Render Unto Caesar: A Most Misunderstood New Testament Passage
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.
II. THE HISTORICAL SETTING: THE UNDERCURRENT OF TAX REVOLT
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.
III. THE RHETORICAL STRUCTURE OF THE TRIBUTE EPISODE
 Then the Pharisees going, consulted among themselves how to insnare him in his speech.  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.  Tell us therefore what dost thou think? Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?  But Jesus knowing their wickedness, said: Why do you tempt me, ye hypocrites?  Show me the coin of the tribute. And they offered him a penny [literally, in Latin, "denarium," a denarius].  And Jesus saith to them: Whose image and inscription is this?  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.  And hearing this, they wondered and, leaving him, went their ways. Matt 22:1522 (Douay-Rheims translation).
A. THE QUESTION
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.
B. THE COIN
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.
C. THE COUNTER-QUESTION AND ITS ANSWER
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 6:49, 11:1321 and Numbers 15:3741 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.
D. REFUTING BY RENDERING UNTO GOD
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."
IV. THE CONTEXT IN THE GOSPELS: A TRADITION OF SUBTLE SEDITION
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.
A. EMPERORS OF BREAD AND CIRCUSES
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.
B. TREADING UPON THE EMPEROR’S SEAS
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.
C. A LEGION OF DEMONS
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.
D. TRIBUTE AS 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.
V. WHAT DOES THE CATHOLIC CHURCH SAY?
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.
Copyright © 2010 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.