Palestine.
In Matthew 17 there’s a fascinating story about paying taxes that helps to vindicate the authenticity of Matthew’s report. According to Mt 17:24, collectors of “the two-drachma tax” (Gk. didrachma) approached Peter outside his Capernaum home and asked, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” After answering this question in the affirmative, Peter went inside the house (presumably to get the money to pay these gentlemen), but as soon as he entered, Jesus decided to ask Peter an important question of his own—which I’ll explore in some detail in Part 2 of this article.
The question I’d like to focus on here is whether or not there really was such a thing as a “two-drachma tax.” As it so happens, there was. According to Exodus 30:11-16, all Jews were required to take an annual census, and everyone over the age of twenty was required to pay a “half shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary” to go toward “the service of the tent of meeting.” And later, when this portion of the Torah was translated into Greek, the “half shekel” was rendered didrachmon, which is the same word Josephus used in his description of this annual Jewish tax.1
So, in light of this information, it appears that the men who approached Peter in this section of Matthew’s Gospel weren’t actually on Caesar’s payroll, but instead were Levites authorized by the chief priests to collect the “temple tax,” which was specifically required by the Law of Moses. So, whereas Jesus’ famous saying about “rendering to Caesar that which is Caesar’s” (Mt 22:21, Mk 12:17, Lk 20:25) invites us to think about the relationship between Christianity and culture, and the extent of our civic responsibilities as dual citizens (Acts 2:28, Phil 3:20), this passage encourages us to think about the relationship between the old and new covenants. In this scene, Jesus asks Peter, “What do you think Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel (Gk. statera). Take that and give it to them for yourself and for me” (Mt 17:24-27).
In the second installment of this article, I’ll discuss some of the fascinating theological implications of Jesus’ words in this passage, but in this post I’d simply like to bring to your attention a few more details that end up giving credibility to the claim that the Gospel of Matthew is a first-hand account, written by an actual eyewitness. As it turns out, the Greek word stater referred to a coin that was equivalent to four drachmas, or a single shekel. And according to the Mishna, only one coin had been authorized to be the official “sanctuary shekel” in Second Temple Judaism (in fulfillment of the requirements laid down in Exodus 30:13). Likely due to their weight and silver content, shekels paid to the temple treasury were to be “in Tyrian coinage.”2 Since the coin in the image at the top of this article is an official Tyrian shekel, I believe this is the type of coin Peter found in the fish’s mouth.
Now, according to the Jerusalem Talmud, “when someone pays a half shekel to the Temple, he is liable to a surcharge, to cover the cost of changing the money for the Temple’s purposes.”3 This fits well with the accounts reported by three of the Gospel writers, that “money-changers” were involved in the buying and selling of sacrificial animals (Mt 21:12, Mk 11:15, Jn 2:14). Thus, before a person could make a purchase, they first needed to acquire Tyrian coins. And as the Talmud indicates, individuals were forced to pay a surcharge if they didn’t have this type of coinage. In fact, that portion of the Talmud goes on to say that when brothers or partners “together give the Temple tax of a half-shekel, paying a whole shekel to the Temple…they pay the surcharge over and above the shekel.”4
So when Matthew tells that Peter would end up paying the “two-drachma” tax for himself and Jesus with a single “stater,” we now have external confirmation that a) such a tax was in fact required of Jews during this period, and that b) such a coin would indeed cover the cost of that obligation (without any surcharge if it was minted in Tyre). In short, upon close inspection, Matthew seems to have very specific knowledge of first-century Jewish law, tax policy, and monetary value. The information he provides about the value of a stater, particularly when applied to an obscure tax that was only applicable to Jews is surprisingly accurate, and this would be very difficult for someone from another place or time to get right if the story were fabricated—particularly in an age without handy research tools such as Google or Wikipedia.
But it actually gets better. What time of year do you think this particular tax was levied? According to the Mishna, “On the first day of Adar they make a public announcement concerning shekel dues (Ex 30:13)…On the fifteenth day of that month…they repair the paths, roads, and immersion pools…And they mark off the graves…[and] set up money-changers’ tables in the provinces. On the twenty-fifth [of Adar] they set them up in the Temple.”5 The month of Adar came just before Nisan, which is the month that Passover was celebrated. In fact, this accounts for all the preparation work mentioned in the above quotation from the Mishna, since so many visitors traveled to Jerusalem for this important feast. And this Jewish text specifically indicated that the annual temple tax obligation was announced on “the first day of Adar”—essentially a month and a half before the beginning of Passover.
So does Matthew provide any clues as to when the collectors of the temple tax arrived at Peter’s door? Well, just before that scene took place, Jesus told his disciples, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men…” (Mt 17:22). Then, after taking a chapter to report a handful of his sayings, Matthew indicates in the first verse of chapter 19 that Jesus began his final journey south to the region of Judea. In chapter 20, he says that “as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside [and told them] the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death” (Mt 20:17-18). Now since we know that Jesus was crucified on the eve of Passover, working backward (and triangulating with material from the other Gospels), it seems extremely plausible to suggest that the collectors of the temple tax arrived at Peter’s house a month and a half earlier, sometime around the beginning of Adar.
In Part 2 of this article, I’ll discuss the miraculous discovery of the coin in the fish’s mouth, and the theological significance of Jesus’ words to Peter, which helps us to better understand the difference between the old and new covenants.
Shane Rosenthal is the founder and host of The Humble Skeptic podcast. He was one of the creators of the White Horse Inn which he also served as host from 2019-2021, and he received an M.A. in Historical Theology from Westminster Seminary in California.
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Josephus, Ant. 18.9.1.
Mishna, Bek. 8:7.
Jerusalem Talmud, Qiddushin 1:6.
Mishna, Sheqal 1:1ff.