The Temple Treasury had always been an object of cupidity (lust or strong desire) for foreigners. The foreigners knew that there was a huge amount of money there pretty much at all times. It was plundered several times through the years by the Syrians and Romans. At the last siege, though, Titus and his soldiers could not get to the bounty because the fire was raging too strongly. All the heathen countries around Jerusalem knew that there was an enormous influx of gold coming into the Temple in Jerusalem.
From Biblical history, we can know how liberal the people were in giving voluntary contributions so that sacrifices could be made for them. Any object, or even a person, might be dedicated by vow to the altar. If the thing or person vowed were suitable, it would be used; if not useable in that way it would be sold and its value given to the treasury.
From Jewish tradition we gather that there must have been much competition among the people for distinction in these areas. The wood, the incense, the wine, the oil, and all the other things requisite for the sacred services, as well as golden and silver vessels, were contributed by people competing against each other to see who could give the finest of things. Certain families obtained special privileges, in that the wood that they brought would always be used first for the altar fire. In some of the old manuscripts it is written that some of the people even left their whole fortune to the Temple. It was often discussed and written, so it may have been a common occurrence for people to do this. They must have thought that they would be granted special favors in Heaven for leaving their earthly treasures to the Temple.
It is also thought, though, that many of the Scribes and Pharisees may have been privy to obtaining some of these funds, though there is no direct evidence of it. That may have been one of the reasons that they were so against Jesus. After the people had gotten truly saved, they wouldn’t have had to sacrifice animals anymore because Jesus had made the ultimate sacrifice.
Besides the offerings talked about above, and the sale of the surplus of incense, flour, etc., the people were asked on the Sabbaths and feast days to bring voluntary contributions ‘in their hand’ to the Temple.
Another very large source of revenue was from the profit made by the meat offerings. These were prepared by the Levites and sold every day to the people. But by far the largest sum that was designated to be given by every male Israelite of age, was the half-shekel Temple Tribute. It is hard to know exactly how much this would be in our money today, but the shekel of the sanctuary was double the ordinary shekel. When all the Israelite men had given, it amounted to a substantial sum of money.
Matthew 17: 24 makes mention of this Tribute Money as Jesus told Peter to go catch a fish and look in its mouth and get the money out to pay the money that was owed. This portion of Scripture fixes the date of this event. For annually, on the 1st of Adar (the month before the Passover), proclamation was made throughout the country by messengers sent from Jerusalem of the approaching Temple Tribute. On the 15th day of Adar, the money changers opened stalls throughout the country to change the various coins that might be brought in from settlers abroad. Everything had to be changed into the ancient money of Israel. Custom had it that nothing but the half-shekel, that God had instructed them to give years earlier, could be received into the treasury. On the 25th of Adar business was only transacted within the precincts of Jerusalem and of the Temple, and after that date those who had refused to pay the tribute could be taken to a court of law and enough of their goods taken away to pay the tribute money. The only exception to this was priests. There was no tribute money to be received from heathens or Samaritans. They could give other ways to the Temple, but were not to give the half-shekel.
The law also fixed the rate of discount which the money-changers were allowed to charge those who procured from the Temple coin. If a person was caught cheating in this area, it was regarded as one of the most heinous civil offences.
For Bible times, the amount paid annually to the Temple Treasury was a huge amount. It’s easy to see how Jesus could have antagonized so many people when he overthrew all the moneychangers and tables that sold goods in the Court of the Temple. The vendors were making good money and they didn’t want to give it up.
Only a century before, the Pharisee party was in power and they had carried an enactment by which the Temple Tribute was to be enforced at law. This was not what Jesus intended and it was not in the scriptures. He wanted people to give because their heart was in the right place and they wanted to worship the one true God. The Old Testament did not anywhere provide legal means for enforcing any payment for religious purposes. Gradually, though, they came to regard the Temple Tribute as ‘a ransom for their souls’.
So many were the givers and so large their gifts that they were always first brought to certain central places, and then the most honorable of the people carried them as ‘sacred ambassadors’ to Jerusalem. The richest contributions came from the crowded Jewish settlements in Mesopotamia and Babylon, where the Jews had been deported to when Jerusalem fell earlier. There were special treasuries built for their reception in the cities of Nisibis and Nehardea, and a large armed escort annually accompanied the ‘ambassadors’ to the country of Palestine.
In the Temple all these moneys were emptied into three large chests, which were opened with certain formalities at each of the three great feasts.
How The Money Was Spent
All the revenues were in the very first place devoted to the sacrifices offered in the name of the whole congregation of Israel, such as the morning and evening sacrifices, the festive sacrifices, etc. This payment had been one of great controversy among the Pharisees and the Sadducees. They wanted all of Israel to be represented in the purchase of the public sacrifices. When the three chests were emptied, they each represented separate things. One was for the land of Israel, another for the neighboring lands, and the third for distant lands. The Temple treasury defrayed all else necessary for the services of the sanctuary; all Temple repairs, and the salaries of a large staff of regular officials, such as those who prepared the shewbread and the incense; who saw to the correctness of the copies of the law used in the sunagogues; who examined the Levitical fitness of sacrifices; who instructed the priests in their various duties; who made the curtains, and lastly, not omitting the fees of the Rabbis. After all of this lavish expenditure there was not only enough to pay for the repairs of the city-walls, the roads, and public buildings, about Jerusalem, but sufficient to accumulate immense wealth in the treasury!
The picture below is a ledger entry of how things were written down and how records were kept for the business that was carried out in the Temple.