Render unto Caesar: A Text for Tax Refusers

To pay or not to pay—that is the dilemma. The issue of withholding portions of taxation is often fraught with difficulty. For example, discussions on the nonpayment of that proportion of personal tax used for military purposes, or its diversion to peaceful purposes, tend to focus on the practical (legal) difficulties, and/or the ethical implications (such as involving employees in finance departments who themselves do not oppose paying). There are a variety of opinions on the matter, and with this in mind I would like to contribute a biblical perspective.

Some who are inclined to reject diversion or nonpayment might do so on the basis of the famous saying of Jesus in response to the question about whether Jews should pay tax to the Roman emperor: "Render unto Caesar . . . ." The Jesus Seminar scholars accept that the saying is an authentic one of Jesus: it is recorded in three of the four Gospels (Mark 12:13-17; Matt. 22:15-22; Luke 20: 20-26), with almost an exact parallel in the Gospel of Thomas (100:2). Jesus’ reply was ambiguous: this was probably determined by the context—an attempt was being made by his Pharisee and Herodian opponents to trap him—so circumspection was called for. However, his classic comment has tended to be interpreted by many to mean that Jesus advocated payment. Moreover, the structure of the statement itself—"Render unto Caesar. . . and render unto God"—has been interpreted as reflecting two spheres of influence, and a separation of the religious and the political. There are, however, alternative interpretations.

The two spheres have traditionally been represented as the secular (human and political) realm of Caesar, and the sacred (divine and religious) realm of God.

However, to see Jesus as endorsing such a separation is to ascribe to him possibly a post-Augustine (the earthly city/city of God), probably a post-Luther (two Kingdoms doctrine), and certainly a post-Enlightenment mindset that he, as a first-century Palestinian Jew, would not have recognized. Jesus and his fellow Jews regarded God as the Creator, and the whole universe as God’s domain—including politics—and would not have distinguished between the political and the religious.

It is important to note that Jesus was not asked to comment on the general issue of taxation, but on a specific tax—the tributum capitis. This was the poll tax levied on every male between the ages of 14 and 65 and on every female between the ages of 12 and 65. It functioned as a kind of rent that assumed that all land belonged ultimately to the Roman Empire.

Jesus asked his questioners for a coin the tax was payable in (a Roman denarius), suggesting he did not have one. It could simply be that he did not have that particular coin on him on that particular day; however, there could be more to it. His lack of a coin could be significant for two reasons: religious and economic (and by extension political). The denarius he was given contained a profile of Tiberius’s head on which was a laurel wreath (the sign of his divinity); it was inscribed with the epigram Ti(berius) Caesar Divi Aug(usti) F(ilus) Augustus: "Emperor Tiberius august son of the august God." The reverse depicted the emperor’s mother, Livia, sitting on the throne of the gods (symbolizing her divinity). The images and the epigram were an affront to every devout Jew as they were a violation of the Second Commandment that disallowed graven images of "things on earth, below the earth, or in heaven." (Exod. 20:4-6; Deut. 8:5) Jesus could have been making the point that possession of the coin was evidence that the possessors of it were idolators, contaminated by an alien ideology. His lack of the coin could also signify that he rejected the Roman economic system, and by rejecting the system considered himself not bound to pay the tax—not indebted to Caesar. (Earlier in his ministry, Jesus had expressly forbidden his disciples to carry any money [Luke 10:4; compare Luke 22:36], which some commentators suggest is a creation of Luke’s rather than a saying of Jesus.) In contrast, those who possessed the coin participated in the system—used the emperor’s money—and therefore had no choice; they were under Caesar’s yoke, had to abide by the rules, and were bound to pay the tax.

Michel Clevenot, in Materialist Approaches to the Bible, writes:

Confronted with the coin symbolizing the Roman occupation and the power of the ruling classes collaborating with the Romans . . . Jesus gives an answer that shows his adversaries are simply forgetting what "belongs to God." And what belongs to God if not Israel . . . ? Thus the instruction "Pay Caesar what is due to Caesar and pay God what is due to God" means reconquering from Caesar . . . what belongs to God.

The Jews were reminded in Leviticus 25:23 that Israel belonged to God: "The land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants." As such they had no power or authority to hand the land, or its produce, over to anyone else. By taxing God’s people, Caesar was usurping God’s sovereignty. As for "reconquering from Caesar," even after the Resurrection Jesus’ disciples still looked for the political liberation of Israel (Acts 1:6).

Robert Eisler, in his book, The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist, argues: " ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ really means: ‘Throw Caesar’s . . . money down his throat.’. . . Far from sanctioning the payment of tribute to Caesar, Jesus is wholly on the side of Judas of Galilee. . . ."

Jesus of Galilee would have known his local history. He would have been well aware that a generation earlier, in 6 C.E., his fellow countryman, Judas, was crucified for leading a tax revolt based on the grounds that payment of tax to Caesar was an offense against the First Commandment. Jesus may also have known the Maccabean saying from the second century B.C.E., attributed to Mattathias, father of Judas the leader of the rebellion against the Syrians. In a similarly styled statement to that of Jesus, Mattathias urged his sons, "Pay back the Gentiles as they deserve, and keep the commandments of God"—a deliberately ambiguous statement, but clear enough to those in the know. Mattathias’ statement could well have been the model for Jesus’ reply, clear enough "for those who have ears to hear."

Another consideration: poll taxes fall heaviest on the poorest, and if Jesus really had what in modern jargon is referred to as a "preferential option for the poor," would he promote a tax that burdens them further—and unfairly? When contemplating this it is worth remembering that when dealing with another poll tax, the temple tribute, he argued that "the citizens are free [of it]," i.e., they are not bound to pay it. (Matt. 17:24-27—this is the only canonical report; some scholars suggest it is a creation of the early Church rather than from the life of Jesus.)

It is sometimes suggested that Paul’s injunction in Rom. 13:6-7 to pay taxes to Caesar, presupposes the saying of Jesus, which Paul interpreted as advocating payment. This may perhaps be so, but one also has to consider the people he was addressing, and their situation. Whereas Jesus spent most of his time in the Galilee of Herod Antipas (which was not under direct Roman rule, and where direct taxation to Caesar was not an issue), the situation in Rome was very different and left little room for maneuver. Unless they wanted to court imprisonment and possibly death, they had little alternative but to pay their taxes. Whatever his inspiration, the pragmatic Paul was basically counseling common sense.

Whatever Paul’s knowledge and understanding of Jesus’ saying, it has to be set beside Luke, who definitely did know of it (Luke 20:20-26). Not only this, he is the only canonical source that reports on what Jesus’ hearers thought they heard. According to Luke 23:1-2, one of the few specific charges brought against Jesus when he was before Pilate was that he "opposes pay-ment of taxes to Caesar." This indicates that Jesus’ position on the tributum capitis was a factor in the political circus before the Roman prefect, and that his accusers had "ears to hear" and believed he followed the example of his countryman Judas; the fact they tried to trap him in the first place suggests they suspected his true position. Judas and Jesus shared the same fate.

But even if Jesus was advocating payment, given the charged atmosphere, is it reasonable to suppose he was trying to convey a definitive statement on the relations between his followers and the state? This seems unlikely. We do not know if Paul knew of the "render unto Caesar" saying, but even if he did—and his own statement in Rom. 13:6-7 was based on it—that statement was addressed to an identifiable group of people in a specific time and place. As such, it is not a good hermeneutical principle from which to universalize or generalize.

This short study shows that the traditional conservative interpretation of Jesus’ saying is at odds with what his hearers thought he was advocating; however uncomfortable, it is possible that Jesus urged nonpayment. Yet even if there was harmony between original hearers and modern interpreters, given Jesus’ situation when he made the statement, it is questionable if any hard and fast conclusions can be drawn. While still faced with legal and ethical complexities, these comments might leave tax refusers with less of a biblical hurdle to leap, and will hopefully give those who base objections to them on the "render unto Caesar" saying—or even Paul’s injunction—some food for thought.

Cliff Marrs

Cliff Marrs tutors in political theology at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and London. He is an associate tutor at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, Birmingham (UK), where he is also a 2002 Eva Koch Research fellow. He attends Bunhill Fields Meeting (Devonshire House and Tottenham Monthly Meeting, London). © 2002 Cliff Marrs