The Libertarian From Nazareth?


Whatever one's religious denomination, a careful, dispassionate analysis of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth compels the conclusion that Jesus was an uncompromising political libertarian. Libertarianism is of course not a faith or a creed, but rather a political theory for organizing civilized society. The written record provides strong, unambiguous support for the fact that Jesus was a political libertarian who very likely had an Austrian understanding of money.

Jesus believed in and taught the importance of the following principles: (1) all people must treat others as they would like to be treated (the "Golden Rule"); (2) man's primary responsibility is to obey God and his conscience, not man-made positivist legal codes; and (3) that state actors who violate God's will are morally responsible for their actions. Further, Jesus' parables repeatedly recognize and implicitly support the ownership and responsible stewardship of private property.

Before going further, it is necessary to understand what most libertarians believe. Libertarians believe that people have all right, title and dominion over their own lives, liberty and property. Libertarians believe that all people or entities (organized groups of people) that infringe on others' lives, liberty and property violate reason and/or Natural Law. To most libertarians, government is legitimate only insofar as it meets both of the following conditions: (1) government's power derives from the voluntary "consent of the governed" (i.e., everyone governed contractually agrees on the laws and a method of enforcement that ensures due process prior to restraining any single individuals' life, liberty or property rights); and (2) government's enforcement methods do not indirectly violate any individual's life, liberty or property rights, including the rights of those not party to the social contract.

The Golden Rule

Libertarian theory is different from all other political theories primarily because libertarians reject the notion that government is entitled to a monopoly on violence or otherwise has license to violate reason, Natural Law or the Golden Rule. Simply put, libertarians believe that the Golden Rule applies to everyone, including government and its agents. Thus, a government that deprives an individual of property without prior consent violates reason, Natural Law and the Golden Rule. This is the sine qua non of libertarianism.

Did Jesus believe that government was subject to the Golden Rule? Most clearly, yes. Jesus lived in first century Iudaea, a province of the Roman Empire. The governing authority was the Roman governor, Procurator Pontius Pilate, and his enforcement arm was the imperial Roman army. Jesus and his kinsmen thus lived under the occupation of a foreign army and foreign authority that, as imperial armies are wont to do, extracted tribute from the locals in the form of taxes.

Although Jesus' interactions with the state are limited, those few interactions provide deep insight into his political views. Next to the legal positivist Pharisees, the most reviled and universally hated characters in the New Testament gospels are unquestionably the tax collectors. These are the locals who served the empire by collecting from their own people, often skimming or demanding their own personal tribute. Although Jesus is kind and generous to the tax collectors, including Zacchaeus and his own disciple Matthew, there is no question that he regards them as "sinners" who have violated God's law and who must acknowledge their sins and repent. It is more than their collaboration with the Romans that makes these people sinners, for the gospels regard the dishonest tax collectors like Zacchaeus — those that line their own pockets with other people's money — as the worst of these bad actors.

In the story of Zacchaeus, in consideration for forgiveness and redemption, Zacchaeus pledges half of his property (for abetting the Romans' unjust taxation) and further pledges to return four times the money he has personally extorted (300% interest to the victims!).

The other state actors with whom Jesus fatefully comes into contact are of course the Roman soldiers that put him to death and Pontius Pilate.

As he is being executed, Jesus' prayer for the soldiers shows that he believes they are morally responsible for their acts and in need of forgiveness:

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)

This prayer is significant because, if Jesus believed that the soldiers were not morally responsible for carrying out immoral orders, he would see no need to seek forgiveness on their behalf. The record shows that the soldiers did not falsely accuse Jesus of blasphemy and sedition, the soldiers took no part in his trial before the Sanhedrin, the soldiers were not present when Pilate interrogated Jesus and they were not part of the crowd that demanded Jesus' crucifixion. Yet Jesus' prayer for them indicates that he believes they are nevertheless morally culpable for their actions.

Although Jesus seeks forgiveness because the soldiers "know not what they do," the soldiers' lack of self-awareness clearly is not sufficient for their forgiveness. If it were, Jesus would not have to ask for it. Jesus' prayer indicates that he believes that the soldiers, and by extension all state actors, are not without sin simply because they are unaware of the nature of their actions. He prays for the soldiers because they are too obtuse to recognize that their actions are evil. They receive forgiveness not because of their ignorance, but because Jesus seeks forgiveness for them.

What about Pilate? While Pilate attempts to "wash his hands" of any culpability for Jesus' death, it is Pilate who imprisons Jesus, Pilate who interrogates Jesus upon his return from the Sanhedrin trial and it is Pilate's Roman soldiers that actually carry out Jesus' execution. Although the gospels are somewhat opaque on the Roman governor's acts, omissions and motivations leading up to the crucifixion, it is clear, from Pilate's wife's warning — "have nothing to do with this innocent man" — that his participation in Jesus' execution was unjust and immoral.

Jesus on Taxation and Sound Money

Statists who argue that Jesus supported taxation and/or the state ignore the many passages relating to sinful tax collectors and Jesus' unjust execution by the Roman secular authority and instead point to the "Render unto Caesar" passage in Matthew, chapter 22 as evidence that Jesus was pro-state. In the story, Pharisees and other "spies" attempt to goad Jesus, a middle-class Jewish tradesman surrounded by Roman centurions, into foolishly fomenting a tax revolt.

The story begins with Jesus' Pharisee inquisitor asking him whether or not the local Jews should pay the taxes demanded by Caesar. Jesus responds by asking him to produce a coin that Caesar would accept as a tax. After the Pharisee produces the coin, Jesus asks him whose image is on the coin and the Pharisee responds "Caesar's." Jesus then recommends: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's."

While this story offers many wonderful, nuanced and insightful lessons, the story in no way offers moral support for taxation or the state. Taken in context, the story sheds much more light on Jesus' views on the role of money and pragmatic, non-violent civil disobedience in response to overwhelming secular power.

To fully understand the story, one must know a little about money and currency in first century Iudaea. The story of the moneychangers at the Temple shows that more than one currency was in circulation at the time. History indicates that at least four currencies, Greek, Roman, Jewish and Tyrian, were used as media of exchange. Because only Jewish shekels and Tyrian coins were allowed in Temple ceremonies, the entrepreneurial moneychangers opened shop outside the Temple so that that the faithful could exchange their Roman denarii for Jewish shekels in order to offer their sacrifices and meaningfully participate in Temple ceremonies.

In this context, with at least four separate currencies circulating in Iudaea, Jesus' response to the Pharisee: "Whose image is on the coin?" says a lot about what was going through his mind. Jesus wants to know what authority issued the coin; that is, who "made" it and who, therefore, accepts or demands it as currency?

When the Pharisee responds "Caesar's," Jesus learns that the money in question is that of the occupying imperial forces, is not allowed in Temple ceremonies and carries the craven image of Caesar, declaring him a "God." Given this context, Jesus' response, "[r]ender unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and render unto God the things that are God's," in no way sanctions taxation as moral or justified. Nor do Jesus' statements support capitulation to the occupying Roman army or secular authority. Jesus' response actually evades the question entirely and instead provides a powerful statement in support of private property, for Jesus clearly recommends that, notwithstanding Caesar's confiscatory and illegal taxation, Caesar remains entitled to the things that Caesar owns.

Jesus' sage recommendation expresses contempt for the imperial currency and at the same time subtly and paradoxically suggests that cooperation and rebellion are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The implication of the story, in the context of the voluminous anti-state and anti-tax gospel evidence, is that Jesus seems to be saying, "thank you for telling me that the coin is that of empire's, minted from ore taken from seized mines and debased to satisfy the empire's military ambitions; I say cooperate and pay the tribute the empire demands, as it is prudent and may save your life, but do not materially support the empire and the occupying forces by giving them anything of real value; things of real value, like shekels, belong to God."

Jesus' recommendation thus gives rise to the inference that he believed the Jews living under Roman occupation should pay their taxes in overvalued denarii, as the Romans likely demanded, and hold and perhaps shield their wealth in the undervalued shekel and Tyrian money. This position reflects both libertarian political views as well as a recognition of Gresham’s Law, according to which government-decreed bad money drives undervalued good money out of circulation.

The Parables and Jesus' View of Property and Contract

A cursory review of Jesus' teachings would seem to indicate that he did not think highly of property or property rights. From the Sermon on the Mount to the conversation with the young rich man whom Jesus instructs to sell all his possessions, Jesus repeatedly decries the evils of worshiping things instead of God. For Jesus, it seems a man's wealth is not only irrelevant to how God views him, the two are inversely related as can be seen his statement:

Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Matthew 19:24.

Furthermore, Jesus and his followers lived a kind of communal existence, sharing their food with one person responsible for the group's money. Based on this evidence alone, one might conclude that Jesus had little understanding of or regard for private property.

But to draw broad conclusions from this limited evidence is to make a hasty generalization, for the core of Jesus' teaching is found in the parables and the parables are replete with spiritual lessons drawn from material and commercial examples, including examples relating to thrift, entrepreneurship, the productive use of capital, negotiation of debts, respect for others' property, responsible stewardship of one's own private property and freedom of contract.

In the universe of the Jesus' teachings, the anti-property lessons are not so much anti-property as they are a warning to people who, in Jesus' view, have misplaced priorities, people who mistakenly believe that ownership of private property and accumulation of wealth is an end it itself rather than a means to a higher end. The weight of Jesus' teaching in fact shows that Jesus highly regarded private property rights and, in order to illustrate the proper relationship between God and man, repeatedly analogized the responsible use and stewardship of private property to the responsible use and stewardship of life received from God.

Jesus, Victimless Crimes and Self-Defense

Jesus was and is infamous for socializing and dining with prostitutes and other "sinners." While Jesus clearly did not sanction prostitution, his interaction and defense of prostitutes and adulterers illuminates his political worldview. Jesus' lessons indicate that he believed that prostitution, adultery and other "victimless" crimes, although grievous sins, were matters of conscience that could only be solved through the internal action of the sinner.

In John, chapter 8, the Pharisees bring to Jesus an adulterous woman who, by some accounts, was a prostitute and suggest that she be stoned to death in accordance with Old Testament law. Jesus stops the stoning and protects the woman by stating: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." As the crowd slips away and no accusers are left to "condemn" the woman, Jesus instructs her to go and "sin no more."

Unlike the tax collectors who must atone by paying back what they have taken, Jesus recognizes that the woman's sins are a matter of internal conscience. Jesus instructs the Pharisees that want to stone the woman to examine their own consciences and correct their own sins before seeking judgment against the woman who has harmed no one but herself. Jesus thus shows that he does not believe that the woman's crime can legitimately or practically be enforced by anyone other than the woman.

Here it is important to note that libertarianism is not synonymous with libertinism. While some libertarians find nothing at all morally wrong with prostitution, other libertarians (like Jesus) believe it is morally wrong but understand that because it is a victimless crime the state has no legitimate role in enforcing it. Prostitution, like drug use and abuse, directly harms only the voluntary participant. Jesus clearly understood and believed this principle. Jesus sought to eradicate prostitution not through state or collective action, but through individual self-examination and counsel.

With regard to self-defense, Jesus did not use violence against those who aggressed against him and advocated against using violence at all. Although Jesus laid down his life for a particular purpose and although there is some authority in his teachings for the use of force in self-defense, the weight of evidence suggests that Jesus was a pacifist.

The question then is whether Jesus can at the same time be a pacifist and a libertarian. In the big tent of libertarianism, he can. Although libertarians believe that individuals have the right to use violence commensurate with the threat in defense of life, liberty or property, they do not believe that people have an obligation use violence to protect themselves or others. As such, Jesus was a simply libertarian who likely believed that the use of force was never legitimate.


Christ’s words and actions reflect the libertarian commitment to the rights of person and property, and hint at the Austrian understanding of money. Jesus taught the Golden Rule and believed all individuals, including state actors, must observe it and must make reparations for violating it. He believed that taxation was theft and a violation of individual private property rights. He believed in wise, calculated, and non-violent civil disobedience. He believed that neither the state nor any collective group has a role in punishing or enforcing victimless crimes. Finally, he believed in sound money. One does not have to accept any particular Christian creed to know that politically, Jesus was a libertarian.

April 25, 2008