What's in a word?
Or more specifically, what's in a translated word? Well, as the reader may come to see after reading this article, sometimes, quite a bit.
There were many things that I heard regularly growing up in my church background that, although they provided a solid framework for me from which to think and act (and for that I am grateful), I have since come to evaluate ultimately as, however well-meaning, a bit off the mark.
And "render to Caesar" is one of those verses/mantras.
In a similar vain to another article that I have written (regarding Jesus and the topic of divorce), I will present in this article also a very different view of "render to Caesar" that, because of a lack of nuance, has been missed by a large segment of Christendom and biblical scholars.
And the first clue that takes us on this very interesting journey will boil down to a word (or two) and the different way translations have "rendered" it (no pun intended). As the reader will discover, it is my contention that only the NIV (New International Version) has gotten it right (or at least quite close).
Taxation and the Roman Imperial Cult
As they tried regularly with Christ to trap him on other topics, so also the Pharisees knew that there was one extremely controversial topic that, if there was anything that would perplex him, it must be this: The issue of Roman dominance over the Jews. Among the Jews, this issue was a lightning rod.
To understand this better, one has to understand the Roman Imperial Cult, and the polytheism of the Romans, in contrast with the Jews. Quite frankly, although tolerated to a great degree in many aspects of society, the Jews were looked at very strangely by the Romans (and vice versa).
For the Romans, worship of deities was more a way to honor themselves and their exploits. For instance, if the Romans were engaged in war, they would worship and honor Mars, the god of war. And in so doing, they would honor their own war efforts, and seek fortune/support from that god.
Or if they were engaged in agriculture, they would honor Saturn, the god of agriculture, as aay to honor themselves in that pursuit, and to seek the blessings of a good harvest.
This was quite different from the Jews, who worshiped only one God in all things, and rather than seeking to honor themselves in that worship, sought to submit to this one God as far greater than themselves (as was established by the great prophets Abraham and Moses). And being a Jew himself, it was this tradition that Jesus emerged from.
But quite interestingly, it was only a few decades before Jesus birth, that the Romans began to, instead of just honoring the gods, actually started raising Emperors themselves to an almost-god-like status (particularly Julius Caesar), and basically worship him as divine after his death. And it was this that no doubt would have been a massive affront to the Jews.
Essentially, between the Romans and the Jews, was a major conflict of VALUES. They were fighting for very different perspectives. You can read a short summary of the Roman Imperial Cult here.
And so, although they were able to live in relative peace for quite sometime (that is, up until the total destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD), many more devout Jews were quite antagonistic under the surface.
And this underlying antagonism really came to the surface in the issue of taxation. For the Jews (with the exception of the more secular Jews), being forced to pay taxes to this regime which was the antithesis of their values, was a really hard thing to bear. And what made it worse, was this new development in which the Romans blasphemed all decent morality (in the Jews' eyes) by exalting their Emperor to an almost God-like status.
It is within this context that the Pharisees came to ask Jesus:
"Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" (Luke 20:22)
And in a sense, the Pharisees were quite right that this issue would reveal clearly not just where Jesus stood on the particular issue, but what his underlying values really were.
"Nice coin you got there... Whose face is that on there?"
Now that we have established the general context and the no doubt resentment that must have filled many Jews, in the face of the outright blasphemy of their forced subservience, we can begin to see the nuance that Jesus carefully navigated through in giving his listeners a response.
In the NIV, Luke chapter 20:20 reads like this:
"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 may hand him over to the power and authority of the governor."
This makes a lot of sense in light of the historical context. It must have really bothered the Jews to see someone like Jesus, who seemed quite aloof to the issue of politics. And so, having a more direct interest in their own political slavery, naturally wanted to embroil Jesus in the issue as well. But Jesus fundamentally had other concerns.
Verses 21-22 continue:
"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?' "
Now notice Jesus' immediate response and how he didn't answer their question directly, which he knew for which there was no "safe" answer.
Instead of entering into the political fray about paying taxes, he brought attention to the means by which Rome demanded payment, namely, the currency, and in this case, the Denarius.
The question should now arise: Why did Jesus do this?
Because this was no "ordinary" coin. This was "tribute money".
It could be read on some coins:
“TI CAESAR DIVI AVG F AVGVSTVS,” an abbreviation of “TIBERIVS CAESAR DIVI AVGVSTI FILIVS AVGVSTVS” — “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Augustus.” (more details can be found here)
As mentioned above, full-on Emperor worship had not yet been fully instituted. But the Romans were well on their way. And by the time of Emperor Nero, it would take on new blasphemous proportions, with him claiming to be basically God in the flesh, someone to be directly worshiped.
And so it was rather obvious to Jesus that the coinage already was in violation of the Second Commandment of the Law of Moses, that you shall not make a graven image. The coin claimed Tiberius had authority over worship, and essentially raised him to the status of a god.
Did you notice how Jesus didn't have "tribute money" on him, but that he had to ask for it?
There's probably a good reason for that... from a Jewish point of view, he was probably disgusted by it. And by implication, he wanted to draw the Pharisees' attention to their lack of shame over their usage of it.
He basically asked his listeners:
"Whose idolatrous graven image is on this coin?"
And then, having been shamed by this truth they seemed to have forgotten, they may have quite sheepishly replied:
"Render"? Or "give back"?
What is in a word, as mentioned at the beginning of this article? Well, in light of this context, a lot.
Most translations render Christ's next words as: "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's", or just "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's". And without being aware of the historical context, it can seem that Christ is just simply exhorting his listeners to pay whatever taxes are owed. And indeed, this seems to be the most common interpretation within Christendom.
But if this was the case, why did he ask about the image and inscription? It would seem then that Christ advocated direct subservience in taxation to whomever had taken power, and to pay with their coinage, no matter how blasphemous their images were.
But this simply doesn't mesh with the context. And if we use instead the NIV, it all comes together much more clearly and has much higher explanatory power.
"He said to them, 'Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.'"
It is my contention/conclusion in this article that Jesus is suggesting going far beyond just "paying taxes to Caesar". He's actually suggesting repudiating all physical currency that violates the Second Commandment of Moses, by giving it all back to Caesar and no longer using it.
It seems to me to be bordering on subversive in a sense, but yet, because no doubt Caesar would "receive" the coins in Jesus "teaching", it would not have been a "red flag" teaching that would have gotten Jesus in immediate trouble with the authorities.
To be clear, I don't think Jesus is saying to abandon the currency entirely, just the pieces that violate the Jewish law.
It truly is a remarkable answer. Jesus was able to get to the heart of the matter the Pharisees were glossing over, and yet was able to easily evade being painted as a threat to Rome. No wonder they said in verse 26:
"They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent."
Regardless though of if Christ had any subversive political motivations, there seems to be quite a significant principle here: Participating in the monetary system, no matter how difficult it may seem to get out of it, amounts (in at least some degree) to your support of the regime that has instituted it.
The Pharisees resented Rome, and yet they carried Caesar's graven image in their pocket (in contradiction to the guidelines laid out in their own Jewish law). They carried the particular pieces of currency that violated their own lawbook.
It was of course this hypocrisy of the Pharisees that Jesus was speaking to. Although the context does more clearly paint an informative cultural perspective of Rome becoming increasingly blasphemous in Jewish eyes (and thus sets the stage for the inevitable conflict between Rome and Jerusalem), the direct principle we can extract here is a simple one:
Make sure your own personal expedience doesn't trump your own proclaimed religious convictions (and if does, it may be time to have a re-think).
And although one may find support in other parts of the Bible to "pay your taxes" (particularly St. Paul), this passage is not one of them.