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George MaherNovember 22, 2023
“Driving of the Merchants From the Temple,” by Scarsellino (Wikimedia Commons)

I am sitting at a desk in the City of London, and as I look up and out through the window in front of me, I see one of the churches built by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666.

London, when the church of St. Lawrence Jewry was built, was a place of great energy and excitement. The civil war that had led to the execution of a king was long in the past. A new king had been crowned, and the city that had been destroyed by fire was being rebuilt in a new and vigorous style. Soon there would be a great financial transformation. The Bank of England, the Stock Exchange and Lloyd’s of London would be founded.

But for all that, London of the 17th century lacked the financial development of Rome in the first century A.D. Repeated attempts to recreate the stable currency of Roman times failed, including attempts by Isaac Newton and others. It was not until the early part of the 19th century that the world again had a currency and banking system as robust as that of Rome.

The world into which Jesus was born had its own excitement, its own freshness and its own modernity. The decades before his birth had been a long period of civil war throughout the Roman Empire. Expansion through conquest had brought unbelievable wealth in treasure, land and slaves but also inequality and conflict. The old order collapsed, and dictatorship emerged.

Then, seeing what was being lost, those who remembered the past constructed a new settlement, a new balance of power. Reforms were instituted. The power of the Senate was reduced but not eliminated. A new executive position of first citizen was established. The army was changed from one financed by the proceeds of conquest to one where soldiers served a 25-year career, were paid a fixed salary and received a pension lump sum of about $100,000 (by modern measures) on retirement. The wealth of the newly acquired province of Egypt, the gold accumulated by pharaohs over centuries, was used for the manufacture of coins and the creation of a new money system not to be rivaled until 19th-century Britain. There was a great increase in the money supply. Other changes happened. For example, the province of Egypt, no longer shut off by the pharaohs, was opened up so that Roman traders could ship to and from the Red Sea ports to India and beyond.

It was this trade that supplied Mary, in John 12:1-8, with the jar of costly ointment, the pure nard, with which she anointed the feet of Jesus. Nard is produced from a plant in the honeysuckle family, which grows in the Himalayas. Trading enterprises moved this and other commodities from India to Egypt and then across the Mediterranean. Evidence of their trade remains in the large number of Roman coins found in India and in what is now Sri Lanka, Dubai and Aden. Evidence for that trade also survives in papyri that describe such ventures, the cargo transported, the financial arrangements and the profits made. One such venture produced profits of over $50 million, by modern measures. Itineraries were produced that named the towns met along the way, as well as what the inhabitants had to sell and wanted to buy. These ships carried cargos of an average 300 tons, unlike a camel train moving along the Silk Road in medieval times, which could only carry loads totaling 10 tons.

Whoever bought that ointment had spent 300 denarii, which is about $10,000 today, and it is with such expense that Mary is honoring Jesus before she washes his feet with her hair. This kindness provokes Judas Iscariot to anger. The ointment could be sold—for the benefit of the poor, he claims—but John tells us that Judas is a thief and will take it for himself. Christ responds gently: Leave her alone, and let her keep it for my burial. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.

It was trade that brought that nard to Jerusalem: private enterprise at its best, with individuals using their knowledge, negotiation skills, relationships and accumulated finances to make money. The state benefited from it, too. Cargo arriving at the Red Sea ports was taxed at 25 percent. All of this was paid for in Roman coins and notes. The Roman currency was dominant across the empire and well beyond because it was the Roman policy to eliminate all rival currencies.

‘Render unto Ceasar’

In Jerusalem, however, they made an exception. For generations, the Jews had paid a temple tax and had paid it in shekels. The Romans allowed this currency to remain, but only for the purposes of paying the temple tax. It was not a legal tender and is not used in the New Testament for commercial transactions. For example, the Good Samaritan offers the innkeeper the Roman denarii, not shekels. When at the miracle of the loaves and the fishes the disciples complain about the cost of feeding the 5,000, the amount of money is stated in denarii and not shekels.

This arrangement of paying the temple tax in money that did not circulate created a problem—and an opportunity. Those who wanted to pay needed to convert the money they had earned into the coin needed to pay the temple tax. It was as if St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York would only accept a special religious coin for the lighting of candles, and as if Fifth Avenue were lined with hucksters buying the coins from the cathedral and selling them to worshipers at whatever price they chose—exploiting those they could, driving up the price by holding back supply, and turning prayer and devotion into the worst kind of commercial exploitation. In full and righteous anger, Christ overturns the tables of these hucksters and puts to shame all those who had permitted and profited from the trade.

But that was not his attitude when the temple authorities tried to trick him with a money question. They asked him if was it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. If he answers one way, he sides with a state that they will present as the oppressor of his people. If he answers the other way, they will present him as a rebel. Their purpose is to create division and to turn people against him, and it doesn’t matter who.

His reply is gentle, and it is wise. It is not a political reply. He asks them whose face is on the coin and when they answer, “Caesar’s.” He replies, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” The face on the denarius coin is Caesar’s, but there is more to it than that. Almost all of the silver in the Roman coins came from the Spanish silver mines, where tens of thousands of slaves and convicted criminals worked for private limited-liability companies extracting silver on an industrial scale, under contract to the state. These coins were distributed to pay for the building and maintenance of infrastructure and for the army, and they were collected back in taxes.

These coins were the oil that lubricated a system. A denarius was the day wage of a laborer, as described in the parable of Matthew 20 11:12. Without this money system the laborer could not be paid, and the master would find it hard to get his work done.

The Romans had developed a system in which gold and silver and copper coins were exchanged at fixed rates, not speculators’ rates. It allowed the soldier who was paid in gold coins to do business with a laborer paid in silver coins, and for both to buy bread with a copper coin. The coin returned to Caesar was coin he had given out in the first place, and all, including the temple authorities, benefited from this new currency. The temple authorities have nothing to offer as good as this highly developed international currency and had never created one when they had the chance.

Debt and Forgiveness 

Jesus understood the coins, but he also understood how the rest of the system worked, and uses it in his parables. He understood credit, which is more than just money borrowed. It is trust. The word “credit” is Latin and it means “he trusts” or “he believes.” The creditworthiness of individuals, the belief that promises will be kept, helped businesses to function.

Primitive economies can manage on copper coins. More sophisticated ones need silver, and then gold coins. When an economy develops to the level that happened in the first century A.D., it needs to go to a further stage. It needs notes and a banking system. International trade with profits of $50 million per voyage does not work with tons of gold and silver. Jesus makes reference to large-scale transactions in Luke 7:41-48 when he talks of the forgiveness of debts.

The large transactions in this case—one of about $20,000 and the other of about $2,000, in our terms—were not usually made with coins but with notes, like banknotes. Many such Roman notes survive, and one can be found in a museum in the Bloomberg building in the City of London, which houses a Roman temple and artifacts unearthed when the foundations of the new building were being excavated. It is a contract between two former slaves in which one contracts to pay the other about $5,000, in our terms, on demand. It is transferable. The person to whom the money is owed can sell the note. Possession of that note confers power. If the debtor does not have the money now and the debt is called in today, then he is destroyed and his credit with him. But this is also an opportunity for forgiveness, as Christ so gently teaches us in this parable.

It is also a lesson he teaches us when he teaches us how to pray. When we have asked the Father for the bread that will keep us alive for one more day, he tells us to pray as follows: Cancel my debts, forgive my failure to do what I promised, my inability to do what I ought to do, just as I have canceled the debts of those who owed me money and could not pay.

In A.D. 33, the year in which Christ was crucified, the banking system of Rome came to the brink of collapse, as Tacitus tells us, and was rescued by state intervention, as ours was in 2008-09. The banking system recovered and thrived until the middle of the third century, when a people who had grown rich and complacent forgot how long it had taken to build the world in which they lived and how much care it took to preserve it. It was not until the 19th century that its equivalent was rebuilt, but now held to the demanding standards of forgiveness and charity contained in the teachings of Christ.

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