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
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.
This domination system benefited the elites who created it. Wealth in the ancient world came primarily from farms. Through a combination of taxation and ownership of farm land, the Roman and native elites of the first century (and most centuries) extracted about two-thirds of agricultural production. The farmers who produced it (90% of the population) got the remaining one-third, leaving them with a subsistence (or worse) level of existence.
The tax in question was the annual tribute tax to Rome. Jews were divided about this tax. The Temple authorities and their retainers (including Temple scribes) collaborated with Roman rule and endorsed the tax. But Jews sympathetic to the resistance to Roman authority rejected it. Such refusal was the equivalent of sedition.
The question put to Jesus was a trap. Either a yes or no answer would have gotten Jesus in trouble. "Yes" would have discredited him with those who found the imperial domination system reprehensible and unacceptable. "No" would have made him subject to arrest for sedition.
Jesus avoided the trap with two moves. First, he asked his opponents for a coin. When they produced one, Jesus looked at it and asked, "Whose image and inscription is this?"
It was, of course, an image of Caesar (presumably of Tiberius, the current Caesar). Moreover, its inscription heralded Tiberius as "son of the divine Augustus" (that is, son of a divine being) and would have been offensive to many Jews.
Not all coins in the Jewish homeland had images of Caesar, or any other kind of graven image. Out of respect for Jewish law, coins minted by Herod the Great and his son Herod Antipas did not. Many devout Jews avoided using coins with images. Thus, by eliciting from his opponents a coin with a graven image, Jesus discredited them with at least some in the crowd.
The coin bearing Caesar's image set up Jesus' second move, the famous saying itself: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."
In context, the saying is thoroughly ambiguous. The word "render" means "give back." The first half of the saying could thus mean, "It's Caesar's coin--go ahead and give it back to him." We can imagine Jesus saying this with a dismissive shrug. Rather than a pronouncement about the legitimacy of Roman imperial rule or political authority in general, his words might very well have been a brilliant way of evading the trap.
When its second half is added, the phrase remains equally ambiguous. What belongs to Caesar, and what belongs to God? The possible answers range from "Pay your tribute tax to Caesar, and your temple tax to God" to "Everything belongs to God." If the latter, what is owed to Caesar? Nothing. But the text itself provides no clue as to what was meant.
Jesus responded in a deliberately enigmatic way in order to avoid the trap set by his opponents. His response was never meant to be figured out. Rather, in this passage as in several others, we see his deft debating skill.
Thus this text offers little or no guidance for tax season. It neither claims taxation is legitimate nor gives aid to anti-tax activists. It neither counsels universal acceptance of political authority nor its reverse.
But it does raise the provocative and still relevant question: What belongs to God, and what belongs to Caesar? And what if Caesar is Hitler, or apartheid, or communism, or global capitalism? What is to be the attitude of Christians toward domination systems, whether ancient or modern?