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At Mtt 22:19-21 we see Jesus outwitting the Pharisees who inquired of him whether it was right to pay tax to Caesar:

"Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

We also see at Mtt 17: 24 when it comes to paying of the Temple Tax :

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” - Matthew 17:24

Clearly, Jews used separate sets of coins viz. the Roman coin denarius for paying tax to the Roman Emperor and the Greek coin drachma to pay the Temple Tax. Presumably the money changers at the Temple were accepting Roman coins and giving Greek coins to the Jews in return, after deducting their commission, so that the latter could use them as offering in the Temple.

But at Mtt 21:12 we see Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers, apparently for the reason that they were over-charging the devotees and thereby `making the Temple a den of robbers '(Mt 21:13). My question therefore is: What was the role of money-changers at the Temple, and why was Jesus harsh with them? What explanation does the Catholic Church give to the angry reaction of Jesus to the money-changers?

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    In the first incident Jesus asks of Peter : 'the kings of the earth, from whom do they receive custom (tele) and tribute (kenson) ?' indicating that the didrachma required is to the government, not to the temple. You need to prove your thesis first, within your question. It might be better to ask this question on Biblical Hermeneutics since this is a matter of the text and the meaning of the various Greek words.
    – Nigel J
    Nov 19 '20 at 9:44
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    The word kollubistes (Matthew 21:12) does not mean (as elsewhere) 'money changers'. It means 'short-changers'. Some have mistakenly thought that it means 'changers of small coins' - which rather misses the point.
    – Nigel J
    Nov 19 '20 at 9:50
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    The money changers were not changing Roman coins for Greek coins, but changing Roman coins for shekels (Jewish or Tyrian) which were acceptable for use in the Temple, not so much because of images on the coins but because they had a higher purity of silver.
    – Henry
    Nov 19 '20 at 12:47
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    @Henry Can you substantiate that shekels were still in use in the first half of the first century ? I would be interested in the reference.
    – Nigel J
    Nov 20 '20 at 13:39
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    Ken, I don't understand why you edited this question also and put "according to Catholicism", when the person who asked the question didn't ask this. ?
    – Tennman7
    Dec 24 '20 at 1:53
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We know from history and from scripture that there were 3 special "pilgrimage festivals" in the year, when Jews all had to come to Jerusalem. Passover, Pentecost and Feast of Booths/Sukkot, and this is important because it answers your question as to the role of the money changers. Much like the countries in Europe, you can travel a few hours and be in three different countries, with a totally different language, culture and currency. Jews living in another region would have to get their money changed into local currency, as well as the Roman state tax. I never understood the importance of Kantors (money changers) until I lived in Central Europe. In addition to the Jews from other regions, there were also foreigners [Gentiles] and this leads us to the The other, most important reason for Jesus's righteous anger toward the money changers is given to us in 2 places in scripture, but it is often missed. It wasn't WHAT the money changers did that angered Christ, it was WHERE they did it. I also agree that these money changers charged extra commissions, and were cheating the people, but that's more like the 1/2 teaspoon of salt in the cake.

The money changers were both legal and necessary.

Remember the Pharisees were experts in finding 'loopholes' in the law, so that they would technically be following the legal letter of the law, but really, in their hearts they were breaking the law. So we have to look outside the gospels to find the clue we need.

It's found in Isaiah 56:7 and Christ actually quotes part of this passage in one gospel account. It's so fascinating. The chapter heading for Isaiah 56 is "Salvation for Foreigners".

I will bring them to my Holy Mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on My altar, for My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations." - Isaiah 56:7

The story of Jesus cleansing the temple is in several gospels, but only in the Gospel of Mark, we find the other missing piece that solves the riddle. It's in Mark 11:17. In this passage, Christ actually quotes the passage from Isaiah . "And he was teaching them and saying to them, 'Is it not written, My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations, but you have made it a den of robbers."

The temple in Jerusalem had three main sections [besides the holy place, only for priests]. There was the outer court, which was the court of the Gentiles, the court of women, and the court for Jewish males. The money changers set up their tables like a giant Flea Market in the court of the Gentiles - blocking the nations from worshiping like God intended.

It wasn't WHAT the money changers did that angered Christ, it was WHERE they did it. The Pharisees didn't even realize it, but this act of cleansing the temple actually fulfilled a prophecy about the Messiah, written hundreds of years before Christ. Zeal for Your house [his Father's house] will consume Me. Psalm 69:9

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  • +1 There have been 2 signs found in the ruins of the second temple hung along the balustrade of the sanctuary. They read: "No stranger is to enter within the balustrade round the temple and enclosure. Whoever is caught will be himself responsible for his ensuing death." The outer court was literally their only access to worship. Dec 24 '20 at 13:52
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I don't think the issue is that the money-changers were short-changing people or taking a commission. The words "den of robbers" are used in Matthew, Mark, and Luke in order to show a parallel with Jeremiah 7:11, not because Jesus had suddenly gotten really mad about white collar crime. (John doesn't even use the phrase.)

Experts have given all kinds of analyses of this incident, but it seems to me that its meaning is fairly clear if you just look at the main thrust of the story that is being told. The gospels have a major anti-materialist and anti-commercial message. Jesus acted like an itinerant faith healer of a type that was familiar to people of his time and place, but one thing that set him apart from such healers was that he didn't accept money for his cures. He had his followers hold all their property in common and told them not to worry about money because the end of the world was coming. He said that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into heaven. So one main, clear thrust of the gospels is that Jesus is on the side of the poor, is against the rich, and disapproves of money and commerce, especially when they distract from the more important spiritual events going on.

He also spells out pretty clearly in the woes of the Pharisees why he doesn't like the people running the temple. They're entitled fat cats, corrupt and hypocritical. The "den of robbers" phrase, which quotes Yahweh, compares these religious authorities to the people who ran the temple in Jeremiah's time, sacrificing children and worshiping idols. Jesus disapproves of the fact that people are focused on the gold ornaments in the temple. Matthew 23:16: "Woe to you, you blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obligated.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold? And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obligated?’"

When Jesus overturns the tables of the money-changers, he's asserting that the temple has been profaned and corrupted by commerce and by the rich ruling class.

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Tenman7's answer is right on track. To make this a "Catholic" answer (since the answer would have been acceptable to all denominations), here's a more complete reason on why Jesus was justifiably angry, quoted from the Palm Sunday 2019 Reflection written by Fr. Abraham Mutholath of the St. Thomas SyroMalabar Catholic Diocese of Chicago providing historical background, theological reason, as well as OT references:

Commentary on Matt 21:12-13:

(12) Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all those engaged in selling and buying there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves.

The temple area

The Temple of Jerusalem had different sections starting with the Court of Gentiles to the Holy of Holies. Gentiles were allowed only in the Court of Gentiles which was the outermost court of the Temple. It was supposed to be a place for prayer. But there was business taking place in that area when Jesus entered there. Formerly the money exchange and sales of animals for sacrifice were taking place on the Mount of Olives. Later it was shifted to the Court of Gentiles with permission from temple authorities making it unholy, noisy, and unjust.

Selling and buying

The business at the Court of Gentiles was not for selling and buying of general merchandise but a necessary service for the pilgrims coming for the feast of Passover from different countries of the world. The Temple of Jerusalem was the only place where Israelites could offer animal sacrifice. They usually offer five kinds of sacrifices: The burnt offering, the meal offering, the peace offering, the sin offering, and the trespass offering. Various offerings are described in Leviticus chapters 1 to 7. The pilgrims who were coming from faraway places found it convenient to buy sacrificial animals somewhere near the temple area. They were buying animals and birds for sacrifice, and exchanging foreign currency to the acceptable temple money. Bible scholars believe that such business started in the temple area after the return of Jews from Babylonian captivity. By that time, Israelites were dispersed and began to come to the Temple from foreign countries.

Money changers

Adult pilgrims were supposed to offer half shekel for the service of the temple. “Everyone who is enrolled, of twenty years or more, must give the contribution to the LORD. The rich need not give more, nor shall the poor give less, than a half-shekel in this contribution to the LORD to pay the ransom for their lives.” (Exodus 30:14-15). Coins with images were not allowed for offering in the Temple. Pilgrims were coming from different countries with Syrian, Egyptian, or Greek coins. Such coins were stamped with the symbols or images of pagan monarchs. So, they were not acceptable into the Temple treasury. The pilgrims had to exchange them for acceptable coins. Though it was supposed to be a service, great exploitation of the pilgrims was taking place by charging an enormous amount as exchange fee. Jesus could not tolerate that exploitation.

Selling doves

Pilgrims offered lambs and doves in the Temple as sacrificial offering. Those who could not afford to offer lambs could substitute lamb with doves (Leviticus 5:7). According to the gospel of John the merchants were selling also sheep and oxen in the temple for sacrifice (John 2:14).

He overturned the tables … and the seats

What made Jesus furious was (1) the shift of merchandise from the Mount of Olives to the place of prayer for Gentiles, making it a noisy and congested place. (2) Exploitation of merchants with the cooperation of the high priests who were charging high margin for the exchange of money. (3) Merchants exploiting pilgrims by charging high price for sacrificial animals and birds. (4) Priests unreasonably rejecting animals brought by pilgrims from outside for sacrifice, while inspection of any defects of sacrificial animals was done to favor the animal sales persons in the Temple. So, the true spirit of prayer and selfless service was lacking that made Jesus furious and act as a rebellious leader.

(13) And he said to them, “It is written: ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a den of thieves.”

Jesus justified his action by quoting from Isaiah 56:7 and combined it with a phrase from Jeremiah 7:11. Jesus claimed that the house of God was his house because he was God incarnate. The use of “den of thieves” confirmed the exploitation that was happening at that time.

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This was touched upon by Pope Francis in his Angelus Address at St. Peter's Square on March 4th 2018, given before and after the mid-day Angelus prayers. He said:

He did this with a gesture, helping himself with a whip of cords and overturned the tables, saying, "you shall not make my Father's house, a house of trade" (John 2:13-25)

This decisive action carried out close to Passover made a great impression and aroused the hostility of the religious authorities and of all those that felt themselves threatened in their economic interests.

But how should we interpret this? It certainly wasn't a violent action. So true is this that it didn't provoke the intervention of the guardians of public order - the police.

No! But it was intended as a typical action of prophets, who in the name of God, often denounced excesses and abuses.

Pope Francis goes on to say:

To interpret Jesus' gesture of cleansing God's house his disciples made use of a Biblical text, treated in Psalm 69: 'Zeal for thy house has consumed me.' (v. 9) ...

... [It is] Zeal for his Father that will lead him to the Cross: His is the zeal of love that leads to the sacrifice of Himself, not the false love that presumes to serve God through violence.

That is, violence is never an end, but always a means; unlike Nietzsche, where violence, that is Power, is always an end; and according to him, the only worthwhile end. Although this is called by the Nietzschean crowd, the aristocratic creed - Plato was an aristocrat and thought it an abomination.

... These words help us to reject the danger of making our own souls, which is God's abode, a market place, living in constant search for our own benefit instead of in generous love and solidarity.

This teaching of Jesus is timely not only for ecclesial communities, but also for individuals, for civil communities, and for society.

In fact, the temptation to take advantage of good activities, sometimes dutiful, is common, to cultivate private, if not outright unlawful activities. It is a grave danger, especially when it instrumentalists God Himself and the worship due to Him, or the service to man, His image. That is why Jesus used 'strong' ways that time, to shake us from this mortal danger.

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Idols are prohibited in the presence of God, in Exodus 20:3-5. This is why Jesus removes the money changers in Matthew 21:12. The cleansing of the Temple was about removal of Idols (coins with Caesar’s image).

If Caesar’s face was on a coin, the coin became an idol since Caesar was considered to be a diefied being.

Caesar the Idol / Diety

On this day in 42 BC Julius Caesar was declared a god by the Roman Senate. It was the first time in history that a Roman citizen was officially deified. Interestingly, Caesar was officially declared a god only after his death (he was assassinated approximately 14-and-a-half months earlier). As a Roman deity, Caesar was given the title Divus Julius (The Divine Julius). A temple to him was built next to the Roman Forum (Forum Romanum), adjacent to the famous Temple of Vesta. Later, temples in his honor were built in other cities of the Roman Empire. The first Roman emperor – Octavian Augustus – was the adopted son of Julius Caesar and was allowed to carry the title of Divi Filius (Son of the Divine).
( https://history.info/on-this-day/42-bc-julius-caesar-proclaimed-god/ )

The Denarius of Caesar

"As the first living person to be depicted on Roman currency, the issuing of these coins also reflected Julius Caesar’s unique (and perilous) status as the first Roman leader to be declared “dictator in perpetuity,” which contributed to his assassination only a few months later."

[On the Denarius from 44 BC] : "Caesar is depicted with a veil over his head which refers to his role as pontifex maximus, the high priest of the Roman religion.

(https://www.dartmouth.edu/~yaleart/objects/coins/denarius-of-julius-caesar/)

Roman Mythology of Caesar's silver Denarius

Julius Caesar was born into a prominent Roman family, one that counted the founder of Rome and the goddess Venus as ancestors. A silver denarius of 47 to 46 B.C. celebrates Caesar’s illustrious ancestry from the goddess Venus & the mythological [founder of Rome] Aeneas carrying his father away from burning Troy. - As one version of Rome’s foundation mythology was recorded, Aeneas went on to found Rome and the Gens Julia, the family of Julius Caesar.
(https://www.ngccoin.com/news/article/5243/NGC-Ancients/)


In the rejection of roman mythology and observance of Exodus 20:3-5, Jesus of Nazareth taught his disciples the following : "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." - Mark 12:17

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    I suspect (a) the Caesar on Roman coins around 30-35AD was not Julius Caesar but instead Tiberius Caesar Augustus who was not deified until after his later death and (b) the Temple coins that Roman coins were changed into may have had an image of Melqart who was the god of Tyre identified as Hercules by Greeks
    – Henry
    Nov 20 '20 at 15:31

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