- “Be Ye Approved Money Changers!” Reexamining the Social Contexts of the Saying and Its Interpretation
Missing from the canonical Gospels and out of the spotlights that have been shone on Q and the Nag Hammadi library, there exists a hardly tapped source of extracanonical sayings of Jesus (agrapha), namely, sayings (logia) attributed to Jesus quoted by church fathers, heresiologists, and others in texts originating in the earliest Christian churches. In 1889, Alfred Resch—followed shortly thereafter by James Hardy Ropes—published a landmark review of this material in Agrapha: Außercanonische Evangelienfragmente, which was revised in 1906 with the title Agrapha: Außercanonische Schriftfragmente.1 In this article, written over one hundred years after the publication of Resch’s work, I take a closer look at logion 43 of his collection. The agraphon—“Be ye approved money changers” (γίνεσθε τραπεζῖται δόκιµοι)—was not only the most frequently cited of the sayings gathered together by Resch, but it was the one that intrigued him the most. Various Christian sources refer to it many times in one form or another—though sometimes it [End Page 589] is connected to Paul or an unnamed character in a Gospel parable and not Jesus.2 In wide-ranging orthodox, heterodox, and proto-orthodox contexts, it is always deployed analogically in relation to the practice and skill of discernment—how one determines a given text, teaching, or even leader to be authorized or approved, just as the money changer tests the authenticity of coins to avoid counterfeits. In this article, I take another look at Resch’s logion 43 and reevaluate the often maligned profession of Jerusalem temple money changer. In addition to questioning a familiar narrative and assessments of this saying by scholars in more recent decades, I will argue for the prominence and meaningfulness of this metaphorical saying in the social contexts within which we encounter the earliest Christian communities.
Money changers, especially those who worked their trade at the temple in Jerusalem, have a most notorious reputation. This is evident after even a cursory review of historical (e.g., see Shakespeare’s Shylock, Rembrandt’s Christ Driving the Moneychangers from the Temple ) and contemporary (just Google) references to these money changers in popular Christian literature, political debates over financiers taking unseemly profits, and anti-Semitic tracts.3 As is commonly deduced from Matt 21:12; Mark 11:15; and John 2:14–15, not only did Jesus himself in an unusual moment of holy rage “cleanse” the temple by overturning the money changers’ tables and driving them out with the sellers of pigeons, but these money changers were implicated in the destruction of the very institution upon which their livelihoods depended. Ominously invoking Jeremiah, the prophet most associated with the destruction of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, Jesus charged the Second Temple money changers of his day, along with those buying and selling animals for sacrifice, with having turned God’s house into a den of thieves (Matt 21:12–13; [End Page 590] Mark 11:15–17; Jer 7:11). While in Luke 19:45 temple money changers and buyers are curiously left out of the telling of this event, in the verse preceding this parallel account Jesus most famously predicts the destruction of the temple. The ritual of sacrifice itself, as multiple Christian traditions have it, is thereby to be made obsolete. The author of Luke-Acts, for many early church fathers and contemporary theologians alike, depicts a Christianity that has already begun to move beyond temple observances by the time of the speech of Stephen.
More importantly for the future of Jewish–Christian relations, Mark and Luke associate the so-called cleansing of the temple with threats made against the life of Jesus. The reputation of Jewish money changers is thereby, if we are to believe some traditional commentators, stained with the blood of the divine. The actions of these Jerusalem Jews of Jesus’ time, which, according to popular Christian European convention prevalent into the mid-twentieth century and adopted by scholars as respected as Max Weber, purportedly led to the destruction of the temple and subsequent exile of the Jews from their homeland, were not to be...