St. Peter’s Fish
One of the New Testament stories that sometimes provokes a smile is that of the fish with a silver coin in its mouth. Peter, approached by the appropriate officials for the customary Temple tribute money, referred the matter to Jesus, who told him to go down to the lake (of Galilee) and cast a line. His first catch would have a silver coin in its mouth which he was to use for the tribute money. The story is found in Matt.17:24‑27. In fact there is today a species of fish in the Sea of Galilee called the musht, alternatively known as St. Peter’s fish, the male of which habitually carries its young in its mouth, and at times substitutes a small stone or other object, being especially attracted to anything bright or shining. It has ben known thus to carry coins. This aspect of the story is thereby vindicated. (The musht is specially reared in quantity nowadays in Israel for commercial food production.)
Jesus knew from a distance, which may have been a mile or so and could not have been less than a goodly number of yards—He was in the lakeside town of Capernaum at the time—that a particular fish was swimming about in the lake at that moment with a coin in its mouth. Perhaps He exerted the power necessary to bring it into contact with Peter’s line. That should not be thought incredible in a day when men can see with their own eyes what is happening in a spacecraft orbiting two hundred miles above the earth, and control the movement of that spacecraft by touching a few buttons. There is no physical link of sight and touch between the controller on earth and the spacecraft above; the power by which the wonder is accomplished is an invisible electrical energy which men have learned to employ. If men can do that, why balk at the idea that Christ, who came from God, whence is the source of all energy, should do the same? One of the fruits of man’s increasing knowledge of the powers behind Nature’s operations is the realisation that so many ‘incredible’ stories of olden time are not so fantastic after all; they rest on principles which were formerly undreamed of by man but now are beginning to be understood.
This aspect of the story is, however, the least important. Of greater moment is Jesus’ reason for the action. Why employ such an apparently elaborate, and spectacular way of producing the tribute money when just one coin from the disciples’ admittedly slender store would have met the need? There is evidently more behind the story than at first sight appears.
First of all, the background. "Of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute?" asked Jesus of Peter "of their own children, or of strangers?" (v.25) "Of strangers" responded Peter. He knew, only too well, the practice of conquering powers like Rome, who taxed their subject nations and occupied territories rather than their own peoples. "Then are the children free" said Jesus; free citizens of the Empire do not pay tax. But Jesus was not declaring himself and his disciples free citizens of Rome. He had already, on a previous occasion, told his hearers to "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s." (Mark 12:17) The tribute money now in question was a levy made upon all Jews for the upkeep of the Temple; it was an ecclesiastical tax and nothing to do with Rome. This is made apparent by the words used. The tribute money due to Rome was a "penny"—the denarius. The tribute demanded of Peter in Matt.17:24 was the didrachma, the half shekel or "shekel of the sanctuary" worth two denarii and this indicates that it is the Temple tax that was in question. The "piece of money" from the fish’s mouth in v.27 was a stater equal to two didrachma sufficient for Peter and his Master.
Sub-note - different versions
ofthe same verse Matt. 17:24 relating to paying the tax.
Hence Jesus’ words in v.27 "give unto them for me and thee." As a silver coin the stater was about equivalent to the English half‑crown but to obtain the same purchasing power today one would have to spend several pounds or more.
There had been a celebrated dispute between the Pharisees and the Sadducees as to whether this Temple tax should be compulsory or voluntary, and after lengthy discussion in the Sanhedrin the Pharisee party had won the day—the tax was made compulsory. It is quite possible that Jesus was alluding to this dispute and showing that the Pharisees, in imposing a compulsory tax on the people, were no better than their Roman overlords. In theory, every Israelite was a child of God, a Freeman of the Commonwealth of Israel, and his offerings to God were traditionally to be "of his own voluntary will" which is the formula used in the instructions for the Levitical rituals as laid down in the Book of Leviticus.
Sub-note - Leviticus 23:38 Beside the sabbaths of the LORD, and beside your gifts, and beside all your vows, and beside all your freewill offerings, which ye give unto the LORD.
Now the Pharisees had destroyed that spontaneous basis and substituted the rule of law. "The children are free" said Jesus. Every man of Israel should be free to bring his monetary offering for the upkeep of the Temple as his heart inspired him. The question which the tribute‑collectors had asked Peter was therefore eminently improper.
It would seem therefore that Jesus could have evaded the tax by quoting the original Levitical law. This He did not do. What the Pharisees demanded as a right He extended to them as a gift. "Lest we offend ("scandalise") them..." was the expression He used. He would not use his knowledge of the Mosaic Law to avoid a payment which was exacted out of his fellows anyway. And here, perhaps comes the real point of the story. The scanty store of money He and his disciple possessed was contributed by the poor to whom He ministered and by his followers among the people, who "ministered unto him of their substance." (Luke 8:3) He would not use their offerings, given for the sustenance of his little band of disciples, to meet this impost. This was a case where He could appropriately call upon the wealth of his Father in Heaven, who owns all the gold and silver, and all the treasures of earth. Hence this exercise of his extra‑human power in discerning the whereabouts of that silver stater and his instructions to Peter to go and catch that fish. In a very real sense the Father paid the tribute‑money for the Son.