Baker Academic

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Render to Caesar....

Today friend of the program, Loren Rosen III posted this on Facebook. Not only is it an interesting conversation starter, I thought that his survey question summarized the various views quite nicely. He writes:

Happy Tax Day. I “rendered to Caesar” this morning.

But here’s something to ponder: Jesus command to “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”, was... what?

(A) A clear distinction between religion and politics, implying that Caesar’s taxes were lawful and should be paid. Jesus was trying to transform the individual heart above all. While he opposed exploitation of the poor, he identified the problem not in sociopolitical structures but in individuals. (Martin Hengel, Victory over Violence.)

(B) An enigma which deliberately left the issue unresolved. Jesus wanted to make people think for themselves and 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.)

(C) 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 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.)

(D) A cryptic 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 total allegiance to God, so that Caesar and his coins may be removed from God’s land.” People should pay their taxes in contempt or as an act of non-violent resistance, meaning that Caesar had no valid claim on people, even if he was entitled to his filthy currency. (William Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God.)

(E) A cryptic way of saying that Caesar’s taxes were unlawful and should not be paid at all. 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). (Richard Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence.)

Thanks for your permission to repost this, Loren!



  1. I devote a whole chapter to this question in my _The Temptations of Jesus in Early Christianity_.

  2. I agree with those that see this is about Jesus in honour/shame interactions with religious leaders, (They want "to catch him in his words.") which are zero sum battles and which left Jesus as gaining honour in the eyes of the crowd.

    The question is a toxic question and dangerous to answer with a straight yes or no. The killer question from Jesus is "“Show me a denarius" ie in the temple he doesn't carry a coin with an idol on it, but his questioners do! They have the dirty money, in the temple. They are shown to be accepting of the diety claiming caesar. The point is not about paying taxes, but about the honouring of God and that they were accepting of something that was sullied idolatry, even whilst in the temple.

    That battle for honour goes to Jesus. And that is the point. The content is amibiguous but the winning of that battle wasn't. A clear knock out. They are shamed in front of all who matter

  3. The radical Scottish poet Edwin Morgan in his 1971 poem The Fifth Gospel said it best:
    "Give nothing to Caesar, for nothing is Caesar's."

    He came up with other thought-provoking reversals in the same poem

  4. F) Garland's Commentary on Matthew - just by them having a coin on them already means they acknowledge Caesar's authority, but we owe our very selves to God.

  5. The most convincing explanation as I see it was given by S.G.F.Brandon in "Jesus and the Zealots", pp. 345-9. He argued that to a loyal Jew, everything belongs to God, so Jesus opposed paying taxes (option (E) above), but by adding to the saying the mention of a coin portraying Caesar's head, the author of Mark's gospel completely reversed the saying's message.

  6. I would say "Jesus is commanding us to accept Caesar's as ruler while also desacralizing and relativizing the emperor's ultimate importance, because in the end everything belongs to God." So a combination of B, C, D I guess?

    I think this needs to be read with Matthew's fish-and-coin story, which is odd and cryptic but seems to both acknowledge Caesar's authority and undermine it to a degree.

  7. If He had answered 'Dont pay your taxes to Caesar', it would probably have led to a revolt and no doubt Jesus arrested. Which is what they wanted. It reminds me of Paul's words, who effectively said we should abide by a government's laws, because they are set up by God, at least for the time they are in power. I think Jesus is perhaps also making the point that Caesar is not God, despite the emperor cult and that on a denarius coin the inscription says 'the divine son...'.

    Peter Culbert