Caesar and God in Context

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.


  • 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



  • “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