Unto Caesar: A Most Misunderstood New Testament Passage
Jeffrey F. Barr
by Jeffrey F. Barr
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,
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.’
appears to be important and well-known to the early Christian community.
The Gospels of St.
Mark, and St.
Luke recount this "Tribute Episode" nearly verbatim.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
Is The Counter-Question Important?
is significant for two reasons.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Is The Answer To The Counter-Question Important?
to the counter-question is significant for two reasons.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
CONTEXT IN THE GOSPELS: A TRADITION OF 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
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.
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.
OF BREAD AND CIRCUSES
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
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
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
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
UPON THE EMPEROR’S SEAS
At the beginning
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
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.
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.
DOES THE CATHOLIC CHURCH SAY?
Church considers Herself the authoritative
interpreter of Sacred Scripture. The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic
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
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
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.
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
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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