Caesar and God in Context

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Professor Walter
Block’s article on Religion
and Libertarianism
was a timely wake up call to theistic and
atheistic libertarians alike. As a Reader (a licensed lay minister)
in the Church of England, I welcome Professor Block’s call to unite
in the face of the growing state menace to us all — but I took exception
to his phrase "But what of the fact that most if not all religions
support the state. ‘Render unto Caesar… etc.’."

You might wonder
why I object to this biblical quotation. It seems peripheral to
Professor Block’s argument, it’s accurate as far as it goes, and
many of my fellow Christians do quote this passage to either endorse
(or at least resign themselves to) the latest government proposals
on almost anything and everything. My answer is that as a Christian
minister, it’s part of my calling to make sure that other people
understand the Bible as well as possible when they use and quote
it — regardless of whether they agree with what they’re quoting.

I’m tired of
seeing Matthew 22:15–22 (or its equivalents in Mark 12:13–17 and
Luke 20:20–26) used by Christians to support the modern nation-state.
So in fairness to Professor Block, I take issue with the way some
of my fellow Christians interpret this story, rather than with the
Professor for referring to their views. Have a look at the Matthew
passage from the New International Version of the Bible with me,
and I’ll try to explain what I mean:

Then the
Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They
sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,”
they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach
the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed
by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us
then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar
or not?”

But Jesus,
knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you
trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.”
They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose portrait
is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,”
they replied. Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,
and to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed.
So they left him and went away.

The usual interpretation
of this passage says something like this: Here Jesus endorses paying
taxes to the state, even a pagan state, and says that such obedience
to civil government is not incompatible with obedience to God. But
apart from leading directly to an often uncritical rubber stamping
of the state’s tax demands, the standard interpretation also ignores
several vital aspects of the context in which Jesus spoke.

Let’s start
by looking at the political and religious context of the story.
Jesus lived and taught in Roman-occupied Judea in the first century
A.D. The Roman Empire, although powerful, held only a fraction of
the information on its citizens that modern nation-states do on
theirs, and offered nothing like the array of social welfare programs
we find in a typical western-style social democracy. The incident
in question seems to have taken place in or near the Temple, while
Jesus was speaking to the crowds during the final Passover week
of his earthly ministry. Matthew, Mark and Luke (sometimes called
the Synoptists) all place the story shortly after Jesus overturned
the tables of the money changers.

In Matthew
21:13, Jesus explained his attack on the tables of the money changers
by quoting Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11 (“‘It is written,’ he said
to them, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are
making it ‘a den of robbers’”). In other words, he was offended
by the location of the money changers in the court of the Gentiles,
the only area in the Temple complex where non-Jews were allowed
to pray to God; he was further angered by the extortionate exchange
rates the agents were charging. The money changers converted Roman
coinage into special Temple coins for reasons we’ll examine later.
For now, let’s just say it wasn’t surprising that Jesus’ opponents
saw the opportunity to ask what sort of money he found acceptable.

The economic
and fiscal aspects of the story are also important. According to
Dr. John MacArthur, Jesus’ questioners had a particular imperial
tax in mind: the poll tax, which was levied at a flat rate of one
denarius and helped to pay for the Roman legions which occupied
Judea. The legions were more than just a security force – they
were also responsible for the construction and maintenance of the
roads, for example, and were the closest thing Rome had to a civil
service. Nevertheless, MacArthur describes the poll tax as "the
most hated tax of all because it suggested that Rome owned even
the people, while they viewed themselves and their nation as possessions
of God" (MacArthur: 1434n).

The denarius
was probably equivalent to a day’s wage for a labourer. Each denarius
struck at that time bore the face and inscription of Tiberius Caesar
on one side, and an image of Tiberius seated on his imperial throne
in priestly robes on the other. Caesar’s inscription included the
title “Son of God” (Carson: 933), and the emperor was worshipped
as a god in many parts of the Empire. Not surprisingly, Jesus’ Jewish
contemporaries thought the coin to be blasphemous, and therefore
unfit for offering to God in the Temple in Jerusalem. Hence the
need for “money changers” to convert the idolatrous denarii into
special Temple coinage before worshippers purchased sacrificial
animals in the Temple precincts and proceeded into the court of
the Jews.

The idolatrous
denarius would soon become impure in another important respect:
the coin Jesus held and affirmed as payable to Tiberius Caesar was
99 per cent pure silver, but this would not be the case for long.
Nero (54–68 A.D.) is the first Roman emperor known to have debased
the denarius, while Trajan (98–117 A.D.) subsequently added copper
to the coin. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the
denarius of Septimius Severus (193–211 A.D.) was only 40 per cent
pure. By the time the Western Roman Empire fell into Christianized
hands under Constantine in 312 A.D., the denarius was no longer
in circulation. The labourer’s daily wage had been inflated away,
stolen by a pagan state whose leaders thought they could create
and recreate economic realities by decree — much as their deluded
central banking descendants believe today.

But what of
the security situation in which Jesus uttered his words on giving
to Caesar and God? The Temple complex was directly overlooked by
a Roman garrison stationed in the nearby fortress of Antonia. The
garrison would have been in a high state of alert during the Passover
week, as thousands of strangers flooded into Jerusalem from all
parts of the Roman Empire. From a security standpoint, Passover
was perhaps the worst time of year for Roman troops stationed in
Jerusalem, which helps to explain part of what we might call the
logical context of this story.

You may by
now have concluded that the tax question was meant to be a (very
dangerous) trick question, and that Jesus’ opponents deliberately
asked it in a closed form. You’d be right on both counts. Jesus’
enemies wanted a simple "yes" or "no" answer
to their question because they knew they could use either response
to destroy him. A "yes" would have alienated many devout
Jews in his audience and could have been used to incite the crowd
to lynch him; a "no" would have let Jesus’ opponents bring
him before the Roman governor on a charge of sedition. The penalty
for sedition was death, and Pilate wouldn’t have hesitated to pass
sentence, especially given the role of a Galilean named Judas in
leading a tax revolt against Rome in 6 A.D. (Chilton: 426).

Jesus refused
to give his enemies what they wanted, and his answer should be seen
for what it is: a tricky answer to a trick question. What’s more,
the context in which Jesus uttered his words on Caesar and God should
remind us to be careful about using the story as a ringing endorsement
of the nation-state. But does this mean Jesus lied? No, he simply
took care to present the truth in a form his enemies couldn’t use
against him.

For example,
by having his opponents produce a denarius marked with Caesar’s
image and inscription, Jesus avoided publicly associating himself
with either Rome’s currency or the religious beliefs it embodied.
His words can in fact be seen as confirmation that the denarius
was unfit to offer to God; this left Caesar and the might of Rome
firmly outside the Temple and with little or no Divine sanction
from Jesus. Finally, Jesus may also have used his enemies’ actions
to suggest to the crowd that his opponents paid the poll tax. Thus,
the spies were tactically unable to ask the question Jesus’ reply
begs even today "What, exactly, is Caesar’s?"

This was perhaps
fortunate for Jesus, but arguably less so for modern Christians,
who frequently assume that Jesus offered no answer in the passage
to this vital question. They often leave it to their current local
Caesar to answer it for them, with the result that each would-be
Caesar is allowed to make up his own rules, provided he doesn’t
blatantly demand worship of himself or another rival god. Small
wonder that few state leaders object to Christians quoting this
passage. But I think Jesus did identify Caesar’s property, and offer
in evidence the denarius displayed to the crowd at the behest of
Jesus.

So, what does
Jesus here imply belongs to a Caesar who tried to rival God for
worship and loyalty? Financially speaking, the most that statist
Christians can get from this story is an endorsement of a flat tax
limited to a single digit percentage of a manual labourer’s annual
income. Furthermore, this money was used to finance local government,
local security and road construction. It was never sufficient to
prop up bloated international government agencies, failing businesses
or indebted home buyers. But since Jesus implicitly shut Caesar
out of the Temple with his answer, even this conclusion is debatable
at best.

Morally speaking,
though, Jesus was refusing much more than a coin for himself or
his Father. His answer was a rejection of the blasphemous power
of state-controlled money, issued by thieving moneyers at the behest
of false gods. Even today, such money is backed by the ability to
threaten and use state-sanctioned violence on a massive scale. Those
who give such orders today shelter beneath the doctrine of “sovereign
immunity," and those who carry out the orders try to absolve
themselves by pointing to “the chain of command."

Caesar’s “power”
(such as it is) entails appearing to reap without sowing, promoting
or unmaking just weights and measures on a whim of public policy,
taking or preserving the lives of others in the name of the “big
picture” or the “greater good” — and reaping personal and national
disaster in due course. No wonder Jesus, the Prince of Peace, rejected
such power whenever it was offered to him.

Sources

  • Bible quotations
    (unless otherwise stated) are taken from the New International
    Version, (c) 1978 New York International Bible Society and may
    be checked on-line at www.biblegateway.com

Books

Articles

  • “coin.”
    Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica
    2006 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD 23 Aug. 2008.
  • It
    Could Be Dawn
    (Time magazine, March 29th
    1968)

February
4, 2009

Christopher
Bevis [send
him mail
] is a newly licensed Reader in the Church of England,
an avid LRC reader, and a member of the Libertarian Alliance. He
writes in a purely personal capacity, and wants to help Christians
and libertarians see that they have much to offer each other.

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