Christ?s Teaching on Taxation (and Why Nobody Got the Joke)


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February 25, 2009

If religion is the opiate of the people, then faith in government is the religion-substitute of today's believers in the welfare-warfare state. And if the state is god and its worship is part of the new faith: Vox populi vox dei! Off with our heads!

While I am not a Christian, I admire many of Christ's teachings and practices. Consequently, I am embarrassed and mystified when people who claim to wear the mantle of Christianity are so reluctant to speak plainly and with confidence about Christ's teachings on the issue of taxation. Sadly, this is true even when Christ's avowed followers also claim that they are speaking as libertarians.

Christ Speaks About Taxes

Christ's most obvious statement about taxation occurs in the Gospel of Mark ( 12:13 -17), with corresponding statements in Matthew ( 22:15 -22) and Luke ( 20:20 -26). I will quote from Mark (New American Standard Bible):

And they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Him, in order to trap Him in a statement. And they came and said to Him, 'Teacher, we know that You are truthful, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not? Shall we pay, or shall we not pay?' But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, 'Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to look at.' And they brought one. And He said to them, 'Whose likeness and inscription is this?' And they said to Him, 'Caesar's.' And Jesus said to them, 'Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.' And they were amazed at Him.

This famous passage is obviously about taxes, but what does it mean? While pregnant with meaning, it is also cryptic. But is it any more puzzling than other statements made by Christ in similar circumstances, when he was 'tested' by his opponents? The answer is 'no!' Christ was in the habit of making puzzling statements whenever he was cornered by his critics. More importantly, our awareness of this idiosyncrasy provides the key to the most humorous and interesting solution to the puzzle of Christ's words.

How Christ's Contemporaries Interpreted His Words

To ferret out the meaning of this passage, let's do two things. First, let's take a look at how Christ's statements about taxation were interpreted toward the close of the Gospel of Luke. There, his teachings were cited in front of Pilate as proof that Christ was a criminal. Second, to gain some real insights into Christ's teaching, we will take a closer'and more humorous' look at Christ's encounter with the Pharisees and Herodians.

In the Gospel of Luke (23:1-2), one of the chief accusations leveled against Jesus in front of Pilate was that Christ had forbid the payment of taxes:

Then the whole body of them arose and brought Him before Pilate. And they began to accuse Him, saying, 'We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King.' And Pilate asked Him, saying, 'Are You the King of the Jews?' And He answered him and said, 'It is as you say.' And Pilate said to the chief priests and the multitudes, 'I find no guilt in this man.'

This passage makes it clear that Christ's contemporaries interpreted his words as a prohibition against paying taxes to Caesar. Oddly, Pilate did not ask Christ to confirm or deny the accusation. Instead, he asked only if Christ was the king of the Jews. We can only speculate about why Pilate avoided the tax issue. Maybe he felt that Christ's claim to be a king (as opposed to Herod Antipas) was more important than the tax issue if not an indicator of madness, which might explain why Pilate said that he found no guilt in Christ. Any discussion of insanity, however, would be anachronistic, so I'll drop it right now.

A Closer Look at Christ the Comedian and Trickster

Now that we have confirmed that Christ's contemporaries interpreted his statements as 'anti-taxation,' we can begin the much more interesting discussion of why they held this opinion. It is important to remember that Christ's enemies were constantly trying to ensnare him with trick questions about religious practices that he appeared to be violating. Their purpose was to either (1) lure him into making statements that were in violation of their laws or (2) repudiate or contradict his own actions or statements so as to dishearten his followers. As a reminder, here are a few well known examples:

  • ' The story (from a disputed passage in John 8:1-11) about the woman who was caught in adultery and was about to be stoned to death, where Jesus advised: 'He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.'
  • ' The story (Mark 2:23 -28, Matthew 12:1-8, Luke 6:1-5) about whether it was lawful for the disciples to pluck grains on the Sabbath. Hint: the answer was 'yes.'
  • ' The many stories about Christ healing people on the Sabbath, such as the time when he healed the man with the withered hand (Mark 3:1-6, Matthew 12:9-14, Luke 6:6-11), healed the woman with the infirmity (Luke 13:10-17), healed the man with dropsy (Luke 14:1-6), and healed the man at the pool (John 5:2-16). In each case, Christ justified his apparent violation of the Sabbath laws.

Now that we have reminded ourselves that Christ was repeatedly being challenged by various 'authorities,' we can examine the passage about taxation with a bit more insight. For convenience, here's the relevant portion of text once again:

But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, 'Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to look at.' And they brought one. And He said to them, 'Whose likeness and inscription is this?' And they said to Him, 'Caesar's.' And Jesus said to them, 'Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.'

I believe that the statement contains both humorous ridicule and a meaningless poke at his critics. First, Jesus was clearly ridiculing his accusers when he led them to assume that the presence of Caesar's likeness and inscription on the coin proved that Caesar held a title of ownership to that coin and that the tax should be paid. One might just as well claim that the picture of a Quaker wearing a blue hat on every box of Quaker Oats oatmeal 'proves' that the Quaker owns every box of oatmeal that features his likeness on it. Likewise, the image of George Washington on a U.S. quarter dollar does not mean that George owns every such coin or that we should pay taxes because of it. It seems obvious that Jesus was making the same kind of joke with reference to the denarius. I can almost hear the laughter. Can you?

Further, the statement 'Render to Caesar'' is completely circular and therefore conveys no actionable information whatsoever. If a man named Tom and a second man named Bill were both claiming ownership of the same bicycle, would it really help to resolve their dispute if a judge in a court of law declared that what was Tom's was Tom's and what was Bill's was Bill's? I don't think so. Again, Jesus was clearly playing games with his opponents'delivering a meaningless poke that successfully confused them.

It's Time to 'Get' the Joke

In instance after instance throughout the Gospels, Jesus posed delightful verbal traps for his opponents, and I see no reason to think that he was doing anything less regarding taxation. I would even go so far as to say that it would be out of character for Jesus' statement about taxes not to be another example of his cleverness. Such an approach clearly denies any obligation of Christians to pay Caesar, and Jesus' contemporaries understood it in exactly that way. Why don't we? Why do so few of his followers acknowledge the good-natured humor in Jesus when he posed as a stand-up comic in this instance? The answer may tell us more about the caliber of his followers than about the message of Jesus.

Finally, I am not the only person who has developed this line of argument. I remember that I first began to suspect the humorous nature of these Gospel passages in the late 1980s, and I began to share it with others. Several years ago on the Internet, I noted that other people also had interpreted the relevant passage in a similar way. We are not the first, and we will not be the last. So why not abandon the idea that the Gospel story about the denarius was an attempt by Jesus to teach us about the separation between the physical world and his spiritual kingdom (i.e., that the things that are rendered to Caesar, such as the coin, are of this world and that Jesus' concerns lay elsewhere). Such a teaching may indeed also be implicit in his words, but I think that the most satisfying interpretation is that Jesus was having a good laugh at the expense of the Pharisees and Herodians. The only shame is that too many people still don't 'get' his joke after two thousand years.

Lawrence Ludlow is a freelance writer living in San Diego.

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Christ's Teaching on Taxation (and Why Nobody Got the Joke)

by Lawrence M. Ludlow

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Lawrence Ludlow is a freelance writer living in San Diego.  


Suverans2's picture

Is there another possibility, even the slightest possibility, that it wasn't a "joke". It seems to me that JESUS [sic] was a teacher (rabbi), not a jokester.

What if he was teaching his students (disciples) that sovereign individuals [kings without subjects[1]] didn't have to pay state taxes[2], just as he was accused?

Luke 23:2 And they began to accuse Him, saying, We found this One perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying Himself to be a king, Christ [anointed[2]].

Really? Where did he do this, "forbidding"?

Matthew 17:24 And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute? He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him...

What if Pontius Pilate knew that sovereign individuals weren't “of” the Caesar's jurisdiction?

John 17:16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.

What if “world” in that verse was translated from the paleo-Greek word kosmos, which meant, according to Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, “1) an apt and harmonious arrangement or constitution, order, government”?

What if he was teaching them, a lesson within a lesson; the difference between fiction and non-fiction? Whose" is a possessive pronoun. Pay strict attention to what he asked: “Whose image and superscription hath it?"

What does the Caesar get if they render unto Caesar what has been determined to be Caesar's, according to the above question, i.e. the “image and superscription”...

Haggai 2:8 (LITV) The silver is Mine, and the gold is Mine, says Jehovah...

...and they render unto God what is God's, i.e. the “silver”?

Do you think this could possibly be why "the chief priests and the scribes"...who "sent forth spies, which should feign themselves just men, that they might take hold of his words, that so they might deliver him unto the power and authority of the governor"..."marvelled at his answer, and held their peace"? gfywi

[1] Matthew 20:25... Jesus said, You know that the rulers of the nations exercise lordship over them, and the great ones exercise authority over them. 26 But it will not be so among you....

[2] G2778 κῆνσος kēnsos (kane'-sos) Of Latin origin; properly an enrollment (“census”), that is, (by implication) a tax

[3] "The use of oil in consecrations, was of high antiquity. Kings, prophets and priests were set apart or consecrated to their offices by the use of oil. Hence the peculiar application of the term anointed to Jesus Christ". ~ Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Dear Suverans2: I understood one point you made -- namely that Jesus was not of this world -- which is legitimate. But most of the rest of what you were writing didn't have enough connective tissue for me to understand it easily and make an argument of it. When I have to strain at something just to give meaning to it, I give up. You might want to make something a bit less telegraphic and really spell it out for me. Not everyone agrees with this, and there were quite a few comments on it at one time, but I've been fascinated by the similarity to other "catch me if you can" responses of Jesus to verbal entrapment -- even though some of these favorite texts were interpolated into the surviving texts at a later time (I'm basing this on what I've read from Bart Ehrman and his predecessors).

Suverans2's picture

G'day Lawrence M. Ludlow,

Perhaps this might add a little "connective tissue".

"All the apostles, with the exception of Judas Iscariot (Act_1:11), were Galileans." ~ Easton's 1897 Bible Dictionary

"The Galileans taught that all foreign control was unscriptural, and they would neither acknowledge nor pray for foreign princes [rulers]." ~ Rev. T.F. Wright, Ph.D.

And, the Zealot party, who were "partisans for Jewish political independence[1]", asked JESUS, upon meeting him, to join with them. (Ibid.)

"They [the Zealots] refused to recognize any human authority, and adopted as a watchword, “No Lord but Jehovah; no tax but that of the Temple; no friend but the Zealots."

Instead, certain members of the Zealots evidently joined with the Galilean party. (See Luke 6:14-16; Acts 1:13)

[1] Strong's Greek Dictionary

WhiteIndian's picture

Galli priests? Sex Rites, the Origins of Christianity, and the Ritual Use of Sex, Drugs, and Human Sacrifice:

The story of Jesus healing the demon-possessed man reflects precisely the rituals of the Galli.

Pagan mythology in the Jesus Story
Friday, October 1, 2010

The apostle Paul was most likely a Galli type priest.

Who’s your daddy? The Cuckold Carpenter in Myth, Ritual and Philosophy
Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

WhiteIndian, I appreciate your defense of humor-from-the-mouth-of-Jesus as well as your skepticism about Jesus. Nonetheless, I find Jesus to be a fascinating and pivotal historical character, whoever he was and whatever he really said and however much of it was allegorical or not -- if for no other reason than that so many people try to incorporate (co-opt posthumously?) him into their excuse-making systems, especially politicians.

WhiteIndian's picture

Thanks, Lawrence. I think both fundamentalists and atheists view the Bible completely wrong. Both sides take it too literal. Fundamentalists take it literally true, atheists take it literally wrong.

I'm a mythicist; i.e., I take the Bible literarily. Just to spell it out:

LITERAL exegesis = Fundamentalists , Atheists (reactive to fundies)
LITERARY exegesis = Mythicism

(More on the mythicist exegesis here: The Mythicist Position | What is Mythicism? )

The Jesus character even told Nicodemus, who was interpreting Jesus' teaching literally, to take the Mythicist position and interpret the teaching literarily, on a central christian doctrine.

I'm just consistent with Jesus' exhortation to interpret his words literarily. However, I don't make a whole lot of fundie friends saying that. ;)

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

The other day I came across a French theologian's concurrance with me on Jesus' use of irony regarding the coin:
From “Anarchy and Christianity,” by Jacques Ellul, pp.59-60. Copyright 1988.
We now come to texts which record Jesus’ own saying and which exegetes regard as in all probability authentic. We do not have here early Christian interpretation but the position of Jesus himself (which, evidently, was the source of this early Christian interpretation). There are five main sayings.
Naturally, the first is the famous saying: “Render to Caesar.” I will briefly recall the story (Mark 12:13ff.). The enemies of Jesus were trying to entrap him, and the Herodians put the question. Having complimented Jesus on his wisdom, they asked him whether taxes should be paid to the emperor: “Is it lawful to pay the taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay, or should we not pay?” The question itself is illuminating. As the text tells us, they were trying to use Jesus’ own words to trap him. If they put this question, then, it was because it was already being debated. Jesus had the reputation of being hostile to Caesar. If they could raise this question with a view to being able to accuse Jesus to the Romans, stories must have been circulating that he was telling people not to pay taxes. As he often does, Jesus avoids the trap by making an ironical reply: “Bring me a coin, and let me look at it.” When this is done, he himself puts a question: “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” It was evidently a Roman coin. One of the skillful means of integration used by the Romans was to circulate their own money throughout the empire. This became the basic coinage against which all other were measured. The Herodians replied to Jesus: ”Caesar’s.” Now we need to realize that in the Roman world an individual mark on an object denoted ownership, like cattle brands in the American West in the 19th century. The mark was the only way in which ownership could be recognized. In the composite structure of the Roman empire it applied to all goods. People all had their own marks, whether a seal, a stamp, or a painted sign. The head of Caesar on this coin was more than a decoration or a mark of honor. It signified that all the money in circulation in the empire belonged to Caesar. This was very important. Those who held the coins were very precarious owners. They never really owned the bronze or silver pieces. Whenever an emperor died, the likeness was changed. Caesar was the sole proprietor. Jesus, then, had a very simple answer: “Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” You find his likeness on the coin. The coin, then, belongs to him. Give it back to him when he demands it.
With this answer Jesus does not say that taxes are lawful. He does not counsel obedience to the Romans. He simply faces up to the evidence. But what really belongs to Caesar? The excellent example used by Jesus makes this plain: Whatever bears his mark! On coins, on public monuments, on certain altars. That is all. Render to Caesar. You can pay the tax. Doing so is without importance or significance, for all money belongs to Caesar, and if he wanted he could simply confiscate it. Paying or not paying taxes is not a basic question; it is not even a true political question.
On the other hand, whatever does not bear Caesar’s mark does not belong to him. It all belongs to God. This is where the real conscientious objection arises. Caesar has no right whatever to the rest. First we have life. Caesar has no right of life or death. Caesar has no right to plunge people into war. Caesar has no right to devastate and ruin a country. Caesar’s domain is limited. We may oppose most of his pretensions in the name of God. Jesus challenges the Herodians, then, for they can have no objections to what he says…