Paying taxes to Caesar
Much scholarship has been devoted to establishing the Jewish context of Matthew’s Gospel, with its Gentile context (including significantly the Roman imperial system) less discussed. Some scholars of the last decade or so, however, have sought to address this. There have been two dominant positions on this issue: 1) that the Matthean author is addressing a mixed audience of both Jews and Gentiles, and as such, supports taking the salvific message of Jesus to both (see Brendan Byrne, “The Messiah in whose Name ‘The Gentiles will Hope,’” p. 55-73); and 2) the Gospel writer’s community have suffered greatly at the hands of the Romans in Antioch, and wish to avoid the Gentile world as far as possible (see David Sim, “The Gospel of Matthew and the Gentiles,” p. 19-48). In order to appreciate the complexity of the Matthean author’s narrative, the Roman imperial context cannot be ignored, as it is alluded to in various episodes with varying degrees of subtlety.
This famous passage from Matthew’s Gospel sees the Pharisees plot to catch Jesus out in his teaching, and goad him into saying something subversive that they can use to incriminate him. They ask him, therefore, whether or not it is permissible to pay taxes to the Roman emperor. After Rome gained control of Judea, Jewish payment of Roman tax was a controversial issue. The tax referred to here is the κῆνσος (poll tax), which all adult Jews, including women and slaves, were required to pay. It was therefore a strong symbol of subjection to imperial dominion. Warren Carter argues that for Matthew’s post-70 CE audience, the temple tax introduced by Vespasian, which required that Jews pay to fund the maintenance of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, could also have been read in light of Jesus’s teaching here (see Warren Carter, “Matthew and the Gentiles,” p. 281). If Jesus was seen to take a soft line on paying the Roman emperor what he demands, then Jesus effectively trivialises the disgust that Jews and Jewish Christians felt about being required to pay taxes partly used to fund the upkeep of what would be a direct affront to their monotheistic, anti-idolatrous beliefs.
Charles Talbert argues that by endorsing the paying of Roman tax, Jesus was essentially enticing people into idolatry (Charles Talbert, Matthew, p. 253). Talbert uses an example from Josephus, who tells us that in c. 6-9 CE, a man called Judas revolted against Rome over taxes and was subsequently executed, along with his sons (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XVIII.4-10; Jewish War II.117-118). However, Talbert’s interpretation of these passages as being related to idolatry is inaccurate. Judas is angry at his companions for cowardice, as by paying taxes to Rome they are submitting to its dominion, which is contrary to God’s rule. Idolatry is not the issue, therefore – the incident is political, concerned with what paying Roman tax means for Jewish desire only to recognise God’s kingdom, not that of the oppressive Romans. For the Matthean author, political rebellion is not on the cards, rather, the Jesus presented here is more concerned with how the faithful can live a righteous life while tolerating the burden of imperial rule.
The Pharisees believe that they have put Jesus is in a tricky situation, as he faces having to either incite rebellion against the Roman imperial system, or be rejected by a portion of the Jewish population. His answer, however, strikes a careful balance. Jesus’s response simply implies that paying taxes to Caesar remains relatively harmless as long as it is understood within the context of God’s purposes. Caesar must be relativized to God (see William Davies and Dale Allison, Matthew 1-7, p. 216). Some interpreters (such as Charles Talbert – see discussion above, and Richard France, Matthew, p. 833) argue that when the Pharisees bring Jesus a denarius, which bore an image of the emperor (potentially contravening the second commandment of Exodus 20:4 against idolatry), and if a current issue probably the inscription “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus” (in contravention of the first commandment of Exodus 20:3 against having more than one God), the issue of idolatry is at the centre. However, this is not convincing, as Jesus’s response is to say that Caesar’s property (i.e. the tax) may remain so, as long as God is given his rightful (and superior) dues also. When Jesus brings up the image of Caesar on the coin, his point is not related to the fact that the image makes the coin a cultic object, and should therefore be rejected by God-fearing Jews, but rather, he sees the image of Caesar merely as an opportunity to express that Roman property and God’s ‘property’ are very different things, and should be understood as such. Paying Roman tax does not present a problem for God’s people as long as they remember that it holds a relatively unimportant place in the grand scheme of things. Moreover, the Romans did in fact allow Jews to produce their own money for everyday business, in order to avoid potential confrontation over the issue of idolatry (see Richard France, Matthew, p. 830), so it seems unlikely that this is being made an issue of here. Jesus states that tax should be “given back” to Caesar (verse 21), implying that it is not purely an imposition, but something that is paid in return for the services provided by the government. The Roman state has legitimate rights to some things, then (see Proverbs 8:15; Daniel 2:21, 37-38; Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17), but ultimately, they do not hold the rights to the souls of human beings – this is something only God can claim (see Deuteronomy 5:7, 6:4-5) (see Charles Talbert, Matthew, p. 254).
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