Jesus and Taxes: A Hidden Transcript
(Prologue to this series here. Part I here. Part II here.)
Let's now proceed through the "Render to Caesar" account in the synoptics, following Mark (the earliest) for sake of convenience when there is disagreement. My argument is that Jesus' reply is a hidden transcript -- a veiled way of saying that Caesar's taxes are unlawful, but should be paid with contempt since God would soon be dealing with the empire once and for all.
Mk. 12:13-15a/Mt. 22:15-17/Lk. 20:20-22: The temple authorities sent some Herodians and Pharisees to trap Jesus, so as to hand him over to the governor. And they came to him and said, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us then: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"The Herodians and Pharisees are trying to get Jesus to admit his revolutionary sentiments so they can have him arrested. Their opening flattery is a hostile compliment(1) intended to put Jesus on the spot in front of the crowds. By calling him a "true" teacher who doesn't curry favor with the wealthy and powerful, they are daring Jesus to commit himself in this politically loaded situation.(2) They have thrown down the gauntlet, and everyone is held in suspense.
Mk. 12:15b-16a/Mt. 22:18-19/Lk. 20:23-24a: Jesus, knowing their malice, said to them, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Bring me a denarius and let me see it." And they brought him one.In honor-shame societies men don't defend themselves when challenged publicly, nor do they respond to questions. They go on the offensive by flinging back counterquestions, insults, and demands -- which is exactly what Jesus does here. He sidesteps the challenge, combining a counterquestion ("why are you putting me to the test?") and insult ("you hypocrites") with a demand for a coin. In so doing, he wrests control of the debate from his foes. It's significant that Jesus doesn't have any coins himself. He and his closest followers refused to own or carry money (see Mk. 6:6b-13/Mt. 10:5-15/Lk. 9:1-6;10:1-12). His adversaries must produce one for him, and it would have been the Herodians, since the Pharisees didn't use Caesar's coins anymore than Jesus did. So in the context of their own initial challenge, the Herodians have been shamed by the public disclosure that they possess something idolatrous.(3)
Mk. 12:16b/Mt. 22:20/Lk. 20:24b: Jesus said to them, "Whose image and inscription is this?"Jesus escalates the conflict with a nasty question -- "Whose image and inscription is this?" -- which skewers the Herodians on the spot. The question is obviously superfluous. Everyone in the crowd -- Herodians, Pharisees, and peasant onlookers alike -- knows too well what is on the coin, and, with the exception of the Herodians, they hate its violation of the first and second commandments.(4) On this particular point, the Pharisees agreed with Jesus and would now have begun arguing with the Herodians instead of him. Jesus has thus cleverly deflected the initial attack by setting his adversaries against each other.(5)
Mk. 12:16c/Mt. 22:21a/Lk. 20:24c: They answered, "Caesar's."The Herodians invoke Caesar's name in vain, thereby identifying themselves as idolaters, shaming themselves in the eyes of everyone -- Jesus, the Pharisees, and peasant onlookers. By answering the question directly, moreover, they have lost face by being put on the defensive. They have conceded ground to Jesus, and he now has the upper hand.
Mk. 12:17/Mt. 22:21b-22/Lk. 20:25-26: Jesus said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and give to God what is God's." And they were amazed and unable to trap him by what he said.Jesus twists in the knife with his infamous command: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." Jewish belief dictated that everything belonged to God. People were created the image of God to whom they owed their entire allegiance (Gen. 1-2), just as the promised land and its resources belonged to him alone (Lev. 25:23). "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" would appear to mean "Give Caesar nothing and God everything".(6) That's how Jesus' foes understood him, and that's exactly what they later reported to Pilate: "We heard this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to Caesar" (Lk. 23:2a). They got the right idea but missed a nuance. In shaming his enemies with the denarius, Jesus indicates that there is at least one thing that belongs to Caesar: the coin minted in his image. That had to be given back to the emperor, for it was idolatrous and polluting. Jesus says, in effect,
"Give Caesar back his coins, and give your undivided allegiance to God, so that Caesar and his coins may be removed from God's land."(7)This isn't a call to pay taxes but to expel the coins from the Jewish land; to give the Romans their money as an act of resistance; or, if you like, to pay taxes "with contempt". By implying that Caesar's taxes are immoral and illegitimate, but in such a way that his adversaries are "unable to trap him", Jesus has bested his foes while at the same time shaming the Herodians as idolaters who do not give God his due. On top of this, he has manipulated the Pharisees by making them unwitting allies who now look like fools for their contradictory position.
What good was Jesus doing?
As I mentioned in the last post, what Jesus advocated doing with Caesar's coins is the sort of thing we would expect from an apocalyptic prophet. Leaders of millenial movements often make demands which put their followers' well-being at risk,(8) like 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 told people to pay taxes "with contempt" -- or, alternatively, to avoid money altogether -- as part of the tribulation-drama which anticipated God's imminent triumph.
Jesus thought the kingdom of Caesar was about to end because, like all apocalyptics, "his realism was so great that it must abandon the world",(9) knowing that armed insurrection was futile, social reform impossible. But with God all things were possible: he would soon wipe out imperial dominion once and for all. In the meantime, ridding the land of Caesar's coins was a gesture anticipating the divine reign -- a just reign under the twelve disciples (Mt 19:28/Lk 22:28-30), Jesus, and, ultimately, God himself.
(1) "In limited good societies, compliments indicate aggression; they implicitly accuse a person of rising above the rest of one's fellows at their expense. Compliments conceal envy." Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, pp 243-244.
(2) William Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, p 227.
(3) Malina and Rohrbaugh, p 256.
(4) Herzog, p 229.
(5) Malina and Rohrbaugh, p 137.
(6) So Richard Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, pp 306-317. Horsley has the right idea (he may even be right), but it doesn't make the best sense of Jesus' shaming strategy with the coin. See further.
(7) Herzog, p 232; and R. David Kaylor, Jesus the Prophet, p 68.
(8) Dale Allison, Jesus of Nazareth, p 89.
(9) Allison, p 218. Ironically, Herzog and Kaylor insist that Jesus wasn't apocalyptic. But if God wasn't about to destroy Caesar, what was the good of returning the emperor's coins, however contemptuously? Herzog acknowledges the problem and struggles with it on p 232.