Friday, January 18, 2013

Curatorism: In Praise of Folly

An essay I wrote about the rise of curators, published in the latest issue of Art India magazine, is now online. Those interested in contemporary art can read it here.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Jesus, money changers and money lenders

The Vatican has been barred by Italy from accepting credit and debit cards, because the Italians feel the city state does not have a proper legal framework to prevent fraud. This means visitors can pay only cash for souvenirs, and will put a major dent in the Vatican's tourism revenues. The Italians were sensible enough to let the Christmas high season pass before clamping down. Presumably the matter will be sorted out before Easter.
In covering the issue, reporters have reached for a Biblical analogy that seems most apt: the cleansing of the temple by Jesus. Reuters, for example, went with, "... the move has nothing to do with throwing money lenders from the Temple or concerns about usury." Which gives me an opportunity to segue into an issue that really interests me, misreadings of canonical texts (I'm not particularly concerned about sales of postcards in the Vatican).
Pretty much every Christian who goes regularly to church has been told about the story of Jesus whipping the money lenders and chasing them out of Jerusalem's great temple. It's the standard text to bring up in discussions about Christianity, usury and the history of anti-Semitism.

Yet, the actual incident has nothing whatsoever to do with money lending. Christian boys and girls have for centuries been fed a lie by their parents and priests (who, to be fair, probably act out of ignorance). By the time they mature, they cannot read what's before their eyes without substituting it with the incorrect interpretation they've been brought up to believe.
Here's the incident as told in the English Standard version of the Bible:
Matthew 21:12
And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.
John 2:13-16
The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father's house a house of trade.”

The phrase used is unambiguous: money changers, not money lenders.

When you think about it, Jerusalem's temple, where most visitors were pilgrims, would have been the last place where money lenders would've plied their trade. Lending to people you barely know, who are in town for just a couple of days, and who live in distant lands, is the equivalent of giving money away.
Money changing was a different trade altogether. It involved providing local currency to those who came in with Roman or Greek coin. It required experts who could tell counterfeit metal from the real stuff, who could gauge whether any corners had been cut (the phrase originating from the practice of physically slicing off slivers of precious metal from coins), and who were familiar with a variety of currencies. The money changers were the equivalent of today's shops with signage exclaiming EXCHANGE WECHSEL CAMBIO BUREAU DE CHANGE. They performed a necessary service, helping pilgrims, local traders and the temple. They kept the entire economy of the locality going, and took a cut for doing so.

Jesus wasn't against any one type of business; he was against the idea that any business at all should be conducted within a holy site. Of course, if priests and parents told children this, they might get asked whether Jesus really did the right thing. Did those petty traders deserve to be whipped and have their little work counters turned upside down? Presumably, if Jesus had gone in alone, the money changers would've banded together and kicked him out. It stands to reason that he was accompanied by a group of followers, though this isn't mentioned in the Bible, and is not how the scene is depicted in the paintings of Giotto and El Greco accompanying this post.

There's another question kids might ask, if told the truth about Jesus's action: since Jesus was so firmly against any connection between places of worship and any kind of commerce, why does virtually every famous church, whether Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox, contain a shop selling souvenirs? Why is the Vatican hawking postcards in the first place?