Biblical tax story rendered implausible

Author: Ed Cohen

In the Bible, when the high priests and others try to trap Jesus into advocating tax evasion, he has a ready answer: Bring the coin required to pay the Roman tax, he says in Mark 12:13-17, Matthew 22:15-22, and Luke 20:20-26.

He then asks whose image is on the coin.

“Caesar’s,” his inquisitors answer, to which Jesus famously proclaims, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”

There’s no question that the New Testament upholds respect for governmental authority, including the paying of one’s taxes. But research by a Notre Dame historian casts doubt on the plausibility of Jesus himself having engaged in the dialogue above.

Fabian E. Udoh, an assistant professor in the Program of Liberal Studies, is an expert on the New Testament and the history of Palestine in the days of Jesus. His forthcoming book Tribute and Taxes in Early Roman Palestine examines taxation in Jewish Palestine from 63 B.C. to 70 A.D.

To determine the authenticity of Jesus’s pronouncement, Udoh looked at elements of the story: Did a Roman tax exist in Jesus’s time that everyone was required to pay? Was payment required in a particular Roman coin? Would that coin have borne the likeness of the emperor, and if so, would it have been circulating in such abundance that Jesus could have reasonably expected one to be produced on the spot?

First, Udoh finds no evidence from the period of a census-based, per-capita tribute or “poll tax,” as the word in Matthew and Mark is customarily translated. Any assessments by Rome, he says, likely would have been based on agricultural production and paid in-kind with farm products like grain. In fact, by Udoh’s analysis, Rome did not impose a “per capita” tribute on the people in Judea until 70 A.D. He also finds no evidence of a direct tribute requiring payment in Roman money. Finally, he observes that since colonial taxes are notoriously difficult to collect, requiring payment in a specific coin would have only made collection more difficult.

As for the Roman coin Jesus calls for, a silver denarius, these did exist during the time of his ministry, and they would have borne the likeness of Caesar Augustus or Tiberius. But while denarii would have been recognized by people in Jewish Palestine during Jesus’s time, Udoh says, archeological findings suggest they were not the silver coin being used at the time. That coin was the Tyrian shekel.

For these reasons Udoh believes that the render-unto-Caesar story probably originated from a later time or another place.


Program of Liberal Studies
Biblical Coins