Testing a King: taxes and faith

Coinage1The question of authority continues to play out in this and the following controversy narratives. In this scene the Herodians have been added to the playing field as a counterpoint and yet similar view as the Pharisees. Boring (Matthew, The New Interpreters Bible) comments:

Although the Herodians play no role in Matthew’s time… they represent the overt supporters of the Roman regime and would support paying the tax. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were popular with the people because they in principle resented and resisted the tax, but did not go as far as the radical nationalists who publicly resisted its payment. [p. 420]

The controversy is initiated by those Pharisees who have already decided to kill Jesus (Mt 12:14). It is ironic because in that in each of the three following controversies (taxes, resurrection, the Great Commandment), Jesus affirms the Pharisees’ positions. But then it was not about the answers; it was about authority as it has been since 21:23 “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?

Taxes and Faith. Certainly the question of taxes is as much about authority as any topic. And there is perhaps no thorny or inflammatory topic of conversation than taxes. As noted in v.18, it is with “malice” that the Herodians ask about the census tax payable to Rome. The empire exacted three types of taxes: a ground tax, which required that ten per cent of all grain and twenty per cent of all oil and wine production be given to Rome; an income tax, equivalent to one per cent of a person’s income; and a poll/census tax, which amounted to a denarius or a full day’s wage. To add insult to injury, the tax could be paid only in Roman coin, most of which contained an image and inscription considered blasphemous by many Jews: Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus Pontifex Maximus (“Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest”).

There are four different words used in the NT for taxes.

  • The most general is telos (used of “taxes” in Mt 17:25; Ro 13:7)
  • The word in our text kensos is borrowed from Latin (“census”) which was a tax paid by each adult to the government (Mt 17:25; 22:17, 19; Mk 12:14).
  • The word used in Luke’s parallel phoros is the payment made by the people of one nation to another, with the implication that this is a symbol of submission and dependence. (Lu 20:22; 23:2; Ro 13:6, 7).
  • The final word, didrachmon, refers to the annual temple tax of two drachmos required from each male Jew (Mt 17:5).

The idea of taxes is laced with controversy in both the secular and religious worlds. Combine the two arenas and the results can be disastrous. Remember that from the perspective of Israel, their God-given homeland was under foreign occupation. The census tax, which was instituted in 6 CE when Judea became a Roman province, triggered the nationalism that finally became the Zealot movement, which fomented the disastrous war of 66-70 (the Jewish War according to Josephus) that resulted in the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple. The annual payment of the census tax to Rome was a painful reminder of being in lands occupied by foreign powers who worshiped false gods.

The Question: The question comes only after some false praise. The opening address to Jesus “Teacher” (didaskalos) uses a secular term rather than the religious connotation of Rabbi. Nonetheless they opening lines note that Jesus is a “truthful man” and teach “the way of God in accordance with the truth.” It is not clear who the words are intended for. It is easy to imagine they words are intended for the listening crowds. The opening contains the sort of complimentary words with which a rhetorician might seek an audience’s favor at the same time seeking to have their opponent lower his guard.

Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” The question had a superficial innocence about it, since Jesus, as a Galilean under Herod’s jurisdiction, was not subject to this particular tax, and so was in a position to give an “objective” opinion without his personal political status being affected. But there is little doubt that a negative answer would have been used to denounce him to the Roman authorities (as Luke 20:20 says explicitly).

The question itself is likely an halakic question that seeks to clear up a point of law or teaching. But in reality it is just a means to the already planned ends – Jesus’ execution (Mt 12:16). They are asking a question calculated either to alienate the people of Jerusalem and the nationalists (if Jesus replied in the affirmative) or to make him subject to arrest by the Romans (if he declared against paying the tax). The people in the crowd would have been well aware the Jesus was from Galilee by either reputation or the accent of his voice. The memory of an early revolt against taxes and Roman domination by Judas the Galilean would likely have been a strong catalyst for whatever his answer might be. The Pharisees are there to fan the discontentment should he support the tax, undercutting his popular, messianic support. The Herodians are there to report him to the Romans as an insurrectionist if he denies the taxing authority.


  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.