Robert F. van Brederode (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founding partner of BrederodeTax LLC and is based in Cary, North Carolina. He is a published author and a leading authority on VAT.
In this installment of Tax Matters, van Brederode considers whether paying taxes is a moral duty by referring to the famous New Testament passage in which Jesus is asked whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar.
This seems to be a simple yes or no question. It was certainly posed to Jesus with the hope of receiving a simple response. The issue is still important and the discussion ongoing. Today, many take the position that paying your fair share is a moral duty and that tax dodging is antisocial behavior. Jesus’ answer — “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” — is traditionally interpreted to mean an endorsement of paying taxes, which serves contemporary tax enforcers well.
Reference is often made to this passage by those — even if not religious — who perceive the state as a benevolent actor focused on serving society for the good of all. From this perspective, not paying taxes or not paying one’s fair share is immoral and a violation of a duty toward society and fellow citizens. The Hebrews in Jesus’ time would not shine such a flattering light on the Roman government and, although I would not put our form of elected government on par with Roman rule, some modern skepticism toward the role of government is not misplaced.
The traditional interpretation of the so-called tribute episode makes no sense in the political context of first-century Palestine and given the treacherous purpose of the question.
All three synoptic Gospels mention the tribute episode almost verbatim1 and claim that the question is a trap by the Jewish establishment. Borrowing from Matthew:
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.2
The tax in question was the census, a poll tax levied on the people of Judea by Emperor Augustus. It was imposed in addition to the religious taxes, several tithes,3 that Jews had to pay. Together they constituted a heavy economic burden. Paying the tax acknowledged the legitimacy of Roman institutions and an idol-worshipping, occupying force. Romans were not subject to the tax — only conquered people, representing a form of bondage unacceptable to the covenanted people liberated from Egypt by God.
Taxes had to be paid in Roman coin, that is, the denarius. In Jesus’ time it would have been the denarius of Emperor Tiberius or his predecessor, Emperor Augustus. It was personal coinage in that it was used to pay the troops, government officials, and suppliers. It symbolized the emperor’s power, wealth, deification, and subjugation of occupied lands. It symbolized that the emperor personally owned the provincial territory for which the Hebrews had to pay rent, while the Jewish tradition held that the land of Israel belonged to Yahweh.4
The question was a trap because regardless of Jesus’ answer — yes or no — it could and would have been used against him. If Jesus were to answer that taxes should be paid, he would lose his credibility with his followers by being seen as a collaborator with the Romans, perceived as occupiers by the Jews. If he were to answer that these taxes should not be paid, he would run afoul of the Roman authorities, who could put him to death for inciting sedition. This question, therefore, put Jesus between a rock and a hard place. For the trap to work, his questioners must have known Jesus’ opposition to Roman rule and taxes.5 This is the Judeo-Roman political aspect of the question.
They ask whether it is lawful to pay taxes to the Romans. Lawful obviously does not refer to Roman law, which would of course allow for those taxes, but to Mosaic law. This is the religious aspect of the question. It is a challenge to his status as rabbi and knowledge of the Torah because he was forced to provide an answer vested in Scripture. The audience understood this all too well.
How did Jesus dodge the bullet? Well, he did answer with reference to the Torah. But first he asked to see the coin used for the payment of taxes. That was by itself not required to answer the question. However, asking to see the coin served the double purpose of showing the hypocrisy of his opponents, who by handing over the coin evidenced their participation in Roman society, while simultaneously demonstrating that Jesus was not in possession of Roman coin, showing his allegiance to the Jewish opposition. Thus, he effectively undermined the credibility of his questioners and secured his own.
Then he points to the coin and asks: Whose image and inscription is this? Image refers to the first and second commandments,6 which proclaim a single god and forbid the worship of any other gods and the making of graven images to false gods. Inscription refers to the Shema, the Jewish prayer confirming the exclusivity of Yahweh as the only god. The words of the Shema are memorized but also inscribed on doorposts and city gates.
In a time of high illiteracy, these coins had significant pictorial and verbal propaganda value. The denarius carries the image of the emperor, Augustus or Tiberius, and inscriptions proclaiming divine status. The Augustus denarius bore on its obverse a laureated head of Augustus with the abbreviated inscription “Caesar Augustus, Divi Filius, Pater Patriae” (Caesar Augustus, Son of God, Father of the Country). The Tiberius denarius shows the emperor crowned with laurels symbolizing victory and divinity. Latin abbreviations circumscribe Tiberius’s profile, stating “Tiberius Caesar, Divi August Fili Augustus” (Tiberius Caesar, Worshipful Son of the Divine Augustus). On the flipside, the coin shows the goddess of peace, Pax, with the abbreviated text for which means high priest.
The coins serve to strengthen cultish emperor worship and symbolize his ultimate sovereignty. This was of course unacceptable from a Jewish religious perspective. The coins were blasphemous in that they portrayed the emperor as a false god in competition with Yahweh and for that reason no pious Jew would carry one. Jesus made that clear by referring to “image” and “inscription.” He did not have a Roman coin, confirming his status as a pious Jewish rabbi, but his opponents did, exposing themselves not only as political but also as religious hypocrites. The fact that Jesus’ interrogators had the coin with them while his questioning took place in the Temple exacerbates the blasphemy committed by them.
When he received the response that the image belongs to Caesar, Jesus answered the question as follows: “Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Jesus does not elaborate on what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. He did not have to. His audience was knowledgeable enough of the Torah to know the answer: All belongs to God,7 to whom the Jewish people owed exclusive allegiance as Jesus had reminded them by making references to the commandments and the Shema. Loyalty to God is a prime duty of every Jew. Thus, Jesus chooses God over the emperor and implicitly rejects paying the tax because it violates Jewish law and the prime duty of every pious Jew to uphold absolute and undivided loyalty to God. Since all belongs to God, the emperor is owed nothing (except for the coin, see below) and implicitly Jesus is politically seditious in his statement, although hidden behind his clever wording.
Nowhere does Jesus state that the emperor is entitled to taxes.8 In those days, putting your image on a thing meant claiming ownership of the thing. Therefore, the coin belongs to Caesar and Jesus’ answer was simply to give Caesar back his coin. That would make sense because his opponents, who claimed to be pious Jews, should not have possession of these blasphemous coins in the first place. By saying to return to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, Jesus rebukes his opponents again for possessing the Roman coins.
By not limiting his answer to what belongs to Caesar but adding reference to what belongs to God, Jesus also creates separation between the two, effectively divorcing Caesar subtlety from his divine status. Jesus is therefore also religiously seditious toward the emperor.
My conclusion is that the traditional interpretation of the tribute episode does not imply a moral obligation to pay taxes under all circumstances. Jesus indicates subtly that the Roman taxes were unfair and illicit. We only must render to Caesar what is his, not what he demands. The government’s taxing power is, therefore, limited. Through history and up to today we witness the public sector’s struggle to extract more money from the private sector. Using morality as a pressure tool to improve tax compliance might have a boomerang effect because equal moral demands may be made in return.
In an earlier column, I argued for an ethical equilibrium — a balance between the obligation to pay and the fairness of taxation.9 Of course, the socioeconomic and political context of the early first century differs from ours in the 21st century, but I flatter myself that Jesus might agree. However, if I were able to directly ask him that question, he would likely answer with a question of his own, leaving me as marveled as the Pharisees were 2,000 years ago.
1 Cf. Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:14-15, and Luke 20:23.
2 Matthew 22:15-22.
3 See, e.g., Adam Chodorow, “God's Income Tax: What Jewish Tithing Practices Can Teach Us About Tax Reform,” available on SSRN (Mar. 21, 2006).
4 See Leviticus 25:23.
5 John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (1994).
6 Exodus 20:1-17.
7 This follows from Leviticus 25:23.
8 On the contrary, the accusation at his trial includes charges of opposing taxation; see Luke 23:2.