In response to the recent story that Kent Hovind has committed tax fraud, many bloggers have criticized him for not "Rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar's." I'm here to try to set the record straight on that quote and its use here (based on my favored historical interpretation).
First, what the Bible says, in full:
"Tell us, then, what You think. Is it lawful to pay taxes [KJV tribute] to Caesar, or not?" But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why put Me to the test, you hypocrites? Show Me the money for the tax." And they brought Him a coin. And Jesus said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" They said, "Caesar's." Then He said to them, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (Matthew 22:17-21 RSV)
To add a bit more context, "tribute" refers to the Temple tax that all Jewish men over 20 were required to pay. In contrast to Roman tax, this tribute had to be paid using the Jewish half-Shekel (one of their coins)1. So, going back to what Jesus said, it essentially means "Pay the government with the government's money, and the temple with the temple's money." To me, this sounds like the obfuscation of a politician in response to a direct question. He completely avoided the issue of whether they should be paying money at all, and instead told him which coin they should use if they are paying. If one does not wish to pay, they might infer from this that all they have to do is keep all their money in Jewish coins.
So, Hovind might actually have been making a reasonable interpretation of this passage in his case. If he firmly believes that all his money is the church's money, then a strict interpretation of the passage would tell him that none of that money is due to "Caesar."
I could stop there, but whenever I'm faced with a politician obfuscating in the face of a question, I just feel I have to find out how they really feel. So, what did Jesus really believe?
In this era, there was a repeated trend for the rise of Jewish zealots, generally from somewhat outside conventional society. The goal of most of them was to overthrow Rome by violent means and reestablish the Jewish empire. They firmly believed that Rome had no right to govern them. From information gleaned from the Dead Sea scrolls, we have a rough idea of how these zealots acted. When you compare it to how the Bible describes the activities of John the Baptist, there are striking similarities. John is also said to be the forerunner of Jesus by Christians (and also a relative of his by some others). So, was Jesus one of these Zealots, too?
According to the church, Jesus was different and advocated a peaceful revolution (I'll explore this issue a lot more in a future post). A revolution was still a revolution, however, which was why the Romans had him executed. (I should emphasize here, just because so many people get it wrong, the Jews were not to blame.)
However, Jesus wasn't strictly non-violent. Straight from the Bible:
"And they came to Jerusalem. And He entered the Temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the Temple, and He overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons; and He would not allow any one to carry anything through the Temple. And He taught, and said to them, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers." (Mark 11:15-17 RSV)
The church explains these actions by saying that he was driven to it because he was so enraged by the corruption of the money-changers and other people there1. Even granting them that, it still shows that he could be driven to violence against the state. What happened to his habit of responding to the worst in humans with pithy, deep quotes like "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone"?
So consistency isn't the Bible's forté (again, more on this in a future post). For now, I'll just leave the alternate interpretation as a possibility. If Jesus was one of these zealots, then he would likely have believed that nothing was due to Rome. His line might even be interpreted to mean "Why are you using these coins at all? Reject Caesar's coin and only use the temple's."