Whenever someone wants to show the Bible supporting taxes they will be quick to turn to Mark 12 to point to the time that Jesus stated “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”. But, contrary to what they think, this is not the evidence for paying taxes that they wish it to be. Instead, this is Jesus escaping another trap and refocusing on his acopolyptic ministry.
Mar 12:13 Then they sent to Him some of the Pharisees and the Herodians, to catch Him in His words.
Mar 12:14 When they had come, they said to Him, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and care about no one; for You do not regard the person of men, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?
Mar 12:15 Shall we pay, or shall we not pay?” But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, “Why do you test Me? Bring Me a denarius that I may see it.”
Mar 12:16 So they brought it. And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.”
Mar 12:17 And Jesus answered and said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at Him.
In verse 13, the Bible points out this is a trap. The Pharisees want to “catch Him in His words”. In order to do that they need to come up with a question, the answer of which is a lose-lose scenario. This is not unlike the woman caught in adultery.
The Jews were very touchy about taxes. In fact one article states that:
During the three hundred years between the rebellion of the Maccabees (164 B.C.) and the Bar Koch rebellion (132 A.D.), there were 62 rebellions by the Jewish People. And every one of those rebellions started over the issue of taxes.
I haven’t been able to find a source for this claim, but I have talked about a tax revolt by Judas of Galilee in the past (the revolts always seemed to start in Galilee). The tax revolt by Judas was well within the memory of the Jewish people and Roman authorities.
If the Pharisees can get Jesus on record supporting taxes to Caesar, then they can stir up the people against him. If the Pharisees can get Jesus on record starting a tax revolt, then they can get the Romans to kill him. No matter how Jesus would answer, he would be vilified.
But Jesus takes a third route. His first action is to ask to see coins “in the Pharisees’ pocket”. This is critical because it turns out that teachers of the law are carrying images of Caesar. In the Jewish culture of the time, this was scandalous. In Josephus’ Antiquities, he describes an instance in which thousands of Jews willingly offered themselves to be massacred by the Romans just because the Romans were trying to bring the image of Caesar into Jerusalem (Ant. 18.59). Jesus’ second action is to shame the question asker. Jesus asks him, in front of others: “Whose image and inscription is this?”
The image was Caesar’s and the inscription read: “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus”. The inscription is not known from the text, but from archeology.
Jesus then attempts to refocus the issue to the coming Kingdom of God. To Jesus, paying taxes was a non-issue. Jesus’ ministry was that there was an imminent coming Kingdom of God which would supplant all current authority on earth with a divine rule. Why care about paying taxes when the end of the world was nigh?
Instead Jesus tells people to render themselves to God. Because the coins were in the image of Caesar the coins should be given to Caser. Because human beings are in the image of God, they should give themselves to God. That is what Jesus meant by “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” That is why they then marvel, because this was a novel take on the matter and avoided their trap.
One thing that this statement is not is a blanket call to say that all taxes everywhere and always are justified and should be paid.
Here is Bart Ehrman on the issue:
That’s why, for Jesus, the present life holds no real attractions. Life in the present age should be at best a matter of indifference. One shouldn’t be concerned about such trivial matters as what kind of clothes to wear or what kind of food to eat. As he says…”seek first the Kingdom of God, and all its right way of living, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). What does its “right way of living” entail? It entails loving God, the one who brings the Kingdom, and one’s neighbor as oneself. All else should be completely secondary in importance. If thieves want to take your clothes—let them! If bullies want to force you to do their work for them—let them! If the government wants to take your money—let them! If thugs want to beat you— let them! If enemies want to kill you—let them! None of these things matters. You should give away your shirt as well as your coat, you should go an extra mile, you should render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, you should turn the other cheek, you should not fear the one who can destroy your paltry body. The Kingdom is coming, and the concerns of this life are trivial by comparison (see Matt. 5:39-42; 10:28; Mark12:17; Luke 6:29-30; 12:4-5)…
For Jesus, since the end of the present order was imminent, taxes were a matter of indifference: “Render unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar” (i.e., the money Caesar minted that bore his own impression; Mark 12:13-17; G.Thom. 100). Such principles were widely debated among different Jewish leaders.