The Tribute Money:
"Render Unto Caesar"

R.J. Rushdoony, "The Tribute Money," The Institutes of Biblical Law, The Craig Press, 1973, p. 718-23. 

This essay does not prove the legitimacy of the State, nor its taking captive entire nations, but indicts those who are captive for their own antecedent immorality and idolatry.

6. The Tribute Money

      One of the best-known stories of the New Testament is the one con­cerning the tribute money question: "Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar or not?" Christ's answer, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are Gods" (Matt. 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26), is one of the most familiar sentences of Scripture. The general implications have long been recognized; in the specific application, there has been much variation.

     The purpose of the Pharisees is again to "entangle him in his talk" (Matt. 22:15); Luke is more specific, "And they watched him, and 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" (Luke 20:20-26). The Roman governor was meant. Apparently the expectation was that Jesus, in faithfulness to the law, would declare that only a theocracy was valid in Israel, not Roman rule and law. Behind this strategy were the Phari­sees and the Herodians (Matt. 22:16; Mark 12:13), a minor, political, non-religious party of the day. The Herodians favored the Roman tax and the Herodian dynasty, which they regarded as preferable to direct Roman rule. The Pharisees were normally hostile to the Herodians, but they joined forces in hostility to Jesus. If Jesus opposed the tax, He could be denounced and delivered to the Roman authorities for arrest and trial.

     The question was prefaced with fulsome flattery; the questioners asked as if motivated by a tender conscience rather than a desire to entrap. They attempted to push Jesus into an answer heedless of con­sequences by asserting that "thou art true, and carest for no man; for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth" (Mark 12:14). Such an integrity, they hoped, would compel Him to deny the legitimacy of the Roman tax. "Is it lawful for us to give tribute unto Caesar, or no?" (Luke 20:22).

     The Greek text makes clear that the tax was a "capitation tax," not an indirect tax.[1] "Luke uses phoros, the wider word for 'tribute' as it is paid by one nation to another; Matthew and Mark use the more specific kenos or poll tax that is levied upon every individual for his own person and is thus especially galling as a mark of servitude to the Roman power."[2]

     Israel already had a poll tax, that required by God's law in Exodus 30:11-16. Its purpose was to provide for civil atonement, i.e., the covering or protection of civil government. Every male twenty years old or older was required to pay this tax to be protected by God the King in His theocratic government of Israel. This tax was thus a civil and religious duty (but not an ecclesiastical one).

     There was thus a particular aggravation in the fact that Rome also required a poll or head tax. The Roman Empire and emperor were progressively assuming divine roles, requiring religious assent, and claiming priority over religion. The poll tax was thus a particularly offensive tax, in that it seemed to require a polytheistic faith, the worship of a god other than the true God. Moreover, the Herodian tax was so heavy that twice the imperial government compelled Herod to reduce his tax demands in order to avoid serious trouble. Judas Galilaeus had earlier presented himself as the messiah and had summoned Israel, in the name of God and Scripture, to refuse to pay the tax. The Romans were merciless in putting down the rebellion (Acts 5:37).

     The matter had been aggravated as early as A.D. 29 by Pilate, who for a time issued coinage "bearing the lituus, the priest's staff, or the patera, the sacrificial bowl-two symbols of the imperial philosophy which were bound to be obnoxious to the people."[3]These coins were later withdrawn, but they did serve to underscore the fact that their bondage to Rome had religious overtones.

     The right to issue coins had religious overtones for Israel as I Maccabees 15:6 implies, and it was thus important to them. "'Coin' and 'power' were regarded as synonyms, so that the coin was the symbol of the ruler's dominance."[4] In the second century A.D., Bar Kochba, the false messiah, replaced Roman coinage with his own coins as a means of asserting his power. To give tribute to Caesar thus meant to acknowledge Caesar's power; to approve of giving tribute to Caesar was to acknowledge the legitimacy of Caesar's power. The question implicit, in the Herodian's statement was whether any government other than God's has any legitimacy. Christ's assertion of His messiahship was seen by his accusers as a denial of Caesar's right to tax (Luke 23:2), since the Messiah as King had to have exclusive sovereignty, in their perspective. For Jesus to have denied Caesar's right to tax Israel was a mark of insurrection and would make Him liable to arrest. For Jesus to have affirmed Caesar's right to tax would have been, in the eyes of the people, a denial of His messiahship.

     The answer of Jesus was to ask for a denarius; He asked it of His questioners. As Stauffer, whose chapter on "The Story of the Tribute Money" is very important, has written:

Jesus asked for a penny, a denarius. Why? There were a great many coins in the wide Roman empire which passed as legal cur­rency, old and new, large and small, imperial and local, gold, silver, copper, bronze and brass. In no country did so many different kinds of money circulate as in Palestine. But the prescribed coin for taxation purposes throughout the empire was the denarius, a little silver coin of about the worth of a shilling. (It can only be the sil­ver denarius which is intended in Mark 12:16, Luke 20:24 and Matt. 22:19, not a gold coin as Titian supposed, in his representa­tion of the tribute scene, nor a Herodian coin, as is often asserted; for the Herodian coins were not called denarii and were not tribute coins, but were local copper coins.) Jesus knew this, and so He asked for the silver imperial tax coin, using the Latin word, the Roman technical expression, which had become current in Palestine along with the coin itself. Bring me a denarius, He said. He did not produce one from His own pocket. Why not? The point now is not whether Jesus had such a coin in His pocket but whether His opponents had. With Socratic irony, he added: "That I may see it?" Why? He had the maieutic purpose with his questioners, He wanted to deliver them, in the Socratic manner, not a priori, but a posteriori. Not their logical or moral sense, but their historical situation and attitude would bring the truth to light. Something is to be seen, and deduced, from the denarius itself.[5]

     When the coin was handed to Jesus, He did not yet answer their question, "Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?" Instead, He asked another question: "Whose is this image and superscription?" (Matt. 22:20; Mark 12:16; Luke 20:24). The answer was, of course, "Cae­sar's." According to Geldenhuys,

After their acknowledgment that it is Caesar's, the following two facts are vividly brought to light through Jesus' masterly handling of the situation:
(1) Coins with Caesar's image and superscription are in use among the Jews.
(2) The coins are evidently the property of Caesar, otherwise they would not have borne his image and superscription.
From these two facts it thus follows that the Jews had accepted the imperial rule as a practical reality, for it was the generally current view that a ruler's power extended as far as his coins were in use.[6]

     The practical reality was thus made clear. These men used the coins of Tiberius which carried a "bust of Tiberius in Olympian nakedness, adorned with the laurel wreath, the sign of divinity." The inscription read, "Emperor Tiberius August Son of the August God," on the one side, and "Pontifex Maximus" or "High Priest" on the other. The symbols also included the emperor's mother, Julia Augusta (Livia) sitting on the throne of the gods, holding the Olympian sceptre in her right hand, and, in her left, the olive branch to signify that "she was the earthly incarnation of the heavenly Pax."[7] The Coins thus had a re­ligious significance. Israel was in a certain sense serving other gods by being subject to Rome and to Roman currency. The point made by implication by His enemies, that tribute to Caesar had religious over­tones, was almost confirmed by Jesus, even as He proved their own submission to Caesar.

     Then came His great answer: Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars [sic], and to God the things that are God's (Mark 12:17). Ac­cording to Stauffer, render here means "give back." "That is the first great surprise in this verse, and its meaning is: the payment of tribute to Caesar is not only your unquestioned obligation; it is also your moral duty."[8] St. Paul used the same term in Romans 13:7, "Render to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom. . . ."

     Judea was living within the Roman Empire, gaining military and economic benefits from that empire whether it wanted them or not. Even if the benefits of the empire were outweighed by its liabilities, the people were still to render Caesar his due.

     The fact still remained that two poll taxes stood in opposition, one paid to the emperor, the other to God. The imperial tax provided "for the daily sacrifice for the welfare of the Roman emperor"; it maintained the empire as a religious entity.[9] The other tax, called then the temple tax, was God's tax for maintaining His holy order. How could both taxes be paid? According to Stauffer, "He affirmed the symbolism of power, but He rejected the symbolism of worship. But this reservation was not made as a negative statement, but rather as a positive command. 'Render to God what is God's' "[10] Stauffer is right in asserting that, ac­cording to Numbers 8:13 ff., this means that "Everything belongs to God."[11] At the time that Jesus spoke, the Biblical poll tax was being collected in the spring, in the month of Adar. More specifically, Jesus asked that Caesar's tax be rendered to Caesar, and God's tax be rendered to God. The early church was apparently aware of this fact. Jerome, commenting on Matthew 22:21, declared, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, namely, coins, tribute, money; and to God the things that are God's, namely, tithes, first-fruits, vows, sacrifices."[12] Israel's departure from God's rule and law had placed them under Roman rule and law; they owed to Rome the tribute due to Rome. Rome did not serve God, but neither did Israel. Obedience is due to all authorities under who we find ourselves (Rom. 13:1-7). Rome was now their master, and Rome had to be obeyed. Obedience to God requires obedience to all those whom we find ourselves in subjection to. In the temptation in the wilderness, Satan had tempted Jesus to follow a way of empire: give the people bread and miracles; enable them to walk by sight. Now, through other tempters, the temptation was offered of rejecting all empires, all earthly powers.

Christ conquered this temptation afresh with His words about the double duty of obedience to the way and to the goal of history, to the kingdom of the world and to the kingdom of God. Mark 12:17 is spoken by Christ in conspectu mortis, in the sight of the messianic death. Holy Week is the existential exegesis of His words: submission to the dominion of Caesar, submission to the dominion of God -- united in the acceptance of that monstrous judicial murder by which Caesar's most wretched creature fulfils sub contrario the work of God (Matt. 26:52 ff.; John 19:11)[13]

     Let us return to St. Jerome's words. Two kinds of taxation exist, and Christ requires our obedience to both. The world of Caesar seeks to create a new world without God, and without regeneration; it exacts a heavy tax and accomplishes little or nothing. We are, as sinners, geared by our fallen nature to seeking Caesar's answer. We pay tribute to Caesar thus, in our faith and with our money. The answer to Caesar's world is not civil disobedience, the final implication of which is revolution. This is Caesar's way, the belief that man's effort by works of law can remake man and the world.

     The answer rather is to obey all due authorities and to pay tribute, custom, and honor to whom these things are due. This is the minor aspect of our duty. More important, we must render, give back to God what is His due, our tithes, first-fruits, vows, and sacrifices. The re­generate man begins by acknowledging God, the author and Redeemer of his life, as his lord and savior, his King. At every point in his life, he renders to God His due service, thanksgiving, praise, and tithe. His salvation is God's gift; the bounty he enjoys is God's gift and providence; the regenerate man therefore renders, gives back to God, God's appointed share of all things.

     The way of resistance to Rome chosen by Judea led to the world's worst war and to the death of the nation. Neither the Roman imperial answer nor the Judean revolutionary answer offered anything but death and disaster. Self-consciously, the Christians followed their Lord. Justin Martyr wrote:

And everywhere we, more readily than all men, endeavour 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 this coin bear?" And they said, "Caesar's"; And again He answered them, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." Whence to God alone we render worship, but in other things we gladly serve you, acknowledging you as kings and rulers of men, and praying that with your kingly power you be found to possess also sound judgment. But if you pay no regard to our prayers and frank explanations, we shall suffer no loss, since we believe (or rather, indeed, are persuaded) that every man will suffer punishment in eternal fire according to the merit of his deed, and will render account according to the power he has received from God, as Christ intimated when He said, "To whom God has given more, of him shall more be required."[14]

Christ's answer did not prevent His enemies from charging Him with "perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar" (Luke 23:2). His answer in reality had demolished all grounds for any accusation against Him.

     Their duty, Jesus had declared, was "to render back" "to pay what is owing"[15] to Caesar and to God. What is due to Caesar is due to Caesar only by the providence, purpose, and counsel of God. What is due to God, what all men owe Him, is everything. Jesus set forth "God's absolute and peculiar right in respect of every man individually and of all men collectively-an exclusive and paramount right possessed by God alone."[16]

     Those who reduce this great sentence of Christ's to a declaration about church and state have missed the point of the incident.

[1] Plummer, Luke, p.465.

[2] Lenski, Luke, p.988.

[3] Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), p. 119.

[4] Ibid., p. 125.

[5] Ibid., p.122 f

[6] Geldenhuys, Luke, p.504.

[7] Stauffer, op. cit., p. 124f.

[8] Ibid., p. 129.

[9] Ibid., p.131.

[10] Ibid., p.132.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., p. 135.

[14] Justin Martyr, First Apology, chap. XVII.

[15] Geldenhuys, op. cit., p.507.

[16] Ibid., p.508.

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