Buried Coins: Jesus and the Parable of the Talents

Back in 2014, news broke that archaeologists digging near the Jerusalem–Tel Aviv Highway had uncovered a cache of ancient Jewish coins. The inscription and images on the 114 bronze coins allow us to date them precisely to AD 70—the exact year that the Romans conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. In the midst of this turbulent time, a Jewish person saw fit to place the money in a small ceramic box and bury it for safekeeping.

“Evidently someone here feared the end was approaching and hid his property, perhaps in the hope of collecting it later when calm was restored to the region,” said one of the archaeologists involved in the excavations.

Readers of the Gospels will no doubt recall Jesus’ Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14–30), in which a similar action occurs. In this context, a “talent” was a very large sum of money (not a special ability). The parable goes like this:

“For it is just like a man going on a journey. He called his own slaves and turned over his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; and to another, one—to each according to his own ability. Then he went on a journey. Immediately the man who had received five talents went, put them to work, and earned five more. In the same way the man with two earned two more. But the man who had received one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground, and hid his master’s money.

“After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five talents approached, presented five more talents, and said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents. Look, I’ve earned five more talents.’

“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Share your master’s joy!’

“Then the man with two talents also approached. He said, ‘Master, you gave me two talents. Look, I’ve earned two more talents.’

“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Share your master’s joy!’

“Then the man who had received one talent also approached and said, ‘Master, I know you. You’re a difficult man, reaping where you haven’t sown and gathering where you haven’t scattered seed. So I was afraid and went off and hid your talent in the ground. Look, you have what is yours.’

“But his master replied to him, ‘You evil, lazy slave! If you knew that I reap where I haven’t sown and gather where I haven’t scattered, then you should have deposited my money with the bankers. And when I returned I would have received my money back with interest.

“‘So take the talent from him and give it to the one who has 10 talents. For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have more than enough. But from the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. And throw this good-for-nothing slave into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (HCSB)

The third slave in the parable does basically the same thing the owner of these newly discovered bronze coins did: bury them in the ground. Evidently it must have been a reasonably common thing to do. What’s interesting, though, is that the owner of the bronze coins buried them in the context of war. He or she was living at a time when the Jewish nation was collapsing under the onslaught of Rome’s forces. Judea was falling! In the hope of surviving the calamity, the owner buried the coins in order to come back to them at a later time.

This action helps us understand Jesus’ Parable of the Talents a little better. The dynamic at work in the parable is not merely economic investment, but rather measures taken during a time of war. Let’s unpack this.

To begin with, let’s notice the context. The parable comes near the tense culmination of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew’s Gospel. On arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus clears the moneychangers out of the temple (Matt 21:12–13). He tells the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matt 21:33–46), in which he takes aim at the Jewish leaders, who also happened to be wealthy landowners. Jesus uses the way they would no doubt have treated recalcitrant tenants on their lands to describe what God would do to them because they were rejecting Jesus and plotting to kill him. Jesus also puts the leaders in their place when they try to trap him with the question of paying taxes to Caesar (Matt 22:15–22). In Roman-occupied Judea, the question of paying Roman taxes was an incendiary issue. But using a coin with Caesar’s image on it, Jesus beats the leadership at their own game. There are economic themes running throughout these incidents, and in all cases they point to the villainy of the nation’s leaders. They were sealing the fate of the nation.

Finally, Jesus launches a verbal attack on the leaders before he laments over the future of Jerusalem (Matt 23). Jesus unpacks this in Matthew 24, explaining that not one stone of the temple would remain upon another (Matt 24:2). The nation was heading for downfall under the current corrupt leadership, and the people would find themselves in dire circumstances.

The Parable of the Talents then comes after the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt 25:1–13). Both parables have the theme of acting now in preparation for what’s to come. And what is to come? The nation’s downfall.

It is not all dire news, however. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus has been gathering a new people of God around himself—a remnant whose faith in him will enable them to survive as the people of God beyond the downfall of the nation. These are people who repent in the face of the coming Kingdom of God (Matt 4:17). They listen to Jesus’ words and, as it were, build their house on a rock, rather than on sand (Matt 7:24–27). When the future storm comes to pound the nation, theirs is the house that will survive. The storm was the catastrophe of AD 70, in which the nation fell and its “house” (the temple) was left desolate (Matt 23:38).

In the Parable of the Talents, we are not told the reason why the master departs and leaves his property in the keeping of his slaves. If we removed the parable from its context, we might suppose he went on a business trip. But the whole surrounding context is one of doom. It is more in keeping with the tense atmosphere of this end of the Gospel if the master were actually heading away on affairs of state or a military endeavour. Notice that as soon as Jesus finishes the parable, he discusses the Son of Man coming in all his glory to judge the nations (Matt 25:31–32). There is a clear parallel here: just as the master comes to settle affairs with his slaves, so the Son of Man comes to judge the nations. In both cases, the master figure returns in triumph. By implication, his absence is a time of tension and uncertainty.

This helps explain the actions of the third slave in the Parable of the Talents. He buries the money allotted to him because this is what many did in a time of war. This is just what the ancient owner of the bronze coins discovered under the highway in Israel did as Jerusalem was falling to the Romans in AD 70—the very event Jesus had in mind.

The slave’s actions in the parable, however, are not just lazy, but also evil (Matt 25:26). Why? Because he evidently didn’t think his master would succeed in his endeavours and return. If he had thought so, he would have put the money allocated to him to good use for the sake of his master. The other two slaves in the parable evidently had confidence in their master’s return—enough to risk the danger of flaunting money in wartime.

Civilians in the ancient world often hid their resources to prevent harassment and pillage by soldiers. That these two slaves not only put the money to good use, but even made a return suggests not merely their economic savvy, but also their bravery and loyalty in the face of adverse circumstances.

The third slave, however, does no such thing. By burying the money, he tries to keep out of danger in the hope of riding out the current adversity, surviving his master, and then taking the money for himself. The master’s unexpected return, however, puts paid (excuse the pun!) to this servants plans, exposing him as a faithless coward. The master is not angry with this slave because he expected more money from the slave to feed his own greed. He is angry because the slave had been disloyal, lacking faith in his master and seeking to take advantage of his absence for personal gain.

In the larger context of the Gospel, this parable is an indictment on the Jewish leaders—those to whom much was given. They are characterised as disloyal towards God. They had turned the temple, a house of prayer, into a bandit’s lair (Matt 21:12–13), making money off the common person and turning worship into a weapon of oppression. They failed to show the fruit that was expected of them (Matt 21:18–22). They rejected Jesus, the master figure, in order to feather their own nests. This would, however, be a profitless endeavour, for it would end with their demise. Only those who placed their confidence in Jesus would survive the coming adversity and live to share their master’s joy.

We have no way of knowing whether the person who buried the money found under the highway in Israel was a master or a slave. Nonetheless, the cache of coins demonstrates the currency (excuse the pun again!) of the imagery Jesus used to decry the leadership of his day and foretell the calamitous events of AD 70—the very events that led the person to bury that money in the hope of returning some day to collect it.

Unfortunately, that person never returned.

BuriedCoins


This is an updated version of a post I wrote for another blog soon after the coin discovery was announced in 2014. The photo above appeared with the original news article.

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Buried Coins: Parable of the Talents

I’ve written a blog post for Bible Study and the Christian Life that looks at how a recent archaeological find sheds light on Jesus’ Parable of the Talents. It turns out that the parable is not primarily about business or investment.

Check it out HERE.

A hoard of bronze coins dating to AD 70, discovered by the Jerusalem–Tel Aviv Highway. © Vladimir Niihin. Israel Antiquities Authority

Why the tearing of the temple curtain is a bad thing

It’s Easter! At this time of the year, Christians the world over commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus as the Son of God. The ‘greatest story ever told’ gets retold. On Facebook, Christians post snippets from the Gospels, or lines from songs celebrating the significance of the story (like I have!). But there’s one particular part of the Gospel story that I think has been misunderstood. It’s the tearing of the temple curtain.

The Synoptic Gospels all tell the story that at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, the curtain in the temple was torn in two (Matt 27.51; Mark 15.38; Luke 23.45). This is a reference to the large, heavy curtain that cordoned off the Holy of Holies within the Jerusalem temple’s inner sanctum. The presence of God was said to occupy the Holy of Holies, which was only accessed once a year on the Day of Atonement by the High Priest. Every other day of the year, the Holy of Holies remained off limits to everyone. Yet the Evangelists tell us that without any human agency, this curtain that marked the divide between the human and divine worlds was ripped apart at the moment Jesus breathed his last. This is how Matthew relates it:

Jesus shouted again with a loud voice and gave up His spirit. Suddenly, the curtain of the sanctuary was split in two from top to bottom; the earth quaked and the rocks were split. (Matt 27.50–51)

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So what’s the significance of the temple curtain being ripped?

Most Christians will say that it’s the moment that free access to God was won. The curtain, which hitherto had kept God hidden from people and at a distance, was now dramatically rendered obsolete. Jesus’ death had granted access to God for all. This strange event, therefore, is seen as a good thing.

This particular interpretation probably comes under the influence of a few New Testament texts. Probably the most prominent of these is from the letter to the Hebrews:

Therefore, brothers, since we have boldness to enter the sanctuary through the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way he has opened for us through the curtain (that is, his flesh), and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. (Hebrews 10.19–22)

The author here, writing from within the Jewish framework that held the temple to be the heart of Jewish life, informs his readers that through the work of Christ the entire temple cult had been fulfilled. ImageHe argues that Jesus did everything the temple was designed to do, namely provide atonement for sin and access to God, and he had done so once and for all. Jesus was the ultimate High Priest who had blazed a trail to God, allowing his followers to be cleansed and have free and permanent fellowship with the one true holy God. As such there was no need for ethnically Jewish Christians to return to the old temple service, or even to desire the rebuilding of the temple (I understand the pretext for the author writing the letter was to articulate a specifically Christian response to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70).

It’s this theologically potent message that we tend to read back into the moment of Jesus’ death. It almost seems like the writer to the Hebrews had this particular moment of the Gospel story in mind in framing the excerpt quoted above.

However, as important as this point was to the writer of the Hebrews, I do not believe he was saying that this was the significance of the tearing of the temple curtain. For a start, note that he equates the temple curtain with Jesus’ flesh, not with the actual curtain that used to hang in the temple. The writer to the Hebrews sees Jesus himself as the one who joins the divine and human worlds, and interprets the significance of his work as akin to one going through the temple curtain, as the High Priest used to do. In other words, the temple curtain provides the writer with an image he can use to talk about the import of Jesus’ work in fulfilling what the temple stood for. In this way, he uses the temple curtain metaphorically and positively.

The Gospel writers, on the other hand, were making a rather different point. I believe that they were specifically portraying the tearing of the temple curtain as an ominous sign—a prefiguring of judgement. Let me explain.

All three Synoptic Gospels portray the last week of Jesus’ life as prophetically charged. Jesus rides into Jerusalem with messianic portent, but then proceeds to declare judgement on the nation of Israel and the temple. He causes a minor riot on the temple grounds when he overturns the stalls of the money changers. In Matthew’s Gospel, as he leaves the temple, Jesus utters these words:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! She who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, yet you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will never see me again until you say, ‘He who comes in the name of the Lord is the blessed One’!” (Matt 23.37–39)

Jesus then proceeds to tell his disciples that not one stone of the temple will be left on another. In addition to these events, Jesus also curses a fig tree, which then withers and dies. The gesture is symbolic of the judgement to come upon Israel. The fact that it withers has a sense of permanence: Israel has rejected Jesus, the Chosen One sent from God, and as a result the covenant nation is being brought to an end.

Matters come to a head when Jesus is arrested and the nation’s authorities succeed in having him crucified. Their rejection of God’s Chosen One—the messiah of Israel—is complete. And so, as Jesus dies, the curtain is torn asunder to confirm the judgement that Jesus has pronounced upon the nation. Note also the roughness of the action—it is a ripping, rather than a parting, raising, or drawing aside. It is suggestive of violent destruction. In all of this, God validates that Jesus was indeed the messiah, and also expresses his displeasure at his covenant nation for their rejection of him.

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The scene is somewhat reminiscent of Ezekiel 8–11, where God takes Ezekiel on a visionary tour of the temple to show him the multiple abominations that have forced him to abandon the temple to destruction by the Babylonians. The Synoptic writers depict Jesus’ death as a similar abomination that leads to the downfall of the nation and the loss of its temple—something that would ultimately occur a generation later in AD 70 when the Romans put down the Jewish Revolt and razed the temple to the ground. One might say that the tearing of the temple curtain is how the Gospel writers imply that God was bringing down the curtain on old Israel and its temple. It was 586 BC all over again!

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Detail of the Arch of Titus in Rome commemorating the Romans’ destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70. The relief depicts Romans parading paraphernalia from the temple in triumphal procession.

ImageThis feature of the Gospel storyline, therefore, is not seen as a positive thing. It is symbolic of the end of old Israel, and of the temple destruction in AD 70. However, the Evangelists are also keen to say that there is hope beyond this destruction. The community that Jesus gathers around himself is the beginning of a new people of God—one that will survive AD 70. And Jesus is subsequently raised to life again, heralding a new era that will see Gentiles take their place alongside Jews as full members of the new people of God. Indeed, it is those who represent the destroyers of the temple—Roman soldiers—who are the first to express a confession acknowledging Jesus:

When the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they were terrified and said, “This man really was God’s Son!” (Matt 27.54)

Thus, the Gospels depict the curtain tearing as a moment of judgement. Yet, they are still very much in the spirit of what the writer to the Hebrews was saying to his readers. The new community of Jesus’ followers are in no need of a temple building. All they need is Jesus himself.

What this little examination shows us is that while we need to get our theology from the whole canon of Scripture, we also need to let each book speak on its own first. Just because the writer to the Hebrews was making a particular point with the imagery of the temple curtain does not mean that Matthew was making that same point in his Gospel when he talked about the temple curtain. We mustn’t cross pollenate one author with another. The writer to the Hebrews was sounding one note, and the Gospel writers another which, although it was a different note, was still in ‘theological harmony’. Just like the destruction and exile of Judah in 586 BC was a bad thing, but something which also led to new theological insight, so also the tearing of the temple curtain at Jesus’ death was indicative of coming destruction, yet also lead eventually to new theological insight.

So when the Gospel stories are read again this Easter time, we should pause when hearing that the curtain in the temple was torn and realise that for the Gospel writers it was a confirmation of judgement for the rejection of Jesus.

A Rapturous Event: Jesus will take us all… by surprise

I’ve written a blog post for ThinkTank about the recent non-rapture of May 21st. Just click HERE to read it.