The image of Caesar and the image of God (Origen’s exegesis of Matthew 17:24-27)
246 CE to 248 CE
Title of work:
Commentary on Matthew
Source(s) that the text is built upon (explicitly – quotations, references – or implicitly):
Keywords in the original language:
Thematic keywords in English:
For a general introduction to Origen, please see the commentary on Against Celsus I.3.
Eusebius tells us in his Ecclesiastical History VI.36 that Origen’s Commentary on Matthew was written around the same time as his treatise Against Celsus, in the latter part of his career when he was residing in Caesarea Maritima. The commentary was divided into twenty-five books, of which the first nine unfortunately have not survived. Books X-XVII (which deal with Matthew 13:36-27:33, including the present passage) have survived in Greek, whereas the remaining books largely survive in an anonymous fifth or early-sixth century Latin translation, which were transmitted as part of a collection of thirty-five homiletical narratives on Matthew (not originally works of Origen). The Latin version of the commentary commences at the equivalent point to the Greek book IX (concerned with Matthew 16:13), but it becomes difficult to follow the structure of the original Greek text as the Latin translation continues. The Latin continues up until the point of dealing with Matthew 27:66), leaving out Matthew 28. Origen viewed the Gospel of Matthew as the primary canonical gospel, and his commentary became extremely influential in Christianity, firmly establishing Matthew as the most eminent didactic text within the Christian tradition (for more detail see Agnès Bastit-Kalinowska, “Conception du commentaire,” and on the particular didactic and homiletic concerns in the Commentary on Matthew, see Lorenzo Perrone, “Les commentaires d’Origène”; for brief, general introductions, see Joseph Trigg, Origen, p. 211-214 and John McGuckin, Handbook, p. 30).
In the present passage, Origen offers his exegesis on Matthew 17:24-27, drawing on various other biblical texts (including Matthew 22:21 and parallels) in the process. Before we look at Origen’s interpretation, however, it will be helpful to read Matthew 17:24-27 in full:
“When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the (temple?) tax (δίδραχμος, didrachmos: a silver coin worth two drachmas/half a shekel) came to Peter and said, ‘Does your teacher not pay the temple tax (lit. double drachmas)?’ He said, ‘Yes, he does.’ And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, ‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll (τέλος, telos) or tribute (κῆνσος, kēnsos)? From their children or from others?’ When Peter said, ‘From others,’ Jesus said to him, ‘Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin (στατήρ, statēr: a coin worth two didrachmas); take that and give it to them for you and me’” (NRSV, slightly modified).
Origen begins by citing Matthew 17:24, which has traditionally been understood as referring to the Temple tax. The Temple tax was used to maintain the Jewish Temple, and originated from an interpretation of Exodus 30:13: “This is what each one who is registered shall give: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the Lord” (NRSV) (see also Nehemiah 10:32-33 for the commitment to an annual Temple tax). However, the precise meaning of Matthew 17:24-27 has been debated, with some suggesting that this passage actually belongs to the period post-70 CE, when Vespasian appropriated the Temple tax to build the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. If this was the case, then was an older tradition adapted for Christians whom the Roman authorities were confusing with Jews? Do verses 24-26 address the moral dilemma that Jewish-Christians had about paying the Temple tax prior to 70 CE (this would explain Jesus’s statement about not wanting to cause offense)? (For an overview of these arguments, see William Albright, Matthew, p. 212-213). As John Nolland points out, the terms Jesus uses in his discussion with Peter are τέλος (telos) and κῆνσος (kēnsos), which between them covered “the broad range of civil taxes imposed at the national level,” suggesting that the Matthean author utilises a tradition about the Temple tax in order to address the issues facing his contemporary Christian audience regarding the taxes required by the Roman government (The Gospel of Matthew, p. 725). There is not space to discuss these questions here, as the main focus is Origen’s interpretation of the passage, rather than the Matthean text itself, and what becomes clear, is that the issue of Roman power and authority is much more explicit in Origen’s exegesis than it is in Matthew.
Origen skips the collectors asking Peter whether Jesus pays the tax and proceeds immediately to offer his understanding of Jesus and Peter’s exchange regarding who it is that the “kings of the earth” take their toll and tribute from. In Matthew 17:25-26, Peter answers that the kings of the earth do not take toll and tribute from their children, but from “others.” To this, Jesus responds that the children (of the kings) are therefore “free.” Origen recounts this conversation in a slightly lengthier manner, stating that the sons of certain earthly kings do not pay tolls or tribute, but that “strangers to the kings of the earth” do. At this point, Origen’s exegesis develops as he argues that the strangers who are required to pay the tolls and tribute are free in relation to “things beyond the earth,” but yet are slaves to those who “lord it over (δυναστεύω, dunasteuō) them” (i.e. the earthly kings; a similar expression is used in Matthew 20:25 to describe the way in which the Roman authorities rule, but here the term is κατακυριεύω, katakurieuō). Here, Origen draws on Exodus 1:13-14 and the example of the Israelites kept in bondage by the Egyptians. For the sake of those who suffer under such bondage, he suggests, it was necessary for Jesus to take on the form of a slave (Philippians 2:7). That Jesus was no different from the majority of people, who are in one way or another subject to the authority of an earthly ruler, meant that he paid tax in the same way as others.
The next part of the exegesis, however, is particularly interesting for our purposes. In Matthew 17:27, Jesus commands Peter to go and cast a hook into the sea, in order to catch a fish which will contain a coin, a stater sufficient for both Jesus and Peter’s tax. Origen’s argument relating to this is essentially as follows:
1) The stater from the fish’s mouth did not officially belong to Jesus (it was not “in [his] house.”
2) The fish itself (understood figuratively), was greatly fortunate to be caught by Peter, whom Jesus had made a “fisher of men” (i.e. one who would bring to Jesus’s message).
3) The coin, which bears the image of Caesar, can now be taken by Peter and given back to Caesar by way of his using it to pay the tax. It is at this point which it becomes clear that Origen is emphasising a context of Roman rule which is less explicit in the Matthean text itself, which does not mention Caesar’s image in this narrative at all. That Origen draws on Matthew 22:12 here shows that in his view, the taxes discussed in the passage are those which are owed to Rome, fitting with the argument that Matthew’s text deals with Rome’s use of the former Temple tax after 70 CE: “Let him, then, who has the things of Caesar render them to Caesar” (for a discussion of this passage specifically, see the commentary on Matthew 22:15-22). After the emperor has been paid his dues, one can focus on giving God what is rightly his (the implication being that this is more crucial).
4) Jesus was the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), and therefore did not possess the image of the emperor, i.e. he did not possess money, as far as Origen is concerned, and so has to take this earthly item from sea, where it is rightly confined in the physical world. Jesus can then give the stater from the sea to the relevant “king of the earth” (i.e. the emperor), however, because the coin has been found, and does not come from his own wealth, he is effectively not really paying a debt to those who hold earthly authority.
5) Finally, Origen reemphasises that it was important for Jesus not to have formally owned the coin, because the image of the emperor cannot be placed alongside the “image of the invisible God” (which it has been established that Jesus reflects).
Essentially, then, the argument is made that the emperor is inferior to God, and whilst Jesus and his disciples did not radically subvert what was required of them by the Roman government, they managed to maintain the moral high ground. This point perhaps underpins Matthew 17:24-27, but is made more explicit in Origen’s exegesis, partly through his utilisation of other biblical texts, and by his insistence that Jesus did not own the coin used to pay the Temple tax. Origen wishes to separate Jesus from Caesar, making clear that the emperor remains in the material world, not the realm of the “invisible God,” whose image cannot be captured on a physical object such as a coin.