Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Jesus and Taxes: The Answers

(Prologue to this series here. Part I here.)

In the last post we considered six interpretations of Jesus' "Render to Caesar" statement. The first two are apolitical; the middle ones attempt to recognize Jesus' political character; the last two very political. Thanks to everyone who voted in the comments section! Now let's see how likely each is.

1. A distinction between religion and politics, implying that Caesar’s taxes were lawful and should be paid. Jesus wasn't trying to liberate the promised land but to transform the individual heart. And while he opposed exploitation of the poor, he identified the problem not in sociopolitical structures but in individuals. (Martin Hengel, Victory over Violence, pp 1, 47-48.)

Hengel followed the anachronistic "separation of church and state" line, and like two other Martins of Germany (Luther and Heidegger) was guided by individualist concerns. His interpretation can be rejected out of hand (most scholars recognize it as dated and implausible). The only reason I bothered mentioning it is that laypeople (like Garry Wills) persist with it. Safeguarding our separation of church and state is imperative, but unfortunately we can't use Jesus to do it. In antiquity "religion", like "economics", was embedded in (and inseparable from) the discrete institutions of kinship and politics.

2. An enigma which deliberately left the issue unresolved. Jesus had fun teasing people's minds and making them think for themselves. He wanted people to decide on their own if Caesar and God were compatible. On top of this, he "probably slipped the coin into his purse while they were haggling over what he told them." (Robert Funk, The Five Gospels, pp 102, 236, 379, 526.)

Funk was always amusing if not persuasive, turning Jesus into an open-minded college professor (like Funk) instead of a prophet who actually took sides on these issues. Jewish prophets weren't interested in making people think for themselves. They were voices of divine authority, mad at the world, and had clear ideas about things, even if they sometimes had to resort to veiled meanings in order to stay alive. [As for pocketing coins (does Funk want us to laugh with him or at him?), it's the last thing Jesus would have done; he shunned money like the plague (Mk 6:6b-13/Mt 10:1-15/Lk 9:1-6,10:1-12).] I was a bit surprised at how seriously this option was taken in comments.

3. A cryptic way of saying that Caesar's taxes were lawful and should be paid, as long as this didn't conflict with duty to God. People owed their entire allegiance to God -- for they were created in his image (Gen 1-2) as much as the coins were created in Caesar's -- and they could acknowledge the legitimacy of Caesar's taxes only after considering their duty to God. (David Ball, "What Jesus Really Meant by 'Render to Caesar'", Bible Review, April 2003, pp 15-17).

This view at least attempts to address a conflict, as Jesus saw it, between the demands of Caesar and God, and squares with the modern wisdom that says government is okay so long as it doesn't make demands which violate a person's conscience. In many cases this would have been empty advice in the world of agrarian dominion, though it could offer the escape route of accommodation. Many of the Pharisees used similar logic to justify their accommodation with Rome. But the point is that Jesus opposed the wishy-washy accommodation of the Pharisees.

4. A paradoxical command to revolt and pay taxes at the same time. Jesus was protesting both against Caesar as a false lord and against tax-evading revolutionaries. His punchline meant: "Pay back Caesar as he deserves, and give God the divine honor claimed blasphemously by Caesar." In so doing he was implying that tax-evading revolutionaries were the true compromisers with Rome. (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, pp 502-507.)

Wright's apparent affinities for a revolutionary Jesus are an illusion. To suggest that paying taxes amounted to "true" revolutionary behavior is doublespeak, and the idea that tax-evading revolutionaries were the actual compromisers with Rome beggars belief. (In the comments section of the last post, Doug Chaplin noted, "like Wright himself, Wright's Jesus always manages to have his cake and eat it".) Most obviously: if the Jewish people kept paying their taxes, Caesar couldn't care less about whether or not they reserved their divine honors for God. This is exactly the accommodation most of the Jewish people had worked out with the empire already. As with Ball in (3), Wright ends up putting Jesus on the same page with the Pharisees.

5. A veiled way of saying that Caesar's taxes were unlawful but should be paid "with contempt" in order to rid the land of idolatry. Jesus' punchline meant: "Give Caesar back his filthy coins, and give your undivided allegiance to God, so that Caesar and his coins may be removed from God's land." People should throw money back in Caesar's face, so to speak, and pay their taxes as an act of resistance. But Caesar had no valid claim to taxing people, even if he was entitled to his blasphemous currency. (William Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, pp 225-232. R. David Kaylor, Jesus the Prophet, pp 63-68.)

This view is plausible, along with (6) below.

6. A veiled way of saying that Caesar’s taxes were unlawful and should not be paid. Jesus' punchline meant: "Give Caesar nothing, God everything." Jesus believed no one could serve two masters at the same time (Mt. 6:24/Lk. 16:13) and followed the early Israelite tradition that since God was king, no one else could be (Judg. 8:22-23; I Sam 8:4-7; Hos. 8:4). Jesus' question, "Whose image and inscription is this?", was a ploy targeting the possession of something idolatrous rather than what actually belonged to Caesar. (Richard Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, pp 306-317. Richard Rohrbaugh, email correspondence.)

This view is plausible, along with (5) above.

Jesus could have meant either (5) or (6). Each has the advantage of making sense of (a) the charge preserved in Lk 23:2a, or more generally, that Jesus was executed as a political troublemaker; (b) that as a Jewish prophet Jesus naturally opposed idolatry, and couldn't stomach the accommodations (Pharisaic or otherwise) worked out with the empire; and (c) that he also opposed injustice -- taxation by the first century was lethal, with more than one third of the peasantry's grain and half of their fruits/vegetables going to the Roman land tax (on top of that, the poll tax just added insult to injury, not to mention temple tithes and the half-shekel tax).

I prefer option (5) for the simple reason that it makes better sense of Jesus' shaming strategy with the denarius coin, and more generally in light of his apocalyptic world-view. Listen to the logic in each case:

Option (5)

Opponents: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?"
Jesus: "Whose image and inscription is this?
Opponents: "Caesar's."
Jesus: "Then give Caesar back his abominable coins, and give your undivided allegiance to God, so that Caesar and his coins may be removed from God's land."

Option (6)

Opponents: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?"
Jesus: "Whose image and inscription is this?"
Opponents: "Caesar's."
Jesus: "Then Give Caesar nothing, for an idolater doesn't have a claim on his own property."

Either sentiment is revolutionary and denies the legitimacy of Caesar's taxes. But the logic behind (5) is more readily apparent, and squares with the fact that Jesus was apocalyptic rather than insurrectionist. What Jesus advocated doing with Caesar's coins (according to (5)) is actually the sort of thing we would expect from a millenarian. Leaders of apocalyptic movements often make demands which put people's well-being at risk, such as asking them to forsake money (or "throw it back in Caesar's face") and embrace poverty and hardship (Mk 6:6b-13/Mt 10:5-15/Lk 9:1-6,10:1-12). Jesus advised paying taxes "with contempt" as part of the tribulation-drama preceding God's triumph over Caesar.

In the comments section of the last post, Chris Weimer prefers (6) over (5), because he "wouldn't suggest that Jesus actually wanted people to 'pay' Caesar anything." But the point of (5), unlike Wright's (4), is that Jesus didn't really advocate "paying" Caesar, which is why I qualified with the phrase "in contempt". Herzog and Kaylor describe it as "returning" coins to Caesar, which is probably the better way of putting it. Here's Herzog:
"[Jesus was saying] 'Return the coins to Caesar. He minted them in his image, and they should be returned to the one in whose image they are made.'... But this is not a call to pay tribute; it is a call to expel the coins from the land, to rid the land of their presence." (Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, p 232)
In the next post we will analyze the text of Mk 12:13-17/Mt 22:15-22/Lk 20:20-26 in detail, under the assumption that (5) is correct, and through the lens of Jesus' challenge-riposte strategy. For now, I have to get busy paying back my own taxes before the imperial authorities come to get me.

8 Comments:

Anonymous J. J. Ramsey said...

You wrote: "I was a bit surprised at how seriously this option [number 2] was taken in comments."

This is a bit unfair. As far as I could tell, those going for (2) weren't going for the idea of Jesus "making people think for themselves" so much as the idea that Jesus was deliberately evading the question. What's telling is that you wrote, "Jesus could have meant either (5) or (6)," which indicates that Jesus was being ambiguous.

4/11/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

This is a bit unfair. As far as I could tell, those going for (2) weren't going for the idea of Jesus "making people think for themselves" so much as the idea that Jesus was deliberately evading the question.

Point taken, but all six views acknowledge Jesus' evasiveness in answering the question. His evasiveness is a given, by virtue of the fact that he didn't come right out and say "yes" or "no". How is evasiveness in and of itself particular to option (2)?

4/11/2006  
Anonymous J. J. Ramsey said...

"How is evasiveness in and of itself particular to option (2)"

Option 2 was the one that specifically said that Jesus deliberately left the issue unresolved.

4/11/2006  
Anonymous J. J. Ramsey said...

Something I should have added before I pressed the "Publish this comment" button. It is one thing to be cryptic or veiled, but still get one's intended meaning across, which seems to be the scenario suggested in (3), (4), and (6). That isn't nearly as evasive as making a statement that sounds tough and pious but is in fact so ambiguous as to effectively say nothing at all.

4/11/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Option 2 was the one that specifically said that Jesus deliberately left the issue unresolved.

I guess I wasn't clear enough in explaining (2) to begin with. Leaving the issue unresolved in order let others decide for themselves (option 2) is very different from advancing a particular point of view through the use of evasive rhetoric (options 1,3,4,5,6). My bad.

4/11/2006  
Blogger Doug said...

I want to add to this, as one of those who actually is somewhere between 2 & 3, that the only bit of 2 I'm for is that it leaves the issue unresolved. What is striking is that there's no obvious redactional material interpreting this saying. In the light of the attitude the church of the epistles, esp Rom and 1 Pet, to Caesar and taxes, which probably reflects a wider view, then if they had understood this unambiguously to show Jesus rejecting the payment of taxes, one might have expected some more obvious redactional activity. It is this, rather than any deductive reconstruction of Jesus' general view that leads me away from 5 & 6.

4/11/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

In the light of the attitude the church of the epistles, esp Rom and 1 Pet, to Caesar and taxes...

Well, Paul's advice was for temporary resignation to Rome ("let everyone be subject to governing authorities"). Apparently he didn't want the Christian movement jeopardized since the apocalypse was nearer than ever before (Rom 13:11). This could be seen as an outgrowth of (5), though it's obviously different in some ways.

4/11/2006  
Blogger Paul said...

I'll just suggest in passing that I think a deep and wide look at the OT on the subjects of government and foreign powers would be helpful to this discussion.

A couple of points suggest themselves to me along these lines.

One is that (with Hengel) there DOES seem to be SOME sense of separation of the "religious" sphere and the political sphere in the pentateuch. The roles of priests and kings/judges were rather distinct and certainly there is the strong sense elsewhere of how serious an offense it was for a king or anyone else to intrude into the role which was meant only for the priests or high priest.

Certainly thst distinction is a very different one than in modern america, but I still think it is there.

The other point is to look at how Israelites, particularly Jeremiah, saw their relation to a foreign power in the exile period. This is something Wright considers quite a bit (perhaps too much). The sense that Israel was to live at peace with their captors, to the extent they could and in hope of return in God's time, is prevalent in the exilic writings and I see no point in ignoring this sort of background when considering this pericope from Jesus.

4/13/2006  

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