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In Matthew 17:24-27 tax collectors in Capernum approach Peter and demand: “Doth not your master pay the tribute?” This money is usually assumed to be Jewish tribute money paid to the Temple. Why couldn't it be tribute money paid to Rome?

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  • This question asks for an opinion. 'Why does everyone seem to assume . . . . ' can only provoke opinion based answers as to what a variety of persons 'seem' to 'assume'. I suggest an edit and an inquiry based on what the text actually means would be more suitable. Welcome to SE-BH. Please see the Tour and the Help (below) as to the purpose and the functioning of the site.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 15 at 20:15
  • It was tribute money paid by Jews to Rome. Thus, whether one calls it Jewish tribute money or Roman tribute money is a matter of taste. Neither title appears in the text of Matt 17. Indeed, the word, "money" does not even appear in the text. Neither does the word "tax".
    – Dottard
    Jan 15 at 20:26
  • @Dottard then do you agree with those who say it was collected for the upkeep of a Roman temple after the destruction of Jerusalem? Jan 15 at 21:28
  • @DanFefferman - When it came to money and taxes, the distinction between Jews and Rome (made clear in public) was quite blurred behind the scenes. It appears that because the temple was a money-making tourist attraction, Rome collected the tax for the financing of the temple. Thus, the Jewish authorities, at least on this matter (as well as Christ's crucifixion) were duplicitous - shunning Rome but accepting its money!
    – Dottard
    Jan 15 at 21:32
  • I see. I picture these tax collectors a Jews, not Romans. Are there historical sources directly indicating that Romans collected the temple tax? Jan 15 at 21:41

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The confusion results in part from a translation issue arising from the King James Version and similar Bibles. The Greek term here is not "tribute money" but δίδραχμα - didrachma (two drachmas).

Bibletools.org argues:

The Greek word behind "tax" (NKJV) or "tribute" (KJV) in verse 24 is didrachma, equivalent to the Jewish "half-shekel," the Temple rate paid by every male Israelite above age twenty. Those responsible for collecting these half-shekels came to Peter. Unlike tolls, which were duties on goods, the Temple tax was levied on individual Israelites. The collected money, paid into the Temple treasury, defrayed the cost of Temple services. The Jews were much more willing to accept this collection than to pay the despised publicans who extracted taxes for Rome.

But there is disagreement as to whether this really refers to the Temple tax required from every Jewish male or a later tax collected by Rome to support the Temple of Jupiter - a punishment for the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 c.e. The answer depends in part on whether one thinks Matthew was written before or after the destruction of Jerusalem. A note from the NABRE version:

Before the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in A.D. 70 every male Jew above nineteen years of age was obliged to make an annual contribution to its upkeep (cf. Ex 30:11–16; Neh 10:33). After the destruction the Romans imposed upon Jews the obligation of paying that tax for the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. There is disagreement about which period the story deals with.

The latter explanation results in an anachronism, because this Roman tax was not imposed until several decades after Jesus' death. So the reason most interpreters think this was a Temple tax is that the didrachma was the equivalent of the Jewish half-shekel; and also, understanding the didrachma as a Roman tax would not be historically accurate.

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Ellicott explains this in his comments on Matt 17:24 -

(24) They that received tribute money.—The word for tribute here is didrachma, and differs from that of Matthew 17:25; Matthew 22:17. The latter is the census, or Roman poll-tax; the former was the Temple-rate, paid by every male Israelite above the age of twenty (Exodus 30:13-16; 2Chronicles 24:9). It was fixed at a half-shekel a head, and the shekel being reckoned as equal to four Attic drachmæ, was known technically as the didrachma (Jos. Ant. iii. 8, § 2). It was collected even from the Jews in foreign countries, was paid into the Corban, or treasury of the Temple, and was used to defray the expenses of its services.

The Cambridge commentary is similar:

After the return from the Babylonian captivity, all males among the Jews of twenty years of age and upwards (on the ground of the command in Exodus 30:13 f.; comp. 2 Chronicles 24:6 : Nehemiah 10:32; 2 Kings 12:4 ff.) were required to contribute annually the sum of half a shekel, or two Attic drachmae, or an Alexandrian drachma (LXX. Genesis 23:15; Joshua 7:21), about half a thaler (1s. 6d. English money), by way of defraying the expenses connected with the temple services.

While this is commonly understood and accepted by most, it is not completely certain.

Further, the KJV is somewhat misleading in these verses - the word "temple", "money" is not in the text but inserted by the KJV translators as an interpretive translation. Here is a very literal translation (BLB) of Matt 24:24-27 -

And they having come to Capernaum, those collecting the didrachmas came to Peter and said, "Does your Teacher pay the didrachmas?" He says, "Yes." And he having entered into the house, Jesus anticipated him, saying, "What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth receive custom or tribute? From their sons, or from strangers?" And he having said, "From the strangers," Jesus said to him, "Then the sons are free. “But so that we may not offend them, go to the sea, cast a hook, and take the first fish you catch. When you open its mouth, you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for My tax and yours.”

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Without reading anything into the text of Matt. 17:24-27 that is not written in the text of the KJV Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible, I don't see how a person can distinguish whether it was Jewish atonement money they were asking about or Roman tribute money paid by one nation for protection by another. If a person is going to attribute the problem to the translation of the KJV, that poses another problem of how much of the rest of the translations can we rely upon? If the original word for tribute was actually didrachma in the Greek, that would identify which tribute money it was referring to, but my Bible does not refer the word tribute there to the Greek dictionary at the end as it does some other words. The text, as written, doesn't identify the persons, nor which tax it was for, neither the type of coin in the fish's mouth. Also, when did Jesus otherwise ever care about not offending anyone who was criticizing him or his disciples? He offended the scribes and Pharisees many times, even his own disciples (Matt. 16:23) among others.

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    – agarza
    Jan 17 at 5:02
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There were two types of coins prevalent in Jesus' time: the Jewish coins which had engraving of olive branches etc and the Roman coins which had the image and name of Caesar. The former known as Drachma only were accepted in the Temple, as we see the money changers doing good business, in Mtt 21:12-13( Think of a tourist shopping in Paris wayside market with American dollars which first need to be exchanged into Euro at a commission ) . The coins that Peter got from the mouth of the fish, believed to be a tilapia which has the habit of swallowing anything that appear dangerous to the fingerlings, was also the Jewish coin which would never be accepted as Roman Imperial tax ( See Jesus making the Jews identify Caesar's image on the coin in Mk 12:15-17) Thus, the payment made by Peter was for Temple tax. Only subject of difference of opinion should be the discussion on ' exempt sons' and the ' offend them not' remark of Jesus ( Mtt 17:25-27).

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