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Render unto Caesar

Silver denarius, struck 14–37 CE. Courtesy The American Numismatic Society.

“Render unto Caesar” is a soundbite one often hears in modern politics to promote the separation of church and state. Because Jesus says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17, KJV), modern audiences have often understood Jesus as declaring that government and economics must be kept separate from religion.

But such a division would have been inconceivable to the earliest followers of Christ. Religion in the ancient Mediterranean was entangled with government and economics: temples were involved in wide-ranging economic exchanges, and emperors were viewed as divine or semi-divine. If we set aside modern assumptions, Jesus’s famous teaching in Mark 12:13–17 and its parallels (Matt 22:15–22; Luke 20:19–26) can instead illuminate the different ways Christ’s followers navigated the overlapping economic and religious demands of life under Roman rule.

What exactly does Jesus say to pay to the emperor?

In Mark 12, some Pharisees and Herodians approach Jesus while he is teaching and seek “to trap him” (12:13). They affirm that Jesus doesn’t regard people with partiality and then ask him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes [kēnson] to the emperor [aka Caesar] or not?” (12:14). The trap is that Jesus’s opponents want him to show partiality: either toward the Romans or toward those Judeans who resented paying taxes to their imperial overlords.

Jesus’s opponents aren’t asking about all taxes. The Greek word translated as “taxes” is kēnsos, a loanword from the Latin census. Their question, then, is specifically about the taxes that the Romans collected by means of a census—that is, census-based taxes. This included taxes on land, typically paid in crops, and taxes on people, which were paid with money. Jesus’s response focuses on taxes on people because he refers to coinage by asking his opponents to bring him a silver coin called a denarius. Matthew’s version of the story highlights this connection by calling this denarius “the coin of the kēnsos” (22:19).

Another tax that the Romans collected by census is pertinent here: the Jewish tax. Roman authorities taxed Jews throughout the empire as punishment for the First Revolt in Judea, replacing the temple taxes Jews once paid to the Jerusalem temple with taxes to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome. By the time Mark was likely written in the early 70s, this tax was being collected across the empire. To those identifying as Jewish among Mark’s earliest audiences, Jesus would have been understood as saying to pay the newly imposed Jewish tax.

Does Jesus urge tax compliance or resistance against Rome?

Mark’s depiction of Jesus endorses the payment of census-based monetary taxes to the Roman authorities, including the Jewish taxes. At the same time, Mark scripts Jesus engaging in an act of resistance. When his opponents bring him a denarius, a silver coin, he asks them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” (12:16). Their answer, “the emperor’s,” primes Jesus to declare, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (12:17). Jesus’s distinction between the emperor and God is crucial because it deprives the emperor of divinity, something people were often asked to affirm on census declarations. Similarly, legends on coins often identified the emperor as “son of god.” Jesus may have promoted compliance with Roman taxes, but he simultaneously denied the emperor all the divine honors that accompany the payment of taxes.

Matthew and Luke rewrote Mark’s teaching on taxes in different directions. Matthew doubled down on the element of resistance. In a related teaching, Matthew’s Jesus complies with the payment of a tax in the amount of a didrachma, which is the rate of the temple tax and the Jewish tax (17:24–27). But Jesus uses this opportunity to underscore the prejudicial nature of Roman tolls and census taxes, explaining that they target non-Romans. He only advises paying “so that we do not give offense to them” (17:27)—that is, the Roman authorities.

Luke reframes Mark’s teaching to emphasize compliance. He insists that Jesus is not like the tax resistor Judas the Galilean, who “rose up at the time of the census” (Acts 5:37). Nor is he like others “forbidding us to pay taxes [phorous] to the emperor” (Luke 23:2). The word Luke uses here and in his rewriting of Mark’s teaching (20:22), phoros, encompasses not only Rome’s monetary taxes but also land taxes. Luke’s model of tax compliance is none other than Joseph, who travels to Bethlehem to register his land in the census (2:1–5). Before Jesus is even born, Luke portrays him as part of a tax-compliant family.

Mark, Matthew, and Luke each describe Jesus as teaching compliance with Roman census-based taxes, but Matthew casts these taxes as prejudicial while Luke disparages people who don’t pay them. While each gospel refuses to recognize the emperor as God, they still endorse paying taxes to the empire’s highest religious authority. In the world of the gospels, the separation of religion and state was unimaginable.

The image at the head of this article is a silver denarius in circulation during and after Jesus’s lifetime. Minted during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius (14–37 CE), the obverse (“heads” side) of the coin bears his image along with a legend that translates to “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.” The reverse (“tails” side) of the coin adds his title as “Pontifex Maximus” (Rome’s highest priest), surrounding an image of his mother Lydia depicted as the goddess Pax (Peace). This is the type of coin, including the emperor’s image and titles, that is implied by Jesus’s teaching on taxes in Mark 12:13–17 and its parallels. Earlier and later emperors also minted coins with similar features, including the designation as “son of god,” and it is likely later coins that the authors and earliest readers of the gospels would have had in mind. Although Tiberius was the emperor during Jesus’s ministry, his teaching on taxes only refers to “Caesar,” a generic title for the Roman emperor.

  • Keddie-Anthony

    Tony Keddie is Associate Professor of Ancient Mediterranean Religions and Fellow of the Ronald Nelson Smith Chair in Classics and Christian Origins at the University of Texas at Austin. His publications include Revelations of Ideology: Apocalyptic Class Politics in Early Roman Palestine (Brill, 2018), Class and Power in Roman Palestine: The Socioeconomic Setting of Judaism and Christian Origins (Cambridge, 2019), and The Struggle over Class: Socioeconomic Analysis of Ancient Christian Texts, co-edited with Michael Flexsenhar and Steven Friesen (SBL Press, 2021).