The Tyrian Shekel and the Temple of Jerusalem

Students of the Bible are aware of the connection between the Jerusalem Temple and the city of Tyre. Hiram, king of Tyre, sent cedars of Lebanon, cypress logs and artisans to Jerusalem to help King Solomon build the First Temple (I Kings 5; II Chron. 2).

Most people may not be aware that there is a connection between the city of Tyre and the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the Tyrian shekel.

Every year, a Jewish man, 20-years old and older, paid a voluntary half shekel Temple tax to the Jerusalem Temple. This tax, instituted by Moses (Ex. 30:11-16), was paid in either the Tyrian shekel (for himself and another person) or half-shekel (for only himself) during the Second Temple period ( Mishnah Bekhoroth 8:7; Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 11a).

The shekel, with the laureate head of Melqarth-Herakles (a pagan deity) on the obverse and an eagle (a graven image) on the reverse, averaged 14.2 grams in weight and contained at least 94% silver. These coins were minted in Tyre between 126/125 BC and 19/18 BC. After the Roman government closed the Tyre mint, these coins continued to be minted at an unknown mint, probably in or near Jerusalem, from 18/17 BC until AD 69/70. The Jewish celators continued to strike coins with the image of Melqarth-Herakles and the eagle. This was contrary to the clear teachings of the Word of God (Ex. 20:3,4: Deut. 4:16-18; 5:8). Yet the rabbis declared that the Tyrian shekels were the only legal currency that was acceptable in the Temple (Hendin 2001: 420-429; 2002: 46,47). The rabbis decided that the commandment to give the half-shekel Temple tax, with its proper weight and purity, was more important than the prohibition of who or what image was on the coin.

The Tyrian shekel is mentioned at least twice in the New Testament. The first time it is mentioned is in Matt. 17:24-27 when the Temple Tax collectors asked Peter if he and his Master paid the Temple tax. Peter replied in the affirmative. The Lord Jesus, seeing a teaching opportunity on Biblical greatness, demonstrated humility by paying the Temple tax for Himself and Peter with a shekel coin from a fish’s mouth (Franz 1997:81-87). The second mention is in Matt. 26:14, 15 when Judas betrayed the Lord Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, most likely Tyrian shekels from the Temple Treasury.

Bibliography

Franz, G.

“Does Your Teacher Not Pay the [Temple] Tax? (Matt. 17:24-27). Bible and Spade 10/4: 81-87.

Hendin, D.

Guide to Biblical Coins. Fourth Edition. New York: Amphora.

Tyre Coins and Graven Images. The Celator 16/2: 46, 47.