The Torah commands pilgrimage “up to Jerusalem” for three festivals: Passover, Shavout, and Sukkot.
In the first century C.E., when pilgrims arrived in Jerusalem, they frequently encountered money changers and merchants around the Jerusalem temple. Merchants sold animals—doves or cattle—for temple sacrifices; it was easier for travelers to buy an animal near the temple than to bring one along.
When Jews traveled to Jerusalem from other lands, they brought money for room, board, and souvenirs. Most importantly, they were required to pay the annual half-shekel tribute to the temple. The currency they had would be of their native land or acquired in trade along their way.
Money changers performed a key service when they converted the varieties of local coinage into the required tribute of silver shekels or half-shekels of Tyre (Tosefta Ketubbot 13:20, Exod 30:11-16). Many writers have suggested that the Tyre currency was preferred because it did not defy the Decalogue by depicting the graven image of a foreign king, and that is true. But the Tyre coins portray a pagan god of Tyre, Melqarth-Herakles—which was certainly even more offensive!
Images on coins, however, do not contaminate them even for payment to the temple. The Mishnah explains that money is unclean only if it is used for another purpose, such as for jewelry (Mishnah Kelim 12:7). The law stated that the temple must not be shortchanged in any way, so the silver coins of Tyre were most likely mandated because they were of good silver and true weight at a time when many coins were debased or lightweight.
The New Testament uses several words for money changers. In Matt 21:12, kolybistes refers to the changing of foreign currency; trapezites, used in Matt 25:27, derives from the root “trapeze” or “table” (hence the “tables of the money changers”); in John, kermatistes from the Greek kermaitizo means “to cut small,” or to give small change.
These different words represent the functions of the money changer. A banker would hold or transfer funds (a fee was charged but was precisely defined so as not to violate the biblical prohibition against charging interest in Deut 23:20-21). A trader would exchange foreign currency for a fee and would change coins to larger or smaller denominations for a fee.
Money changers and animal merchants were ubiquitous around the temple, even in the outer Court of the Gentiles. The money changers and sellers of livestock were forced to operate outside of the temple. Indeed, archaeological excavations along the Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem have revealed a street and a row of small shops that likely housed money changers, sellers of small animals, and souvenir merchants.
Theirs was a good business, especially during the pilgrimage holidays. It’s easy to imagine how money changers and other merchants could become rowdy while competing for business (“Change here! Our commissions are lower!”). This competition must have reached a point of offensiveness when Jesus upended their tables and cleansed the temple of commerce.