“Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. So the spies questioned him: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” He saw through their duplicity and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. He said to them, “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent” (Luke 20.20-26)
In this short article, I want to illustrate how historical context in the form of geography and political history can shed light on a famous episode in the life of Jesus. In fact, coming within understanding distance of Luke’s account may reveal something beyond mere taxes is going on.
Luke informs us this question takes place in Jerusalem not Galilee. This is our first clue that geography matters. Galilee, Jesus’s “home base” and center of much of his Messianic ministry, and Jerusalem (Judea) are governed differently even though both are part of the Roman Empire.
When Herod the Great died, the Romans divided his small realm among his sons. The most relevant for our purposes is Galilee and Judea where Jesus lived and worked. Galilee went to Herod Antipas who ruled that area until A.D. 39. Jerusalem and its environs went to Archelaus. But he was such an incompetent fool that the Roman Emperor took over and appointed a prefect in A.D. 6 to avoid a revolt.
As Jerusalem was now reorganized as an imperial province the taxes went directly to Caesar, (not the Senate) who even then claimed divine privileges. That same year Judas the Galilean (mentioned in Acts 5.37) propounded the doctrine that it was wrong to send the substance of the city of God – the True King – with his holy temple to a pagan ruler who also made divine claims. Josephus shares some information relevant to Judas,
“A Galilean named Judas was urging his countryman to resistance, reproaching them if they submitted to paying taxes to the Romans and tolerated human masters after serving God alone. Judas was a teacher with his own party …” (Jewish Wars 2.118)
Later in another work known as Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus wrote more about Judas. I will quote a portion.
“Although the Jews were at first intensely angry at the news of their registration on the tax lists, they gradually calmed down, having been persuaded to oppose it no further by the high priest Joazar son of Boethus. Those who succumbed to his arguments unhesitatingly appraised their property. But a certain Judas, a Gaulanite from the city of Gamala, in league with the Pharisee Saddok, pressed hard for resistance …” (18.3)
Of course, the Romans dealt mercilessly with Judas, and thousands of his followers. The ghost of Judas never left Judea.
The matter of taxes to Caesar was never an issue in Galilee. Though, I am sure, taxes were never popular they were still paid and used quite differently.
So the hot theological debate is not merely taxes, but is it right to pay “tribute” (phoros. Luke uses the term phoros rather than kenos which appears in Matthew and Mark. phoros carries connotations that go beyond mere taxes or duties, cf. BDAG, p. 1064) to a pagan from the city of God. Tribute, praise, accolades, glorification are nearly worship ideas. To offer such to Caesar was tantamount to idolatry. Many believed it was. This is not a theoretical question and how Jesus responds will tell everyone if he is “sound” or not.
The brilliance of Jesus’s reply is that they are not using the things of God render tribute to Caesar. The denarius has a graven image on it! They are using the pagan’s own resources to “render” to him. The verb “render” also indicates simply returning or giving back what has his own (unholy??) image on it. And because it has an image on it, no Pharisee worth his salt would even want to touch such a thing … much less keep it.
Jesus is not endorsing Caesar’s claims in this passage. He is saying give the pagan what he has already defiled with his image. We on the other hand give all to God that he rightly owns. No wonder they were “amazed” at Jesus’s answer.