The right of secular authority
Pp Mark 12:13-17, Luke 20:20-26
The right of the disciple of Christ
Question and Answer
1. The Herodians and the Pharisees
2. The background to the question
3. The cleverness of the question and answer
The most obvious way to take the entire passage which begins with Mtw 21:23 and ends with the close of chapter 22 is that all the events occurred on one single day, the Tuesday, before the Passover meal was to be eaten during the evening of the Friday (corresponding with our Thursday evening as the Jewish day began at sundown) and the crucifixion the following daylight period.
Upon Jesus’ entry into the Temple and His initial teaching of the crowds gathered about Him (Mtw 21:23), the religious authorities (the Sanhedrin judging by the comment of Mark 11:27) approached Jesus to question His authority (Mtw 21:23-27, Mark 11:27-33, Luke 20:1-8) and found that they got much more than they bargained for (Mtw 21:28-22:14, Mark 12:1-12, Luke 20:9-19) perceiving that Jesus was telling the parables specifically against themselves. Having had their authority seriously undermined, they decide, therefore, to avoid an open confrontation unless they feel that they have a good chance of gleaning information that will enable them to hand Him over into the hands of the Roman authorities.
This appears initially to be the reason for all three questions which they put to Jesus (Mtw 22:15-40) but opposition for entrapment appears to be predominantly in the first question only whereas the Sadducees approach simply to confuse His teaching as do the Pharisees and Sadducees in the third. Luke 20:20 specifically states that
‘...they watched Him and sent spies who pretended to be sincere that they might take hold of what He said so as to deliver Him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor’
and it’s difficult to see how a response to a question about the resurrection of the dead (Mtw 22:23-33) or one about the great commandment of the Mosaic Law (Mtw 22:34-40) could ever have been expected to reap such evidence. These latter two questions seem, therefore, to be primarily aimed at undermining the clarity of His teaching and to cause confusion out of which they could begin to chip away at the respect in which the multitude of Jews held Him (Mtw 21:46) but, even before the first question was asked - and probably continuing through the entire time period in which all three questions were asked - there would appear to have been ‘listeners’, spies who stood by to listen intently to what He said, to question Him when they felt an opportunity to gather information rose its head and to act as some sort of witness against Him if He was to come out with anything which could be repeated in the Roman courts. In the end, they decided to make up whatever charges they could to secure His conviction before the Roman authorities and even put words into Jesus’ mouth which have Him forbidding Jews to pay taxes to Caesar (Luke 23:2). Lukmor, however, defines these spies with a separate clause and notes them as
‘...people who would not be known as enemies but who would try to provoke Jesus into some statement that would make Him fall foul of the Romans’
and, if this is the case, all the parties mentioned in the next three questions (the Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians) would have to be thought of as coming ‘in disguise’ in order for them to put their questions to Him. It’s only that Matthew and Mark mention the first group as being comprised of Herodians and Pharisees (Mtw 22:15-16, Mark 12:13 - Matthew has the Pharisees’ disciples which almost certainly could not have been positively identified as His opponents by sight) that cause us to think that such figures would have been instantly recognisable as such but it remains distinctly possible that they weren’t.
Lukmor’s point is worth accepting fully, therefore, but we should also not dismiss the presence of people in the crowd who were also there to gather information for the formulation of successive questions and as a witness should He say anything which could be used against Him. That there’s only one recorded question should also not detract from the statements that they were sent to ask whatever they could to secure a conviction - the three Synoptic writers have chosen only to record the briefest of questions and answers.
The Gospels record the leaders’ attempts to ‘entangle Him’ (Mtw 22:15) and ‘entrap Him’ (Mark 12:13) with their first question only and of not being able to ‘catch him by what He said’ (Luke 20:26) and of Jesus being ‘aware of their malice’ (Mtw 22:18), ‘knowing their hypocrisy’ (Mark 12:15) and perceiving ‘their craftiness’ (Luke 20:23). Luke 20:26 concludes the question and answer by noting that
‘...they were not able in the presence of the people to catch Him by what He said...’
which points towards the conclusion of their specific attempt to provoke grounds for a civil case against Jesus before the Roman Governor (though the presence of the ‘spies’ would, no doubt, have continued). From the conclusion of this question, then, the religious leaders are more concerned to undermine His popularity amongst the people by confusing His teaching than on gleaning evidence with which they could secure a charge of treason.
In the end, however, it’s again Jesus’ question to the religious leaders (Mtw 22:41-46) which silences their advances, having been unable by their own craftiness to silence Him.
The right of secular authority
The reader who’s been following my previous comments on authority within the Church on passages such as Mtw 7:28-29, Mtw 9:35-10:4 and Mtw 21:23-27 may have already concluded what they expect to find as they turn to this specific article which concerns the rights of secular authority but, although my previous observations have been based upon the authority structures which Jesus opposed and which are duplicated within the present day Church, when we turn to secular, political authority, there’s very little which appears to have changed in near on two thousand years.
The same questions which needed an answer then for believers and how they’re expected to regard those in positions of leadership over them who clearly don’t serve God in the things they do are the same ones which need an answer today that men and women might respond with the nature of Christ in every area of their lives.
We may not ever have direct access into the corridors of the world’s power but the effects of the decisions they make are seen everywhere we go and in most things we do whether simple things like the imposition of speed limits or the more complex outworkings of international relations which bring one state in line with another.
So the believer is obligated to fully understand their needful reaction to those above them and how God expects them to behave. For this purpose, Rom 13:1-7 is probably the best all round passage and summary of a believer’s responsibility.
Firstly, then, we should note that rulers and authorities have a specific function before God (which we’ll look at in one moment) but that this responsibility springs out of the belief that all authority on this earth has been put there by God Himself whether the leadership remains faithful to Him or rebels against what can be clearly perceived about the nature of God (Rom 13:1).
Some feel that it would be going too far to state that only the one who God chooses is the one who’s elected to office (or who wins the battle and overthrows the existing leader) but this appears to be the meaning of the words of Paul when he comments (Rom 13:1) that
‘...those that exist have been instituted by God’
If taken literally, this means that it’s God alone who chooses the king, authority, prime minister, president, mayor and whoever’s in power at any time for His own particular purpose and it isn’t just the position that’s ordained but the person who is also appointed to it. It isn’t just that He allows people to attain those positions but that He appoints them in order that His will and righteousness is upheld.
Therefore John 19:11’s statement of Jesus to Pilate that
‘You would have no power over Me unless it had been given you from above...’
is a direct affirmation that Pilate’s authority was divine in origin rather than being simply delegated from the ultimate authority of the Emperor. In the OT also, we find God being spoken of as specifically appointing those who were in positions of authority over people - I Sam 10:1,24 (Saul), 16:1 (David), I Chron 22:8-10 (Solomon) and notice also II Kings 8:7-15 and I Kings 19:15-16.
It’s not sufficient for the believer to say simply that a son of the king has inherited the throne of his father because this is the way things are done within their nation, but that God has had a hand in the succession and, therefore, a purpose in the establishing of his throne. It also means that God has the casting vote in ‘democratic’ elections with the sole purpose of bringing about the purpose of His will through those who are elected.
This obviously raises some difficult questions and, for instance, one might struggle to affirm that Adolf Hitler was God’s man as leader over the German nation but appointment doesn’t mean that the authority has the right of exclusive freewill which denies obedience and service to God. On the contrary, leadership has a responsibility to enforce God’s will and to bring it about throughout the area over which they’ve been given their authority.
Therefore, Rommur is right to observe that secular leadership is
‘...God’s instituted, authorised and prescribed instrument for the maintenance of order and the punishing of criminals who violate that order’
and Romhen that
‘It was by His will and in His providence that they had been appointed to maintain order, encourage well-doing and punish wrong-doing’
If established by Divine appointment, then it follows that it’s also responsible to God to uphold what is morally right, to punish what is evil in God’s eyes and to reward what is good (I Peter 2:14, Rom 13:3-4), to uphold the concerns and values of God such as justice and to promote all those things which are a reflection of God’s character and Being.
Even within the Church, authority must be concerned to follow after God and be accepted by the believer as having a responsibility to bring about God’s will as declared by Heaven (Mtw 18:18). Even though a religious leadership may appear to have erred in their judgment of a situation, there’s still good reason to respect their divine authority and to obey them within the limits which we will discuss in the next section - this seems to have been the reason for Jesus’ comments that the Jewish believers were to practice and observe whatever the religious leaders told them to do (Mtw 23:3). As Rommur comments
‘Authority to govern and the subjection demanded of the governed reside wholly in the fact of divine institution’
and, if one were to rebel against such leadership, resistance becomes rebellion against God’s appointed authorities (Rom 13:2). This is something which outworks itself to instruct the disciple as to the imposition of taxes by those set up over them for they’re clearly seen to have a right to tax those in subjection under them (Rom 13:6-7) and this authority is that which is given them from God so that the money collected finances the execution of civil justice and law and order (Rom 13:2-4,7).
Taxes are seen to be not so much money paid to the secular authorities but as paid back for services received where the Greek word for ‘dues’ in Rom 13:7 (Strongs Greek number 3782) rightly means what is owed them rather than something which is paid gratuitously, Kittels commenting that the word
‘...is common in the papyri for financial debts’
Revenue, respect and honour (Rom 13:7) are similarly spoken of with the idea of a debt being paid, the obligation being upon those who give such a response as a necessary right of those in authority over them. This may not be particularly acceptable to many amongst the Church who will shout against exploitive taxation whenever new or increased taxes are brought in, but it’s a necessary part of obeying God that taxes be paid even if campaigns to reduce taxation run hand in hand with obedience to the civil law.
Similarly, in Mtw 22:21 where Jesus speaks of giving to Caesar the things which belong to him, the Greek word used (Strongs Greek number 591) has the simple meaning, again, not of a gratuitous payment but of giving back something which belongs to them, Kittels again pointing out that it means
‘To give or do something in fulfilment of an obligation or expectation...’
Jesus goes on to point out that a coin which bears Caesar’s inscription rightfully belongs to him and, therefore, coinage struck should be governed by those who minted it in the first place. As Mattask comments
‘The payment of a tax...is not a gift given to him who levies it but a debt owing to him for benefits received’
and this should always be the believer’s outlook. They pay local taxes because those in authority are being given back the money already invested on their behalf in their area and they pay national ones for the same reason. For this reason, the believer who wants to make a stand against the taxation to which he’s subject needs to be careful how he makes that protest known, the only way which isn’t against Scripture seeming to be that, while taxes must still be paid, petitions to those in authority can be brought about. The bottom line is that simply refusing to pay the tax is a refusal to allow authority their divinely appointed right. As I Peter 2:15 states
‘...it is God's will that by doing right [the believer] should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men’
As God’s servants themselves, believers should recognise and respect those who have been appointed by God to watch over nations and kingdoms in order that law and order is upheld - in one sense, this enforcement is a little selfish for a government cannot maintain it’s will in an anarchist state. To do anything other than obey the civil and criminal laws which govern believers would be to go against the voice of their conscience (Rom 13:5-6) - both taxes and revenue due must be paid.
Therefore there aren’t sharp distinctions between those things which are considered to be ‘secular’ and those which are considered to be ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’. God’s Kingdom is to pervade every section of society (even politics - wouldn’t it be nice if it did?) and every area of individual lives. When Jesus identified the world as being the Kingdom of Heaven (Mtw 13:38), He was consequently inferring that God’s will must be seen to be done by His followers in every section of their lives - whether when they’re attending a meeting with those who are of a like mind with themselves in a Church meeting or when making their tax returns to the agents of the national ruling authorities.
The right of the disciple of Christ
Absolute obedience to civil or secular authority noted in the previous section must be balanced by the affirmed right in the Scriptures of the believer to disobey established leadership when it would legislate against the clearly revealed will of God - by such a statement I don’t mean that the follower has the right not to pay a tax which he feels is in excess of the burden which should be placed upon the nation (as will be seen below, relative taxation in first century Israel was excessive because of the poverty of most of the society) but that a direct command which negates the will of God does not have to be obeyed.
The Scriptures have many such examples of this though clear commands to this end are lacking - the writings are more concerned to have men and women respect and pay what is owed to leadership rather than to encourage it to rebel!
The most notable challenge to established authority in the NT is found in two places in Acts 4:18-20 and 5:28-29 where, firstly, Peter and John, then all the apostles rebel against the clear instruction which the Jewish religious leaders give them concerning the message of the Gospel.
In the first, the Sanhedrin
‘...charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus’
and John and Peter could have reasoned that it was more expedient to obey God’s appointed leaders than it was to pursue their own course of action. After all, if leadership is of God, then they must have a special insight into His ways and be able to perceive more clearly those things which He wills to be done. But both the disciples are having none of it and answer
‘...Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge’
going on to announce that they felt it impossible to be silent concerning the things of which they’d been witnesses. A similar situation occurs in the second and the high priest calls the apostles to account for this previous meeting stating that
‘We strictly charged you not to teach in this Name yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you intend to bring this Man’s blood upon us’
Peter replying by announcing that they were obliged to
‘...obey God rather than men’
and this, even though the men in question weren’t just civil authorities but the leadership which was seated over the nation of Israel. There’s an important consequence here for present day believers and not just as applied to political authorities. Spiritual leaders are given the oversight for the welfare of God’s people but nothing they do or say should negate God’s will getting done in the people over whom they have jurisdiction. For this reason, leadership within the Church should be primarily concerned with the spiritual development of those under them rather than on being the figurehead that the people follow and obey.
It’s clear from my own experience that leadership can suffer from the problem of thinking that their will must be done on earth as it is in heaven rather than God’s and such a mindset will have believers failing to fulfil their personal destiny in Christ. In one fellowship I know, a believer had the call of God on his life to organise a missionary work in their local area only to be told by his Church leaders that it wasn’t of God and that he must stop. Foolishly, he did just that even when God had confirmed to him that such a course of action was His desire.
Unfortunately, while obedience to authority is necessary, authority which expects obedience to its every assessment of a situation is erroneous and simply puts the leader into a position where they take the place of God. Men such as this are exceeding the authority that’s been bestowed upon them by God and needn’t be obeyed - it’s quite another matter when leadership forbids a believer to do something because it’s morally impure.
In the OT, civil authority rather than that which is specifically religious is opposed by men and women who fear God more than they fear man. Therefore three Jews will not bow down and worship the golden image set up by the king of Babylon (Daniel chapter 3 esp v.16-18) and Daniel refuses to acknowledge the king’s order and, instead, openly defies it (Daniel chapter 6 esp v.7-10).
The story of the Exodus out of Egypt is also a clear case of a religious authority refusing to obey a secular one by the command and direction of God. When Pharaoh opposed the Word of God, Moses didn’t give in to his will but persevered in obedience to God, rebelling against the words of the king (Ex 5:1-2). Such rebellion is clearly warranted when whatever leadership exists is actively opposing the revealed will of God.
Even in Mtw 21:23-27, we saw that Jesus gave the Sanhedrin two choices with which to define the origin of John the Baptist’s authority - either from God or from man - and, as we saw previously in Mtw 7:28-29, real authority was recognised as being with Jesus rather than with their scribes and teachers of the Law simply because His came from God while theirs was handed down from one Rabbi to another in succession.
Therefore, the authority of God must overrule the authority of man whenever the two stand in opposition, and civil and religious leadership can only effectively exist and be followed when they clearly don’t contradict the revealed will of God.
As we saw in the previous section, civil authorities are placed there by God to uphold the will of God and not to do as they please. No man or group of men have the right to institute an ordinance that outlaws serving God and, if authority goes beyond the defined limits of being God’s representatives on earth, then no man need bow down and embrace such a commandment.
In this case, disobedience translates into obedience to God.
Question and Answer
So, finally, we arrive at the text! But a background of how one should regard authority within the world is vitally necessary for us to see that what Jesus is here advocating in His response is entirely inkeeping with what both former and later writers asserted. While the Jews saw only a question which was to be asked to cause Him to stumble, Jesus saw a principle which needed to be upheld which also cut away at their desires to be free from the Roman occupation of and jurisdiction over the land.
Markcole sees an interesting reversal of roles here as the leaders approach Jesus and comments that
‘...He had placed them upon the horns of a dilemma where either answer was unsafe because of the crowd [Mtw 21:23-27] [and] they will do the same with Him’
Whether they were fully aware of this is impossible to say, of course, but it’s interesting to note how each handles the same difficult dilemma. For the religious leaders, they find that there’s no way out of the situation which would grant them what they require (Mtw 21:25-26) but, for Jesus, there’s only an opportunity to proclaim the error of their ways and an inferred appeal to them to stop hindering God’s will being done.
1. The Herodians and the Pharisees
Although being somewhat cynical, Matcar is correct in his observation that
‘A common enemy makes strange bedfellows...’
for the Pharisees and Herodians seem to have been at opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to their belief in whether or not the Roman authorities were a necessary part of Jewish life. Trying to find anything definitive about the Herodians, however, is extremely difficult if not impossible and most of what we know about such a group is made up from either inferences from the NT or from deductions drawn from the name given to them. Matmor notes that
‘...Herodians as such are not mentioned outside the NT’
even though there’s a comment in Antiquities 14.15.10 (my italics) which states that, during the time Herod was alive
‘...the Galileans revolted from their commanders and took those of Herod’s party and drowned them in the lake...’
But this is generally not thought to be a reference to the existence of the NT Herodians or a reference to where their political organisation had its roots and, besides, it tells us very little about what they both believed and practised. It’s probably more significant that Josephus in the Jewish War (page 133 or 2.8.2) states that
‘Among the Jews there are three schools of thought whose adherents are called Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes respectively...’
and so ignores totally the group which the NT labels as ‘Herodians’. Even in Antiquities 18.1.6, Josephus mentions a fourth sect which appears to be identifiable with the Zealots and which is the antithesis in many respects with the Herodians. That Josephus drags up their existence here when he’s previously noted that there are only three sects seems sufficient warrant to assume that there may have been other groups about which Josephus chose not to say a word. But this threefold religious division of the Jews seems to justify the comment by Ungers that, because they’re not listed as a religious sect, they were
‘...something more than a political party, something less than a religious sect’
Even this doesn’t help us in attributing them with any real fundamental beliefs. It seems the more likely, however, that they were comprised of inter-religious members - that is, of Jews from all walks of life though the Sadducees would have possibly had many adherents - who, as Markcole asserts
‘...saw in the support of the unscrupulous but outwardly orthodox Herod, the hope of Israel; and that meant acceptance of Rome as overlord’
Just as present day believers in the same congregations may differ in their political bias and who they will ultimately vote for come election time, so too ‘Herodians’ seems to be a label which summarises a political belief system which could be assimilated into some of the religious structures of the day (certainly the Sadducean party but the Pharisaical one would pose problems) and even by those who followed neither one religious group nor the other.
Even this may not be wholly accurate but allegiance to the Herodian dynasty appears to be inferable from their label. Their first appearance in the NT is in Galilee in Mark 3:6 and this has led commentators to assert that the Herodians about whom the Gospels now speak are those who would have journeyed from Galilee and into the city of Jerusalem for the Passover festival, being normally resident in the kingdom of Herod Antipas. But such an assertion isn’t warranted, especially if they appear to have been a group of Jews who were made up from various religious beliefs.
Certainly, their allegiance had to have been to Rome either directly or indirectly for the question posed to have made very much sense. For them, the payment of taxes to the Roman overlord was obligatory whereas the Pharisaical viewpoint would have tended the opposite way. Only with two such vastly contrasting views could they have ever approached Jesus and thought that by whichever answer He gave, they would be able to gain the upper hand against Jesus.
I noted on the previous web page that such an allegiance between two diametrically opposed people is something which showed the Pharisees’ double-mindedness, people who could
‘...justify their own behaviour but which, when done by the ones of whom they didn’t approve, they could issue absolute denunciations and condemn them as being against the purposes of God Himself. For instance, the Pharisees condemned Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners (Mtw 11:19) and yet they took counsel with the Herodians who were unholy and ungodly men, those who supported the immoral Herodian dynasty of which they were opposed (Mark 3:6, Mtw 12:14). But, obviously, the end justified the means and, in desperate times, anything seems to have been allowable!’
Such an action showed plainly that their religion wasn’t one which drew lines under certain behaviour but that the end seemed to justify whatever means were necessary - even to the point of murder (John 11:53).
2. The background to the question
The disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians probably came to Jesus in disguise - not wearing some plastic face mask or false beard as we might imagine, but clothed in common attire and mingling amongst the crowd which had gathered to hear Jesus speak. This seems to be part of the reason for Luke 20:20’s mention of spies being sent amongst them as I noted at the beginning of this web page but to gain the upper hand over an opponent who had been wise to their insincerity in asking to know from where Jesus had got the authority to do the things He did (Mtw 21:23-27) would mean that an open approach would necessarily cause Him to be on His guard and to answer as carefully as He could.
Therefore, it would appear as if both groups of people - both the Pharisees and the Herodians - mingled with the crowds listening to Jesus but so as to blend in with those present and to catch Him off-guard. When the time came for them to deliver their question, they also act with such insincerity that it makes me, personally, want to reach for the sick bag - for Matthew records their initial preamble as stating (Mtw 22:16)
‘Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men’
Jesus sees through their hypocrisy immediately (Mtw 22:18, Mark 12:15, Luke 20:23) where the word translated ‘hypocrites’ (Strongs Greek number 5273) is the same as I defined in my introductory comments here meaning ‘play actor’. It wasn’t that the Herodians and Pharisees were misguided individuals but that they were openly hiding behind the mask of deceit in order that they might get their will done.
And their preamble which is sickly sweet is also an encouragement to Jesus to answer them by claiming that it wasn’t lawful to honour human institutions when they came into conflict with the things of God. Notice how they speak of Him as caring for no man and of not regarding the position of men but, on the contrary, that He was a firm upholder of the things of God.
Such statements are the verbal force which attempts to push Him into saying something along the lines of
‘Yes, you’re quite right, I don’t regard man so don’t pay your taxes to a pagan and evil overlord’
But Jesus won’t let His ego be pampered with and He knows the intention of their question as they ask it. We’ll look at the implications of the question in just a moment but, for a few lines, we should stop and consider the subject of taxation in first century Israel.
Trying to piece together what the forms of taxation were in Israel at this time is far from easy and most commentators make statements which have no justification from ancient sources. What would be easiest to say is that the Jew seems to have been taxed at every point, whether on his income, his expenditure or on his own head! It’s no wonder that Roman taxation was such a hot potato amongst religious leaders and why their questioning to Jesus was such a minefield.
I noted on a previous web page of the existence of tax collectors who sat on important routeways collecting taxes as men and women passed by with their goods and as tradesmen with wares, and that the Roman authorities had been clever not to tax directly but by ‘farming out’ the tax burden to the highest bidder. It was this which seems to have stretched throughout the entire range of taxation which was being imposed on the nation.
Although commentators conflict in the overall details of the taxes imposed, it seems to me best to use Edersheim in his work ‘Sketches of Social Life’ which gives a few straightforward details as broad generalisations and which is sufficient for us to fully appreciate the hatred of the Roman taxation system. He writes
‘...the Roman taxation, which bore upon Israel with such crushing weight, was quite of its own kind - systematic, cruel, relentless and utterly regardless. In general, the provinces of the Roman Empire, and what of Palestine belonged to them, were subject to two great taxes - poll tax (or, rather, income tax) and ground tax. All property and income that fell not under the ground tax was subject to poll tax; which amounted, for Syria and Cilicia, to one per cent. The “poll-tax” was really twofold, consisting of income tax and head money, the latter, of course, the same in all cases, and levied on all persons (bond or free) up to the age of sixty-five - women being liable from the age of twelve and men from that of fourteen. Landed property was subject to a tax of one tenth of all grain and one fifth of the wine and fruit grown, partly paid in product and partly commuted into money.
‘Besides these, there was tax and duty on all imports and exports, levied on the great public highways and in the seaports. Then there was bridge money and road money, and duty on all that was bought and sold in the towns. These, which may be called the regular taxes, were irrespective of any forced contributions, and of the support which had to be furnished to the Roman procurator and his household and court at Caesarea.
‘To avoid all possible loss to the treasury, the proconsul of Syria, Quirinus (Cyrenius), had taken a regular census to show the number of the population and their means. This was a terrible crime in the eyes of the Rabbis, who remember that, if numbering the people had been reckoned such [a] great sin of old, the evil must be an hundredfold increased if done by heathens and for their own purposes...it cost rivers of blood before it was not answered, but silenced’
Luknol cites an estimate of the total taxation imposed upon the Jews as being around forty per cent - a level which is quite inkeeping with present tax levels in the West. The reason why it was such a burden for the Jew, however, was that generally he wasn’t as rich as the present day Westerner is.
Most commentators simply cut to the chase and call the tax in question the ‘poll tax’ (in the sense of the ‘head money’ of Edersheim’s description) which was collected annually from every inhabitant of the land but, as far as I can determine, this isn’t absolutely provable even though it’s the most likely. There appears to be no definitive reference by which the Greek word used for ‘tax’ here is defined but Strongs interpretation of the word (Strongs Greek number 2778) notes that the Greek is a transliteration from the Latin and is the word from which we get our English word ‘census’ (kensos). Luknol comments on the word that it
‘...may be restricted in sense to a head tax’
but his statement implies that such an identification is not because the word’s use is certain but that it’s inferred. Luke’s record uses a totally different word to denote the tax (Strongs Greek number 5411) which is one used to denote personal tax rather than indirect taxation such as customs duties that were imposed through travelling.
However, even without a definitive text which uses the word in the context of the tribute money paid to Caesar, the interpretation of ‘poll tax’ seems to the most relevant for the following reason:
The religious leaders ask whether it’s lawful to pay tribute to Caesar where the RSV has ‘taxes’ in place of ‘tribute’ and makes them sound as if they’re asking not about one particular tax but about taxation in general. Jesus’ request to see the tribute money, however, has the RSV translating the identical word in the singular with the phrase ‘the tax’ which makes one think that He’s narrowed down their question to just a singular application. But, in fact, it appears that tribute money paid directly to the Emperor is what must be in mind here for the coin which is brought before Jesus is the coin with which the tax is paid - an impossibility if a percentage was being levied and, besides, a Roman coin was obligatory to be used when paying the tax. There were also denarii struck which didn’t bear the image of the Emperor and which were circulated for everyday use throughout the land but, by using only coins upon which the Emperor’s image was imprinted, the Jews were continually reminded of their subjection to a foreign power and possibly saw in it a breaking of the second commandment (Ex 20:4-5).
Matfran is one who identifies the tribute as referring specifically to the poll or head tax because
‘...this tax was the primary mark of their political subjection to a foreign power’
and this seems to be because its collection didn’t benefit the Jew in any way. If he paid a tax along the road, it was for the purpose of transportation from a to b but the poll tax was levied on each and every person and was then transferred directly into the Roman treasury without any benefit being received from their overlords. It would have seemed to be a great evil, therefore, that God’s special nation should contribute to the upkeep of such a pagan and hostile regime.
Some time either before or during 6AD, Cyrenius, a Roman senator according to Josephus (Antiquities 18.1.1, War 2.8.1 or page 133) was appointed by Caesar to enter the province of Syria in which the Jewish nation was assimilated and to record the Jews and their estates in an attempt to provide a taxation system which would benefit the Empire. The Jews readily agreed to the demands of the recorders due to the persuasion of Joazar who was the son of the high priest.
However, in 6 or 7AD, Judas - who’s recorded as a Gaulonite by Josephus but as a Galilean by most commentators and who originated from Gamala - rebelled against the taxation along with a leading Pharisee by the name of Sadduc and, according to Josephus, drew the people to them in revolt, them both saying
‘...that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty...They also said that God would not otherwise be assisting to them...’
This widespread rebellion was ultimately crushed (Acts 5:37 would seem to indicate that the rebellion wasn’t just against the imposition of the poll tax) but it may have been from this time in history that the Zealot movement began which opposed Roman rule and frequently carried out guerrilla-like campaigns against the occupying forces. The comments by E Mary Smallwood in the hardcopy of Josephus I use of the Jewish War comments that the ‘sect’ which sprang from the rebellion against Rome is never mentioned by Josephus by name but that the existence of many bandits and outlaws within the land during the early years of the first century may be evidence of the existence of such a group. It may be going too far, therefore, to positively identify them with the Zealots for Josephus never mentions them in this connection but he does note that this event had an effect on the nation from which it never fully escaped and which, ultimately, was the reason for the Jewish War against Rome, ending in the destruction of both the city of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70AD (Antiquities 18.1.1 and 18.1.6).
To the Zealot, although the Half Shekel tax was also a poll tax levied on the heads of the Jews, it was specifically used for the upkeep of the Temple whereas the Roman tribute money was employed for the upkeep of the Imperial throne. The ancient writer Hippolytus in his work Omnium haeresium confutatio (9.26) is cited by Marklane as stating that
‘...the Zealots would not handle or look upon any coin which bore an image’
and the payment of the poll tax would have been extremely obnoxious to them. The Pharisees who seem to have taken part in the original rebellion would, doubtless, have been opponents of such an Imperial tax (Matmor cites a Rabbinic authority in the Talmud to note their command to pay the tax but it’s simply phrased as an action of expediency of self-preservation rather than delighting in its collection) and the people would, necessarily, have been only too willing to oppose any tax they could - even more so when it rose up as a reaction to their deep-seated belief in and service of YHWH, the one true God.
The coin used, the denarius (Strongs Greek number 1220), struck by the Emperor Augustus and used in the first census collections bore the inscription in Latin stating
‘Augustus, son of the Divine (Julius)’
which would have been immediately offensive to a religious Jew who served the one true God. But, in Jesus’ day, it was the Emperor Tiberius who reigned and had done so since 14AD. His denarius bore the inscription along with his head of
‘Tiberius Augustus, the son of Augustus’
which may have been partially acceptable to the Jew but the reverse depicted a vestal virgin with the priestly title of the Emperor as
translated ‘high priest’ and this would have immediately caused offence. Another denarius struck in 15AD has a chariot in place of the female figure and the inscription that he’d been proclaimed as commander in Rome following a victorious military procession. It’s the former of these two denarii, however, that is the most likely to have been used in the Temple to be brought before Jesus. It would have been the side which bore the head of the Emperor which would have been presented to Jesus to look at if we take the Gospel account at face value and don’t insist that they would have presented the reverse and that Jesus had had them turn it over.
The question, then, was not simply ideological or based upon the nation’s reluctance to pay any tax but upon a very real hatred of having to contribute money which seemed to be taken from them and used in a way which was displeasing to the God they served.
Not only that, but there had been a previous rebellion against the imposition of such a tax and these emotions, according to Josephus, were continuing to bubble below the surface of Jewish society until they finally boiled over in the Jewish War.
The Romans would have been aware that, although the collection of the tax was a hot potato amongst the nation, it still needed to be collected and they would have been concerned to silence any dissent which was inciting the nation to attempt, once more, to throw off the outworking of Roman sovereignty.
3. The cleverness of the question and answer
Having dealt with the background to the tax and the depictions on the coin presented, we need to briefly bring them together and note that the question presented to Jesus by the disciples of the Pharisees was cunningly devised (Mtw 22:17) - especially as arrangement had been made to have Herodians present who supported the Roman authorities. Even more so when the approach had been shrouded in hypocritical reverence for Jesus (Mtw 22:16) and when they give Jesus just the two options of answering, trying to corner Him into their own restrictive definition of the question.
Either way Jesus answered would have posed serious dangers for Himself which would have had immediate consequences.
If He’d affirmed the necessity of paying tribute money to the Imperial throne, it would have meant the disillusionment of the Messianic hope for the common Jewish people. They hated the Roman occupation of their land and were seeking in Jesus One who would throw off the yoke of oppression from their shoulders and institute the visible expression of the Kingdom of God (John 6:15).
Such an answer would have led the people maybe even into rioting and the rejection of their Messiah then and there. Even at the very least, He would have lost the sympathy of the ordinary people who saw in the tribute money a burden upon their own lives which was supporting an irreligious government.
No doubt the Pharisees would have been able to stage manage the show from then on in and their open declarations of His response would have caused public opinion to have swayed back towards their more established religious leadership.
If, on the other hand, Jesus had proclaimed that tribute shouldn’t be paid to Caesar - and as the Pharisees were expecting Him to do because of their approach (see above) - then the Herodians would have had sufficient grounds to drag Him before the Roman authorities and have Him sentenced to death for treason.
It was, incidentally, what the religious leaders accused Him of a few days later before Pilate even though they had no grounds for such an accusation (Luke 23:1-2).
But Jesus’ answer is incredibly profound and covers some of the ground we’ve already discussed above. As God’s appointed rule, the Roman government had every right to collect money for the enforcement of law and order and even for the upkeep of their own political system.
As John the Baptist replied to the tax collectors when he was approached by them to know how the new teaching impinged upon their own lifestyle (Luke 3:12-13)
‘Collect no more than is appointed you’
a statement which presumes that taxation was a necessary part of even the new believer. But Jesus is actually saying more than a simple statement about systems of taxation. Paraphrased, His statement would run
‘Whatever has got Caesar’s name on it, give it (back) to him (for the coin, as previously noted, had the head of Caesar on it and was the coin with which one paid the tribute), but if anything has God’s name on it, give it (back) to Him’
The bracketed explanation ‘back’ needs to be fully noted here for Jesus doesn’t speak of a gratuitous payment to either Caesar or God but it being the right of their position. As Mattask notes
‘The payment of a tax...is not a gift to him who levies it but a debt owing to him for benefits received’
The statement takes on a commandment of duty rather than of freewill and we would be wrong to simply leave Jesus’ statement as a good get out reply which ameliorated the problem with which He was faced. Jesus is actually turning the question round to proclaim something profound about service to God for God’s name exists on every man, woman and child, upon a way of life which should be outworked in the image of its Creator.
Individuals are therefore obligated to respond in service and obedience to God, recognising Him as the sole owner of their lives. Applied to the Pharisees, it called them into question for the mode of living which was seeking to murder Him and to oppose the righteousness before God that He was seeking to impart to all who turned to Him in repentance to receive mercy and forgiveness. And, applied to followers of Jesus, the challenge is to always recognise God’s right of ownership upon everything by virtue of the fact that He’s the Originator of all things.
Instead of simply answering a difficult question, then, it called the Pharisees to answer God as to the way they were living their life before Him. And it also provided the observation that even the religious must be concerned to honour earthly responsibility in their service of God and that they must, as Matmor comments
‘...serve Caesar in a way that is honouring to God’
Mattask notes that followers of Christ
‘...are citizens of two cities, the earthly and the heavenly, and they have duties to discharge in both’
so that spirituality doesn’t negate the secular and vice-versa. To be spiritual is to live as God would desire within the earthly realm and therefore to please Him not just in Heavenly matters but in material ones as well. Although not quite uniting the secular and spiritual by His statement, Jesus does show that each has obligations upon the believer and that God has something relevant to say in each and every area of one’s life.
Having heard Jesus’ answer, both the Pharisees and Herodians ‘marvelled’ (Mtw 22:22) and go away probably bewildered as to how they might contrive a better question to stumble this Galilean teacher. They aren’t, however, recorded as returning with another question from which they could glean a charge of treason and, if this had taken place either before or after the event, all three writers have chosen not to record such an incident. As it stands, Luke 20:20’s statement that
‘...they watched Him and sent spies who pretended to be sincere, that they might take hold of what He said so as to deliver Him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor’
must be interpreted additionally that the religious leaders had their disciples also standing in the crowd listening to Him even when they weren’t directly asking Him a question. From here on in, the questions presented are more designed to stumble Jesus in His teaching rather than to be able to gather evidence for a charge of treason before the Roman authorities.
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