Chapter and Verse: Matthew 22:15-22
The imperial tax debated in this passage was paid on agricultural yield and personal property; it had been collected on the basis of census registration since Judea came under Roman rule in 6/7CE, and thus, resentment of the tax was coupled with resentment of Roman rule. For Jews, the tax was a further insult: The tax was paid using a coin bearing the image (at this time) of Tiberius Caesar, a stepson of the divinised Caesar Augustus; to Rome, Tiberius was a “son of god”.
When Jesus asks for a coin, his questioners produce one, showing that they are willing to carry an image of Roman oppression and religion into the courts of the Temple. Two important historical events help us to understand the background here: (1) “The abomination that desolates” (as referenced in Daniel 9:27), where, at around 167BCE, the Greeks set a statue of Zeus in the Jewish Temple as an act of conquest, desecrating the Temple so much that it had to be rededicated (Hanukkah) once the Jews were free again, and, (2) The Jewish revolt against the Romans in 70CE (before the writing of Matthew’s Gospel and known to Matthew’s readers) where the Temple was destroyed. With these events in our minds, we can see that the political and religious leaders alike (Herodians and Pharisees) commit a small desolation of their own by bringing this coin into the Temple.
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” (22:17) and, what does Jesus’ answer say about the relationship between “the state” and God? It is not clear which law is in question – the Law of Moses, or Roman law – and that confusion renders the question only partly about taxes; importantly, it’s also about authority. I have two comments to make about this:…
This is an extract from the October 2014 edition of Reform.