Render Unto Caesar: Jesus’ Subversiveness

The day after Jesus’ rather anticlimactic entry into Jerusalem on a colt (see Mark 11:1-11 as well as my post on the topic), the religious authorities send the Pharisees and the Herodians to try to trap Jesus with regards to a rather thorny issue.

And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” (Mark 12:14-15a, NRSV)

It is almost comical the way in which Jesus’ opponents try to butter him up with flattery. They don’t think he teaches God’s way. The Pharisees frequently accused Jesus of violating the Torah and Jesus always had a clever comeback to shut them up (see 2:15-17 and 2:23-28). And both the Pharisees and the Herodians, a group of officials or partisans who were loyal to Herod, had been conspiring to kill Jesus long before his arrival in Jerusalem (3:6).

Here the two groups try to trap Jesus on the issue of taxation. Why would this be so controversial? Keep in mind the context in which the Markan author writes. In all likelihood, Mark writes his Gospel sometime before or after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. The First Jewish War began in 66 CE and left the region in turmoil but even during the days of Jesus there was an unrest as many believed that Roman rule would come to an end and that the Messiah would arrive to vanquish Israel’s foes. And if Jesus was the Messiah, this expectation would have been thrust upon him as well.

“Bring Me a Denarius”

Since paying taxes to Rome could have been construed as material support for Roman ambition and Roman religion, endorsing Roman taxation could be considered tantamount to supporting Roman rule. On the other hand, to claim that one should not pay their taxes could be construed as an act of rebellion against Rome for which the punishment was death. How does Jesus handle the issue?

First, Jesus knows what the Pharisees and the Herodians are doing. Their duplicity isn’t hidden to him and so he asks them, “Why are you putting me to the test?” (12:15) Second, Jesus turns the questions back upon them. After they bring him a denarius at his request he asks, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” (12:16) Third, when his opponents acknowledge that the answer to his questions is “the emperor’s” (12:16), Jesus tells them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” an answer that amazes them (12:17).

In my mind, Jesus’ answer can cut a couple of different ways. When Jesus asks them whose head is on the coin, the word translated in the NRSV as “head” is eikōn. Eikón is a word that refers to an image or a picture of a person. What is interesting about eikón is that it is also the word that the LXX uses in Genesis 1:26 when God says, “Let us make man according to our own image [eikona].” So Jesus may be saying here, “The image of the emperor is on that which belongs to the emperor. Give it to him. The image of God is on that which belongs to God, namely you. Give it to Him.” In this way Jesus affirms the responsibility to pay taxes but turns it into a lesson about the worship God deserves.

Or there is another possibility.

It All Belongs to God

Jesus doesn’t say in response to the Pharisee’s answer to his questions about whose inscription is on the coin, “You are right. So then give….” His response is that they should give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and to God that which belongs to God. But doesn’t everything belong to God, including the emperor? And if so, giving to the emperor what belongs to the emperor means giving the emperor nothing. Absolutely nothing belongs to him! Everything belongs to God!

I’m not saying that this is the correct interpretation of the passage. But commentators have noticed that when Jesus says “and to God the things that are God’s” there may be more than pious theological reflection going on.And if it is the case then Jesus was being more subversive than we tend to make him.

It is an interesting possibility to say the least.


1 In their commentary on Mark, John Donahue and Daniel Harrington write,

The addition of “and the things of God to God,” however, makes Jesus’ response more ambiguous. The addition can be taken as merely a pious afterthought or homiletic application: Be as serious (and more so) in fulfilling your obligations to God as you are in fulfilling your obligations to the Roman government and their local representatives. But it can also be read as suggesting that one’s obligations to God override one’s obligations to Caesar. This kind of thinking inspired various Jewish revolutionary movements during the first century and became especially prominent in the Jewish War of 66-73 CE. Read in this way, Jesus’ pronouncement could be taken as siding with those who refused to pay the emperor’s tax. (John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacred Pagina [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002], 346.

Featured image: By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., CC BY-SA 3.0,

6 thoughts on “Render Unto Caesar: Jesus’ Subversiveness

  1. I think this is being read through the eyes of modern believers and not the eyes of Jews and early Christians. Consider the context: in the Gospel Jesus has just performed the cleansing of the Temple; then ask why this question is put into the mouth of the religious authorities. Consider that the neither Romans and their publicani nor the Herods cared whether taxes were paid in local currency or Roman as long as the weight and purity of the coinage was correct. Thus to both secular authorities the question was irrelevant so why did Mark raise the matter?

    We must understand that there was a special clean Temple coinage to make offerings to YHWH, hence the money changers in the Temple courtyard. This ritually pure coinage was not for any other purpose (and provided a “nice little earner” for the priesthood and the licensed moneychangers). The only people for whom the importance of the use of such coinage for sacred or profane matters were the hierarchy and the devout.

    Mark,was probably written shortly after the destruction of the Temple when the question of “how do we make offerings to the Lord” was entirely relevant, there being no Temple. The Mark author is making the double point that; such ritually pure offerings were no longer needed and that which belonged to the Lord (Jesus) had been given. Note that the ONLY coin proffered to Jesus was a Roman one not a temple coin nor an Herodian one and that Jesus did not touch the coin meaning that from the time of Gethsemane to the Crucifixion Jesus remained ritually pure.

    In this light the cleansing of the Temple is yet another Markian metaphor for the destruction of the Temple and Jesus is being presented as the necessary Sacrifice. It is also notable that it is not the Temple authorities who make the sacrifice but rather the Romans which would fit in with the idea that Mark was writing his Gospel to fit with Pauline acceptance of Gentiles as being able to serve the Lord

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Certainly the idea that Jesus was claiming that Caesar should not be paid taxes is a modern approach and I’m not convinced it is the *best* explanation for the pericope. But it is an interesting one.

      I’m not convinced that the pericope has to do with Temple offerings. It might but I think for the Markan community it was about taxes to what they saw as an overbearing Roman government, one that had killed Jesus at the request of the Jews. I also think that the challenge put forward by Jesus’ opponents was one to expedite his death. If they could trap him in this then they’d have more cause to execute him.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Why would they need to trap him? According to Mark the authorities had been after him since the healing of the withered hand and now he had just committed sacrilege and caused a riot. Then consider that false charges were not unusual, consider the case outlined by Josephus regarding Jesus and James sons of Damneus.

        The Romans would not have been shy about the matter either, firstly he had instigated unrest in the city and, as putative Messiah, had lead a legionary sized band into the wilderness . In other, better attested, cases where that happened it had led to wholesale slaughter and, when the instigator escaped, a man hunt.

        Then we come to the matter of Herod. Mark’s author wrote what can be seen as an Adoptionist text and does not report any events round Jesus’ birth but Herod too would have wanted a piece of this insurrectionist. This Gospel barely recognises the existence of Herod but it does record that king’s extra-judicial murder of John the Baptist and, at the time, John appears to have been a far bigger deal than Jesus.

        The whole trial narrative does not ring true, it seems more like a literary device. Consider that to Jews, and those who knew Jews, the tale the arrest and trial would be seen as blasphemous (on a holy day, at night, in the high priest’s residence, direct questioning by the high priest, requesting Roman adjudication).Additionally the Mark Gospel does not run away from changing reality to suit the story; consider his invention of a “sea” of Gallilee and the rending of the veil; so why would he not invent a trial narrative? Certainly the ides of an unjustly accused wise man confounding his accusers is a literary trope that had been around at least since the execution of Socrates.

        I’m not saying you’re wrong, just that to other eyes there are considerable reasons to doubt the tale and doubting it does not have to lead to you becoming a ravening mythicist like myself.


      2. You’ve said quite a bit and I don’t have time to address each issue at this time. But my views on the “render unto Caesar” passage doesn’t commit me to believing that it actually took place. Whatever else we may think about the source of these pericopae, it is clear the Markan author is exactly that: an author. He’s arranged stories and edited them to fit as he desires, namely for the needs of his community of readers.

        But I also don’t think Mark believed he was writing fiction. He and his community believed that Jesus lived and died and was raised from the dead. As with most things about early Christianity, it is all complicated.


  2. My impression is that apocalypic Judaism allows for the idea that not everything belongs to God, at least not right now. Otherwise we would have to conclude that Satan is mistaken when he claims that authority over the kingdoms “has been given to me” (Luke 4:6). God handed over the nations to Satan and his imperial representatives—even if God has power to take them back.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. riderontheclouds 17 Jun 2020 — 12:22 pm

    That is the correct ‘implication’ whether the gospel writers realised it or not


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