The moneychangers in the ancient world made a market in foreign exchange where merchants and traders bought currency of other countries to carry on trade. The New Testament tells a story of how Jesus entered the temple in Jerusalem, disdainfully overturned the tables of the moneychangers, and showed his indignation with the admonishment, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you make it a den of robbers” (Luke, 19:46). This confrontation between Jesus and the temple moneychangers is another reminder that money in ancient times, particularly precious metal coins, was not embraced with open arms as a means
of encouraging trade and securing prosperity. It was more often associated with the dark forces in society. Today, money is regarded as a necessary instrument of exchange in our complex economies, but the idea of moneychangers in the temple still leaves our moral sensibilities in a state of repugnance.
The multiplication of coins minted in various Greek cities, and in Lydia and Persia, created a demand for experienced specialists who were knowledgeable of the diverse weights, quality, and standards of foreign coins. They sat at tables in streets and marketplaces and fulfilled the role of bankers to their customers. In addition to trading foreign currency, they aided merchants in arranging foreign deals, and acted as the custodians of savings entrusted to them.
Temples became home to moneychangers for practical reasons. The temples had to build treasuries to keep safe the donations and offerings they received. The sacredness of the temple also gave an added sense of protection against would-be thieves. Businesses and wealthy individuals took to depositing their money and valuables in temples as a place of safety. Temples had an incentive to find ways to invest their own funds, and sometimes invested the funds of their patrons. Thus, some of the temples began to wear the aspect of banks, including paying interest on funds held in their custody. Temples issued their own money in the eastern parts of the Seleucid empire, which ruled most of Asia Minor, Syria, Persia, and Bactria from 312 to 64 b.c. In addition to coined money, gold, and silver, the temples also owned estates, cattle, and slaves.
The temples at Delos were known for their wealth. Cities deposited funds with temples, which in turn made loans to cities and private persons. The temples of Delos went so far as to hold deposits of clients while depositing their own funds in private banks. During the time of the Lydians and Persians the temple of Ephesus was the place of choice for kings, cities, and private individuals to keep money on deposit. A law of Ephesus of 85 b.c. makes a reference to loans of sacred funds and insolvent debtors of the temple. The temple at Jerusalem was wealthy when Seleucus IV, deep in financial difficulties, wanted to confiscate its treasury, exciting indignation because of its sacredness and the number of widows and orphans with deposits held by the temple.
Moneychangers resided in temples because the rights of private property had not been secured by law, and ancient societies were often embroiled in civil war, or ruled by arbitrary and capricious rulers. The sacredness of the temple helped secure the safety of precious metals in the midst of lawlessness.
Temple moneychangers may reflect a religious element in the origin of money that is often ignored. Commodities that developed as a medium of exchange often had religious significance. Livestock that served as money was also needed for sacrificial purposes and as payment to priests for religious services. Some societies regarded gold and silver as the metals of the gods, or special creations of the gods, making them especially appropriate as payment to priests or donations to temples. Charms that had magical powers were also struck from precious metals. The sperm whale teeth used as money on the Fiji Islands was called tambua, from which the word taboo is derived, meaning “sacred or forbidden for religious reasons.” Because an unlimited demand existed for commodities acceptable as sacrifices to the gods, these goods maintained their value, making them useful as money.
Rostovtzeff, M. 1941. The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World.
Williams, Jonathan. 1997. Money: A History.