2.2.6 Just government: (4) God above Caesar

Back to 2.2.5

Unit 2 Contents


We shall now focus on Jesus’ famous statement, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Mark 12:17, NAB).

The exchange that led to this appears in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (this term was introduced in 2.2.1); see Matt. 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, Luke 20: 20-26.. In a moment you’ll be asked to (re-)read the version in Mark, together with what comes immediately before it.1

This will be the most detailed study of a biblical text that we do in this unit – indeed in the whole module.  Given this, I have included fairly extensive footnotes giving support for what is said on screen.  Do not be distracted by these.  For the purpose of this study, and the exercise you’ll be asked to do, you do not need to spend time on them.  However, they would enable you to investigate the topic further if you find the study provokes you to do so.

To start, here are some background points that can help us to understand the tension and drama in the context in which Jesus’ made that statement.

  • According to all the Synoptic Gospels, this exchange about tax took place during the last week of Jesus’ life – which had begun with his high-profile and provocative protest in the Jewish Temple when he drove out people buying and selling there (Mark 11: 15-19).
  • In the days after that, Jesus was involved in sharp, tension-filled debates with various religious groups within Judaism, and especially with the senior religious leaders – “the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders”, as Mark describes them (11.27).2
  • What was at stake above all in these exchanges was who Jesus was, his identity, and the basis on which he acted and spoke as he did, the source of his authority.  Was he really sent by God – a prophet, or even the Messiah, the promised king?
  • Given this, it makes sense to read the exchange about payment of tax in the context of the immediately previous two passages. These are:

–  a short exchange in which those religious leaders directly ask Jesus about his authority (11:27-33)

–  a parable which, Mark says, Jesus told “against” them, the Parable of the Tenants (12:1-12, quoting v.12, NRSV).

It was these same leaders who then sent people to ask Jesus about tax, in order to “ensnare” him (12:13).3

  • Indeed some scholars point out that these three passages fit together in a way that occurs several times in the Gospel of Mark: they form a so-called ‘sandwich’.  What this means is that two similar passages come on either side of a third that is of a different kind (in this case a parable), but all three are related.  One writer explains: “Here we have another example of Mark’s sandwich technique with the parable being meant to help us read each of the controversy dialogues that surround it, and vice versa”.4 


Reading (2pp)

Mark 11:27-12:17

The link takes you to the NAB translation.  It will open a new window (within VPlater).5.  Keep this open after you have read the passage – there is an exercise on this text a moment.


In light of reading the three passages that make up this ‘sandwich’, here are a few more points to notice – before we try to understand what Jesus really meant in his answer, “Repay to Caesar…” (v. 17).

  • In line with Mark’s statement that Jesus tells the Parable of the Tenants against the religious leaders, the notes to the passage in the NAB online give a basic explanation of the parable:

The vineyard denotes Israel [as in Isaiah 5:1–7]. The tenant farmers are the religious leaders of Israel. God is the owner of the vineyard. His servants are his messengers, the prophets. The beloved son is Jesus (Mk 1:11; 9:7; Mt 3:17; 17:5; Lk 3:22; 9:35).

Do you find this makes good sense of the parable?

One commentator sums up by saying that it suggests “that Jesus saw himself as the final emissary sent by God to rescue Israel”.6

  • The Roman tax that Jesus was asked about, which was the same amount for everyone (a ‘poll tax’), was paid using a Roman coin called a denarius.  Rather than immediately answering their question, Jesus dramatically asked his questioners about this coin.  Show me one.7. Whose head is on it, and what is the inscription?  No doubt all knew whose head it was, and they answered: “Caesar’s” (v.16).  At that time, the Roman Emperor was Tiberius, the son of the previous Emperor, Augustus.  The inscription on one side of the coin was: “Tiberius Caesar, son of the deified Augustus, [himself] Augustus”.8. The coin claimed, then, that the Emperor was the son of a divine figure.  The monotheistic Jews no doubt saw this statement, and therefore the image on the coin, as idolatrous.
  • In Jesus’ answer, the NAB has the verb ‘repay’, which is a contemporary alternative to the traditional ‘render’.  The literal meaning of the Greek word used in Mark is ‘give back’. One commentator says that it means “to give back or pay back something which one owes as a debt”.9. Like ‘give back’ in English, then, the word Jesus used communicates a sense of what is owed or of obligation – both to Caesar and to God.  The NAB’s ‘repay’ puts this across. 

Indeed it appears that Jesus deliberately chose this word for his answer, as, according to Mark, the questioners had used a different Greek word that means simply ‘give’ (in v.14).10

Before we come to the exercise, I’ll give one more background point. First, consider this briefly:



Why did the religious leaders think that that the question about paying Roman tax would be a trap for Jesus?

In thinking about this, be aware that, immediately after the Parable of the Tenants, the text says: “They were seeking to arrest him… for they realized that he had addressed the parable to them” (v. 12).


Some Jews in Jesus’ day favoured active rebellion against Roman rule: refusal of Roman demands (such as for tax) and use of military force to try to throw the Romans out.  The label ‘zealots’ came to be used for such rebels, and we can use this here.11. To understand what is going on in this exchange about tax, we have to be aware of the zealots.  This is the last background point.

Zealots spoke the language of the coming of God’s kingship.  They understood this in terms of using military power to restore David’s throne.  For them especially, Roman tax was a hated symbol of oppressive rule and they opposed paying it.

As we know, Jesus used the same language: his main message was that God’s reign was coming.  So he sounded like an anti-Roman rebel.  In the drama of that week in Jerusalem, the religious leaders were out to get Jesus.  They wanted a reason to arrest him.  If they could flush him out him out as siding with the zealots and refusing Roman authority, they would have a powerful reason to arrest him and hand him over to the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate.  It seems very likely that, for this reason, they wanted him to answer, “No, we Jews should not pay the tax”.

But they thought too that if he said, “Yes, we Jews should pay the tax”, he would be in trouble.  Jesus represented great hope for many ordinary, poor people.  His message was ‘good news’, precisely because he announced that God’s reign was coming.  If he simply said, ‘Yes, obey Rome’, he message of hope would be nullified.  He would look like a compromiser, and he would no longer be a threat to the Jewish leaders or to Rome.

So the religious leaders thought their question would trap him.  One commentary on Mark sums up the position succinctly: “If he says yes he loses favour with the many Jews who resent Roman occupation.  If he says no he is exposed as a rebel against Rome”.12

But the last verse in the passage says that, after Jesus’ reply, his hearers “were utterly amazed at him”.  This suggests that they had failed to ensnare him.  If he had fallen into the trap, they wouldn’t have been so amazed.  This is hugely important for how we should understand Jesus’ statement.  Any interpretation cannot be adequate that claims that his answer was simply, “Yes, we should pay the tax”, or “No, we must not pay” – because neither of these replies would have been ‘amazing’ enough.

In light of all this, what did Jesus mean?



Trying to keep that background information in mind, see if you can answer the following three questions.  To do this, you’ll need to study the text of Mark 12:1-17 quite closely, focusing especially on the controversy about tax in vv. 13-17.  Try to set aside an hour for this exercise, or even more, in order to get the most out of it.

1.  The Parable of the Tenants raised in a very pointed way the question of Jesus’ own identity.  It asked: should he be seen as the vineyard-owner’s son?

But ask this: in what ways did questions about identity also come up in the exchange about tax?  Why did Jesus ask about the Roman coin?  What do you think he was getting at?

2.  See if you can come up with three possible interpretations of Jesus’ statement, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God”.  (Maybe you’ll be able to suggest more than three.)


3.  Of the possible interpretations you have thought of, which is the most convincing?

For this third question, you might find it helpful to look at one other short passage in the Gospels.  Within a few days of the incident we’re focusing on, Jesus had been arrested and the religious leaders brought him before the Roman Governor, Pilate.  All four gospels refer to this, but read the short account in Luke: Luke 23:1-5.  According to this, the religious leaders accused Jesus of advocating non-payment of Roman taxes – but Pilate evidently didn’t believe them, even though this was just the kind of thing it was Pilate’s job to stamp on.  Pilate found him not guilty of this.





If you are reading this without having done the Exercise, I encourage you to do it – or at least to read the Response.  Study of this passage, which includes what is probably the most famous statement in the New Testament about government, is well worthwhile.

Here is how the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church briefly outlines what Jesus’ statement meant:

In his pronouncement on the paying of taxes to Caesar…, he affirms that we must give to God what is God’s, implicitly condemning every attempt at making temporal power divine or absolute… At the same time, temporal power has the right to its due: Jesus does not consider it unjust to pay taxes to Caesar. (Compendium, #379)



In the light of your study, do you think this gives an accurate and fair summary?


You’ll be asked to do a reading from the Compendium that includes that quotation later in this unit.

On the last screen, before we turned to detailed study of this passage, we had noticed that Jesus’ ministry was driven by concern for a deeper, more far-reaching renewal of Israel’s common life than could ever be achieved by earthly government.  He called all sorts of people into a community of love of God and neighbour, of unlimited mutual forgiveness, of obedience of the heart.



Do you think that Jesus’ overall message and approach, as outlined in the last screen and summarized here, corresponds with what we have found in studying “Render to Caesar…”?


We have seen that Jesus turned the question about paying Roman tax back on to the questioners, making it about what was owed to God.  Compared with this, issues about Roman tax were of secondary importance – as were questions about human government in general, including restoring David’s physical kingdom.

This really does fit closely, it seems to me, with his message overall.

But, one part of what made Jesus’ answer ‘amazing’ was that, as a preacher of the coming of God’s reign, he put across that, under God, Caesar has a place.  What this does is recast the question we are addressing in this unit. To recall, this is: according to the Scriptures, what is the role of human government?  While, relative to what is owed to God, this hardly matters, if Caesar has a place, it is a real question.  Indeed this reaffirms that the question has to be asked.

In summary, Jesus does not answer the question about the role of human government – but his answer on tax sets it up in a new way.  Under the God whose reign is coming through Jesus the Messiah, how does human government fit in – even Roman imperial government?

When, a few decades later, St Paul was writing to the new church in Rome, the capital of the Empire, he found himself addressing exactly this question.  We shall look at this on the next screen.  But here is what he wrote, very briefly, about the role of human government.

For rulers are not a cause of fear to good conduct, but to evil. Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good and you will receive approval from it, for it is a servant of God for your good.  But if you do evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer [or ‘to bring retribution to wrongdoers’.]13. Therefore, it is necessary to be subject not only because of the wrath but also because of conscience.  This is why you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. (Romans 13: 3-6, NAB)

This is in fact the fullest statement in the New Testament about the role of human government.  It basically sees this as judicial, and in this way it fits with the Hebrew Scriptures’ emphasis that judgment in court is what rulers should do.

However the most amazing thing about this passage is that St Paul calls the Roman authorities “ministers of God”.  He sees the imperial rulers as servants of Israel’s God, the God of Jesus Christ!

This takes forward the logic of Jesus’ statement, “Render to Caesar…”, in a way that Jesus’ own hearers would have found even more astonishing.

Our study of Jesus, on this and the previous screen, has been more demanding, requiring harder thinking, than anything else in the module so far.

To conclude, we can say: from what we’ve looked at, the New Testament presents the issue of the role of government as of secondary importance, relative to what God was doing in the mission of Jesus.  But Jesus himself and then St Paul put across that, under God, earthly government has a place, and therefore a proper role.

The last four screens have all been about what we find in the Scriptures about the role of government.  As you can see, there is far more that’s directly about this in the Old Testament than in the New.  What we find in the New Testament is that the question is cast in a new light, given by the gospel of the coming of God’s reign.  But there is not actually a different answer to it from that in the Hebrew Bible.


End of 2.2.6

Go to 2.2.7 Why should people accept government’s claim to authority?

Module B outline

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  1. In Mark and Luke, the exchange about tax immediately follows the Parable of the Tenants, which in turn immediately follows the religious leaders’ question about Jesus’ authority.  In Matthew, there are three parables between the two exchanges, of which the Parable of the Tenants is in the middle.  If, as most scholars hold, Mark was the first of these three gospels to be written and was known to Matthew, it seems likely that Matthew’s editing led to the location of the additional parables there. 

  2. In large part, the “chief priests, the scribes, and the elders” made up the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council, before which Jesus appeared a few days later; see Mark 14:53.  Moloney emphasizes that, as a whole, Mark 11.27-12.44 portrays Jesus in conflict with “the religious leaders of Israel” (F. Moloney, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary, Hendrickson, 2002, 229-30).  Witherington says: “What examining the material in 11:27-12:17 together makes most evident is that Jesus’ primary clash is with the religious leaders of early Judaism, not with ordinary Jews per se,” B. Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Eerdmans, 2001), 318. 

  3. According to this verse, the religious leaders, sent “some Pharisees and Herodians” to ensnare him.  Who were these groups?  We don’t really need to know this for the purpose of the exercise to follow, but here is an outline:

    –        The Pharisees were Jewish teachers (not priests) who argued that the people needed to intensify their obedience to the Torah, in order to be faithful to God.  In some ways Jesus was like the Pharisees, but he also criticised them for focusing on outward performance of the Torah’s requirements.  The Pharisees would have found the blasphemous inscription on the Roman coin (as described later) extremely offensive. Yet historical evidence suggests they were probably divided on whether the Roman tax should be paid.  Some favoured it, probably because the Scriptures nowhere opposed paying taxes imposed by Babylonian and Persian rulers earlier in Israel’s history (see R. Bauckham, The Bible in Politics: How to Read the Bible Politically, SPCK, 1989, 81).  Others, probably a minority in Jesus’ time, opposed it.  “The majority of Pharisees in Jesus’ time… probably treated the pagan government as a necessary evil, with which one should co-operate but not fraternize”, Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Yale Bible 27; Yale, 2009), 822.  It seems unlikely that the Pharisees sent by the religious leaders (some of whom were themselves Pharisees) to ask about paying tax were the sort who would oppose paying it.  This outline of the Pharisees draws on Baukham and Marcus, as cited, and on N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (SPCK, 1992), pp. 181-203.

    –        The Herodians were quite different.  King Herod the Great and his sons, one of whom ruled Galilee at the time of Jesus’ ministry, were nominally Jewish and were backed by the Romans.  They favoured a strategy of compromise with Rome in order to gain benefits for the Jews.  ‘Herodians’ basically means supporters of the Herodian regime. They would have strongly supported paying the Roman tax.  See Marcus, Mark 8-16, 816. 

  4. Witherington, Gospel of Mark, 318.  Here he is following Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Orbis, 1988), 306: “Myers has noted a near identical five-step pattern to the two narratives which surround the parable of the vineyard in Mark 12:1-12.   The pattern shared by the controversy narratives in 11:27-33 and 12:13-17 involves: (1) Jesus being approached by religious/political opponents; (2) they challenge him with a question concerning his authority; (3) Jesus poses a counterquestion, challenging the opponents to reveal their own views and loyalties; (4) the opponents respond; (5) Jesus answers the original question accordingly.”  Other apparent examples of such ‘sandwich’ passages in Mark include 6:7-32, 11:12-25, 14:1-11 and 14:53-72. 

  5. For ease of access, this reading has been put into a page on VPlater (simply because it starts near the end of one chapter and goes on to the next, so that it has to be read on two different pages in the NAB online). 

  6. Witherington, Gospel of Mark, 320.  He points out too that its subject matter, absentee landowners, would have been familiar in the context: “One of the most volatile of all social situations in Israel was the phenomenon of absentee landlords holding property…, something which had been going on to some degree for nearly three hundred years before the time of Jesus” (ibid.). 

  7. Several commentators suggest that Jesus has put his questioners on the spot simply by asking them to produce one of these controversial coins bearing Caesar’s image.  Even though they were in the Temple precincts, it appears they could do so easily. 

  8. Marcus, Mark 8-16, 824.  Marcus says that, as well as the coin’s attribution of the status ‘son of a god’ to Caesar, the name Augustus meant, ‘The one to be served with religious awe’. 

  9. C.E.B. Cranfield, St Mark (CUP, 1959), 372.  The Greek word is apodote, plural imperative of the verb apodidomi

  10. This was dounai. Surprisingly, both the NAB and the NRSV translate this as ‘pay’. 

  11. Some scholars argue that this label may not have been in use until after Jesus’ time, but we may use it for those Jews who favoured rebellion against Rome in a longer period, as long as we acknowledge that the label itself may be anachronistic. 

  12. J. Donahue SJ and D. Harrington SJ, The Gospel of Mark (Sacra Pagina Series, Liturgical Press, 2002), 345. 

  13. The translation in square brackets is from the New Jerusalem Bible translation.  It reflects the judicial context in which what Paul expressed in this verse makes sense.