June 19, 2007

Towards a Heresy of the Money Changers

The synoptic Gospels all relate the tale -- no more than a sentence in each -- of Jesus entering the temple and casting out the money changers. William Tyndale, in his brilliant translation, renders the passage from Luke this way:

And he went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold therein, and them that bought, saying unto them, it is written: my house is the house of prayer, but ye have made it into a den of thieves.

The money changers exchanged foreign currencies -- Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Nabatean, and so on, for shekels that could be offered to the temple. They provided a service for a fee--like modern currency exchanges, they made a small percentage on each transaction. They had to know the value of shekels relative to drachmas, piasters and dinars, compete with one another on rates, and still make a profit. The premise--that buying and selling, that mutually determining value through open exchange--is the equivalent of a den of thieves suggests, first, that Jesus wasn't much of an economist, and second, that the act of accurately assessing worldly value -- material value -- represented a threat to the ethereal kingdom of heaven Jesus hoped to inaugurate. Knowing the price of things did mean one knew their value; Jesus, who intended to impose his own arbitrary values on things, naturally viewed them as a threat.

Let me offer a clearer example of divines clashing with accountants, to better illustrate that the values prophets promote are inevitably poorer than those on which money changers insist. In an appendix to Mormonism Unveiled--the rather self-serving account of the John D. Lee, the only man convicted of murder for the Mountain Meadows Massacre--Lee's attorney, William W. Bishop, relates the following tale:

Soon after the return from Missouri, Joe Smith, Brigham Young, and Sidney Rigdon organized a bank at Kirtland, which they called the "Safety Society Bank," and began to issue notes in unlimited quantities, "for the relief of the Saints." The names of Joseph Smith as cashier and Sidney Rigdon as president, were signed to the beautifully engraved bank notes, and those who saw the notes with these names attached supposed the bank to be simply a savings institution in which the "saints" could deposit their earnings, which would be invested to pay interest, and that the notes represented actual money in the bank. The result was that the confidence of the people was gained, and the paper of the Safety Society Bank became a favorite medium of circulation with both saint and sinner.

Finally, however, other banks began to lose confidence in these notes, and the bankers of Pittsburgh deputed one of their number to visit Kirtland and learn the real condition of the Safety Society Bank. This agent was a Mr. Jones, and his account of his interview with President Rigdon was decidedly racy. He first inquired about the success of "the Lord's cause," and evinced considerable interest in the Latter-Day religion. This he claimed was a matter of courtesy, but it was unfortunate, for upon opening his satchel and producing a huge number of Safety Society Bank paper, which he desired to have redeemed, the whole proceeding was denounced by brother Rigdon as the "march of a wolf in sheep's clothing." He flew into a passion and asserted that the paper of the bank had been put out as a "circulating medium for the accommodation of the people, that it would be an injury to them for the notes to come home and be redeemed, as they would then have no circulating medium! His bank would redeem nothing!" Mr. Jones pleaded for a deviation from the rule in his case, and pledged himself never again to return with any more of the notes for redemption if he could only get his money this time. But Rigdon was faithful to the programme of the bank, and coolly informed Mr. Jones that they had never asked him or anyone else to take their paper, and referred him to that important epoch in Biblical history where the profession to which Mr. Jones belonged were scourged out of the temple at Jerusalem.

Jones reported back to the Pittsburgh bank; the Safety Society Bank's notes rapidly lost their value, and Joe Smith, Brigham Young and Sidney Rigdon shut down the bank and fled. The money changer--the man concerned with actual value as opposed to the counterfeit spiritual sort--drove the thieves from the temple.

Posted by Ideofact at June 19, 2007 11:18 PM

Hmm. What makes you so sure that the money changers in the temple were operating an efficient market? Having learned the story in Sunday School, I've always assumed there was corruption / collusion.

Anyway, your point that accountants shed light on situations that thieves would like to keep hidden is certainly true, with the notable exception of that Enron situation, where a few of them were participants.

BTW, I'm very happy to see you are posting again - I enjoy reading your opinions.

Posted by: Robert in San Diego at June 20, 2007 08:40 PM

The Sunday school version, as I recall, was written by those with a vested interest in justifying the act. But you do pose an interesting question -- I seem to recall reading somewhere ages ago something to the effect that the money changers bought licenses to operate there; competition was limited, the money changers also kicked back a percentage to the temple, so it might not have operated all that efficiently. That doesn't mean, though, that the money changers didn't calculate the exchange rates they needed to pay off their licenses and tribute and still make a profit.

And let's not forget that it wasn't the money changers insisting on donating shekels to the temple. Perhaps the real moral of the story has nothing to do with economics and everything to do with inclusion. Only the currency of the Jews could be donated to the temple; perhaps Jesus was symbolically identifying foreign money with foreign people -- that all should be allowed to enter.

In any case, given the Mormon story, it was too good of a metaphor to pass up.

Posted by: Bill at June 24, 2007 12:01 AM