The Tribute Money, by Joachim Wtewael (1616)
The Tribute Money, by Joachim Wtewael (1616)

The Pharisees laid out a plan to trap Jesus. They sent their disciples and Herodians to him. They said to Jesus, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with truth. You aren’t swayed by others no matter who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

Caesar's Coin, by Peter Paul Rubens (1612-1614)

But Jesus knew what they were trying to do. He said,

“You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.”

They brought him a denarius. Jesus asked them,

“Whose image is this and whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Jesus said to them,

“Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

When the Pharisees heard this, they were amazed so they left him and went away.

What the story means to us today

God maintains authority over everything – including the Pharisees

Jesus stuns the Pharisees with his knowledge and command. If he supports payment of Caesar’s taxes, he could be seen as a traitor to his people. But if he opposes payment to Caesar, he could be accused of treason against the Roman state. They believe they have put Jesus in a no-win situation.

Jesus easily slips through the trap laid by the Pharisees. His brilliant response neither legitimized the Roman emperor’s rule nor discredited it while at the same time, pointing out that ultimately, God has authority over everything.

Additional thoughts and considerations

The logic behind the Pharisees’ attempt to trap Jesus

The tax being referred too was a poll tax put into place around 5 A.D. It was unpopular and had already led to riots. Matthew tells us the Pharisees laid the plans to trap Jesus and sent their disciples and “Herodians” to execute their plan. The Pharisees foresaw two potential responses to the question of Caesar’s tax – either of which would put Jesus in a dangerous situation.

The Tribute Money by Gustave Dore(1866)

If Jesus says tax to Tiberius Caesar should be paid, he would legitimize Rome’s controversial rule over the Jewish people. But if Jesus insists taxes should not be paid to Caesar, he could be accused of rebellion against the Romans.

Jesus brilliantly supplies an answer which neither supports nor discredits Caesar’s tax – give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s – but give to God what is God’s.

The Pharisees later lie about Jesus’ response

Although in these verses, Jesus is triumph in his pithy reply to the Sadducees attempt to entrap him, Luke tells us later that they claimed their trap worked and that Jesus had “opposed payment of taxes to Caesar”.

The science and history behind the story

The Herodians

Matthew tells us the Pharisees laid out a trap for Jesus using their disciples and the Herodians. Herodians are only mentioned once in Matthew and twice in Mark. They are generally believed to be a Jewish group with similar objectives as the Pharisees. They may have grown from the dynasty of Herod Antipas or they may have been citizens that openly supported Herod and the Romans. It would make sense that they were sent with the Pharisees because they would have supported paying the Roman tax and would have immediately turned against Jesus if he implied the Roman tax should not be paid.

Julius Caesar’s coin

A denarius coin featuring Tiberius Caesar.

The coin (the “tribute penny”) presented to Jesus had the face of “Caesar” on it. However, the reference to Caesar in these verses refers to the man named Tiberius. In Jesus’ day, the family name “Caesar” had become an official title and could refer to Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius, or Nero in New Testament times. The coin in this instance bore the phrase “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus” on one side and “high priest” (pontifex maximus) on the other. The phrase on either side of the coin would have been offensive to followers of Jesus Christ.

Bible Text

NIV

15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax w to Caesar or not?”

18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The NET Bible

Malczewski Jacek, Render unto Caesar Abt 1920

22:15 Then the Pharisees went out and planned together to entrap him with his own words. 22:16 They sent to him their disciples along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are truthful, and teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You do not court anyone’s favor because you show no partiality. 22:17 Tell us then, what do you think? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

22:18 But Jesus realized their evil intentions and said, “Hypocrites! Why are you testing me? 22:19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” So they brought him a denarius. 22:20 Jesus said to them, “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” 22:21 They replied, “Caesar’s.” He said to them, “Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22:22 Now when they heard this they were stunned, and they left him and went away.

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

New King James Version

15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk. 16 And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. 17 Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why do you test Me, you hypocrites? 19 Show Me the tax money.”

So they brought Him a denarius.

20 And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?”

21 They said to Him, “Caesar’s.”

And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way.

The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Print.

The Message

      15–17 That’s when the Pharisees plotted a way to trap him into saying something damaging. They sent their disciples, with a few of Herod’s followers mixed in, to ask, “Teacher, we know you have integrity, teach the way of God accurately, are indifferent to popular opinion, and don’t pander to your students. So tell us honestly: Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

      18–19 Jesus knew they were up to no good. He said, “Why are you playing these games with me? Why are you trying to trap me? Do you have a coin? Let me see it.” They handed him a silver piece.

      20 “This engraving—who does it look like? And whose name is on it?”

      21 They said, “Caesar.”

      “Then give Caesar what is his, and give God what is his.”

      22 The Pharisees were speechless. They went off shaking their heads.

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

King James Version

15 Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. 16 And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. 17 Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? 18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? 19 Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. 20 And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? 21 They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. 22 When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archaeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database