Render unto Caesar...

Render unto Caesar...

"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 which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (“"Ἀπόδοτε οὖν τὰ Καίσαρος Καίσαρι καὶ τὰ τοῦ Θεοῦ τῷ Θεῷ"”) ( [;&version=31;68; 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 whether it is desirable for the Christian to submit to earthly authority. Interpretations include the belief that it is good and appropriate to submit to the State when asked, that spiritual demands supersede earthly demands but do not abolish them, or that the demands of the state are non-negotiable.


The bible states 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 occupation. They anticipated that Jesus would oppose the tax, for Luke's Gospels explains their purpose was "to hand him over to the power and authority of the governor." [;&version=31] The governor was Pilate, and he was the man responsible for the collecting of Rome's taxes in 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. 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 name and inscription were on it. They answered, "Caesar’s," and he responded “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” His interrogators were flummoxed by this authoritative (though ambiguous) answer and left disappointed.

The Pharisees and the Herodians

The accounts in Matthew and Mark say that the questioners were Pharisees and Herodians (Luke says only that they were “spies” sent by “teachers of the law and the chief priests”).

The coin

The inscription on this coin reads “Ti [berivs] Caesar Divi Avg [vsti] F [ilivs] Avgvstvs” or “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.” To Jesus, this was blasphemous: the coin claims that Augustus was a god.

Although the events in the parable took place well into the reign of Tiberius, it is also possible that an older coin still in circulation but featuring Augustus would have been used in the circumstances described.

It is perhaps significant that Jesus did not have such a coin with him but that one of his questioners did.

Tax resistance in Iudaea

The taxes imposed on Iudaea by Rome had led to riots. [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 1434898253 pp. 1-7] 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. [Swartley, Willard M. "The Christian and the Payment of Taxes Used For War" 1980 [] ]
The Jewish Encyclopedia says, of the Zealots:
When, in the year 5, Judas of Gamala in Galilee started his organized opposition to Rome, he was joined by one of the leaders of the Pharisees, R. 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.

Accusations of tax resistance against Jesus

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)

One of the theses of an essay by Ned Netterville entitled, "Jesus of Nazareth, Illegal-Tax Protester", is that the principal reason why Pilate crucifed Jesus was for his opposition to Rome's taxes [Netterville, Ned, "Jesus of Nazareth, Illegal-Tax Protester", Ulster Press,] . Evidence of Jesus' guilt could have been presented showing he had interfered with Rome’s collection of taxes by calling Matthew (a.k.a. Levi) away from his tax booth in the midst of his duties (, ), even likening tax collectors to prostitutes (). Jesus was known to enjoy the company of tax collectors, for instance at dinners in the homes of Matthew and Zacchaeus, so he may have influenced others to quit their profession to follow him. Jesus showed compassion for tax collectors as he did to other notorious sinners such as prostitutes without condoning their occupation.


The gospels say that when Jesus gave his response, his interrogators “marvelled, and left him, and went their way.” They were unsuccessful in getting Jesus to unambiguously come out either in favor of paying the tribute to Rome or in favor of tax resistance. Advocates for either argument could interpret his words in either way.

Time has not resolved this ambiguity, and people continue to interpret this passage to support positions that are poles apart.

eparation of church and state

Jesus can be interpreted to be saying that his religious teachings were separate from earthly political activity. This reading finds support in John 18:36, where 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 my kingdom is not from the world.” This reflects a traditional division in Christian thought by which state and church have separate spheres of influence.

Others read this passage to suggest that Jesus wanted his followers to be very careful in determining where God and Caesar came into conflict so as to be able to discriminate appropriately between what they owe to one and to the other — the very opposite of an aloof, apolitical stand, and one which was exemplified by the persecuted apostles in [;&version=9; Acts 5] , when they said in reference to teaching about Jesus, “We ought to obey God rather than men.”

Justification for obeying authority, paying taxes

:"see also: "Some read the phrase “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” as unambiguous at least to the extent that it commands us to respect state authority and to pay the taxes it demands of us.

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.

One Mennonite explained why he was not a war tax resister thusly:

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. [Sawatzky, Anne, quoted in Peachey, Titus "Silence and Courage: Income Taxes, War and Mennonites 1940-1993" MCC Occasional Paper #18, August 1993, p. 34]

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.”

Devote your life to God

One interpretation of Jesus’s words was that he was making an analogy — the coin is made on the orders of the emperor and is stamped with the image of the emperor, and the emperor may call on you to give it to him in tribute; by analogy, you were made by God and in God’s image, and you must therefore devote your life in tribute to God, rather than Caesar.

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?”

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.” [from Tolstoy’s “Drózhzhin’s Life And Death,” as found in "We Won’t Pay!: A Tax Resistance Reader" (2008) ISBN 1434898253, p. 223]

Highlighting the dangers of cooperating with the state

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

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. [in Peachey, Titus "Silence and Courage: Income Taxes, War and Mennonites 1940-1993" MCC Occasional Paper #18, August 1993, p. 29]

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’s whole preaching and practice point unmistakably to noncooperation, which necessarily includes nonpayment of taxes. [originally from "Young India" 27 March 1930, as found in Gross, David (ed.) "We Won't Pay!: A Tax Resistance Reader" (2008) ISBN 1434898253]

Non-instructional, merely adroit

Some people consider this parable as not primarily instructional but as an example of Jesus’s skill in thinking on his feet. His questioners tried to trap him between the horns of a dangerous either/or question, and he deftly gave an answer that seemed to meet the question head-on but actually avoided taking a position.

In another incident ( [;&version=31; Matthew 21:23-27] , [;&version=31; Luke 20:1-8] , [;&version=31; Mark 11:27-33] ), Jesus reverses the roles — putting his critics between the horns of a dilemma when he asks “John’s baptism — was it from heaven, or from men?”:

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.” So they answered, “We don’t know where it was from.”

Perhaps the incident with Caesar’s coin is merely meant to highlight Jesus’s superior debate skills, not what position Jesus had on taxation or on the proper relationship of people to their conquerors.

Having this as an additional purpose would not be inconsistent with any of the other purposes proposed.

Indifference to wealth

This phrase can also be interpreted as Jesus saying that, since the money belongs to the government (the government made the money and thus is the real owner of it), and that the government mandates that one must pay taxes, then one should not resist and simply pay the tax, rather than be upset over having to give it up and coveting the money, since money is nothing but an earthly distraction.

American Quaker war tax resisters

As the 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. [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 9781438260150 pp. 23-42]

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. [Evans, Joshua “A Drop in the Ocean” as found in Gross, David M. (ed.) "American Quaker War Tax Resistance" (2008) ISBN 9781438260150 pp. 90-91]

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 that which 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. [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 9781438260150 pp. 154-171]

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. [Maule, Joshua “He Could Not Have the Money for ThatPurpose” (~1862) as found in Gross, David M. (ed.) "American Quaker War Tax Resistance" (2008) ISBN 9781438260150 pp. 369-378]

Christian anarchist tax resisters

Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement put it this way: “If we rendered unto God all the things that belong to God, there would be nothing left for Caesar.” She also advocated a life of voluntary poverty by saying “the less you have of Caesar’s, the less you have to give to Caesar.”

Ammon Hennacy was on trial for civil disobedience and was asked by the judge to reconcile his tax resistance with Jesus’s 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. [Hennacy, Ammon "The Book of Ammon" (5th printing, Feb. 1970), p. 393-4]


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

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:

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 […] ’”


ee also

* Doctrine of the two kingdoms
* Christianity and politics
* Parables of Jesus

External links

* [ 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

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