Judas, the Common Purse and the Poor

David McLoughlin explores the two places in John's Gospel which refer to Judas' role as the keeper of the common purse or box. But why was a common fund set up and who actually benefitted?

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In two places John’s Gospel refers to Judas’ role as the keeper of the common purse or box glossokomon (John 12:6; 13:29). In both cases this is linked to providing for the poor, the ptōchoi. What I’d like to do is muse a little on this common fund and the poor; and try and give it a wider horizon of interpretation.

In John’s Gospel this fund is linked to Judas untrustworthiness and acquisitiveness whereas elsewhere in the Synoptics, as in Mark, there is no reference to the fund, only that Judas is the “one who handed him over” which also appears in John 6:64, 71. Matthew 26:14-16 doesn’t mention the treasurer’s role but does emphasise that Judas asked for money to hand Jesus over although the motive for this is not clear and the 30 pieces of silver seem unknown to John. Luke characterises the act of betrayal as satanic possession in Luke 22:3-6. And John repeats this in 13:27. Ending the section with “And it was night” with all the implications that light and darkness have in John and in anticipation of the glory that is about to be revealed. So there is a great deal of interesting editing and shaping of fundamental sections of the tradition going on in these texts. 

In the anointing incident in John 6 we have the two contrasting figures of Mary who acts out of love and the insight of loving faith. She knows the significance of the one in their midst and reverences him, and of Judas who cannot accept this and becomes the figure of a lack of faith or at least, the one most resistant to the way the gospel is opening up. Instead, John appeals to the simpler thrust of the ministry, the care of the destitute, at which point John has Jesus allude to Deuteronomy 15:11 with “The needy will never be lacking in the land” – implying the rest of the text, “That is why I command you to open your hand to your poor and needy…”. The disciples can always work with the poor whereas Jesus will not always be with them. There are two levels being played out here in John. Mary has engaged with the higher level, while Judas can’t or won’t see it. But let’s return to the common purse.

What is the cultural context for this common fund?

The glossokomon which the NRSV translates as “common purse” was a “coin case or box adopted as a security arrangement by Jerusalem pilgrims for transporting temple redemption money, taxes and alms.” There are two references to glossokomon in the Septuagint, one in 2 Chronicles 24:8-10 and one in 2 Kings 12. In both cases these are boxes constructed to receive temple offerings not for the poor but for the rebuilding of the Temple.

The two references in John to the common purse and the giving of alms to the ptōchoi are within the context of Bethany and Jerusalem (12:5-8; and 13:29). I’ll return to the location and its possible significance later. The text implies Jesus and his group give alms and they have a common purse. In the history of interpreting this text there is a clear line of interpretation that this is nothing more than Passover piety. This is based on Jeremias’ works The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, (1966, p. 53f) and Jerusalem at the Time of Jesus, (1975, p.131ff). However, Jeremias’ reading is based on a reading back from sources (such as M.Pes.10.1) which order that even the poor should receive four cups of wine on Passover eve, even if supported from the daily hand-out, the tamchuy or ‘the pauper’s dish’

However, more recent work by Seccombe shows distinctions about what once happened in the Temple and what should happen now. Seccombe questions just how public the charity was, its selectiveness, and questions any evidence for organised charity focused on the Temple before AD 70 pointing out that there are no named temple officers with formal responsibility for the destitute ptōchoi. And again, the destitute are not mentioned in the lists for emergency relief in difficult times. In the Eucharistic Words of Jesus Jeremias cites the Mishnah, Moeb Peshahim 9.11 and a 9th Century Aramaic Prayer suggesting it was a regular practice to bring people off the street to share a meal. 

He also suggests that Josephus’ report in Antiquities of the Jews 18.29f shows that the gates of the Temple were opened at midnight of Passover eve, implicitly allowing the beggars to congregate there. Although my reading of the Mishnah text is that it is about how to resolve a conflict involving a confusion over precedent in Passover offerings! But the references to the common purse and to alms in John (6:5-7; 12:5-8; and 13:29) seem to have nothing to do with Jeremias’ late source prescriptive acts and anyway, occur outside the context of the Temple in Bethany (12:5-8) and Galilee (6:5-7).

In fact, if we go back to the driving of the money changers from the Temple at the first Johannine Passover (2:13-25) then there is of course a link between the money of the poor and the Temple, but it implies an altogether different relationship. Is it an attack on the whole financial arrangements of the sacrificial system? Then in 6:7 the second eve of Passover the feeding of the 5,000 is a challenge to trust in food that satisfies rather than money (6:7) but implicit in the account is the power of commonality, the sharing of what we have leads to sufficiency and surplus, rather than the accumulation of personal and sectional wealth which never trickles down. And at the last Passover eve the disciples assume Judas is going to distribute to those destitute, again ptōchoi, (13:1-30) which Culpepper (1983, p.174) Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel) argues is a classic example of Johannine irony. 

At the level of Johannine theology there is a clear line of development: the Temple is a marketplace, money can’t buy living bread, the real Passover gift to the destitute is not money but Jesus himself. Raymond Brown (John (I-XII) pp. 543f.) interprets this as part of the author’s Christological intent with Jesus now incarnating elements of Jewish covenantal practice e.g. 

  • 5:1-47 Jesus does what only God can do at the Sabbath 
  • 6:1-71 at Passover Jesus gives bread replacing the manna of the Exodus
  • at Tabernacles Jesus symbolically becomes the water and light of the feast, see 7-9
  • 5:2 at the sheep gate, Jesus enters as the sheep to be freely sacrificed and as the shepherd 10:1-21
  • 10:22-39 at Dedication, Jesus is consecrated in place of the Temple altar.

So is there a distinction between the practice of the Jesus group’s almsgiving? If it is not simply a reflection of Passover practice, as Jeremias and those who follow him suggest, then is there anything else that can help us clarify it further?

The Tribute Money by Masaccio. c.1425. Fresco, Brancacci Chapel, Florence, Italy.

Wider first century cultural framework

It’s not unique. Essene life, at least described by the first century sources: Josephus, BJ (2)122; Antiquities.18 (20); Philo Hypothetica, 10,4; Quod. Omn. 12.77; and Pliny, Natural History 5.15.73; all speak of the pooling of resources among the celibate Essenes to provide a simple shared table and help to the destitute. Josephus BJ 2.8.6. (134) states ” Two things are left to individual discretion, the giving of assistance and mercy. Members may on their own decision help the deserving, when in need, and supply food to the destitute, but gifts to relatives are prohibited, without permission of the managers.” 

The married Essene communities make monthly contribution to a common pot. The Damascus Document, CD 14, 12-17 speaks of a beth-hachebera community house which cared for “the needy and the poor, and the elder who is bowed down.” Perhaps this gives a greater underpinning to Judas’ protest at Mary’s anointing of Jesus feet with pure nard at Bethany in 12:4-6 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor” (ptokois). The Benedictine archaeologist Bargil Pixner, from the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem, has argued, along with others for the location of an Essene house in Bethany and this would link with the reference in the Temple Scroll prescribing three villages to the east of Jerusalem dedicated to those ritually unclean and unable to enter the city. Interestingly, it is there that Matthew 14:3 places Simon the Leper. 

The etymology of the place indicates its function. Jerome translates it as domus adflictionis in his Onomasticon, which he derives from the Hebrew beth’anî, or Aramaic beth’anyâ, i.e. house of the poor, or of affliction, or poorhouse. So here we find Jesus and his disciples holding funds in common in a Judaean context where that practice is not unknown and is related to the giving of alms. It’s perhaps also worth noting that, as far as I am aware, it is only at this place Bethany that the disciples show concern for the ptōchoi.  Perhaps out of shame, or embarrassment, given the well-known practice of their neighbours. 

The other reference to the common purse is the Upper Room in 13:29 and it’s worth recording that it is also from the Upper Room hyperōon in Acts 1:12-14 that the first community emerges at Pentecost, with from the start, its characteristic emphasis on the community of goods (Acts 2:42-7; 4:32-5:11 and 6:1-6). This custom of the disciple group is already commented on in Bultmann’s 1971 commentary on the Bethany incident where he states: “It is then presupposed that the disciple group receives and distributes gifts for the poor, hence perhaps the custom reflected in Acts 4:37” (p.415, n.8) The emerging practice of the Essene communities having a gradual sharing of property depending on the commitment and stage of entrance into the community can throw light on the whole Ananias incident in Acts 5:3-4. (Cf. 1QS 6. 18-20) since if Ananias had followed the Essene practice of temporary donation, all would have been well.

Timothy Ling whose 2006 monograph The Judaean Poor and the Fourth Gospel I have drawn on extensively reflects on the development of the early Christian community in close proximity to the quarter in Jerusalem where archaeological work indicates the Essenes, or at least an ascetic group with similar practices, congregated. Ling proposes that it is not insignificant that the two references in John to a common purse and the disciples’ active concern for the ptōchoi occur in Bethany, the house of the poor, and in the Upper Room which was probably within the Essene quarter of Jerusalem.

One of the reasons the Essenes were so celebrated was their ideologically-led practical commitment to ideals of justice and righteousness (1QH 5. 21-2) and their practical social organisation (cf. CD 14. 12-17). Even to the point of self-designating themselves the “poor” (cf 1QH 18.14; 1QM 11.9; 4QPs 37) with poverty here understood as total dependence on God. Ling notes how the Essenes also draw on Isaiah 61, and the language of being anointed to bring glad tidings to the poor, as an expression of their embodying of the fulfilment of God’s word. Compare the use of Isaiah 61:1-2 in 11QMelchisedek and parallel it with Jesus’ opening sermon in Luke 4:18 – 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free those who are oppressed…

Ling suggests that the Essenes understand this community to embody the new Temple. The community’s daily life now fulfilled the atoning sacrifices of the Temple, so effectively, they are where the Temple truly is. It is John’s gospel above all that identifies Jesus’ life with key elements of Hebrew religion and particularly the Temple in the 2:19, 21 verses – “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” and then again in 4:14 in the dialogue with the Samaritan woman “the water I shall give will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life” which speaks of the Spirit who is the source of true worship coming from Jesus, rather than the Temple, and replacing the need for cult and cult centre. Ling is suggesting that if we want a more truly indigenous contextual reading of Jesus’ practice and engagement with the ptōchoi and of the early communities’ commitment to a radical almsgiving and mutual use of property as expressed in I John 3:16f, with its radical identification of Jesus’ self-offering and the brethren’s quality of generosity, then we only have to look to the Essene’s piety of poverty to give us an appropriate contextual and contemporary hermeneutic.

If my contextual reading has any merit it points to a capacity in the early Christian Community to go from the experience of radical empathy with the ptōchoi into a re-reading of the Law and Prophets, which then provides further stimulus for critical engagement with the religious structures, in their case the Temple and Priesthood, which perpetuate such radical social division.

It also challenges us in applying this process in our own time, to have the same freedom to use already existing religious and social means to further the gospel. The early followers of Jesus seemed able to utilise elements of the radical service of the poor witnessed to by some groups, possibly local Essene households, without being bound by their limiting reading of the ritual purity laws. Similarly, there is no need for today’s disciples to re-invent credit unions or food banks but every reason to participate in their development and use in the wider society. 

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