Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Render Unto Caesar: A Most Misunderstood New Testament Passage, by Jeffrey Barr

For those who think that Jesus' admonition to "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" instructs us to dutifully pay whatever taxes are demanded of us, Jeffrey Barr offers this persuasive argument to the contrary:

I. INTRODUCTION

Christians have traditionally interpreted the famous passage "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God, the things that are God's," to mean that Jesus endorsed paying taxes. This view was first expounded by St. Justin Martyr in Chapter XVII of his First Apology, who wrote,

And everywhere we, more readily than all men, endeavor to pay to those appointed by you the taxes both ordinary and extraordinary, as we have been taught by Him; for at that time some came to Him and asked Him, if one ought to pay tribute to Caesar; and He answered, ‘Tell Me, whose image does the coin bear?’ And they said, ‘Caesar’s.’

The passage appears to be important and well-known to the early Christian community. The Gospels of St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke recount this "Tribute Episode" nearly verbatim. Even Saying 100 of non-canonical Gospel of Thomas and Fragment 2 Recto of the Egerton Gospel record the scene, albeit with some variations from the Canon.

But by His enigmatic response, did Jesus really mean for His followers to provide financial support (willingly or unwillingly) to Tiberius Caesar – a man, who, in his personal life, was a pedophile, a sexual deviant, and a murderer and who, as emperor, claimed to be a god and oppressed and enslaved millions of people, including Jesus’ own? The answer, of course, is: the traditional, pro-tax interpretation of the Tribute Episode is simply wrong. Jesus never meant for His answer to be interpreted as an endorsement of Caesar’s tribute or any taxes.

This essay examines four dimensions of the Tribute Episode: the historical setting of the Episode; the rhetorical structure of the Episode itself; the context of the scene within the Gospels; and finally, how the Catholic Church, Herself, has understood the Tribute Episode. These dimensions point to one conclusion: the Tribute Episode does not stand for the proposition that it is morally obligatory to pay taxes.

The objective of this piece is not to provide a complete exegesis on the Tribute Episode. Rather, it is simply to show that the traditional, pro-tax interpretation of the Tribute Episode is utterly untenable. The passage unequivocally does not stand for the proposition that Jesus thought it was morally obligatory to pay taxes.

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1 comment:

Chris James said...

Interesting post. Jesus’ answer is at the same time submissive and subversive to the ruling empire. Jesus is teaching what one theologian called “revolutionary subordination.” You can find my thoughts here: http://duodigest.blogspot.com/2010/03/render-unto-caesar-jesus-subversive.html