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Render unto Caesar

The Tribute Money by Titian depicts Jesus being shown the tribute penny.

"Render unto Caesar" is the beginning of a phrase attributed to Jesus in the synoptic gospels, which reads in full, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's" (Ἀπόδοτε οὖν τὰ Καίσαρος Καίσαρι καὶ τὰ τοῦ Θεοῦ τῷ Θεῷ).[Matthew 22:21]

This phrase has become a widely quoted summary of the relationship between Christianity and secular authority. The original message, coming in response to a question of whether it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to Caesar, gives rise to multiple possible interpretations about the circumstances under which it is desirable for the Christian to submit to earthly authority.


  • Narrative 1
  • Historical context 2
    • The coin 2.1
    • Tax resistance in Judaea 2.2
  • Modern interpretations 3
    • Separation of church and state 3.1
    • Justification for obeying authority, paying taxes 3.2
    • Giving God the benefit of the doubt 3.3
    • Devote your life to God 3.4
    • Highlighting the dangers of cooperating with the state 3.5
  • American Quaker war tax resisters 4
  • Christian anarchist tax resisters 5
  • Versions 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


All three synoptic gospels state that hostile questioners tried to trap Jesus into taking an explicit and dangerous stand on whether Jews should or should not pay taxes to the Roman authorities.

The accounts in Matthew 22:15-22 and Mark 12:13-17 say that the questioners were Pharisees and Herodians, while Luke 20:20-26 says only that they were "spies" sent by "teachers of the law and the chief priests".

They anticipated that Jesus would oppose the tax, as their purpose was "to hand him over to the power and authority of the governor".[Luke 20:20] The governor was Pilate, and he was the man responsible for the collecting of taxes in Roman Judea. At first the questioners flattered Jesus by praising his integrity, impartiality, and devotion to truth. Then they asked him whether or not it is right for Jews to pay the taxes demanded by Caesar. In the Gospel of Mark[12:15] the additional, provocative question is asked, "Should we pay or shouldn't we?"

Jesus first called them hypocrites, and then asked one of them to produce a Roman coin that would be suitable for paying Caesar's tax. One of them showed him a Roman coin, and he asked them whose head and inscription were on it. They answered, "Caesar's," and he responded: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's".

The questioners were impressed. Matthew 22:22 states that they "marveled" (ἐθαύμασαν) and being satisfied with the answer, they went away.

Historical context

The coin

A denarius featuring Tiberius. The inscription on a denarius of the period reads Ti[berivs] Caesar Divi Avg[vsti] F[ilivs] Avgvstvs ("Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus").

The text identifies the coin as a δηνάριον dēnarion,[1] and it is usually thought that the coin was a Roman denarius with the head of Tiberius. The coin is also called the "tribute penny." The inscription reads "Ti[berivs] Caesar Divi Avg[vsti] F[ilivs] Avgvstvs" ("Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus"). The reverse shows a seated female, usually identified as Livia depicted as Pax.[2]

However, it has been suggested that denarii were not in common circulation in Judaea during Jesus' lifetime and that the coin may have instead been an Antiochan tetradrachm bearing the head of Tiberius, with Augustus on the reverse.[3] Another suggestion often made is the denarius of Augustus with Caius and Lucius on the reverse, while coins of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Germanicus are all considered possibilities.[4] Whichever Roman coin it was, the fact that Jesus's interrogators had an idolatrous coin with its "graven image" [5] of whoever, and in the Temple precincts [6] no less, immediately convicted them of blasphemy and put Jesus at a rhetorical advantage.

A similar episode occurs in the Gospel of Thomas (verse 100), but there the coin in question is gold.

Tax resistance in Judaea

The taxes imposed on Judaea by Rome had led to riots.[7] New Testament scholar Willard Swartley writes:

The tax denoted in the text was a specific tax… It was a poll tax, a tax instituted in A.D. 6. A census taken at that time (cf. Lk. 2:2) to determine the resources of the Jews provoked the wrath of the country. Judas of Galilee led a revolt (Acts 5:37), which was suppressed only with some difficulty. Many scholars date the origin of the Zealot party and movement to this incident.[8]

The Jewish Encyclopedia says, of the Zealots:

When, in the year 5, Zadok, a disciple of Shammai and one of the fiery patriots and popular heroes who lived to witness the tragic end of Jerusalem… The taking of the census by Quirinus, the Roman procurator, for the purpose of taxation was regarded as a sign of Roman enslavement; and the Zealots' call for stubborn resistance to the oppressor was responded to enthusiastically.

At his trial before Pontius Pilate, Jesus was accused of promoting resistance to Caesar's tax.

Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, "We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ/Messiah, a king." ( Luke 23:1-4)

Modern interpretations

Malczewski Jacek, Render unto Caesar

The passage has been much discussed in the modern context of Christianity and politics, especially on the questions of separation of church and state and tax resistance.

Separation of church and state

Jesus responds to Pontius Pilate about the nature of his kingdom: "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But now (or 'as it is') my kingdom is not from the world" (John 18:36); i.e., his religious teachings were separate from earthly political activity. This reflects a traditional division in Christian thought by which state and church have separate spheres of influence. A more simple explanation is that quite literally the people were not yet of his kingdom for if they were, the servants would rise up against the obvious injustice for convicting an innocent man.

Justification for obeying authority, paying taxes

Some read the phrase "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's" as unambiguous at least to the extent that it commands people to respect state authority and to pay the taxes it demands of them. Paul the Apostle also states in Romans 13 that Christians are obliged to obey all earthly authorities, stating that as they were introduced by God, disobedience to them equates to disobedience to God.

In this interpretation, Jesus asked his interrogators to produce a coin in order to demonstrate to them that by using his coinage they had already admitted the de facto rule of the emperor, and that therefore they should submit to that rule.[9]

For example, one Mennonite explained why he was not a war tax resister this way:

We are against war and do not wish to aid the war effort by conscription or by paying war taxes to the government. Doing so only helps to strengthen and perpetuate the war machine. Matthew 22:21 Jesus said "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's." Romans 13:1 "Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God and those which exist are established by God." If the law of the land is that everyone must pay war taxes then that is what we must do. It is the law! We should however, work and pray extremely hard to change the law. The ideal situation would be to have the law abolished. The alternative would be to have a choice of designating our portion of the war tax towards efforts of peacemaking. This route would be a more lawful, constructive, and positive effort.[10]

Giving God the benefit of the doubt

Mennonite pastor John K. Stoner spoke for those who interpret the parable as permitting or even encouraging tax resistance: "We are war tax resisters because we have discovered some doubt as to what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, and have decided to give the benefit of the doubt to God."[11]

Devote your life to God

Joachim Wtewael - The Tribute Money

Tertullian, in De Idololatria, interprets Jesus as saying to render "the image of Caesar, which is on the coin, to Caesar, and the image of God, which is on man, to God; so as to render to Caesar indeed money, to God yourself. Otherwise, what will be God's, if all things are Caesar's?"[12]

Leo Tolstoy wrote:

Not only the complete misunderstanding of Christ's teaching, but also a complete unwillingness to understand it could have admitted that striking misinterpretation, according to which the words, "To Cæsar the things which are Cæsar's," signify the necessity of obeying Cæsar. In the first place, there is no mention there of obedience; in the second place, if Christ recognized the obligatoriness of paying tribute, and so of obedience, He would have said directly, "Yes, it should be paid;" but He says, "Give to Cæsar what is his, that is, the money, and give your life to God," and with these latter words He not only does not encourage any obedience to power, but, on the contrary, points out that in everything which belongs to God it is not right to obey Cæsar.[13]

Highlighting the dangers of cooperating with the state

Some see the parable as being Jesus' warning to people that if they collaborate too closely with state, as distinct from God's authority (for instance, by using its legal tender), they become beholden to it. Henry David Thoreau writes in Civil Disobedience:

Christ answered the Herodians according to their condition. "Show me the tribute-money," said he; — and one took a penny out of his pocket; — If you use money which has the image of Caesar on it, and which he has made current and valuable, that is, if you are men of the State, and gladly enjoy the advantages of Caesar's government, then pay him back some of his own when he demands it; "Render therefore to Caesar that which is Caesar's and to God those things which are God's" — leaving them no wiser than before as to which was which; for they did not wish to know.

Mennonite Dale Glass-Hess wrote:

It is inconceivable to me that Jesus would teach that some spheres of human activity lie outside the authority of God. Are we to heed Caesar when he says to go to war or support war-making when Jesus says in other places that we shall not kill? No! My perception of this incident is that Jesus does not answer the question about the morality of paying taxes to Caesar, but that he throws it back on the people to decide. When the Jews produce a denarius at Jesus' request, they demonstrate that they are already doing business with Caesar on Caesar's terms. I read Jesus' statement, "Give to Caesar…" as meaning "Have you incurred a debt in regard to Caesar! Then you better pay it off." The Jews had already compromised themselves. Likewise for us: we may refuse to serve Caesar as soldiers and even try to resist paying for Caesar's army. But the fact is that by our lifestyles we've run up a debt with Caesar, who has felt constrained to defend the interests that support our lifestyles. Now he wants paid back, and it's a little late to say that we don't owe anything. We've already compromised ourselves. If we're going to play Caesar's games, then we should expect to have to pay for the pleasure of their enjoyment. But if we are determined to avoid those games, then we should be able to avoid paying for them.[14]

Mohandas K. Gandhi shared this perspective. He wrote:

Jesus evaded the direct question put to him because it was a trap. He was in no way bound to answer it. He therefore asked to see the coin for taxes. And then said with withering scorn, "How can you who traffic in Caesar's coins and thus receive what to you are benefits of Caesar's rule refuse to pay taxes?" Jesus' whole preaching and practice point unmistakably to noncooperation, which necessarily includes nonpayment of taxes.[15][16][17]

American Quaker war tax resisters

As American Quaker war tax resistance developed during the 17th through 19th centuries, the resisters had to find a way to reconcile their tax resistance with the "Render unto Caesar" verse and other verses from the New Testament that encourage submission to the government. Here are a few examples:

Around 1715, a pseudonymous author, "Philalethes," published a pamphlet entitled Tribute to Cæsar, How paid by the Best Christians... in which he argued that while Christians must pay "general" taxes, a tax that is explicitly for war purposes is the equivalent to an offering on an altar to a pagan god, and this is forbidden.[18]

In 1761, Joshua Evans put it this way:

Others would term it stubbornness in me, or contrary to the doctrine of Christ, concerning rendering to Caesar his due. But as I endeavored to keep my mind in a state of humble quietude, I was favored to see through such groundless arguments; there being nothing on the subject of war, or favorable to it, to be found in that text. Although I have been willing to pay my money for the use of civil government, when legally called for; yet have I felt restrained by a conscientious motive, from paying towards the expense of killing men, women and children, or laying towns and countries waste.[19]

In 1780, Sameul Allinson circulated a letter on the subject of tax resistance, in which he insisted that what was due to Caesar was only what Caesar would not use for antichristian purposes:

…the question put to our Savior on the point was with evil intention to ensnare and render him culpable to one of the great parties or sects then existing, who differed about the payment of taxes, his answer, though conclusive, was so wisely framed that it left them still in doubt, what things belonged to Cæsar and what to God, thus he avoided giving either of them offence which he must inevitably have done by a determination that tribute indefinitely was due to Cæsar. Our first and principle obedience is due to the Almighty, even in contradiction to man, "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). Hence, if tribute is demanded for a use that is antichristian, it seems right for every Christian to deny it, for Cæsar can have no title to that which opposes the Lord's command.[20]

In 1862, Joshua Maule wrote that he felt that the "Render unto Caesar" instruction was compatible with war tax resistance, as there was no reason to believe for certain that the tax referred to in that episode had any connection to war:

The words of Christ, "Render to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar's, and to God the things that are God's," have often been brought forward as evidence that He approved of paying all taxes; it being said, in connection, that Cæsar was then engaged in war. The distinction, however, is sufficiently clear: the things that were Cæsar's were, doubtless, those which appertain to the civil government; the things which belong to God are, surely, a clear and full obedience to His commands and to His laws. We know that all the precepts and commands of Christ which can be applied in reference to this subject are of one tendency, enjoining "peace on earth and good-will to men." We do not know, after all, however, what was the exact nature and use of the tribute collected in those days, nor what were the situation and circumstances in which Christians or others were then placed in regard to such things.[21]

Christian anarchist tax resisters

The Tribute Money by Gustave Dore

The less you have of Caesar's, the less you have to render to Caesar.

Dorothy Day, The Catholic Worker

Christian anarchists do not interpret Matthew 22:21 as advocating support for taxes but as further advice to free oneself from material attachment. Jacques Ellul believes the passage shows that Caesar may have rights over the fiat money he produces, but not things that are made by God, as he explains:[22]

"Render unto Caesar..." in no way divides the exercise of authority into two realms....They were said in response to another matter: the payment of taxes, and the coin. The mark on the coin is that of Caesar; it is the mark of his property. Therefore give Caesar this money; it is his. It is not a question of legitimizing taxes! It means that Caesar, having created money, is its master. That's all. Let us not forget that money, for Jesus, is the domain of Mammon, a satanic domain!

Ammon Hennacy interpreted Matthew 22:21 slightly differently. He was on trial for civil disobedience and was asked by the judge to reconcile his tax resistance with Jesus' instructions. "I told him Caesar was getting too much around here and some one had to stand up for God." Elsewhere, he interpreted the story in this way:

[Jesus] was asked if He believed in paying taxes to Caesar. In those days different districts had different money and the Jews had to change their money into that of Rome, so Jesus asked, not for a Jewish coin, but for a coin with which tribute was paid, saying "Why tempt me?" Looking at the coin He asked whose image and superscription was there inscribed and was told that it was Caesar's. Those who tried to trick Him knew that if He said that taxes were to be paid to Caesar He would be attacked by the mobs who hated Caesar, and if He refused to pay taxes there would always be some traitor to turn Him in. His mission was not to fight Caesar as Barabbas had done, but it was to chase the moneychangers out of the Temple and to establish His own Church. Whether He winked as much as to say that any good Jew knew that Caesar did not deserve a thing as He said, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's," or not, no one knows.
…Despite what anyone says each of us has to decide for himself whether to put the emphasis upon pleasing Caesar or pleasing God. We may vary in our reasons for drawing the line here or there as to how much we render unto Caesar. I make my decision when I remember that Christ said to the woman caught in sin, "Let him without sin first cast a stone at her." I remember His "Forgive seventy times seven," which means no Caesar at all with his courts, prisons and war.[23]


King James Version of the Bible: Matthew 22:15-22 Mark 12:13-17 Luke 20:20-26
New International Version: Matthew 22:15-22 Mark 12:13-17 Luke 20:20-26

The extracanonical Gospel of Thomas also has a version, which reads in the Scholar's Version 100:[24]

They showed Jesus a gold coin and said to him, "The Roman emperor's people demand taxes from us." He said to them, "Give the emperor what belongs to the emperor, give God what belongs to God, and give me what is mine."

The fragmentary Egerton Gospel in the Scholar's Version translation (found in The Complete Gospels) 3:1-6 reads:[25]

They come to him and interrogate him as a way of putting him to the test. They ask, "Teacher, Jesus, we know that you are [from God], since the things you do put you above all the prophets. Tell us, then, is it permissible to pay to rulers what is due them? Should we pay them or not?" Jesus knew what they were up to, and became indignant. Then he said to them, "Why do you pay me lip service as a teacher, but not [do] what I say? How accurately Isaiah prophesied about you when he said, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their heart stays far away from me; their worship of me is empty, [because they insist on teachings that are human] commandments […]'"

See also


  1. ^ Thayer's Lexicon: δηνάριον
  2. ^ "Tiberius, Tribute Penny". Retrieved 7 September 2011. 
  3. ^ Lewis, Peter E.; Bolden, Ron (2002). The Pocket Guide to Saint Paul: Coins Encountered by the Apostle on his Travels. Wakefield Press. p. 19.  
  4. ^ Michael E. Marotta (2001). "Six Caesars Of The Tribute Penny". Retrieved 7 Sep 2011. 
  5. ^ Exodus 20:4, Leviticus 20:1
  6. ^ Luke 20:1
  7. ^ Marshall, I.H. Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text p. 735; Gross, David (ed.) We Won't Pay!: A Tax Resistance Reader ISBN 1-4348-9825-3 pp. 1-7
  8. ^ Swartley, Willard M. The Christian and the Payment of Taxes Used For War 1980 [3]
  9. ^ Brown, John The law of Christ respecting civil obedience, especially in the payment of tribute (London: William Ball, 1839) 3rd. ed, p. 183 "It is as if our Lord had said, 'The common circulation of Caesar′s coin among you, shows that you stand in a certain relation to him as your ruler. Perform all the duties which are due to him in that relation'"
  10. ^ Sawatzky, Anne, quoted in Peachey, Titus Silence and Courage: Income Taxes, War and Mennonites 1940-1993 MCC Occasional Paper #18, August 1993, p. 34
  11. ^ Taxpayers Who Fail to File Federal Income Tax Returns: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Oversight of the Committee on Ways and Means, House of Representatives, One Hundred Third Congress, First Session, October 26, 1993.  
  12. ^ from The Writings of Tertullian. vol. I, ed. by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1869) p. 164. [4]
  13. ^ from Tolstoy's "Drózhzhin's Life And Death," as found in We Won't Pay!: A Tax Resistance Reader (2008) ISBN 1-4348-9825-3, p. 223
  14. ^ in Peachey, Titus Silence and Courage: Income Taxes, War and Mennonites 1940-1993 MCC Occasional Paper #18, August 1993, p. 29
  15. ^  
  16. ^ The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (PDF) 48. 1998 [1930]. p. 483. 
  17. ^ Gross, David M. (Apr 2, 2008). We Won't Pay!: A Tax Resistance Reader.  
  18. ^ Philalethes (pseud.) "Tribute to Cæsar, How paid by the Best Christians, And to what Purpose; With Some Remarks on the late vigorous Expedition against Canada. Of Civil Government, How Inconsistent it is with the Government of Christ in his Church. Compared with the Ancient Just and Righteous Principles of the Quakers, and their Modern Practice and Doctrine. With some Notes upon the Discipline of their Church in this Province, especially at Philadelphia" (1715?) as found in Gross, David M. (ed.) American Quaker War Tax Resistance (2008) ISBN 978-1-4382-6015-0 pp. 23-42
  19. ^ Evans, Joshua "A Drop in the Ocean" as found in Gross, David M. (ed.) American Quaker War Tax Resistance (2008) ISBN 978-1-4382-6015-0 pp. 90-91
  20. ^ Allinson, Samuel "Reasons against War, and paying Taxes for its support" (1780) as found in Gross, David M. (ed.) American Quaker War Tax Resistance (2008) ISBN 978-1-4382-6015-0 pp. 154-171
  21. ^ Maule, Joshua "He Could Not Have the Money for That Purpose" (~1862) as found in Gross, David M. (ed.) American Quaker War Tax Resistance (2008) ISBN 978-1-4382-6015-0 pp. 369-378
  22. ^ "Ellul, Jacques ''Anarchism and Christianity'' p.20" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-05-07. 
  23. ^ Hennacy, Ammon The Book of Ammon (5th printing, Feb. 1970), p. 393-4
  24. ^ "A Translation of the Gospel of Thomas". Retrieved 2012-05-07. 
  25. ^ The Complete Gospels, Robert J. Miller ed., Polebridge Press, 1992, ISBN 0944344305, pages 409-410

External links

  • Who Would Jesus Tax? Data mining the Bible for Jesus & Taxes, Tribute, Money
  • What belongs to God? by Marcus Borg, Beliefnet
  • Render Unto Caesar: The Place of Politics in Modern Christianity — a conservative American Christian viewpoint
  • The Picket Line: 16 Jan. '04 — A tax resister's point-of-view
  • Render to All What Is Due Them: What Every Christian Needs to Know about Honoring Civil Authority and Paying Taxes, Part 2 by David G. Hagopian — advancing the argument that Jesus commanded people to pay taxes to their de facto rulers
  • Jesus of Nazareth, Illegal-Tax Protester by Ned Netterville and others - A comprehensive analysis of everything Jesus said or did relative to taxes and tax collectors as recorded in the canon and non-canon gospels.
  • Michael Cromartie (ed.), Caesar's Coin Revisited: Christians and the Limits of Government, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans (1996).
  • Render Unto Caesar by R.J. Rushdoony — Christian Reconstructionist perspective.
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