You are hereRender Unto Caesar: A Most Misunderstood New Testament Passage

Render Unto Caesar: A Most Misunderstood New Testament Passage

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By Virgil - Posted on 22 March 2010

Tiberius' Denarius bearing: "Tiberius Caesar, Worshipful Son of the God, Augustus" and "High Priest"

by Jeffrey F. Barr
Christians have traditionally interpreted the famous passage "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God, the things that are God's," to mean that Jesus endorsed paying taxes. This view was first expounded by St. Justin Martyr in Chapter XVII of his First Apology, who wrote,

And everywhere we, more readily than all men, endeavor to pay to those appointed by you the taxes both ordinary and extraordinary, as we have been taught by Him; for at that time some came to Him and asked Him, if one ought to pay tribute to Caesar; and He answered, ‘Tell Me, whose image does the coin bear?’ And they said, ‘Caesar’s.’

The passage appears to be important and well-known to the early Christian community. The Gospels of St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke recount this "Tribute Episode" nearly verbatim. Even Saying 100 of non-canonical Gospel of Thomas and Fragment 2 Recto of the Egerton Gospel record the scene, albeit with some variations from the Canon.

But by His enigmatic response, did Jesus really mean for His followers to provide financial support (willingly or unwillingly) to Tiberius Caesar – a man, who, in his personal life, was a pedophile, a sexual deviant, and a murderer and who, as emperor, claimed to be a god and oppressed and enslaved millions of people, including Jesus’ own? The answer, of course, is: the traditional, pro-tax interpretation of the Tribute Episode is simply wrong. Jesus never meant for His answer to be interpreted as an endorsement of Caesar’s tribute or any taxes.

This essay examines four dimensions of the Tribute Episode: the historical setting of the Episode; the rhetorical structure of the Episode itself; the context of the scene within the Gospels; and finally, how the Catholic Church, Herself, has understood the Tribute Episode. These dimensions point to one conclusion: the Tribute Episode does not stand for the proposition that it is morally obligatory to pay taxes.

The objective of this piece is not to provide a complete exegesis on the Tribute Episode. Rather, it is simply to show that the traditional, pro-tax interpretation of the Tribute Episode is utterly untenable. The passage unequivocally does not stand for the proposition that Jesus thought it was morally obligatory to pay taxes.


In 6 A.D., Roman occupiers of Palestine imposed a census tax on the Jewish people. The tribute was not well-received, and by 17 A.D., Tacitus reports in Book II.42 of the Annals, "The provinces, too, of Syria and Judaea, exhausted by their burdens, implored a reduction of tribute." A tax-revolt, led by Judas the Galilean, soon ensued. Judas the Galilean taught that "taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery," and he and his followers had "an inviolable attachment to liberty," recognizing God, alone, as king and ruler of Israel. The Romans brutally combated the uprising for decades. Two of Judas’ sons were crucified in 46 A.D., and a third was an early leader of the 66 A.D. Jewish revolt. Thus, payment of the tribute conveniently encapsulated the deeper philosophical, political, and theological issue: Either God and His divine laws were supreme, or the Roman emperor and his pagan laws were supreme.

This undercurrent of tax-revolt flowed throughout Judaea during Jesus’ ministry. All three synoptic Gospels place the episode immediately after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem in which throngs of people proclaimed Him king, as St. Matthew states, "And when he entered Jerusalem the whole city was shaken and asked, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds replied, ‘This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee." All three agree that this scene takes place near the celebration of the Passover, one of the holiest of Jewish feast days. Passover commemorates God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and also celebrates the divine restoration of the Israelites to the land of Israel, land then-occupied by the Romans. Jewish pilgrims from throughout Judaea would have been streaming into Jerusalem to fulfill their periodic religious duties at the temple.

Because of the mass of pilgrims, the Roman procurator of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, had also temporarily taken up residence in Jerusalem along with a multitude of troops so as to suppress any religious violence. In her work, Pontius Pilate: The Biography of an Invented Man, Ann Wroe described Pilate as the emperor’s chief soldier, chief magistrate, head of the judicial system, and above all, the chief tax collector. In Book XXXVIII of On the Embassy to Gaius, Philo has depicted Pilate as "cruel," "exceedingly angry," and "a man of most ferocious passions," who had a "habit of insulting people" and murdering them "untried and uncondemned" with the "most grievous inhumanity." Just a few years prior to Jesus’ ministry, the image of Caesar nearly precipitated an insurrection in Jerusalem when Pilate, by cover of night, surreptitiously erected effigies of the emperor on the fortress Antonia, adjoining the Jewish Temple; Jewish law forbade both the creation of graven images and their introduction into holy city of Jerusalem. Pilate averted a bloodbath only by removing the images.

In short, Jerusalem would have been a hot-bed of political and religious fervor, and it is against this background that the Tribute Episode unfolded.


[15] Then the Pharisees going, consulted among themselves how to insnare him in his speech. [16] And they sent to him their disciples with the Herodians, saying: Master, we know that thou art a true speaker and teachest the way of God in truth. Neither carest thou for any man: for thou dost not regard the person of men. [17] Tell us therefore what dost thou think? Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? [18] But Jesus knowing their wickedness, said: Why do you tempt me, ye hypocrites? [19] Show me the coin of the tribute. And they offered him a penny [literally, in Latin, "denarium," a denarius]. [20] And Jesus saith to them: Whose image and inscription is this? [21] They say to him: Caesar's. Then he saith to them: Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God, the things that are God's. [22] And hearing this, they wondered and, leaving him, went their ways. Matt 22:15–22 (Douay-Rheims translation).


All three synoptic Gospels open the scene with a plot to trap Jesus. The questioners begin with, what is in their minds, false flattery – "Master [or Teacher or Rabbi] we know that you are a true speaker and teach the way of God in truth." As David Owen-Ball forcefully argues in his 1993 article, "Rabbinic Rhetoric and the Tribute Passage," this opening statement is also a challenge to Jesus’ rabbinic authority; it is a halakhic question – a question on a point of religious law. The Pharisees believed that they, alone, were the authoritative interpreters of Jewish law. By appealing to Jesus’ authority to interpret God’s law, the questioners accomplish two goals: (1) they force Jesus to answer the question; if Jesus refuses, He will lose credibility as a Rabbi with the very people who just proclaimed Him a King; and (2) they force Jesus to base this answer in Scripture. Thus, they are testing His scriptural knowledge and hoping to discredit Him if He cannot escape a prima facie intractable interrogatory. As Owen-Ball states, "The gospel writers thus describe a scene in which Jesus’ questioners have boxed him in. He is tempted to assume, illegitimately, the authority of a Rabbi, while at the same time he is constrained to answer according to the dictates of the Torah."

The questioners then pose their malevolently brilliant question: "Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?" That is, is it licit under the Torah to pay taxes to the Romans? At some point, Jesus must have led His questioners to believe that He opposed the tribute; otherwise His questioners would not have posed the question in the first instance. As John Howard Yoder argues in his book, The Politics of Jesus: vicit Agnus noster, "It is hard to see how the denarius question could have been thought by those who put it to be a serious trap, unless Jesus’ repudiation of the Roman occupation were taken for granted, so that he could be expected to give an answer which would enable them to denounce him."

If Jesus says that it is lawful to pay the tribute, He would have been seen as a collaborator with the Roman occupiers and would alienate the people who had just proclaimed Him a king. If Jesus says that the tribute is illegitimate, He risked being branded a political criminal and incurring the wrath of Rome. With either answer, someone would have been likely to kill Him.

Jesus immediately recognizes the trap. He exposes the hostility and the hypocrisy of His interrogators and recognizes that His questioners are daring Him to enter the temporal fray of Judeo-Roman politics.


Instead of jumping into the political discussion, though, Jesus curiously requests to see the coin of the tribute. It is not necessary that Jesus possess the coin to answer their question. He could certainly respond without seeing the coin. That He requests to see the coin suggests that there is something meaningful about the coin itself.

In the Tribute Episode, the questioners produce a denarius. The denarius was approximately 1/10 of a troy ounce (at that time about 3.9 grams) of silver and roughly worth a day’s wages for a common laborer. The denarius was a remarkably stable currency; Roman emperors did not begin debasing it with any vigor until Nero. The denarius in question would have been issued by the Emperor Tiberius, whose reign coincided with Jesus’ ministry. Where Augustus issued hundreds of denarii, Ethelbert Stauffer, in his masterful, Christ and the Caesars, reports that Tiberius issued only three, and of those three, two are relatively rare, and the third is quite common. Tiberius preferred this third and issued it from his personal mint for twenty years. The denarius was truly the emperor’s property: he used it to pay his soldiers, officials, and suppliers; it bore the imperial seal; it differed from the copper coins issued by the Roman Senate, and it was also the coin with which subjected peoples, in theory, were required to pay the tribute. Tiberius even made it a capital crime to carry any coin stamped with his image into a bathroom or a brothel. In short, the denarius was a tangible representation of the emperor’s power, wealth, deification, and subjugation.

Tiberius’ denarii were minted at Lugdunum, modern-day Lyons, in Gaul. Thus, J. Spencer Kennard, in a well-crafted, but out-of-print book entitled Render to God, argues that the denarius’ circulation in Judaea was likely scarce. The only people to transact routinely with the denarius in Judaea would have been soldiers, Roman officials, and Jewish leaders in collaboration with Rome. Thus, it is noteworthy that Jesus, Himself, does not possess the coin. The questioners’ quickness to produce the coin at Jesus’ request implies that they routinely used it, taking advantage of Roman financial largess, whereas Jesus did not. Moreover, the Tribute Episode takes place in the Temple, and by producing the coin, the questioners reveal their religious hypocrisy – they bring a potentially profane item, the coin of a pagan, into the sacred space of the Temple.

Finally, both Stauffer and Kennard make the magnificent point that coins of the ancient world were the major instrument of imperial propaganda, promoting agendas and promulgating the deeds of their issuers, in particular the apotheosis of the emperor. As Kennard puts it, "For indoctrinating the peoples of the empire with the deity of the emperor, coins excelled all other media. They went everywhere and were handled by everyone. Their subtle symbolism pervaded every home." While Tiberius’ propaganda engine was not as prolific as Augustus’ machine, all of Tiberius’ denarii pronounced his divinity or his debt to the deified Augustus.


After seeing the coin, Jesus then poses a counter-question, "Whose image and inscription is this?" It is again noteworthy that this counter-question and its answer are not necessary to answer the original question of whether it is licit to pay tribute to Caesar. That Jesus asks the counter-question suggests that it and its answer are significant.

(1) Why Is The Counter-Question Important?

The counter-question is significant for two reasons.

First, Owen-Ball argues that the counter-question follows a pattern of formal rhetoric common in first century rabbinic literature in which (1) an outsider poses a hostile question to a rabbi; (2) the rabbi responds with a counter-question; (3) by answering the counter-question, the outsider’s position becomes vulnerable to attack; and (4) the rabbi then uses the answer to the counter-question to refute the hostile question. Jesus’ use of this rhetorical form is one way to establish His authority as a rabbi, not unlike a modern lawyer who uses a formal, legal rhetoric in the courtroom. Moreover, the point of the rhetorical exchange is ultimately to refute the hostile question.

Second, because the hostile question was a direct challenge to Jesus’ authority as a rabbi on a point of law, His interrogators would have expected a counter-question grounded in scripture, in particular, based upon the Torah. Two words, "image" and "inscription," in the counter-question harkens to two central provisions in the Torah, the First (Second) Commandment and the Shema. These provide the scriptural basis for this question of law.

God Prohibits False Images. The First (Second) Commandment prohibits worship of anyone or anything but God, and it also forbids crafting any image of a false god for adoration, "I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt not have strange gods before me. Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness [image] of any thing…." God demands the exclusive allegiance of His people. Jesus’ use of the word, "image," in the counter-question reminds His questioners of the First (Second) Commandment’s requirement to venerate God first and its concomitant prohibition against creating images of false gods.

The Shema Demands The Worship Of God Alone. Jesus’ use of the word "inscription" alludes to the Shema. The Shema is a Jewish prayer based upon Deuteronomy 6:4–9, 11:13–21 and Numbers 15:37–41 and is the most important prayer a pious Jew can say. It commences with the words, "Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad," which can be translated, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God – the Lord alone." This opening line stresses Israel’s worship of God to the exclusion of all other gods. The Shema then commands a person to love God with his whole heart, whole soul, and whole strength. The Shema further requires worshipers to keep the words of the Shema in their hearts, to instruct their children in them, to bind them on their hands and foreheads, and to inscribe them conspicuously on their doorposts and on the gates to their cities. Observant Jews take literally the command to bind the words upon their arms and foreheads and wear tefillin, little leather cases which contain parchment on which are inscribed certain passages from the Torah. Words of the Shema were to be metaphorically inscribed in the hearts, minds, and souls of pious Jews and physically inscribed on parchment in tefillin, on doorposts, and on city gates. St. Matthew and St. Mark both recount Jesus quoting the Shema in the same chapter just a few verses after the Tribute Episode. This proximity further reinforces the reference to the Shema in the Tribute Episode. Finally, it is noteworthy that when Satan tempts Jesus by offering Him all the kingdoms of the [Roman] world in exchange for His worship, Jesus rebukes Satan by quoting the Shema. In short, Jesus means to call attention to the Shema by using the word "inscription" in the counter-question as His appeal to scriptural authority for His response.

(2) Why Is The Answer To The Counter-Question Important?

The answer to the counter-question is significant for two reasons.

First, while the verbal answer to the counter-question of whose image and inscription the coin bears is a feeble, "Caesar’s," the actual image and inscription is much more revealing. The front of the denarius shows a profiled bust of Tiberius crowned with the laurels of victory and divinity. Even a modern viewer would immediately recognize that the person depicted on the coin is a Roman emperor. Circumscribed around Tiberius is an abbreviation, "TI CAESAR DIVI AUG F AUGUSTUS," which stands for "Tiberius Caesar Divi August Fili Augustus," which, in turn, translates, "Tiberius Caesar, Worshipful Son of the God, Augustus."

On the obverse sits the Roman goddess of peace, Pax, and circumscribed around her is the abbreviation, "Pontif Maxim," which stands for "Pontifex Maximus," which, in turn, means, "High Priest."

The coin of the Tribute Episode is a fine specimen of Roman propaganda. It imposes the cult of emperor worship and asserts Caesar’s sovereignty upon all who transact with it.

In the most richly ironic passage in the entire Bible, all three synoptic Gospels depict the Son of God and the High Priest of Peace, newly-proclaimed by His people to be a King, holding the tiny silver coin of a king who claims to be the son of a god and the high priest of Roman peace.

The second reason the answer is significant is that in following the pattern of rabbinic rhetoric, the answer exposes the hostile questioners’ position to attack. It is again noteworthy that the interrogators’ answer to Jesus’ counter-question about the coin’s image and inscription bears little relevance to their original question as to whether it is licit to pay the tribute. Jesus could certainly answer their original question without their answer to His counter-question. But the rhetorical function of the answer to the counter-question is to demonstrate the vulnerability of the opponent’s position and use that answer to refute the opponent’s original, hostile question.


In the Tribute Episode, it is only after Jesus’ counter-question is asked and answered does He respond to the original question. Jesus tells His interrogators, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God, the things that are God’s." This response begs the question of what is licitly God’s and what is licitly Caesar’s.

In the Hebrew tradition, everything rightfully belonged to God. By using the words, "image and inscription," Jesus has already reminded His interrogators that God was owed exclusive allegiance and total love and worship. Similarly, everything economically belonged to God as well. For example, the physical land of Israel was God’s, as He instructed in Leviticus 25:23, "The land [of Israel] shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is mine, and you [the Israelites] are but aliens who have become my tenants." In addition, the Jewish people were to dedicate the firstfruits, that first portion of any harvest and the first-born of any animal, to God. By giving God the firstfruits, the Jewish people acknowledged that all good things came from God and that all things, in turn, belonged to God. God even declares, "Mine is the silver and mine the gold."

The emperor, on the other hand, also claimed that all people and things in the empire rightfully belonged to Rome. The denarius notified everyone who transacted with it that the emperor demanded exclusive allegiance and, at least, the pretense of worship – Tiberius claimed to be the worshipful son of a god. Roman occupiers served as a constant reminder that the land of Israel belonged to Rome. Roman tribute, paid with Roman currency, impressed upon the populace that the economic life depended on the emperor. The emperor’s bread and circuses maintained political order. The propaganda on the coin even attributed peace and tranquility to the emperor.

With one straightforward counter-question, Jesus skillfully points out that the claims of God and Caesar are mutually exclusive. If one’s faith is in God, then God is owed everything; Caesar’s claims are necessarily illegitimate, and he is therefore owed nothing. If, on the other hand, one’s faith is in Caesar, God’s claims are illegitimate, and Caesar is owed, at the very least, the coin which bears his image.

Jesus’ counter-question simply invites His listeners to choose allegiances. Remarkably, He has escaped the trap through a clever rhetorical gambit; He has authoritatively refuted His opponents’ hostile question by basing His answer in scripture, and yet, He never overtly answers the question originally posed to Him. No wonder that St. Matthew ends the Tribute Episode this way: "When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving him they went away."


Subtle sedition refers to scenes throughout the Gospels which were not overtly treasonous and would not have directly threatened Roman authorities, but which delivered political messages that first century Jewish audiences would have immediately recognized. The Gospels are replete with instances of subtle sedition. Pointing these out is not to argue that Jesus saw Himself as a political king. Jesus makes it explicit in John 18:36 that He is not a political Messiah. Rather, in the context of subtle sedition, no one can interpret the Tribute Episode as Jesus’ support of taxation. To the contrary, one can only understand the Tribute Episode as Jesus’ opposition to the illicit Roman taxes.

In addition to the Tribute Episode, three other scenes from the Gospels serve as examples of subtle sedition: (1) Jesus’ temptation in the desert; (2) Jesus walking on water; and (3) Jesus curing the Gerasene demoniac.


Around 200 A.D., the Roman satirist Juvenal lamented that the Roman emperors, masters of the known world, tenuously maintained political power by way of "panem et circenses," or "bread and circuses," a reference to the ancient practice of pandering to Roman citizens by providing free wheat and costly circus spectacles. Caesar Augustus, for example, boasted of feeding more than 100,000 men from his personal granary. He also bragged of putting on tremendous exhibitions:

Three times I gave shows of gladiators under my name and five times under the name of my sons and grandsons; in these shows about 10,000 men fought. * * * Twenty-six times, under my name or that of my sons and grandsons, I gave the people hunts of African beasts in the circus, in the open, or in the amphitheater; in them about 3,500 beasts were killed. I gave the people a spectacle of a naval battle, in the place across the Tiber where the grove of the Caesars is now, with the ground excavated in length 1,800 feet, in width 1,200, in which thirty beaked ships, biremes or triremes, but many smaller, fought among themselves; in these ships about 3,000 men fought in addition to the rowers.

By the time of Jesus and the reign of Tiberius Caesar, the Roman grain dole routinely fed 200,000 people.

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the Spirit led Him into the desert "to be tempted by the devil." The devil challenged Him with three tests. First, he dared Jesus to turn stones into bread. Second, the devil took Jesus to the highest point on the temple in Jerusalem and tempted Him to cast Himself down to force the angels into a spectacular, miraculous rescue. Finally, for the last temptation, "the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, ‘All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.’"

The devil dared Jesus to be a king of bread and circuses and offered Him dominion over the whole earthly world. These temptations are an instantly recognizable reference to the power of the Roman emperors. Jesus forcefully rejects this power. Jesus’ rejection illustrates that the things of God and the things of Rome/the world/the devil are mutually exclusive. Jesus’ allegiance was to the things of God, and His rebuff of the metaphorical power of Rome is an example of subtle sedition.


At the beginning of Chapter 6 in St. John’s Gospel, Jesus performs a miracle and feeds 5,000 people from five loaves of bread; He then refuses to be crowned a king of bread and circuses. Immediately thereafter, St. John recounts the episode of Jesus walking on a body of water in the middle of a storm. That body of water was the Sea of Galilee, which, St. John reminds his readers, was also known as the Sea of Tiberias. Around 25 A.D., Herod Antipas built a pagan city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee and named it in honor of the Roman emperor, Tiberius. By Jesus’ time, the city had become so important that the Sea of Galilee came to be called the "Sea of Tiberias." Thus, not only does Jesus refuse to be coronated a Roman king of bread and circuses, but He literally treads upon the emperor’s seas, showing that even the emperor’s waters have no dominion over Him. Treading on the emperor’s seas is an additional instance of subtle sedition.


St. Mark details Jesus’ encounter with the Gerasene demoniac in another example of subtle sedition. The territory of the Gerasenes was pagan territory, and this particular demoniac was exceptionally strong and frightening. In attempting to exorcise the demon, Jesus asked its name. The demon replied, "Legion is my name. There are many of us." Jesus then expels the demons and casts them into a herd of swine. The herd immediately drive themselves into the sea. First century readers would have been well-acquainted with the name, "Legion." At that time, an imperial legion was roughly 6,000 soldiers. Thus, the demon "Legion," an agent of the devil, was a thinly-veiled reference to the Roman occupiers of Judaea. Swine were considered unclean animals under Jewish law. The symbol of the Roman Legion which occupied Jerusalem was a boar. The first century audience would have easily grasped the symbolism of Jesus’ casting the demon Legion into the herd of unclean swine, and the herd driving itself into the sea. Thus, the healing of the Gerasene demoniac is another example of subtle sedition.


In the Tribute Episode, Jesus’ response is subtly seditious. The first-century audience would have immediately apprehended what it meant to render unto God the things that are God’s. They would have known that the things of God and Caesar were mutually exclusive. No Jewish listener would have mistaken Jesus’ response as an endorsement of paying Caesar’s taxes. To the contrary, His audience would have understood that Jesus thought the tribute was illicit. Indeed, opposition to the tribute was one of the charges the authorities levied at His trial, "They brought charges against him, saying, ‘We found this man misleading our people; he opposes the payment of taxes to Caesar and maintains that he is the Messiah, a king.’" To the Roman audience, however, the pronouncement of rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s sounds benign, almost supportive. It is, however, one of many vignettes of covert political protest contained in the Gospels. In short, the Tribute Episode is a subtle form of sedition. When viewed in this context, no one can say that the Episode supports the payment of taxes.


The Catholic Church considers Herself the authoritative interpreter of Sacred Scripture. The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church "is a statement of the Church’s faith and of catholic doctrine, attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition, and the Church’s Magisterium."

The 1994 Catechism instructs the faithful that it is morally obligatory to pay one’s taxes for the common good. (What the definition of the "common good" is may be left for a different debate.) The 1994 Catechism also quotes and cites the Tribute Episode. But the 1994 Catechism does NOT use the Tribute Episode to support the proposition that it is morally obligatory to pay taxes. Instead, the 1994 Catechism refers the Tribute Episode only to justify acts of civil disobedience. It quotes St. Matthew’s version to teach that a Christian must refuse to obey political authority when that political authority makes a demand contrary to the demands of the moral order, the fundamental rights of persons, or the teachings of the Gospel. Similarly, the 1994 Catechism also cites to St. Mark’s version to instruct that a person "should not submit his personal freedom in an absolute manner to any earthly power, but only to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Caesar is not ‘the Lord.’" Thus, according to the 1994 Catechism, the Tribute Episode stands for the proposition that a Christian owes his allegiance to God and to the things of God alone. If the Tribute Episode unequivocally supported the proposition that it is morally obligatory to pay taxes, the 1994 Catechism would not hesitate to cite to it for that position. That the 1994 Catechism does not interpret the Tribute Episode as a justification for the payment of taxes suggests that such an interpretation is not an authoritative reading of the passage. In short, even the Catholic Church does not understand the Tribute Episode to mean that Jesus endorsed paying Caesar’s taxes.


St. John’s Gospel recounts the scene of a woman caught in adultery, brought before Jesus by the Pharisees so that they might "test" Him "so that they could have some charge to bring against Him." When asked, "‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say,’" Jesus appears trapped by only two answers: the strict, legally-correct answer of the Pharisees, or the mercifully-right, morally-correct, but technically-illegal answer undermining Jesus’ authority as a Rabbi. Notably, Jesus never does overtly respond to the question posed to Him; instead of answering, "Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger." When pressed by His inquisitors, He finally answers, "‘Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,’" and, of course, the shamed Pharisees all leave one by one. Jesus then refuses to condemn the woman.

The scene of the woman caught in adultery and the Tribute Episode are similar. In both, Jesus is faced with a hostile question challenging His credibility as a Rabbi. In each, the hostile question has two answers: one answer which the audience knows is morally correct, but politically incorrect, and the other answer which the audience knows is wrong, but politically correct. In the scene of the woman caught in adultery, no one roots for Jesus to say, "Stone her!" Everyone wants to see Jesus extend the woman mercy. Likewise, in the Tribute Episode, no one hopes Jesus answers, "Pay tribute to the pagan, Roman oppressors!" The Tribute Episode, like the scene of the woman caught in adultery, has a "right" answer – it is not licit to pay the tribute. But Jesus cannot give this "right" answer without running afoul of the Roman government. Instead, in both Gospel accounts, Jesus gives a quick-witted, but ultimately ambiguous, response which exposes the hypocrisy of His interrogators rather than overtly answers the underlying question posed by them. Nevertheless, in each instance, the audience can infer the right answer embedded in Jesus’ response.

Over the centuries, theologians, scholars, laymen, and potentates have interpreted the Tribute Episode incorrectly as Jesus’ support for the payment of taxes. First, this interpretation does not square with the political climate of the times. The Tribute Episode is set in the middle of a decades-old tax-revolt against Caesar’s tribute. Second, the rhetorical structure of the Tribute Episode, itself, contradicts any interpretation that Jesus supported paying taxes. Third, the Gospels contain episode after episode of subtle sedition. The Tribute Episode is just another of these subtly seditious scenes. When seen in the context of subtle sedition, the phrase "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s," means that the emperor is owed nothing. Finally, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the authoritative interpreter of Sacred Scripture, does not construe the Tribute Episode to support the proposition that it is morally obligatory to pay one’s taxes. Indeed, it interprets the Tribute Episode to mean the exact opposite – that Christians are obliged to disobey Caesar when Caesar’s dictates violate God’s law. In sum, the pro-tax position of the Tribute Episode is not supportable historically, rhetorically, contextually, or within the confines of the Catholic Church’s own understanding. As Dorothy Day is reputed to have said, "If we rendered unto God all the things that belong to God, there would be nothing left for Caesar."

March 17, 2010

Jeff Barr [send him mail] practices law in Las Vegas, Nevada. He received a Master's Degree in Business Administration from UNLV where he took classes from Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Murray Rothbard.

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MiddleKnowledge's picture

I don't know who posted this, but whoever you are, thank you.

Excellent article!

Tim Martin

Virgil's picture

I found it on lewrockwell - it's an excellent article, I agree. I was aware of some of the intricacies in the passage but have not seen all the subtleties that Jesus dealt with.

It's a fantastic article - all these people advocating "Christians should pay taxes to Rome" need to read it 10 times over and rethink their ridiculous position...but again, the Bible has been used to justify all kinds of ridiculous positions, so it's not a surprise.

MiddleKnowledge's picture

Wow. I'm a regular reader, but I must have missed that one.

In my recent sermon series through Mark I noted the connection between Jesus "rebuking" the sea and "walking" on the sea and the Gentile context of what takes place next in both cases. I also connected the "legion" of demons to the pigs, a euphemism for Romans soldiers. That is why, I believe, the people immediately told Jesus and the disciples to leave that place. Great to see someone else "seeing" that kind of stuff. Very encouraging.

You read LRC? Hmm... no wonder you are so...



Virgil's picture

Yes, I've missed that also. Good stuff, it's exciting that Catholic and Evangelical-minded believers can come together and agree on something as important as government and taxation, even when leaders on both sides advocate a mistaken rendering of these passages!

Scotty's picture

Great article! Another valuable demonstration of the need to go much deeper than a surface reading through 21st century glasses.

Jack Scott

Starlight's picture

This is a very interesting article. However I’m left with the nagging question of just how to evaluate paying taxes to any Government entity being it local or federal in scope? It seems like there is no wiggle room but common sense seems to indicate otherwise. Does anyone want to play the part of Christian Rome here as far as government taxation is concerned? Should be interesting.


Virgil's picture

That's a good question Norm; I guess we need to evaluate what the "government" does with the money they take from you and then make an informed decision. The ultimate question is this: should Christians accept the "social contract" theory that is the norm today or challenge in favor of a "voluntary society" that could at least in theory better provide a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth?

Starlight's picture

Virgil, I guess we could start with the Amish as one model.

Another one might be a theocracy of sorts with the church acting as the Government. Oh wait we already had that with Old covenant Israel and Catholic Rome haven't we. ;-)

Didn't America start off with some of these ideas at one time and wasn't there a civil war fought over the rights of states who felt constrained by federalist states? It seems that a little ugly thing called slavery got in the way there which dirtied the states rights hands.

It would be intersting to see what Shangri la looks like before and 200 years later. Usually things never stay the same for long after each generation gets their say and tweaks the last ones model. The rise and fall of civilizations is an interesting study for sure.

kingdomsaint7's picture

Not to get off-topic here, but I was just reading at wikipedia the varying ideas about the number of the beast, and I just ran into Ethelbert Stauffer's name there. This was about 10 minutes before his book on Roman coins was praised in this article! God never ceases to amaze!

"The German Protestant theologian Ethelbert Stauffer, arguing that gematria had been the most popular form of numerology not only among Jews but also in the Graeco-Roman world (Pergamon, Pompeii)[32], conceived a Greek gematrical procedure to explain the number 666. Judging from the precise information that the Book of Revelation gives about the person behind the number 666[33], Stauffer concluded that the "beast" can in general only refer to a Roman emperor and argued that this Emperor must be Domitian, because he had reigned during the proposed time of origin of the Apocalypse and supposedly was called "The Beast" as a "secret derisive nickname" by Romans, Greek, Christians and Jews.[34] Stauffer computed the Number of the Beast using the short form of Domitian's five titles and names A KAI ΔOMET ΣEB ΓE, as derived from the abbreviations on coins and inscriptions.[35] Domitian's official title in Latin was Imperator Caesar Domitianus Augustus Germanicus. This was rendered as Autokrator Kaisar Dometianos Sebastos Germanikos for his Greek-speaking subjects. And in turn, for their coins, this abbreviated to A.KAI.DOMET.SEB.GE which totals 666 in Greek Gematria."

I might actually come to accept this as true since my personal belief is that the Earth Beast is Rome (I know just about everyone disagrees with this, save me the debate in this thread please) occupying the Land of Judea after the Temple falls. Titus/Vespasian imposed the "Fiscus Judaicus" (Jewish tax) on any Jew, any age, any race, anywhere in the reaches of Rome. I find Stauffer's idea very helpful since perhaps the "two horns" of this Earth Beast could be Vespasian/Titus or Titus/Domitian. Again, I didn't bring this up for exhaustive debate, but the topic was Roman coins and their images and inscriptions; buying, selling and taxes.

A lot for me to chew on!

Ozark's picture

Jesus, the zealot? Non-payment of taxes would be a declaration of war on Rome. Is that really what Jesus wanted his followers to do? I hate to be a party pooper here, but I am not sure I like where this fellow is going. There is a lot to consider. For instance, in Matthew 17 Jesus implies that the temple tax was inappropriate, but he tells Peter to pay it anyway. In other places he clearly says revolt against Rome will lead only to destruction. Then you have to look at Jesus' relationship with the tax collectors, themselves. Why did they love him? When we can answer that question, we get a glimpse of the nature of the kingdom of God.

If Jesus was advocating a tax revolt, the early church didn't get it. They were known as model citizens, including paying their taxes. They did disagree with Rome over who was Lord, but it had little to do with taxes.

Jesus, in this passage, might have been making a comment on the injustice of Roman taxes, but he in no way was advocating a tax rebellion. He came to redeem the gentiles, not start a war with them. He wanted his followers to love their enemies, not hate them because of taxes. If you could love the fellow who was stealing from you, you were the winner, period.

Ripping this incident out of its historical context and trying to make an application for our taxes today is questionable. Taxation was whole different ball game back then. It was used to redistribute wealth from the poor to the rich. It was killing the common man. Today, in theory, we are arguing about how much wealth to redistribute to the poor and how it will affect the economy. It is the reverse of the first century world.

I would say those who advocate a tax revolt using Jesus as their poster boy are making the same mistake they accuse the pro tax people of making.

Oh, and the connection between the legion of pigs and Rome at the Gadarenes is also very shaky, IMO. The whole point of the story was that Jesus was going into a very unclean situation (gentiles, tombs, and pigs, oh my!) to rescue a very unclean gentile. In the kingdom of God there was no more "unclean." That is the message of this story. To say that Jesus turns around and says this does not apply to the Romans cheapens the encounter and messes up one of the most powerful statements in Jesus' ministry.

Virgil's picture

A zealot or advocating rebellion? No way...I don't see that anywhere in the passage and I don't see the author of this article suggesting that Jesus was a zealot. Zealots were actively and openly in favor of using military force against Rome. Jesus take the subversive approach and hits both Rome and the Jewish establishment where it hurts most: their pockets.

Islamaphobe's picture

I find myself inclined to share the doubts expressed by Norm and Ozark. I do like the article and regard it as well-reasoned and informative. I am also of the opinion, however, that the Bible recognizes the necessity of government; and if there is to be government, it must have the power to tax. For me, the real issue boils down to whether or not functions undertaken by government are in accord with biblical principles, and I am persuaded that much of what government does in our day is not.

Having spent forty years teaching economics in universities and encountered some Christian clerics with a strong attachment to "social justice" but a feeble understanding of Economics 101, I share some affinity with those who regularly visit the Lew Rockwell site.

John S. Evans

Virgil's picture

John, why so readily accept the power of the government to tax? If we are to model our society after the ways in which we understand the Kingdom of God to be, it should be a voluntary society, should it not? Why would we accept the status quo where violence and force is used to enforce taxation against someone's will?

Islamaphobe's picture


In my view, a nation composed of sinful humans will never been one in which everyone will act voluntarily in consistency with God's will. There will always be freeloaders.


Virgil's picture

Sin has really nothing to do with it since it cannot be controlled via government force or regulations. In a voluntary society, freeloaders would quickly be either kicked out or become ostracized and forced to provide for themselves - those unable to do so would be cared by volunteers and churches, which have been doing this for 2,000 years already.

kingdomsaint7's picture

Jesus is not advocating zealotry. Its not what the article is about, I do not think you read it, poopy. Jesus is advocating motive of choice, he is going to the heart of the Law, as per the article. If giving to God over a demi-god tyrant results in a war then they would have been justified. You can't tell a believer not to worship God because it may result in a war or conflict. Jesus brought a sword and fire to the world, not peace (worldly peace). Family against family, nation against nation. Jesus came to judge the world according to his word. Why do you think Rome killed Christians? They were called atheists because they wouldn't render worship to Caesar, not even a pinch of incense. Jesus drove out the money changers with a whip! Do you accuse him of being a religious nut now? I certainly hope not, it was zeal and love for GOD (not nationalism) that Jesus drove out hypocrites.

But back to the context of money at hand, God has always been against money changers getting rich off of usury and interest. Rome's standards were completely against the Law and Jesus amazed them by reminding them why. Is obeying the Law the same as first century zealotry? That's baseless.

Windpressor's picture

For a more strident hermeneutic check --
Advance to pg 66 (sec 7.4.7 "Civil Disobedience to Corrupt Governments is a Biblical Mandate" pgs 66-80)

Excerpt begins pg72 --

[Jesus] was fully aware that it is against God’s Law to give tribute to a heathen “Caesar”. He also knew that it would enrage “Caesar” for him to say so. Jesus knew that giving the correct answer was a trap laid for him by the Pharisees, and he evaded their trap by the following: He didn’t define what was or was not “Caesar’s. He didn’t even affirm that the penny with “Caesar’s” image and superscription was to be rendered to “Caesar”. Jesus’ answer was that the Pharisees should render to “Caesar”, a heathen who did not know or obey God’s Law, exactly what was due to any heathen or Israelite who did not obey God’s Law:

[Num 15:15] One ordinance shall be both for you of the congregation [of Israel], and also for the stranger [foreigner; non Israelite] that sojourneth with you, an ordinance for ever in your generations: as ye are, so shall the stranger be before the LORD. [15:16] One law and one manner shall be for you, and for the stranger that sojourneth with you. (i.e.: death for breaking God’s Law: [Deu 27:26] Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law [God’s Law, not Caesar’s law] to do them. And all the people shall say, Amen.)

Therefore, the Pharisees knew that what they had just been told was to render unto”Caesar” what God’s Law required: death, and since they were declining to carry out the sentence of the law, they were hypocrites, since they were the enforcement officials of God’s Law and knew what “Caesar” was due under God’s Law. They had also been told that they were doing presumptuously by not harkening to carry out the sentence of the law and they themselves should be put to death along with “Caesar” in order to put their own evil away from Israel:

[Deu 17:11] According to the sentence of the law which they shall teach thee, and according to the judgment which they shall tell thee, thou shalt do: thou shalt not decline from the sentence which they shall shew thee, to the right hand, nor to the left. [17:12] And the man that will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest that standeth to minister there before the LORD thy God, or unto the judge, [and render unto Caesar what Caesar was due, death in this particular case] even that man shall die [the Pharisees, for not carrying out the sentence in this particular case]: and thou shalt put away the evil from Israel.

The larger work --
Family Constitution

G-Juan Wind

Ozark's picture

Jesus did call the Pharisees hypocrites at least in Matthew's account. However, it is likely he was talking about the fact that they approached him saying he was a true teacher, then tried to trap him. Your link did not work, so I couldn't check the source, but you pointed to a section saying civil disobedience is a biblical mandate. Jesus was subversive, but not paying Roman taxes was not his method.

You have to put his words in the context of all Jesus taught and did. Look at the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’
But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.

And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?

And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect."

It is pretty clear that things like turning the other cheek, giving not only your tunic but your cloak also, and going the extra mile were all Rome related. How do you resist? You respond to evil with unimaginable kindness and generosity. The greater the love we show, the more evil is exposed. If we become like our enemies in an effort to defeat them, evil can still hide. We overcome darkness with light, not more darkness. Look at Jesus' relationship with the tax collectors such as Zacchaeus, and you will see this is how he subverted the system.

It is quite possible that Jesus was using the Law against the Pharisees as you suggested. However, I don't think he was giving any mandate for violence against Caesar. It was more like he was saying, "If you really want to keep the letter of the Law, then go keep it." Recall the incident of the woman caught in adultery. If Jesus was a champion of the letter of the Law, he would have picked up a rock and thrown it at the lady. Who knows what Jesus was writing on the ground as he spoke. Maybe he wrote at the feet of some "Sabbath breaker." In other words, "if you want to keep the Law, you get the next rock."

This is an interesting passage, but I don't believe we should use it either for a mandate to pay taxes or a mandate not to.

kingdomsaint7's picture

...Was added to the bible in later centuries. The writing on the ground doesn't make sense. Plus, the Law required her blood if it was true, the Law didn't say only non-sinners can stone adulterous wives. And let's not forget that adulterous prostitute Israel was stoned for her abominations:

Rev 17:1 "One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, "Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits on many waters."

Ezekiel 23:45 "But righteous men will sentence them to the punishment of women who commit adultery and shed blood, because they are adulterous and blood is on their hands."

Windpressor's picture

Sorry about the link mishap. :(
Can't see any edit feature to fix this.
Touchy mouse - copy&paste truncated the "df" off the end of the shortcut --

This section is also accessible through the bottom link with a couple extra clicks. The Home site is huge and covers a lot of material.
No, I would not give a full endorsement but a I offer a nod of nuanced support for the sentiments and endeavor.

It is no easy matter to address growing awareness that fraud and usurpation pass for "authority". When it comes to discerning the "dues" of Romans 13, I often find a self-evident truth that such "honors due" are little more than "honor among thieves".

G-Juan Wind

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