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"Give to God the Things that are God's"

The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) record that, upon arriving in Jerusalem for Passover, Jesus confronted the financial corruption of the chief priests and overseers of the Jerusalem Temple (Matt. 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46).[1] From this moment, the chief priests, their scribes, and the elders of the people (i.e., the Sadducean authorities and the Jerusalem priestly aristocracy) sought to destroy Jesus, but they could do nothing due to his popularity with the people (Mark 11:18-19; 19:47-48; 20:19; 22:2). Jesus posed a credible threat to their power and financial wealth (see John 11:48).

Jesus’ actions against those selling (see Luke 19:45) in the temple brought him into direct conflict with the chief priests. Luke records that after the “temple cleansing” Jesus had four encounters with the chief priests and Sadducees (“The Question of Authority,” “The Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen,” “Paying Taxes to Caesar,” and “The Question of the Resurrection;” 20:1-40).[2] In the first two encounters, Jesus hints to specific references to the corruption of the chief priests (namely, their potential complicity in the death of John the Baptist,[3] and their evasion of the tithe[4]). Upon hearing the “Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen” (Luke 20:9-18), the chief priests and their scribes, recognizing that he told the parable against them, sought to “lay their hands upon him,” but they could not because they feared the people (Luke 20:19).

They were left to send spies to publicly question Jesus regarding paying taxes to Caesar (Luke 20:20-26; see also Matt. 22:15-22; and Mark 12:13-17). Luke alone of the Evangelists highlights the political motivation of the questioning of the spies of the chief priests in raising the issue of paying taxes to Caesar: “so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor” (20:20). Asking Jesus, “Is it lawful for us to pay tribute to Caesar or not,” they sought to publicly entrap Jesus in order to charge him before Pilate, the governor (see Luke 23:2).[5]

A silver denarius of the emperor Tiberias

Jesus ingeniously responded by asking to see a denarius and drawing attention to whose imageit bore. I previously wrote that behind Jesus’ reply to the spies of the chief priests, “Render to Caesar’s that which is Caesar’s, but to God the things which are God’s,” lies an allusion to Genesis 1:27, which contains the first appearance of the word “image” in the Bible.[6] While rereading this passage recently, my friend and professor Esther Eshel raised the question whether or not “the things which are God’s” could refer to the sacrifices—i.e., that which belongs to God.

Understood this way, Jesus’ response, on the surface, suggests that the priests withheld sacrifices from the Lord; this does not seem likely, especially in light of the numerous sources from the period that speak about the offering of sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple. But, in light of the two previous interactions between Jesus and the chief priests, in which he spoke to specific actions and practices of theirs, which he publicly denounced, it may be that another specific event lies behind his reference to “the things that are God’s.”

Pilate, Caiaphas, and “the things that are God’s”

The tenures of Pontius Pilate as Prefect of Judaea and Caiaphas as chief priest overlapped (AD 18-36/37).[7] Both served in their offices the longest of anyone in their respective positions.[8] Caiaphas’ long tenure as chief priest attests to his shrewdness, the influence of his father-in-law Annas (see John 18:13), and a close relationship with the Roman prefect, Pilate. The Roman governor of Syria, Vitellius removed Caiaphas as chief priest when he removed Pilate as prefect (Josephus, Antiquities 18.88-95). It seems that their mutually imposed departure stemmed from the close association between the prefect and the high priest including their collaboration in governing Judaea.[9]

Josephus records an event during Pilate’s tenure as prefect that caused a mob uprising in Jerusalem:

"After these events he provoked a different kind of upheaval by exhausting the sacred treasure, known as the korbonas, for the construction of an aqueduct which brought water from a distance of 400 stadia. Expressing indignation at this action, the crowd surrounded the tribunal-platform of Pilate when he was in Jerusalem, and kept yelling at him. Having anticipated the disturbance, he had mixed his armed soldiers among the crowd, disguised in civilian clothes, with orders not to attack with their swords but to beat the rioters with clubs. Then he gave the prearranged signal from the tribunal-platform. Many Jews who were beaten perished from the blows which they received, but many others from being trampled by their own (people) in the ensuing flight. Terror-stricken on account of the calamity of those who were killed, the crowd became silent" (War 2.175-177; see also Antiquities 18.60-62).

Coin of Pontius Pilate

The Mishnah permitted the use of funds from the temple treasury to be used for the upkeep of civic projects, like an aqueduct (m. Sheqalim 2.5; 4.2). Josephus, however, specifically mentions that Pilate took the korban (see Mark 7:11), i.e., the money (shekalim) that had been contributed by Jews for the purchase of sacrifices.[10] The Greek term, korbonas, used by Josephus reflects the Hebrew, korban, which refers to a sacrificial offering.[11] His expropriating monies designated for the sacrifices most likely led the Jewish mob to riot in protest. Pilate’s taking of the korban most likely involved the cooperation of the Jewish leaders of the people (see Luke 19:47), including the high priest and the temple treasurer,[12] who appear strangely silent in Josephus’ account of the protest of the Jewish people.

A stone weight bearing the Hebrew inscription "korban."

Josephus’ account of Pilate’s taking of the korban sheds light on an obscure mention of Pilate to Jesus in Luke’s Gospel: “And there were some present at that time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices” (13:1). Nowhere do we find mentioned an event where Pilate killed pilgrims offering their sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem. It seems that such an occurrence would not have been overlooked by Josephus, who repeatedly describes Pilate’s provocative and brutal actions towards his Jewish subjects, especially considering it would have brought Roman soldiers into the temple precincts. It seems rather that Luke refers to the event of the korban, the money for the sacrifices, which when Pilate took led to a riot that resulted in bloodshed; thus, “the blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices (i.e., the blood spilled as a result of the issue with the korban, the money for the sacrifices).”[13] Jesus was apparently aware of Pilate’s taking of the korban and the bloodshed that ensued.

When the spies of the chief priests confronted Jesus asking whether or not it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to Caesar, they sought to publicly entrap him. Jesus’ ingenious response, however, dodged their direct question. Where previously I viewed his response, “But give to God the things that are God’s,” as a more general response—“Give to Caesar that which bears his image, but give to God that which bears His (Gen. 1:27)”[14]—Jesus’ mention of “the things that are God’s” indicates a more specific and direct referent, meaning the sacrifices. Jesus replied to the question of paying taxes similarly as he did when asked by what authority he did these things (Luke 20:2) in an allusive but direct manner. When publicly confronted on the lawfulness of paying taxes, Jesus responded to the spies of the chief priests to give to Caesar that which is his, but his mention of giving to God “the things that are God’s” hints at the cooperation of the chief priests in allowing Pilate access to the sacrificial treasury of the korban. In other words, give Caesar what belongs to him (i.e., taxes), but give to God what belongs to Him (i.e., the sacrifices), which the chief priests cooperated in allowing Pilate to expropriate. Jesus publicly denounced the involvement of the chief priests in giving access to the Roman governor to the sacred treasury of sacrifices, i.e., “the things that are God’s.” Given the public outcry when Pilate took the sacred funds, Jesus’ outing of the chief priests and their cooperation was incendiary.

A Hebrew inscription "korban."

Jesus’ repeated critique of the corruption of the chief priests, as well as their collaboration with the Roman governor, made him a direct threat to their power and money. His reply to the spies of the chief priests highlighted their collusion with Rome in absconding with the sacred monies of the korban—the things of God. His statement, which referred to the specific event of Pilate and the korban, exposed the political and financial corruption of Jerusalem’s priestly aristocracy.

His popularity with the people (Luke 19:48; 20:19, and 26) forced them to seek to arrest him “away from the crowds” (Luke 22:6). While his popularity with the masses, publicly insulated him, it also made him a more direct threat to the chief priests and their position. And, protecting their interests was in the interest of the Roman governor, Pilate, known for taking bribes, violence, robberies, assaults and hostile attitude, executions without due process, and ceaseless savagery (Philo, Embassy to Gaius 302; see also John 19:12).

Modern readers of the Gospels tend to generalize and universalize Jesus’ words disassociating them from their historical context. Our distance from the historical circumstances of Jesus’ world tends to obscure our ability to see that Jesus spoke directly to the historical and cultural realities of his day. His reply—“Give to God the things that are God’s”—was not a general call to obedience, but rather highlighting the specific actions of the chief priests who gave their approval to Pilate taking the monies for the sacrifices, the things that are God’s. This explains the growing tensions between the chief priests and Jesus as reflected in the Gospels, and, ultimately, why the priestly aristocracy of Jerusalem sought the aide of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, to execute Jesus. An action they sought to perpetrate with the assistance of Pilate while hiding in the shadows covering up their clandestine activity (see t. Menahot 13.21; b. Pesahim 57a; Acts 5:27-28).

One final note. I previously read Jesus’ response to the question about paying taxes to Caesar—“Give to God the things that are God’s”—in a more general manner as pertaining solely to giving God that which bears His image. In light, however, of my conversation with Esti and my ongoing study, I realized that Jesus’ reply referred to a specific historical event. He criticized the chief priests for not giving to God the things that belonged to Him by allowing Pilate to access the sacred monies for the sacrifices. If we truly study the Bible within its physical, historical, cultural, and spiritual contexts and understand how to apply these disciplines, then we should expect to continually refine and improve our understandings and interpretations of the Bible. Failure to do so means that we ultimately follow a Jesus that we make in our own image.

[1] See Marc Turnage. Palm Sunday and the Enemies of Jesus. (March 25, 2018). Retrieved April 16, 2019 from

[2] Matthew inserted a couple of parables into the narratives of these four encounters, and Mark only has the first two (“The Questioning of Authority” and “The Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen”) directed specifically towards the chief priests. In his version of the question of “Paying Taxes to Caesar,” Mark has the chief priests, “they” (Mark 12:13), send the Pharisees and Herodians to ask the question about taxes to Jesus. This seems secondary as historically the chief priests, who were Sadducees, had no control over the Pharisees. Luke’s account mentions that the chief priests sent their own spies (20:20).

[3] R. Steven Notley has raised the question to me whether the “principle men of the Galilee” present at the infamous banquet given by Herod Antipas, which led to John’s execution (Mark 6:21), were in fact priests (private communication). On a priestly presence in Galilee during the first century, see Notley, “Genesis Rabbah 98:17—“And Why Is It Called Gennosar?” Recent Discoveries at Magdala and Jewish Life on the Plain of Gennosar in the Early Roman Period,” in Talmuda de-Eretz Israel: Archaeology and the Rabbis in Late Antique Palestine (ed. S. Fine and A. Koller; Boston/Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2014), 141-158; and Ronny Reich and Marcela Zapata Meza, "A Preliminary Report on the Miqwa’otof Migdal,” Israel Exploration Journal 64/1 (2014): 63-71.

[4] Randall Buth and Brian Kvasnnica, “Temple Authorities and Tithe-Evasion: The Linguistic Background and Impact of the Parable of the Vineyard, the Tenants and the Son,” in Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels—Volume One (ed. R. S. Notley, M. Turnage, and B. Becker; Leiden: Brill, 2006), 53-80.

[5] On the political ramifications of their question, see Turnage, Windows Into the Bible: Cultural and Historical Insights from the Bible for Modern Readers (Logion Press: Springfield, MO, 2016), 313-330.

[6] Ibid.

[7] On the date of Pilate’s tenure, see Daniel Schwartz, Studies in the Jewish Background of Christianity (WUNT 60; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1992), 182-201; and David W. Chapman and Eckhard J. Schnabel, The Trial and Crucifixion of Jesus (WUNT 334; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015), 158-160.

[8] Notley, “Pontius Pilate: Sadist or Saint?,” Biblical Archaeology Review 43:4, July/August 2017: 40-49, 59-60.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See Louis H. Feldman, trans., Josephus: Jewish Antiquities. Books 18-19 (LCL 433; Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1965), 46-47, n. b.

[11] See Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (vol. 2; Leiden: Brill, 2001), 1136-1137.

[12] See Helen Bond, Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation (SNTSMS 100; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 86.

[13] This reading was suggested to me by R. Steven Notley (private communication).

[14] See Windows Into the Bible, 313-330.

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