Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority[ does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.(Romans 13:1-7, New Revised Standard Version Bible)

These are the infamous words of “Saint” Paul in his letter (viz., epistle) to a budding Christian community in Rome. It was written by Paul in Corinth and, we may surmise, carried to Rome over land and sea by a trusted courier. The words comprise the first seven verses of Chapter 13 of Paul’s epistle, entitled “Romans,” which most scholars agree was written circa 58CE, and is authentically Paul’s own words, which isn’t true of all thirteen of his epistles. Since it is found in the canon Bible of the Christian Church, Romans 13:1-7, has been interpreted by statists as Christianity’s official endorsement of taxation and human government. Indeed, it is the official position of the Catholic Church as stated in its Catechism: “Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one’s country.” It then cites from the above passage.

However, this was not–NOT–the position of Jesus of Nazareth, the founder of Christianity, although his brilliant riposte, “Give Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” in response to the question whether or not to pay Caesar’s tax, has long been misinterpreted by statists to mean, pay your taxes. But his words didn’t mean that at all. Rather they mean precisely what they say: “Give Caesar what belongs to him.” Clearly, Jesus meant give Caesar nothing, since no one among his listeners nor in the entire Roman Empire had anything in their possession belonging to Caesar. Caesar plundered, murdered, conquered, enslaved and took whatever he wanted, he did not give or lend anything–ever. Here is how the incident is recorded in the Gospel of Luke:

When the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people. So they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But he perceived their craftiness and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?” They said, “The emperor’s.” 2He said to them, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were not able in the presence of the people to trap him by what he said; and being amazed by his answer, they became silent. (Luke 20:19-26 NRSV)

Obviously, the entrapping question was crafted with malice of forethought. The chief priests knew a great deal about Jesus–the man–both from previous encounters (he bested them on those occasions as on this), and from the reports of spies as recorded in he gospels. They knew Jesus was condemning Rome’s punishing taxes, which were impoverishing especially the peasant Jews who flocked to hear and be healed by Jesus–and it scared the hell out of them. After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the Gospel of John reports the chief priests’ concern:

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”

What could Jesus possibly be teaching that would cause the Romans to destroy an already subdued nation whose inhabitants were paying heavy taxes into Rome’s coffers? The only logical answer is he was preaching principles that forbid the practice of extortion by taxation.

The priests also knew Jesus wouldn’t recant statements he had previously made indicative of his opposition to taxes. They knew from bitter experience he would speak the truth as he saw it no matter who was listening. They had experienced the lash of his tongue in the form of not-too-subtle parables he told against them only minutes or hours before the render-unto-Caesar dust up. Their flattering preface to the insidious question was right on target. They knew he wouldn’t endorse Caesar’s tax, or they wouldn’t have chosen that question for their trap.

Would Jesus endorse Caesar’s tax? Taxes violate God’s Seventh Commandment, “Thou shall not steal.” Tax collectors employ force and coercion to mulct taxpayers. Their crime is identical to extortion as defined in every jurisdiction in America. Taxation is theft. Taxes obliterate Jesus’ core principles to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, and to do only to others what you would have done to you. Caesar’s tribute levy, the tax of the render-unto-Caesar incident, required payment with the Roman denarius, with its blasphemous graven image of Caesar and text proclaiming Tiberius “son of divine Augustus,” a violation of the First Commandment. Jewish law (the Torah) proscribes paying tribute to anyone but the God of Israel. Rome used the revenues of its taxes to engage in wars of of violent conquest, to plunder and loot, murder and enslave innocent people throughout much of the world then known. What would Jesus do? He would not pay taxes.

To make his point clear, he added this: “Give God what belongs to God.” This requires knowing what belongs to Caesar and God respectively from Jesus’ viewpoint. Sacred Jewish Scripture, which Jesus consistently called on to justify himself and his teaching, is emphatic. In at least six places it states, as in Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” which leaves nothing for poor old Caesar, and nothing is precisely what Jesus was telling his listeners to pay to Caesar in the form of taxes.

Pilate was governor and procurator, responsible for the collection of Rome’s taxes in Judea. The chief priests knew Pilate wouldn’t tolerate anyone preaching resistance to Caesar’s taxes within his jurisdiction. When those spies reported back to their handlers, the priests and lawyers, and told them what Jesus had said, these men were not befuddled as their dumb spies had been. They then sent armed Temple police to take Jesus by force. They couldn’t kill him themselves, because Rome reserved the subjugating power of execution to its sovereign self. So they turned him over to Pilate and charged him with sedition for opposing Caesar’s tax.

Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king…He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.”(Luke 23:1-5 NRSV)

Note: The New Living Translation of the Bible, rather than “stirs up the people,” says ‘he is causing riots,” which alone would be sufficient reason for Pilate to execute him for sedition.

There is much more in the gospels indicative of Jesus’ unflinching opposition to taxes. So what could possibly lead Paul to pen Romans 13:1-7 in words so inimical to the teaching of his beloved Savior? I can imagine three possible answers to this conundrum.

1. Paul didn’t write the offending passage, rather it is an interpolation inserted in Paul’s Epistle at a latter date by a scribe or other interested party. This view was first enunciated by new-testament scholar, James Kallas in a 1965 article in a respected scholarly journal. (James Kallas, “Romans 13:1-7: An Interpolation,” New Testament Studies, 11 (1965), 365-66) An exhaustive exegesis of the text, and an analysis of Kallas’ remarkable conclusion is here: https://bible.org/article/paul-and-civil-obedience-romans-131-7

2. Paul’s words were meant to be ironic, and would have been understood as such by the intended recipients, the Christian community in Rome. Considering that the Emperor at the time was the notorious Nero, Paul’s words as read without irony were meant for any Roman official who might inspect and read his letter during its long journey from Corinth to Rome–all in territory under the control of the Romans, whereas the intended recipients would grasp the irony knowing none of the cosseting remarks about authority and paying taxes could apply to Nero or his evil empire. Think of a Jewish rabbi in Germany during the Third Reich writing a theological letter to what remained of his flock after Kristallnacht inserting in it some flattering remarks about their beloved leader, and calling for strict obedience to the edicts of the Nazis. No Jew in Germany at the time would misconstrue the remarks to mean what they said rather than the opposite.

3. Paul never met Jesus and did not know of his adamant opposition to Rome’s taxes, and his reforming at least two of the Empire’s tax collectors and possibly many more. One, Zacchaeus, was the chief tax collector in Jericho and under Pilate! Unlike Jesus, who was crucified by Rome in accordance with Roman law, Paul was a Roman citizen–and proud of it! As such, he was a beneficiary of those Roman taxes, and personally exempt from the tribute tax of the render-unto-Caesar incident. He did not renounce his citizenship even after his remarkable conversion on the road to Damascus. He depended on that citizenship like a vampire-repelling amulet in times of trouble:

The next morning the city officials sent the police to tell the jailer, “Let those men go!” So the jailer told Paul, “The city officials have said you and Silas are free to leave. Go in peace.” But Paul replied, “They have publicly beaten us without a trial and put us in prison—and we are Roman citizens. So now they want us to leave secretly? Certainly not! Let them come themselves to release us!” When the police reported this, the city officials were alarmed to learn that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens.  So they came to the jail and apologized to them. (Acts 16:35-38)

As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, the commander ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. He directed that he be flogged and interrogated in order to find out why the people were shouting at him like this. As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?” When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “This man is a Roman citizen.” The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen? “Yes, I am,” he answered. Then the commander said, “I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship.” But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied. Those who were about to interrogate him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains. (Acts 22:23-29)

It goes without saying that Paul relationship to Rome and its taxes was different, if not diametrically opposite, to that of Jesus, the expense of whose execution was funded by those taxes. Paul would never have written Romans 13:1-7,  saying, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God,” if he had read the Gospel of Luke, which was written at a later date. From Luke’s Jesus Paul would have learned that the governing authority of human kingdoms with some men ruling others is derived from Satan–not God!

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Although the devil is a notorious liar, crafty liars always weave some truth into their lies. Satan’s claim to the glory and authority of earthly kingdoms was evidently true, for Jesus did not dispute the claim, and if it wasn’t the truth, it would not have constituted a temptation, as Luke describes it. Furthermore, knowledge of this incident could only have come to Jesus’ disciples from Jesus himself, for he was alone in the wilderness with no one else to witness or report his exchange with Satan.

The featured image is in public domain.