The meaning of this short passage from Matthew’s Gospel remains a subject of debate. Its context is the tax of a half shekel levied on each person entering Capernaum, as a contribution towards the upkeep of the Temple in Jerusalem. It begins with the encounter between the tax collectors and Peter, who at the outset accepts that Christ will pay it. Peter then goes to Christ, who responds by asking his opinion on whether the sons or the subjects of earthly rulers should pay toll and tribute to their king, to which Peter replies that only the subjects need do so. Christ agrees, saying that the sons of the kings are ‘free’, and it is implicit in his response that He, as the son of God, is also ‘free’ of the obligation to pay the tax.
These exchanges are told in the first three verses of the passage (vv.24–26), which concludes in the fourth (v.27), where Christ, despite not needing to pay the tax, nevertheless will pay it in order to avoid causing offence, presumably to the authorities in Capernaum, or to the Temple in Jerusalem, or both.
Unlike Christ’s other miracles, there is, to put it colloquially, a ‘so what?’ quality to the miracle of the Tribute Money, and Christ’s willingness to compromise for the sake of not giving offence is disquieting. To explain this, commentators from St Thomas Aquinas (Newman 1841: 616–20) to Bishop Hugh Montefiore (2009) have constructed elaborate arguments, rooted in the character of Peter, the relationship between church and state, and the social and legal conventions of first-century Judaea, though none has received universal acceptance.
The passage’s elusive meaning, however, does make it a pliable subject for the relatively few patrons who have used it as a metaphor for their own experience, as exemplified in George Hayter’s idiosyncratic reading. But the main reason it has proved to be one of the less popular of Christ’s miracles in the visual arts is almost certainly the challenge that the passage’s total lack of dramatic or emotional content presents to the artist. The text comprises a sequence of questions and answers that conclude with Christ telling Peter to take the shekel from the fish’s mouth. The action, taking place somewhere in Capernaum and in Peter’s house, is static and involves only Peter, the tax collectors, and Christ.
Hayter, unconcerned with theological debate, focuses on the dramatic conclusion of the story rather than a learned interpretation of the text. This is the moment when Peter, still clutching the dead fish, delivers the coin to the tax collector. Hayter also enlivens the scene by including Christ, Matthew, and another disciple, not present in the biblical account.
The anonymous carver of the Magdeburg tablet also introduces witnesses, not present in the text. However, he links Christ’s command, in verse 27, with its consequence, the finding of the fish, through the simple artifice of having Peter face Christ to receive his instruction, whilst his body executes it.
Masaccio keeps faith with biblical narrative, but still invests the composition with extraordinary emotional intensity, enacted within a convincing three-dimensional space. He brings the tension of the encounter between Peter and the tax collector to life, fusing this scene with the meeting of Christ and Peter that followed. He animates their dialogue through expression, gesture, and colour, and heightens the sense of drama by introducing an audience of carefully individualized and critically attentive disciples. Though silent, the words spoken by the tax collector, by Peter, and by Christ are ‘heard’ at the edges of the fresco, in the finding and the payment of the shekel, as Peter reappears multiple times in the time and space Masaccio’s genius has created.
McEleney, Neil J. 1976. ‘Who Paid the Temple Tax? A Lesson in the Avoidance of Scandal’, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 38: 178–92
Montefiore, Hugh. 2009. ‘Jesus and the Temple Tax’, New Testament Studies, 11.1: 60–71
Newman, John Henry. 1841. Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels Collected out of the Works of St Thomas Aquinas, vol. 1, St Matthew, part 2 (John Henry Parker, Oxford and J. G. F. and J. Rivington, London)
Ottenheijm, Eric. 2014. ‘“So the Sons are Free”: The Temple tax in the Matthean Community’, in The Actuality of Sacrifice, Past and Present, ed. by Alberdina Houtman et al. (Leiden: Brill), pp. 71–88
24 When they came to Caperʹna-um, the collectors of the half-shekel tax went up to Peter and said, “Does not your teacher pay the tax?” 25He said, “Yes.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their sons or from others?” 26And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. 27However, 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; take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”