by Brennan Lester and Ricardo Rodriguez
It seems almost universally accepted amongst Christians of all denominations that when Jesus said to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” (Mark 12:17, KJV) he was making it clear to his herd that it was right and proper to pay taxes to the government. This view goes as far back as the apologetics of St. Justin Martyr and has been the layman’s interpretation just about ever since. However, this view completely neglects to take into account the historical and political climate in which Jesus spoke.
Doesn’t it seem odd that Jesus would endorse paying tribute to Tiberius Caesar? Tiberius, the mortal man? Tiberius, the pedophile? Tiberius, the sexual deviant? Tiberius, the murderer? Tiberius, the man who claimed to be a god? Tiberius, the man who enslaved millions of people, including the Jewish people? This is only the beginning of the numerous inconsistencies within the untenable pro-tax interpretation of the “Tribute Episode.” To understand Jesus’ view on tribute is to understand that Jesus did not, in any way, endorse the payment of taxes to the pagan Tiberius, or to any other state.
Before analyzing the specific state Jesus stood in defiance against, we should take a step back and look at how God, in the Bible, views kings in general. What we find, of course, is that God inflicted mankind with Kings and monarchs for their sin. When the Israelites clamored for a king to rule over them, they were denying God, and so God warned that he would deny them. This is demonstrated clearly in 1 Samuel 8:6-18 (bold emphasis mine):
6 But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. 7 And the LORD told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. 8 As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. 9 Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do.”
10 Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.”
Similar sentiments are echoed in the works of theologians such as Saint Augustine — God “did not intend that his rational creature, who was made in his image, should have dominion over anything but the irrational creature — not man over man, but man over the beasts.” To Augustine, political rule was the (infamously cliché) “necessary evil” that came into being only because of man’s fallen state: “Sin and sin alone brought the need for political coercion into human existence. Augustine’s view, in short, was that government and law exist as a punishment and corrective for sin, a punishment which mankind, through the actions of Adam and Eve, had brought upon itself. Political man is fallen man.”
Daniel recognizes for himself the punishment he has received when he says “Therefore the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against you” (Daniel 9:11). The law he was referring to specifically was the one in Leviticus 26:25, “And I will bring a sword upon you, that shall avenge the quarrel of my covenant: and when ye are gathered together within your cities, I will send the pestilence among you; and ye shall be delivered into the hand of the enemy.” And so, Daniel and the Israelites were delivered to the Babylonian King as punishment. It was long purported by those who bought into the “divine right of kings” that God elevated Kings to a place of power, using Daniel 4:17 as their proof:
The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of men.
What has been neglected, though, is that Daniel refused to obey the King’s order to worship him instead of the Lord. Daniel was thrown into the lion’s den as a result, but it was the man who wished Daniel to show allegiance to the king who was devoured — those who fall into the trap of the “civic religion” are devoured by lions! For Kings are thieves and murders, they are false idols promising riches and protection only the LORD can provide, instead delivering only decay and destruction.
However, Kings will have their day — “And it shall come to pass in that day, that the LORD shall punish the host of the high ones that are on high, and the kings of the earth upon the earth” (Isaiah 24:21) — and as such the book of Judges is all about God raising Judges to free His people from the extortion of taxation and the idolatry of political rule. The divine right of kings can only be justified if WE are to be recognized as Kings, sovereigns to ourselves, for He “made us kings and priests to our God; And we shall reign on the earth” (Revelations 5:10).
The early American colonists understood this; for the first 200 years of American colonialism there were virtually no taxes; the threat of taxes and government is what led Pennsylvania into throwing off government altogether for a while, and is what possessed them to strike out against the British in the face of a 1% tax on tea. The American Revolution was not about having a representative in Parliament to negotiate what taxes the colonies were to pay, it was about the colonies not paying any taxes whatsoever!
Indeed, Jesus recognized taxation as a sin, condemning tax collectors themselves in the Gospels (Matthew 9:9–13; 5:46-47; 18:17. See also Mark 2:14–17; Luke 5:27–32.) It is apparent, to any sound interpreter of the Bible, that Kings and states are not ordained by God as something we must obey and respect. To do so is to speak out against Biblical Law.
Now that we have come to understand, at least on a basic level, the Biblical view of statesmanship, it is imperative we paint the historical backdrop of Jesus’ times: Tax revolt was rocking Palestine. The Romans imposed a census tax on the Jewish people, and by 17 AD the provinces of Syria and Judea were “exhausted by their burdens, [and] implored a reduction of tribute.”
Judas the Galilean led the tax revolt, teaching that taxation was akin to slavery. They recognized the LORD, not Caesar and his goons, as their ruler. This set up the historical, political and theological issue of the time: Was God and His law supreme, or was the Roman Emperor and his pagan, man-made law supreme?
The importance of this issue of taxation makes itself apparent in the four Gospels, by being placed immediately after the scene in which Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, where He — not Tiberius — is proclaimed the true King. The Jewish people had no reverence for the Roman emperor and bloodbather — in fact, the mere appearance of Caesar almost caused a Jewish insurrection when Pontius Pilate rendered his image onto the fortress of Antonia, near the Jewish Temple. The Jewish people were enraged at the introduction of such images in the city of Jerusalem, and Pilate only evaded bloodletting by removing the images.
Taxation was a hot issue at the time. One could not answer the question simply — and the Pharisees knew it. Knowing it, they followed through with the intentions laid out in Scripture, and “went out and laid plans to trap [Jesus] in his words” (Matthew 22:15).
When they asked Jesus their question, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” they had a very particular tax in mind: The poll tax, which was levied at a flat rate of one denarius and helped to pay for the Roman Empire’s legions which occupied Judea at the time. These legions were there to “keep the peace” as well as work as something of a civil service group. Despite these “services” the poll tax was still, according to Dr. John MacArthur, “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.”
This brings us to the denarius, at the time worth a day’s wages for the common laborer (“denarii” = “day’s wages;” Matthew 20:2, John 12:5, John 6:7), a coin inscribed with the image of Tiberius himself. Along with his godly mug, the coin bore the inscription “Tiberius Caesar, Worshipful Son of the God, Augustus.” (abbreviated “TI CAESAR DIVI AUG F AUGUSTUS,” which stood for “Tiberius Caesar Divi August Fili Augustus”). On the other side was a priestly-looking Tiberius on his imperial throne.
In many parts of the Empire, Tiberius really was worshiped as a god and Jesus’ contemporaries, with good reason, saw this as blasphemous. Tiberius made the coin an extension and physical manifestation/proof of his divinity — even making it a capital crime to carry any coin with his person on it into a bathroom or brothel. The denarius was a physical manifestation of the emperor’s deification and power and of the serfdom of all others beneath him.
With that framed, we can actually get into the trap laid out for Jesus by the Pharisees, and the way in which Jesus avoided their trickery. They called to Jesus, calling Him to answer by asking their question in accordance with Jewish custom, where the student of the Jewish faith would ask the Rabbi a question, and this would be a test of the Rabbi’s knowledge of Scripture. Jesus had to answer their question now, in some way, or else it would appear He could not rise to the challenge. Jesus recognized his questioners not to be students of the Jewish faith. He saw their “evil intent” and exposed them as “hypocrites;” the Pharisees asked a trick yes-or-no question. It was something of a Catch-22 — if he answered plainly either way he would have been ruined.
He could not possibly answer “No” to the impostors — to deny the Emperor “his” tribute is to blaspheme against the civic religion, to be guilty of the state “crime” of sedition, and the punishment for sedition was death. Given the revolt of Judas the Galilean, Pilate would not have hesitated for a moment to execute Jesus, the new (and rightful) King in Jerusalem. Further, this would also violate prophecy, in which The Messiah was said to fulfill. To say “No” would be systematic proof that Jesus was not the Messiah to the Jews, as he would not be betrayed by Judas, and have Jesus’ betrayer replaced. It would be the very Scriptural evidence the Pharisees would need to show their authority and the lack of authority of Jesus.
Answering in the affirmative, however, would have scarcely better results. There would have been no better way for the Pharisees to alienate the Jewish people from Jesus than to make him look apologetic to the violent false idol Tiberius, speaking against all Biblical precedent and betraying his mission on Earth — it may have been enough to have the Son of God lynched, and I don’t mean Tiberius.
Here the pro-tax interpretation of the event is absolutely ludicrous and indefensible, just by basic rules of logic and common sense. Jesus has pretty much never given a straight answer to anything, ever. It isn’t a matter of the Bible being old-timey. Even his disciples asked about it in Matthew 13:10-11:
10 And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?
11 He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.
So when Jesus speaks we can find two answers in all of his lessons: There is the misleading, simple answer that can lead the flock on the wrong path … and there is the answer for the truly thoughtful and the true follower of the Holy Word — the message that belongs only to the true believers. Obviously, the “simple” answer is the one that believes Jesus’ answer was an easy, straightfoward “Yep, pay your taxes.” Furthermore, and perhaps most confusingly, what kind of a dolt would the Pharisees have to be to set a “trap” for Jesus that can be avoided simply by going “Yeah?”
It has become common knowledge, I know, that your usual government officials and statists aren’t the smartest folk … but history has certainly revealed that they know how to deceive, above anything else. Surely, these questioners weren’t “amazed” by Jesus’ ability to say “Yes.”
What did happen was much craftier– a tricky answer for a tricky question. He did not answer “yes” or “no” — He did not even recognize the denarius himself; he had the outsiders present the coin to Him, the coin which the Jewish people did so loathe (hence the presence of the money changers in the Temple ). He answers, instead, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” flipping the question back at those who asked Him. The real kicker is that Jesus’ answer is begging the question: “What is Caesar’s?” By cleverly shooting the question back in the faces of his saboteurs, “they were amazed. So they left him and went away,” their schemes foiled.
There are two answers to his question, as in all of his parables. There were two sides to this debate on taxation, the Lord vs. the Emperor. The misleading answer is that anything belongs to Caesar (even though Caesar did claim that everything, including peace, is attributed to him), while the pious and righteous see that all belongs to God. God created this world, all of His Creation belongs to Him.
If we give to God all that rightfully belongs to him, what could possibly be left for Caesar? If you pay taxes to him, you are giving yourself to him, submitting yourself to him. To refuse is to instead to keep yourself, your sovereignty, and give it to God. The pro-tax supporter might argue that Jesus wants his flock to focus on their religion and their holy duties, and to ignore and accept the political oppressors that take their day’s work. God is not interested in the items of vanity, gold and silver!
This however, is easily cast aside when He declares “the silver is mine, and the gold is mine, saith the LORD of hosts” (Haggai 2:8). If we are to give God all that is his, the silver in the denarius certainly applies. Caesar did not create the silver, that’s for certain. The false god may have put his name on the coin, but that does not make it his any more than if I stole your iPod, put my name on it, and replaced all of your music with my own (in this case I improved your iPod, but the iPod is still yours).
By not recognizing, or even possessing the coin (only Romans or Jews in collaboration with the Romans would possess the denarius in the Temple), he implicitly shut Caesar’s blasphemous civic religion and extortionary taxation out of the Temple of the LORD.
It is explicitly clear now that the pro-tax argument cannot be justified … and even if it could be, it at best could be used to justify a flat tax limited to 1% of the worker’s wages, which is used to fund the local government, security, and infrastructure … not the bloated system of bailouts, stimulus, imperial warfare, double-digit taxation, wild inflation, and the rest of the smelly package which most Christians often resign themselves to in a disturbingly apathetic manner. But as we have seen, it does not even support this much … and while the pro-tax argument is popular, it isn’t even officially accepted by most theologians.
The Catholic Church (the authoritative interpreter of the Sacred Scripture), in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, does not recognize it as a justification for taxation, but actually as a justification for civil disobedience. They quote Saint Matthew’s interpretation, saying that the Christian “should not submit his personal freedom in an absolute manner to any earthly power, but only to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: “Caesar is not ‘the Lord.’”
But all of this should be common sense, because of one simple law. One can quote the Matthew, Daniel, John, Leviticus, Corinthians, or whatever book … but the answer comes from one line in Exodus: “Thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15). What is taxation if it is not theft? As revealed by Frank Chodorov in his essay Taxation is Robbery, taxation is by definition an extortionary and exploitative thing to do: It is theft, it is a sin. The private robber comes to your home and demands your money at gunpoint, if you refuse to comply, you are shot. The differences between this and not paying your taxes are marginal, matters of degree but not of kind. If you do not pay your taxes, you are kidnapped and locked away — your person and property is assaulted and confiscated against your will! Would the Lord ever give praise to an institution which can only survive by funding itself through the sin of theft (taxation)?
So, brothers and sisters of Christ, what is it going to be? Do you owe tribute and fidelity to the Lord, or to a Caesar, a President, a King, a Prime Minister, or any other false idol adorning our money?
 The passage in question being from his First Apology: “And everywhere we, more readily than all men, endeavor to pay to those appointed by you the taxes both ordinary and extraordinary, as we have been taught by Him; for at that time some came to Him and asked Him, if one ought to pay tribute to Caesar; and He answered, ‘Tell Me, whose image does the coin bear?’ And they said, ‘Caesar’s.’”
 Augustine did not condemn the State as illegitimate, he instead thought the State served a useful negative function against sin, seeing as fallen man is prone to depravity. As such, political coercion was justified to Augustine as something indispensable to social order. All the same, his views on the nature of political authority weren’t very positive, and this dim view of politicians is most famously expressed by this passage from The City of God IV:4:
“When [Alexander the Great] asked [a captured pirate] what he meant by infesting the sea, he boldly replied: ‘What you mean by warring on the whole world. I do my fighting on a ship, and they call me a pirate; you do yours on a large ship, and they call you Commander.’ ”
 The people of the Bible always resisted the tyrants and false idols of the civic religion: Daniel’s friends were ordered to worship a golden statue, and because they refused they were saved from the fire (Daniel 3:26-25). The Pharoah ordered the babies of Egypt to be killed (Exodus 1:22), and in defiance Moses’ mother placed him in a basket (Exodus 2:1-3). Jesus himself was born in a similar act of defiance to the decrees of tyrants, Mary and Joseph escaped from King Herrod’s rule and fled to Egypt (Matthew 2:1-6;13-15).
“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.”
Further, Luke 20:20 shows their general intentions by doing such things:
“Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be honest. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.”
 It should probably be unsurprising, or at least amusing, to hear the future of the denarius is one of decadence and decay (like any false god). In the times of Tiberius, the denarius was 99% pure silver, but like all state-monopolized currency it did not stay that way for long: Nero (54 – 68 A.D.) was the first emperor to debase the coin, and Trajan (98 – 117 A.D.) would add copper to the coin. By the time of Septimius Severus (193–211 A.D.), the denarius has debased to 40% silver, and by the time of Constantine has been abandoned. The laborer’s day wage had been inflated away by the corrupt central authority who, like today’s modern counterparts, could will economic prosperity and order by mere decree.
Psalm 24:1 “The earth is the LORD’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein”and: 1 Corinthians 10:26 “For the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.”and finally: Leviticus 25:23 “The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine, for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.”