Rendering to Caesar and to God: Paying Taxes in the Roman World

[1] It has often been said that little is certain in life but death and taxes. In my last article on “Social Movements in Early Christianity,” I dealt at some length with death and burial in the ancient world. With April 15th looming, it seems only right to turn to the second half of the adage and address more closely the topic of taxes in the ancient world.

[2] Early Christianity developed during the Pax Romana (Roman Peace). In a period of relative peace, cultural and political continuity, and trade of goods and ideas, Christianity rapidly spread and found root in the ancient world. Not surprisingly that “Peace” came with a cost, and the Romans levied that cost concretely in the form of taxes.

[3] For all of their distinctiveness in other regards, early Christians quite wisely seem to have paid taxes like any dutiful people living under Roman rule. Indeed Jesus and Paul both go out of their way to emphasize to their communities the importance of paying taxes to the Roman government.[1] The issue of taxation is perhaps most memorably, eloquently, and simply put by Jesus in a story that appears in all three synoptic accounts (Matthew 22.15-22; Mark 12.13-17; Luke 20.20-26). When Jesus is put to the question by a group of Pharisees and Herodians, he cleverly turns their questioning on its head, responding with the oft cited quote: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, Render to God the things that are God’s.” This seemingly simple phrase reflects a range of tensions and obligations that are at the heart of understanding ancient taxation.

[4] Taking this passage as my starting point, this article explores in some detail the political, religious and personal responsibilities that are central to paying taxes in Jesus’ first century CE, Pax Romana context.

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” – Political Responsibilities and Roman Taxes:
[5] The political emphasis of taxation in the ancient world was hard to miss. Indeed one of its simplest expressions was in the form of the very coinage that Jesus uses to flip this story on his questioners. The minting of coins was an archaic period Greek invention that gradually spread throughout the ancient world. Like so many Greek inventions, the Romans employed it to their own ends and expanded it significantly. Roman mines, carefully controlled by the state, produced a vast quantity of raw metal that was then minted into coinage. The minting of coins was one of the fundamental acts of the government and of specific rulers — it was a way to express power, ideology, and propaganda. Minted coins circulated widely throughout the empire and were used to pay the military and facilitated a broad array of economic transactions. In a primarily agricultural society where transactions were often made in goods, or “in kind,” the use of coins could rightly be described as a thin veneer that overlay the larger economic system.[2] It was, though, a very useful veneer when it came to many economic transactions, including the collection of taxes. While Rome occasionally accepted taxes in kind, and even required them from Egypt, Africa, and Sicily in the form of corn, coins were typically demanded for the payment of taxes. This required people of simpler means to convert portions of their wealth into coins, sometimes at a steep cost. This use of coins made the collection of vast wealth into central locations much easier.

[6] In addition to their functional uses, coins also had a strong ideological use. A single coinage system across the whole Empire was a fundamental statement of unity, and in the case of conquered regions, a statement of subjugation. Nor were coins particularly subtle in their messages. The images stamped onto coins on their front (obverse) and back (reverse) sides were very carefully chosen. The obverse of Roman Imperial coins typically portrayed the Emperor or some member of his family in carefully stylized forms. The reverse of coins were more varied. Until the third century CE, the reverse most often reflected local messages, particularly those of cities responsible for the minting of a particular coin issue. In a world with limited literacy, these coins spreading across the Empire provided a highly effective means of propaganda. The coin Jesus would have been referring to could have belonged to any number of issues, but would have had “Caesar,” i.e. Tiberius or Augustus, on the front. A simple internet search of “tribute penny” reveals a rich array of images of such coins and quite the cottage industry should you wish to convert some of your money into your very own Tiberian coin.

[7] The political message of later 1st century CE coinage is hammered home in still sharper relief. Locally minted coins, produced after the Jewish revolt, which would have been heavily circulated in the region during the time the Gospels were being composed, were far less subtle in their political message of subjugation. Coins of Vespasian, for instance, show on the reverse side a palm tree with a lamenting figure beneath it and the bold caption “Judea Capta.” This formula on the reverse of coins with a clearly recognizable symbol of a region and the designation “Capta” was used for a range of provinces that had been incorporated into the Roman Empire through military conquest.

[8] The political impact of taxation was not, of course, limited to the coinage. While Roman taxation differs in many ways, it was no less complex or mystifying than our own systems of taxes. One element that is very clear though in the development of Roman taxation is the degree to which taxes become linked to Roman military conquest and the expansion of the Empire. The Latin word tributum was the most common term for direct taxes on an individual’s wealth.[3] Effectively taxation truly was the “tribute” that Rome demanded of those who came under her control. From as early as the 2nd C. BCE the burden of taxation fell heavily upon Rome’s extensive conquests, which were organized and administered as distinct provinces. In theory Roman citizens and lands in Italy were not subject to direct taxation. This meant that for the Roman Empire to function, significant wealth had to be regularly drawn out of the provinces. One useful model for thinking of this in broad strokes is offered by Keith Hopkins.[4] Essentially the Empire worked as a series of concentric rings. On the outside ring were provinces with large military presences. These provinces were doing exceedingly well if they even managed to cover the costs of the military stationed there. The next ring of provinces was composed of the real money makers, generating the wealth through taxes that made the whole Empire function. And then, at the heart of it all, was Italy and the city of Rome which consumed and allocated this vast wealth while contributing little to it.

[9] The effective burden on the provinces was increased further by the ways that taxes were administered. Rome employed remarkably few government officials in the running of its vast Empire. Instead, many of the duties that we think of as being run by administrators were put in the hands of contractors. Contractors were typically individuals and in the case of large contracts small groups of wealthy Equestrians.[5] These wealthy individuals bid for contracts that gave them the right to collect specific taxes. The wealth of these individuals was paid up front or offered in surety for the allocated amount due from taxation. In return, these “tax farmers” had the right to collect funds much larger than those that were assessed by the government. To make the situation still worse, these “tax farmers” had significant power with few checks and balances. They could call upon the military to enforce their collections in addition to employing their own private brute squads. Local governors, who could in theory offer a slight check on the rapacity of these tax farmers, were typically receiving their own kickbacks.

[10] This system was a necessary consequence of the limited numbers of Roman officials. It had the benefit of ensuring a steady source of revenue for Rome, protected from the vagaries of weather, crop failure, etc. by the wealth of individual investors. The practical reality of this was that these wealthy individuals could and did make vast fortunes from this system. Thanks to the emphasis on euergetism (good works) some of this vast wealth was employed for public benefit in the form of large-scale building efforts undertaken with private contributions. Much of it, of course, went instead to support lavish lifestyles. Provincials had little say in this process of taxation. While provincials occasionally did complain, the political reality was that they had to pay their taxes including the extra expenses set by tax farmers or incur the full wrath of Rome carried out by the vast military that their taxes supported.[6]This, then, is the political and economic context of Jesus’ charge to “Render to Caesar…”

“Render to God what is God’s” – Religious Responsibilities and Taxation:
[11] Part of what made this system of taxation so complex was that it varied significantly from province to province and over time. In a consideration of the religious responsibilities inherent in Jesus’ statement and taxation more generally it is useful to consider the situation in the region of Judea. Thanks to the writings of the New Testament and to the historian Josephus we are relatively well informed about Judea in the first century CE. If the first part of Jesus’ statement “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” was primarily a statement of the political responsibilities of taxation then “Render to God what is God’s” can be read as a statement of religious responsibility. There are, of course, many valences to this simple expression, including more abstract responsibilities of religious duty to God in one’s actions. However, for the purpose of taxation, I want to focus on the more concrete meanings of this seemingly simple statement. All of Roman taxation was linked in part to religious obligation. In a world in which the favor of the gods was seen as essential to the success of Rome, much of religious life was closely linked to the state. It is no surprise, then, that tax revenues helped to support a range of temples and festivals. Indeed, a fitting expression of this religious connection is offered by the central location in Rome of the Temple of Saturn where the tax revenues were kept.

[12] For Jesus’ Jewish audience the statement to “render to God…” refers in addition to other religious obligations expressed in monetary terms. Jews living in Judea had two additional religious responsibilities incumbent on their income. Males over the age of twenty were responsible for yearly paying a temple tax that supported the functioning of the Jewish temple.[7] This temple tax was dutifully paid, albeit with a critique, by Jesus and Peter in Matthew 17:24-27 and evidently was even collected among many Jewish communities living outside of Palestine. Traditionally this half shekel tax was paid in Jewish rather than Roman currency. Temple transactions were all to be paid in Jewish currency for reasons of purity and national identity, which is why money changers were present in the entrance to the Temple. The profiteering that these money changers engaged in was of course part of the reason for the vehemence of Jesus’ reaction to their practices.

[13] In addition to the temple tax, Jews were expected to tithe from their incomes to support the priests. These “first fruits” (aparche) of their produce were offered to honor God and to support their religious way of life.

[14] Jesus’ statement is in response to a question that is put to him by Herodians and Pharisees. The Herodians are, of course, fitting questioners with their strong political interest in the payment of taxes, though the Pharisees are a bit odd. Temple priests might have been more appropriate for their vested interest in the collection of tithes (though these tithes were probably normally paid in kind). The use of Pharisees here can most likely be connected to their presence in many unusual places throughout the Gospels, reflections of the growing rivalry and contradistinction between early Christians and Pharisees. By placing the questioning in the mouths of Herodians and Pharisees, the Gospel writers effectively emphasized the issues of politics, Jewish self-identity, and religious obligation inherent in the problem set before Jesus.

[15] The question these interrogators were asking of Jesus was one of political subjugation versus national identity and also one of religious purity and obligation. In short, it was the other side of the coin. By focusing the question on the coin itself, Jesus cleverly escapes the dilemma. He shows himself to be a loyal Roman citizen dedicated to paying his taxes and obeying Roman authority while eluding the problem of commitment to national and religious identity. He could rightly connect these ideas instead to Jewish coinage and payments in kind that were distinct from the coinage and obligations of Rome. This distinction portrays Jesus as a loyal Roman while suggesting that he is also pious in his religious obligations to Judaism. By flipping the problem back on his questioners and emphasizing the Roman coin, Jesus effectively calls into question the motivations of his questioners and their own loyalty to Rome.

[16] The tensions reflected in this questioning and Jesus’ response were not limited to his own time. Indeed, the tensions mount in the years following his death to erupt into the first Jewish War and the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Increasing tension from political subjugation combined with prickly religious sensibilities to ignite into open rebellion. Fueling this equation was the heavy burden of taxation and the difficult situation it created for the general population. Josephus in the Jewish War details many of these problems from his own perspective and to his own ends, while modern scholars also add their voices to understanding the tensions and resulting conflict. In its harshest terms, the burden of effective double taxation put upon Jewish peasants could be crushing. They could easily find themselves in impossible debt and forced off of their lands. Banditry could readily seem an attractive if not the only option left open to them.[8] Of course, when Rome crushed the rebellion the situation became far worse. As already seen, the coins themselves reflect the changing status of the region. Added to this reduced political status was the indignity of the redirection of the Temple Tax. No longer was it a voluntary and pious offering, but was now required of all Jews. The religious implications become much more highly charged as the money is channeled instead to the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. From a Roman perspective, the money of the Temple Tax that had been used to help fund the Jewish revolt could rightly be targeted as a war indemnity to both pay for the cost of the war and to punish a rebellious people.[9] From a Jewish perspective it was a collapsing of distinct religious and political responsibilities of taxation into a single expression that summed up the harshness of their subjugation and their thwarted hopes.

Personal Responsibility:
[17] Inherent in the question put before Jesus and in his reply are issues of personal responsibility expressed in terms of fiscal obligations. Until now I have considered some of the larger forces at play throughout the Empire and in Judea in political and religious terms. As April 15th fast approaches though, we well know the pressures of individual responsibility inherent in the larger patterns of taxation. In the ancient world taxes also came down to individuals and their real and sometimes exaggerated experiences of the logistical challenges and economic burdens of paying them.

[18] Many of the taxes then as now were indirect taxes that individuals paid, but were simply part of the cost of doing business. Most of these taxes were placed upon goods as they traveled from one part of the Empire to another, collected as transit tolls or portoria at town gates and harbors. These taxes could amount to 2 to 5 percent of the value of the goods.[10] Several specific taxes were added during the reign of Augustus: a 1 percent tax on items bought at auction (akin to our sales tax) and a 5 percent tax on certain cases of inheritance. There was also a tax in place on the sale and the manumission of slaves of 4 to 5 percent. Much like our own dizzying number of obscure indirect taxes, they too had a wealth of small taxes on all manner of goods and transactions, many of which we know about only thanks to random references. Thus for instance there were at various times taxes put on nails, and yes, even on the collection of urine (a necessary component in the textile industry).[11]

[19] Then, as now though, the taxes that people complained about and felt most heavily were direct taxes which they had to pay on specific occasions. The most significant of these taxes was placed on the major source of economic production in the ancient world: land. Individuals were required to pay taxes on land owned outside of Italy. These taxes were assessed by surveyors who evaluated the tax burden of plots based on geographic features and the quality of the land. In theory this tax as it was estimated by the government usually should have amounted to about ten percent of production. Because of the many layers of profiteering, in reality the land taxes actually paid were likely to be much higher for most people and could even be lower for the very wealthy thanks to their political connections and influence. In addition to the considerable burden of the land tax there was also a poll tax collected on individuals who were not citizens. The census that appears prominently in the Gospels during the reign of Augustus is fundamentally a tool of taxation: tying people to their land and counting them for purposes of tax collection.

[20] In the ancient world, much as today, all of these direct taxes created a paper trail. Written on papyri, this ancient paper trail preserves scattered moments in individual lives as people fulfilled their own personal tax obligations. Beneath their dull exterior the tax documents offer fascinating expressions of the real and perceived burdens of taxation with some very familiar accompanying sentiments.[12]

[21] Composing this article, I found myself musing on my own experiences of modern taxation in America in relation to ancient patterns of taxation. Some basic research into the topic of modern taxation brought to light a handful of interesting side notes. In terms of the history of taxation I was struck by the increase of American taxes following the Great Depression, which in turn has provided for a wide array of social programs. I also found the rich discussions about taxation surrounding World War II fascinating. The intentional use of taxes and re-division of State and Federal taxes following the War provided some intriguing reading. Considering the full burden of actual taxes paid on income made for a sobering exercise. For your own quick sense of the average figures for individual tax burdens and the federal allocation of taxes I recommend a simple internet search of “Tax-free day,” the day, usually in April, by which Americans have worked enough hours in the year to cover their tax burden.

[22] As I thought about it all, I was struck by a reality that I suppose I had long known: that in modern America our taxes reflect a wide array of values that we have developed as a nation, both accidentally and intentionally, as a product of our distinct history and of our political and legal processes. We pay for the country’s defense to support a substantial military and to fund ongoing technological advancement. We pay for roads, the postal system, education, firemen and policemen, along with a wide array of politicians, lawyers, and bureaucrats. We also pay for a host of social and cultural programs, including large sums for health care and social security.

[23] In early Imperial Rome their taxes also reflected their values and their distinct history. The support of the military required a huge portion of total tax revenue. Construction of new structures and maintenance of old ones also figured prominently, including roads, aqueducts, and a wide array of public buildings. Education was important, particularly on the local level, while the functioning of public baths also figured prominently. Supporting all of this was a heavy burden of taxation on conquered and peripheral peoples. Their redirected wealth made Rome run, filled the private purses of her wealthiest citizens, and allowed for all of the buildings and cultural expressions that we still admire today.

[24] Taken together I am not sure how all of this adds up. Clearly Jesus’ statement: “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, Render to God what is God’s” provided a meaningful response to and expression of the tensions and realities of taxation within his own context of Judean life under the rule of Imperial Rome during the Pax Romana. The political, religious, and personal obligations that it reflects were all firmly embedded in Jesus’ very particular ancient context. And yet, in the midst of our own complex tax systems with quite different political, religious, and personal obligations that reflect different values and come out of a different cultural and economic history, I am somehow not surprised that the words are still so frequently employed by modern Christians whether in the context of stewardship campaigns or taxation discussions. Whether this passage comes up at tax time or during church pledge drives, this simple expression that carefully distinguishes divergent political and religious responsibilities while doing nothing to lighten the burden of individual responsibility still seems to sum up all of the complexity, both ancient and modern, rather well.

[1] For Paul’s emphasis to his communities to pay their taxes and to be obedient to the governing authorities see Romans 13:1-7.

[2] Any number of authors have emphasized the agricultural nature of the Roman economy and the importance of transactions “in kind.” For this wonderful expression of the thin veneer of the Roman monetary system linked to a subsistence agricultural economy though see Keith Hopkins “Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire (200BC-AD400)” JRS (1980),104. This article also argues the thought-provoking ideas that the system of Roman taxation effectively promoted trade, specialization, and urbanism.

[3] See Brent Shaw “Roman Taxation” in Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean Vol. 2 ed. by Michael Grant and Rachel Kitzinger (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988), 809-27. This article provides a careful summary of Roman taxation by one of the foremost scholars on Imperial Rome. While I read from a broad range of treatments in exploring the topic, the summary of Roman taxation here is heavily indebted to his clear and concise work. In addition to some of the particular emphases on the tribute nature of taxation and taxation as an extension of military force and subjugation, this article provides a wealth of detail of interest to anyone wishing to pursue the topic of Roman taxation further.

[4] Keith Hopkins has written a range of treatments on the Roman economy. His work is particularly noteworthy for its scope and bold quantification. Built upon a thorough knowledge of the Roman world, he offers in broad strokes thought provoking assessments that sum up incredible complexity surprisingly well. I would highly recommend his range of works as well as the classic treatment by M.I. Finley The Ancient Economy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999, updated ed.). Noteworthy among more recent studies is the work of Kevin Greene such as with his article “Technological Innovation and Economic Progress in the Ancient World: M.I. Finley Re-considered” The Economic History Review (2000) 29-59. Greene offers an emphasis on the importance of trade and production as evidenced by archaeological finds as a balance to the heavily land and agrarian based assessments of Finley and others. This particular idea of concentric rings as a way of describing the economic system is presented in Keith Hopkins “Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire (200BC-AD400)” JRS (1980), 101ff. I would also specifically recommend Keith Hopkins’ article “Roman Trade, Industry and Labor” from Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean Vol. 2 ed. by Michael Grant and Rachel Kitzinger (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988), pp. 753-776.

[5] Rome’s citizens were divided into distinct classes. Equestrians were individuals with a legally specified high income each year. Theoretically Senators could not profiteer off of a wide range of commercial enterprises, which was to safeguard against corruption. In reality, they required vast wealth in their bids for power, wealth which they continued to acquire through slightly disguised commercial endeavors and exploitation of the provinces while they administered them. The most famous example of a bad governor, thanks in part to Cicero’s critique of him, is Verres of Sicily in the first part of the first century BCE. For their collection of the taxes contractors relied on publicani. On publicani in general, the seminal work is Ernst Badian’s Publicans and Sinners (Ithaca: Cornell, 1972). Tax collectors are common figures throughout the New Testament. Jesus is presented as remarkable for his dining with them and warm treatment of them in general. The most famous of these publicani is of course Matthew.

[6] Augustus made a number of important changes to the system of taxation. One of these was the establishment of procurators. Thanks to these changes there was a significant reduction of tax farmers, particularly in the collection of the land taxes. Tax contractors and their collection agents, however, would have persisted in many other forms including collecting duties on trade goods. It has been suggested that the “tax collectors” so prevalent in the Gospels might belong to this category.

[7] For the establishment of this tax see Exodus 30.11-16 and 38.26.

[8] See Horsley Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1999 revised edition) for a useful treatment of the burden of this double taxation, the economic hardship it created, and the resulting social banditry. Chapter two addressing “Ancient Jewish Social Banditry” is particularly relevant for this discussion. I remain only partially convinced of his assessment of the direness of economic straights that were created and the magnitude of this double-taxation, but he provides an excellent and careful summary of the evidence and a plausible explanation of the extreme social pressures that contributed to the unrest leading into the first Jewish War.

[9] For the conversion of this tax see especially Josephus Jewish War 7.6.6. For the connection of the temple tax to war funds see Jewish War 6.6.2. For an excellent discussion of the temple tax and its conversion and the particular emphasis on it as a war indemnity see Sara Mandell “Who Paid the Temple Tax When the Jews were under Roman Rule” HTR 77:2 (1984), 223-32.

[10] See Brent Shaw “Roman Taxation” (1988), 809 for the quantifying of transit tolls as usually being 2 to 5 percent.

[11] For the taxation on urine see Vespasian 23 in Suetonius’ Lives, cited and discussed also in Brent Shaw “Roman Taxation” (1988), 821. Lest all of these descriptions of taxation seem too simple, the brief listing of some of the hundreds of specific taxes evident in Roman sources in Brent Shaw’s article (p. 810) provides a useful corrective emphasizing the incredible complexity of Roman taxation. Another specific tax I have come across in my doctoral work on Aphrodisias is the “nail tax.” This tax, which would otherwise be unknown, was a source of complaint for the Aphrodisians who insisted that their special tax status made them immune to this source of revenue collection. The complaint was immortalized in an inscription on their archive wall and thus preserved for posterity.

[12] A wide array of material from papyri are commonly available. Some of the most useful collections include the concise three volume Loeb Select Papyri (Harvard University Press); the edited volumes by G.H.R. Horsley — New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, and the extensive publications of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (Oxford University Press for the British Academy).