Feb
10

Caesar and God in Context

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LibertarianChristians.com is pleased to welcome Christopher Bevis in our next guest post, originally published on LewRockwell.com, entitled “Caesar and God in Context.” Christopher Bevis is a newly licensed Reader in the Church of England, an avid LRC reader, and a member of the Libertarian Alliance. He writes in a purely personal capacity, and wants to help Christians and libertarians see that they have much to offer each other. The views expressed in the any guest article should not be construed as the official position of LibertarianChristians.com and are the work of the guest author alone.

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Professor Walter Block’s article on Religion and Libertarianism was a timely wake up call to theistic and atheistic libertarians alike. As a Reader (a licensed lay minister) in the Church of England, I welcome Professor Block’s call to unite in the face of the growing state menace to us all – but I took exception to his phrase “But what of the fact that most if not all religions support the state. ‘Render unto Caesar… etc.’”.

You might wonder why I object to this biblical quotation. It seems peripheral to Professor Block’s argument, it’s accurate as far as it goes, and many of my fellow Christians do quote this passage to either endorse (or at least resign themselves to) the latest government proposals on almost anything and everything. My answer is that as a Christian minister, it’s part of my calling to make sure that other people understand the Bible as well as possible when they use and quote it – regardless of whether they agree with what they’re quoting.

I’m tired of seeing Matthew 22:15-22 (or its equivalents in Mark 12:13-17 and Luke 20:20-26) used by Christians to support the modern nation-state. So in fairness to Professor Block, I take issue with the way some of my fellow Christians interpret this story, rather than with the Professor for referring to their views. Have a look at the Matthew passage from the New International Version of the Bible with me, and I’ll try to explain what I mean:

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

The usual interpretation of this passage says something like this: Here Jesus endorses paying taxes to the state, even a pagan state, and says that such obedience to civil government is not incompatible with obedience to God. But apart from leading directly to an often uncritical rubber stamping of the state’s tax demands, the standard interpretation also ignores several vital aspects of the context in which Jesus spoke.

Let’s start by looking at the political and religious context of the story. Jesus lived and taught in Roman-occupied Judea in the first century A.D. The Roman Empire, although powerful, held only a fraction of the information on its citizens that modern nation-states do on theirs, and offered nothing like the array of social welfare programs we find in a typical western-style social democracy. The incident in question seems to have taken place in or near the Temple, while Jesus was speaking to the crowds during the final Passover week of his earthly ministry. Matthew, Mark and Luke (sometimes called the Synoptists) all place the story shortly after Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers.

In Matthew 21:13, Jesus explained his attack on the tables of the money changers by quoting Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11 (“‘It is written,’ he said to them, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers’”). In other words, he was offended by the location of the money changers in the court of the Gentiles, the only area in the Temple complex where non-Jews were allowed to pray to God; he was further angered by the extortionate exchange rates the agents were charging. The money changers converted Roman coinage into special Temple coins for reasons we’ll examine later. For now, let’s just say it wasn’t surprising that Jesus’ opponents saw the opportunity to ask what sort of money he found acceptable.

The economic and fiscal aspects of the story are also important. According to Dr. John MacArthur, Jesus’ questioners had a particular imperial tax in mind: the poll tax, which was levied at a flat rate of one denarius and helped to pay for the Roman legions which occupied Judea. The legions were more than just a security force – they were also responsible for the construction and maintenance of the roads, for example, and were the closest thing Rome had to a civil service. Nevertheless, MacArthur describes the poll tax as “the most hated tax of all because it suggested that Rome owned even the people, while they viewed themselves and their nation as possessions of God” (MacArthur: 1434n).

The denarius was probably equivalent to a day’s wage for a labourer. Each denarius struck at that time bore the face and inscription of Tiberius Caesar on one side, and an image of Tiberius seated on his imperial throne in priestly robes on the other. Caesar’s inscription included the title “Son of God” (Carson: 933), and the emperor was worshipped as a god in many parts of the Empire. Not surprisingly, Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries thought the coin to be blasphemous, and therefore unfit for offering to God in the Temple in Jerusalem. Hence the need for “money changers” to convert the idolatrous denarii into special Temple coinage before worshippers purchased sacrificial animals in the Temple precincts and proceeded into the court of the Jews.

The idolatrous denarius would soon become impure in another important respect: the coin Jesus held and affirmed as payable to Tiberius Caesar was 99 per cent pure silver, but this would not be the case for long. Nero (54 – 68 A.D.) is the first Roman emperor known to have debased the denarius, while Trajan (98 – 117 A.D.) subsequently added copper to the coin. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the denarius of Septimius Severus (193 – 211 A.D.) was only 40 per cent pure. By the time the western Roman Empire fell into Christianized hands under Constantine in 312 A.D., the denarius was no longer in circulation. The labourer’s daily wage had been inflated away, stolen by a pagan state whose leaders thought they could create and recreate economic realities by decree – much as their deluded central banking descendants believe today.

But what of the security situation in which Jesus uttered his words on giving to Caesar and God? The Temple complex was directly overlooked by a Roman garrison stationed in the nearby fortress of Antonia. The garrison would have been in a high state of alert during the Passover week, as thousands of strangers flooded into Jerusalem from all parts of the Roman Empire. From a security standpoint, Passover was perhaps the worst time of year for Roman troops stationed in Jerusalem, which helps to explain part of what we might call the logical context of this story.

You may by now have concluded that the tax question was meant to be a (very dangerous) trick question, and that Jesus’ opponents deliberately asked it in a closed form. You’d be right on both counts. Jesus’ enemies wanted a simple “yes” or “no” answer to their question because they knew they could use either response to destroy him. A “yes” would have alienated many devout Jews in his audience and could have been used to incite the crowd to lynch him; a “no” would have let Jesus’ opponents bring him before the Roman governor on a charge of sedition. The penalty for sedition was death, and Pilate wouldn’t have hesitated to pass sentence, especially given the role of a Galilean named Judas in leading a tax revolt against Rome in 6 A.D. (Chilton: 426).

Jesus refused to give his enemies what they wanted, and his answer should be seen for what it is: a tricky answer to a trick question. What’s more, the context in which Jesus uttered his words on Caesar and God should remind us to be careful about using the story as a ringing endorsement of the nation-state. But does this mean Jesus lied? No, he simply took care to present the truth in a form his enemies couldn’t use against him.

For example, by having his opponents produce a denarius marked with Caesar’s image and inscription, Jesus avoided publicly associating himself with either Rome’s currency or the religious beliefs it embodied. His words can in fact be seen as confirmation that the denarius was unfit to offer to God; this left Caesar and the might of Rome firmly outside the Temple and with little or no Divine sanction from Jesus. Finally, Jesus may also have used his enemies’ actions to suggest to the crowd that his opponents paid the poll tax. Thus, the spies were tactically unable to ask the question Jesus’ reply begs even today “What, exactly, is Caesar’s?”.

This was perhaps fortunate for Jesus, but arguably less so for modern Christians, who frequently assume that Jesus offered no answer in the passage to this vital question. They often leave it to their current local Caesar to answer it for them, with the result that each would-be Caesar is allowed to make up his own rules, provided he doesn’t blatantly demand worship of himself or another rival god. Small wonder that few state leaders object to Christians quoting this passage. But I think Jesus did identify Caesar’s property, and offer in evidence the denarius displayed to the crowd at the behest of Jesus.

So, what does Jesus here imply belongs to a Caesar who tried to rival God for worship and loyalty? Financially speaking, the most that statist Christians can get from this story is an endorsement of a flat tax limited to a single digit percentage of a manual labourer’s annual income. Furthermore, this money was used to finance local government, local security and road construction. It was never sufficient to prop up bloated international government agencies, failing businesses or indebted home buyers. But since Jesus implicitly shut Caesar out of the Temple with his answer, even this conclusion is debatable at best.

Morally speaking, though, Jesus was refusing much more than a coin for himself or his Father. His answer was a rejection of the blasphemous power of state-controlled money, issued by thieving moneyers at the behest of false gods. Even today, such money is backed by the ability to threaten and use state-sanctioned violence on a massive scale. Those who give such orders today shelter beneath the doctrine of “sovereign immunity”, and those who carry out the orders try to absolve themselves by pointing to “the chain of command”.

Caesar’s “power” (such as it is) entails appearing to reap without sowing, promoting or unmaking just weights and measures on a whim of public policy, taking or preserving the lives of others in the name of the “big picture” or the “greater good” – and reaping personal and national disaster in due course. No wonder Jesus, the Prince of Peace, rejected such power whenever it was offered to him.

(c) 2009 Golden Siesta Limited. Used by the permission of the author.

Sources

Bible quotations (unless otherwise stated) are taken from the New International Version, (c) 1978 New York International Bible Society and may be checked on-line at www.biblegateway.com.

Books

Carson, D.A., R.T. France, J.A. Motyer and G.J. Wenham (eds.) (Third Edition 1994, rep. 2008) – New Bible Commentary (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press)

Chilton, B (ed.) (Second Edition) 2008 – The Cambridge Companion to the Bible (University Press)

MacArthur, J (ed.) 1997 – The MacArthur Study Bible New King James Version (Word Publishing)

Articles

“coin.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD 23 Aug. 2008.

It Could Be Dawn (Time magazine, March 29th 1968)

Norman Horn

Norman is the founder and editor of LibertarianChristians.com. He holds a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from the Austin Graduate School of Theology.

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  • Graeme Brooks

    This is interesting, but I find it confusing in places. The paragraph on currency debasement seems tangential, yet the article keeps referring back to it. Also, the attempt in the penultimate paragraph to link Jesus’ apparent criticism of the blasphemous denarius with modern centralised banking seems strained at best. Yes, centralised banking and currency debasement are crimes, but are they relevant here? I also wouldn’t separate taxes by their size or function as this article half-heartedly attempts. Either coercion can be used to extort resources, or it can’t. The method of collection, and not the re-distribution, is what separates a tax from any other transaction.

    I would read it slightly differently. A Christian can pay taxes to any kind of state, but in doing so he does not legitimise anything. He is not offering support to the regime, but simply recognising its coercive power. By way of analogy, it is not a sin to hand your wallet over to a mugger with a gun, and in doing so you do not legitimise his action. Your obedience remains with God despite your ‘victim action’. So a proper reading would not, in my view, fail to support taxes so much as criticise social contract or tacit consent theories.

  • Graeme Brooks

    This is interesting, but I find it confusing in places. The paragraph on currency debasement seems tangential, yet the article keeps referring back to it. Also, the attempt in the penultimate paragraph to link Jesus’ apparent criticism of the blasphemous denarius with modern centralised banking seems strained at best. Yes, centralised banking and currency debasement are crimes, but are they relevant here? I also wouldn’t separate taxes by their size or function as this article half-heartedly attempts. Either coercion can be used to extort resources, or it can’t. The method of collection, and not the re-distribution, is what separates a tax from any other transaction.

    I would read it slightly differently. A Christian can pay taxes to any kind of state, but in doing so he does not legitimise anything. He is not offering support to the regime, but simply recognising its coercive power. By way of analogy, it is not a sin to hand your wallet over to a mugger with a gun, and in doing so you do not legitimise his action. Your obedience remains with God despite your ‘victim action’. So a proper reading would not, in my view, fail to support taxes so much as criticise social contract or tacit consent theories.

  • Douglas Douma

    The other question that Jesus begs is “What is God’s”. If everything we have belongs to God, what does that leave for Caesar? Nothing. As Christian’s we should support God, and never the men of governments.

  • Douglas Douma

    The other question that Jesus begs is “What is God’s”. If everything we have belongs to God, what does that leave for Caesar? Nothing. As Christian’s we should support God, and never the men of governments.

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  • Christopher Bevis

    Thanks for your comments, Graeme. I found them very constructive.

    The words “seems tangential” about the paragraph on currency debasement are just right. I keep referring back to it because it isn’t. Currency debasement relates to Caesar’s idolatry as the fruit does to the root – the corruption of sin begins on the inside, and works its way outward. The living idol eventually believes his own lies, and believes that he can simply decree reality to change to suit his own wishes. Why else do rulers resort to currency debasement?

    I agree that I could have made this connection more explicit in the article – but since it was a first ever published effort, was already rather long for what it was, received extensive feedback elsewhere, and was never going to be perfect even in my eyes, you can perhaps understand why I kept tight copyright ownership on it and decided against allowing direct correspondence to me from this site.

    After all, if we wait to arrive at perfection in the execution, few of us will ever practise (let alone practice) – will we?

    For the record, I wasn’t attempting to separate the size and function of a tax (either “half-heartedly” or otherwise). I was merely acknowledging that not everyone in my intended audience is necessarily a libertarian, and that a good many commentators do try to use this passage among others to legitimise taxes – wrongly in my view (and presumably yours). I was merely showing that even a statist reading of this passage sanctions far less than what the modern state actually demands of us.

    This brings me to the subject of coercion. You are only partly right about coercion distinguishing a tax from anything else. A tax is distinct in being levied by force of law, but this is not the same as saying that it can therefore be coercively extracted from the general population by the government regardless of circumstances. How else could tax avoidance be both lawful and lucrative, while tax evasion is a criminal offence in both the UK and the USA?

    Anyway, thank you again for your feedback.

  • Christopher Bevis

    Thanks for your comments, Graeme. I found them very constructive.

    The words “seems tangential” about the paragraph on currency debasement are just right. I keep referring back to it because it isn’t. Currency debasement relates to Caesar’s idolatry as the fruit does to the root – the corruption of sin begins on the inside, and works its way outward. The living idol eventually believes his own lies, and believes that he can simply decree reality to change to suit his own wishes. Why else do rulers resort to currency debasement?

    I agree that I could have made this connection more explicit in the article – but since it was a first ever published effort, was already rather long for what it was, received extensive feedback elsewhere, and was never going to be perfect even in my eyes, you can perhaps understand why I kept tight copyright ownership on it and decided against allowing direct correspondence to me from this site.

    After all, if we wait to arrive at perfection in the execution, few of us will ever practise (let alone practice) – will we?

    For the record, I wasn’t attempting to separate the size and function of a tax (either “half-heartedly” or otherwise). I was merely acknowledging that not everyone in my intended audience is necessarily a libertarian, and that a good many commentators do try to use this passage among others to legitimise taxes – wrongly in my view (and presumably yours). I was merely showing that even a statist reading of this passage sanctions far less than what the modern state actually demands of us.

    This brings me to the subject of coercion. You are only partly right about coercion distinguishing a tax from anything else. A tax is distinct in being levied by force of law, but this is not the same as saying that it can therefore be coercively extracted from the general population by the government regardless of circumstances. How else could tax avoidance be both lawful and lucrative, while tax evasion is a criminal offence in both the UK and the USA?

    Anyway, thank you again for your feedback.

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  • http://www.missiontoisrael.org/ Ted R. Weiland

    “In Mark 12:17, we find Jesus’ oft-misused statement ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ Many people interpret this to mean Yahweh and Caesar have separate jurisdictions, powers, and possessions. Is this true?

    “The term “Caesar” is used today to represent government in general. However, at the time Jesus made this statement, Caesar was a flesh and blood Roman dictator. What was it that Jesus was saying should be rendered to the Roman Emperor? Did the bodies, souls, and spirits of man belong to Caesar? Did reverence and obedience belong to Caesar? Did the people’s land and other possessions belong to Caesar? What about taxes? Romans 13:7 tells us to ‘render therefore to all their dues: tribute [tax, NASB] to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.’ In Verse 6, Paul indicated all these things are due to God’s ministers or servants. Did
    Caesar qualify as one of the ministers of God described by Paul in Verses 3 and 4?…

    “What belongs to Yahweh? And what belongs to Caesar? The answer to the first question answers the second question. Yahweh reigns over and owns everything:

    ‘The earth is YHWH’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.’ (Psalm 24:1)

    “What does this leave for Caesar? Even Caesar didn’t belong to Caesar.

    Jesus’ answer was merely another example of His trapping the Pharisees with their own words – in this instance, forcing them to choose their god, Yahweh or Caesar….”

    For more, see Chapter 19 “Amendment 10: Counterfeit Powers” of “Bible Law vs. the United States Constitution: The Christian Perspective” at http://www.missiontoisrael.org/biblelaw-constitutionalism-pt19.php. Also don’t miss our Constitution Survey in the right-hand column.

  • Ethan David Ellingson

    A crucial topic for our times, thank you. Like you Mr. Bevis, I too find it tedious to continually correct the misapplication of “…render unto Caesar…” when discussing God and government authority. It’s as if any evil dictator that comes along supposedly deserves Christian wealth. An enslavement hoodwink if ever there was one!

  • John Englehutt

    This is a good article; being a Christian Does NOT entail supporting anti-Biblical governmental schemes on the basis of “rendering unto Caesar”. Indeed, the Jews of Jesus’ day were in that situation of living under Roman occupation due to their sins and turning away from God; we today are in a similar situation of living under ungodly rulers because we have failed to heed God’s Law and apply it to Civil Government. While we are under a general requirement to obey civil officials and keep the peace insofar as we are able to do so without disobeying God, we need to be working toward re-establishing God’s Law as our sole basis of authority in the home, church, community, and nation. If civil government were godly(and we must work, as Christians, to make it so), we would not face such questions as to “what we owe Caesar”.
    “The earth is the LORD’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.” Psalm 24:1

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