Exegetical extras: Give back to Caesar

Exegetical extras are interesting facts about or alternative interpretations of a particular Scripture passage. They’re here for interest value or to stretch our thinking. Just because something appears here doesn’t mean I’m persuaded it’s correct, just intrigued… Exegetical extras will be posted whenever I come across something interesting. 

Take a look at the well-known confrontation of Jesus and the Pharisees in Matt 22:15-22. This is an “honour challenge” in which the Pharisees try to trap Jesus. They ask him whether it’s right to pay the imperial tax, thinking that whatever answer Jesus gives he’ll lose. If he says “no,” they have evidence to take to Pilate that he’s anti-Rome. If he says “yes,” then the crowds will be less-than-impressed, as they had been seeing Jesus as a Messiah figure – and top of the list for any Messiah was to get rid of the Roman overlords!

However, Jesus gives a careful answer, avoiding both traps. He asks them to bring him a denarius, which has a picture of the emperor on it. (This may indeed have been to demonstrate that the Pharisees, too, had access to Roman coinage and therefore went along with paying the temple tax.) He then says, “give back (apodote) to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give back to God what is God’s.”

The traditional understanding is that Jesus’ answer is a carefully-worded compromise: give Caesar what he demands, but (more importantly) give God his due.

However, I was interested to read in Tom Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God that there is a possible allusion to the last words of Mattathias as recorded in 1 Maccabees 2:68. (Mattathias was a previous Messiah-like figure in a rebellion against Greek oppression 200 years earlier.) On his deathbed, he refused to compromise until the last, calling his followers to continue to rebel against foreign rulers and obey God’s law fully. He said, “Pay back (antapodote) the Gentiles in full, and obey the commands of the law.”

So it may be that Jesus’ answer is even cleverer than was thought. On face value it’s saying “give Caesar the tax he demands” while deliberately echoing Mattathias’s defiant last words “pay back the Gentiles for what they’ve done.” That way he has plausible deniability before Pilate, but keeps the crowds on side. Interesting.

One thought on “Exegetical extras: Give back to Caesar

  1. Good read and very interesting, although whenever I read that passage I think of how they depicted this in “The Bible” TV series with Jesus tossing the coin to a Roman soilder.

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