What Belongs to God?

Jesus' famous 'render unto Caesar' saying flummoxed his opponents and leaves today's Christians scratching their heads

In a famous passage about taxes, Jesus said, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mark 12:13-17; the same passage appears, slightly modified, in Matthew 22:15-22 and Luke 20:20-26).

Over the centuries, many Christians have based their attitudes toward government on this passage. Some have thought that Jesus' statement establishes two separate realms, Caesar's and God's, and that people should render to each what they ask for in their respective realms. This interpretation strikes many Americans as obviously correct, given our separation of church and state.

Yet in their historical context, these words of Jesus had little to do

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with taxation or political authority in general. Jews in the first century paid several taxes: tithes to the Temple (averaging about 21% a year), customs taxes, and taxes on land. The people identified as Jesus' opponents were not questioning taxes in general. Their question was more specific: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?"


Caesar, the emperor of Rome, was the head of an imperial domination system. Rome took control of the Jewish homeland in 63 B.C.E. and ruled it through client kings (such as Herod and his sons) and Roman governors.

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