This is the third part of my commentary on Mark 12 as we look at this chapter in its original context. We are asking the question, “what did this passage of scripture mean to its original hearers?” and it is transformative to our understanding for certain. Be sure to see the other parts of this commentary too as each builds on the previous.
Give to Caesar…
After Jesus tells the parable to of the tenants some Pharisees and Herodians come to him with a question about taxation. Before we get to the question, here’s a little background on this issue. Why was it so important? What would the original hearers of the question have thought about paying taxes to Caesar?
What’s So Bad About Taxes?
Almost all Jews hated paying taxes to a foreign ruler. In fact, one first century group know as the Zealots were strictly opposed to it. To the Zealots and even those who were influenced by their thinking, Roman taxation was seen as enslavement, and they refused to compromise even one inch. Furthermore, it was wrong to pay taxes to a pagan because it was all God’s. Josephus records that Judah of Gamla organized a large revolt around 4 AD over the Roman census introduced by Quirinius. Josephus writes for his Roman benefactors that Judas was a bandit and only desired to be king. Josephus also writes:
“The nation was infected with their doctrine to an incredible degree, which became the cause of its many misfortunes, the robberies and murders committed.”
In Luke 2:1-2 it is mentioned that the birth of Jesus took place during the first census while Quirinius was governor of Syria, so it is possible that this revolt took place during the time of Jesus’ birth. The purpose of a census was to assess wealth and how much money could be taxed out of a region. It wasn’t merely “Let’s count how many people are in the land”, it was for taxation purposes. For this reason it was something which would begrudge the people against their ruler, probably why when David took one it was not a good thing but rather something that would be bad for the people.
The Tax Revolt of 4 AD was brutally put down and thousands upon thousands of Jews died. We learn from Gamaliel in Acts 5:37 that Judah (rendered “Judas” in most translations) was killed and his followers scattered. This uprising was still in recent memory circa 33 AD and it’s likely that many people of Jesus’ day knew someone who died in that uprising. Furthermore even though the revolt was crushed, the Zealots lived on during this time and were very actively killing pagans and pagan-sympathizers. When you read this passage, it’s crucial to understand that when they asked this question of Jesus it came with a massive amount of emotional baggage for him and all who were listening in (it was very common to listen to the rabbis discuss, so it’s quite possible that in such a busy place as the temple courts, Jesus could have had a large crowd of hundreds listening in).
The Pharisees, contrary to popular misconception, were the “good guys”. They were the Bible thumping “conservatives” of their day. But alot of people want to point to the first verse of this little section which says:
“Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, ‘Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?'”
First of all, the fact that they were trying to “catch him in his words” doesn’t mean they were against him. This is something Jews do all the time and still do to this day. If one rabbi disagrees with another, he’ll usually send some of his disciples to the other rabbi to ask him a question like this: “Rabbi so-and-so’s interpretation of this Bible passage abolishes the Torah! Go test him!” where the term “abolish” just means that by interpreting incorrectly he teaches others to disobey a command in the Torah and therefore the whole thing (see James 2:10). So the disciples go and try to trap him into accepting their own rabbi’s interpretation. This still goes on today at major Jewish universities. So do not think that they hated him because they were trying to trap him; that’s just how Rabbinic Judaism functions.
The next thing you might point to in order to try and say that these guys didn’t like him is that they patronize him. But this too is the common practice, informally referred to today as “the shtick”. Ray Vander Laan, who has been in doctoral classes at Yeshiva University in New York said in a lecture it goes something like this today: “Rabbi, you are a wise and gracious man. Your reputation has spread before you throughout all of God’s community. May I ask you a question?” And so here we see the Pharisees and Herodians playing by normal Jewish custom by first giving the shtick; they are respectful of Jesus.
But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
And they were amazed at him.
Finally you might point to the fact that Jesus “knew their hypocrisy” and say that it obviously means that they were trying to trap him for insidious reasons. However, I’d like to propose something different. What does hypocrite mean? It means you say one thing and then do another. In the first century the emperors of Rome had declared themselves to be a god, the son of Zeus. Jesus himself confirms that Caesar’s picture is on the coin. Anything with a depiction of a pagan god was an idol and therefore unclean to touch. So the very fact that they asked him this question but yet had a denarius smacked of hypocrisy at the highest levels; notice Jesus never touches it or asks to hold it but merely asks to look at it. He goes on to answer their question and they are amazed at his answer.
Why was his answer so amazing? They were standing in the temple courts and the money changers were probably not far away (perhaps they had set back up in the temple after Jesus had cleared it out, or maybe they were now outside the temple, but either way they were close). They had to be close because you had to change Caesar’s unclean idol-money into temple money in order to buy anything at the temple. Remember the Zealots said that paying taxes to a pagan ruler was wrong because it all belongs to God. But the fact was that you could not possibly give Roman money at the temple or use it to buy a sacrifice; you had to trade it in first. And so Jesus brilliantly walks the fine line and points out that what belongs to Caesar (the denarius) give it back to him, and what belongs to God (your sacrifice) give that to Him. God doesn’t need Caesar’s denarius – he doesn’t need anything. But what he wants is your willing obedience to give to Him what he has commanded.
Continue on for Part 4: A Silly Question.
Peace to you,
Footnotes (footnotes are labeled from the start of the commentary, not for individual pages):
5. Josephus, “Wars of the Jews” ii. 8, § 1; Josephus, “Antiquities of the Jews” xviii. 1, §§ 1, 6; comp. Josephus, “Wars of the Jews” ii. 17, § 8
6. See 1 Chronicles 21:1 where a census is attributed to the work of Satan.