Matthew Chapter 22:15-22

The chapter continues. Jesus is still engaging the Pharisees and the Sadducees and–and note that the high priests apparently are no longer present. What happened to them? We are in the Temple, after all. They were there at the beginning of the engagement. But it seems that they have slinked away. Or is this another case of editorial fatigue? Matthew just sort of forgot where all of this was situated, since he was just copying down material from sources that had been committed to writing during Jesus’ lifetime, or, at most, shortly after Jesus’ death?

The original plan was to push on through Verse 33; however, the change in topic after the end of Verse 22 provides a logical break for the comment. I decided to go with two shorter sections, rather than a single long one. I hope this doesn’t affect the continuity of the narrative too much. At least, maybe it will not affect continuity as badly as having to wait an inordinately long time in between posts because the sections are too long.


15 Τότε πορευθέντες οἱ Φαρισαῖοι συμβούλιον ἔλαβον ὅπως αὐτὸν παγιδεύσωσιν ἐν λόγῳ.

16 καὶ ἀποστέλλουσιν αὐτῷ τοὺς μαθητὰς αὐτῶν μετὰ τῶν Ἡρῳδιανῶν λέγοντες, Διδάσκαλε, οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἀληθὴς εἶ καὶ τὴν ὁδὸν τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν ἀληθείᾳ διδάσκεις, καὶ οὐ μέλει σοι περὶ οὐδενός, οὐ γὰρ βλέπεις εἰς πρόσωπον ἀνθρώπων.

17 εἰπὲ οὖν ἡμῖν τί σοι δοκεῖ: ἔξεστιν δοῦναι κῆνσον Καίσαρι ἢ οὔ;

(15) Then the Pharisees having gone away they took counsel how they might ensnare him in his speech.

(16) And they sent to him disciples with those being of the Herodians saying, “Teacher, we know that you are truthful and the way of the lord in truth you teach, and that it does not matter to you about anyone, for you do not look to the face of men. (17) So tell us how it seems to you: is it proper to give the kenson to Caesar or not?”

Note: it’s hard to render the first part of Verse 16 in a way that’s not ambiguous in English. What the passage is saying is that the Pharisees sent some disciples and these disciples approached Jesus along with members of the Herodian party.

The “kensos” is the Greek form of a Latin word. The Latin is literally the “census”, which gets transliterated into Greek as “kensos”. The “census” was essentially a head tax, assessed on everyone that was counted in the census. And the census was taken, largely, for taxing purposes. One paid a flat tax of a given amount to the emperor. Period.

Also, I recall this construction giving me a major problem when we encountered this passage in Mark. The verb is impersonal; so “it does not affect you/matter to you about anyone”, which colloquially would be something like “you don’t give a fig what anyone thinks”. So, I guess this indicates that I’ve made some progress in my comprehension since then. This is not the most straightforward construction, but it doesn’t seem all that difficult on this iteration. And this is more or less a second iteration, since it’s almost verbatim from Mark. And the bit about “not looking to the face of men” is a way of saying that one is not concerned with the opinion of humans, but with the will of God.

Finally, the most interesting part of this may be that Jesus is being quizzed by the disciples of the Pharisees, and some of the Herodians. These would be the party of Herod, presumably Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee among other places. There are a couple of reasons why this is curious. First, we are not in Galilee, nor anywhere else under Herod’s authority. As such, these people had no sort of authority in any real sense. Herod ruled at the sufferance of Rome; Pilate was the prefect; he had the legions; he was in charge and minor characters like Herod did what they were told. Of course, we will later be told in the course of the Passion narrative that Herod was in town, presumably for Passover. Given this, it would scarcely be surprising that he had retainers, a retinue, a group of camp followers with him. Rather, the sticking point comes in two ways: why would Herod’s followers be trying to trip up Jesus while he was in Jerusalem? Why would they particularly care? While he’s in Judea, he’s the problem of others, namely (or ultimately) Pilate.

There would be no benefit to the Herodians to stir up trouble on someone else’s turf. To understand this, it’s really imperative to realize just how ruthless and savage the Romans were as a rule. They were perfectly willing to let you practice your own religion, believe whatever you wanted, but just don’t cause trouble. Those who did were dealt with very severely. And the Romans weren’t always careful about wading through the circumstances to find the real culprit, or the party that was truly responsible for the uproar. Yes, it’s conceivable to suggest that followers of Herod might not have minded to see Jesus get in trouble in Jerusalem, to the point that the Romans might arrest him and dispose of him. Of course, this assumes that Jesus had a substantial following that had caused problems in Galilee. Mark tells that Jesus had an enormous following on the one hand but then tells us that Jesus kept his identity a closely-guarded secret. Which was it?

There is one more critical point to remember. According to our best source on Jesus’ career, Jesus did not become recognised as the Messiah until after he was raised from the dead. This is what Paul tells us, if a bit obliquely, and only between the lines. If this is true–and we have no reason to doubt what Paul tells us–then Jesus made no claim to political title during his lifetime. He was not hailed as the Messiah. He did not claim to be “King of the Jews”. As such, there was no reason for Herod, who had the best claim to the title, to feel uneasy about Jesus’ career. It’s important to note that the idea of Jesus as King of the Jews only shows up in the Passion narrative, and there is real opinion that the Passion narrative had a separate genesis outside the evangelists. That is, Mark found the story more or less intact. And Paul seems unaware of this story. He never referred to it, and tells us that Jesus only became the Christ upon being raised from the dead. Given this, much of the political motivation for Herod, and the Romans, to see Jesus as an insurrectionist pretty much goes away. Jesus was not a zealot, Aslan’s book to the contrary. As such, why would the Herodians seek to stir things up while they are in Jerusalem, under Pilate’s jurisdiction? Why put yourself at risk? So, I ask again, why are the Herodians here?

My suggestion is that they are here as sort of back-fill from the Passion narrative. There was a need, or a desire, to widen the conspiracy against Jesus to include as many of the authorities–of the Jewish authorities–as possible. This was present already, and perhaps especially, in Mark, who had most need to throw the blame for Jesus’ death anywhere but upon Rome. 

Of course, this is speculation, but it is, perhaps, educated guesswork. At times I get the sense that I’m really twisting things to fit my theories; if such is the case, this will only become apparent as I review what I’ve written to see if it is internally consistent. I believe so, but then, of course  I would.

Now the question becomes, did this happen? Does this–or more accurately, could this–reflect something that (more or less) actually happened? Probably not, at least given the assumptions that I have been making, and that I’ve made in this comment. This is a decidedly political action, one meant to demonstrate loyalty–or at least, grudging acceptance–of the Roman imperium. Jesus is saying he has no problem with this. My suspicion is that this comment would be more appropriate to the early 70s than it would be to the mid-30s. At the later time there was more urgency to the need to be accepting the Roman rule. Yes, Judea and Galilee were perennial hotspots, flash points of trouble for Rome, so demonstrating something approaching good will was always politick. But in the 70s it was something more akin to self-preservation. And again, if we remove the idea of the Messiah and the King of the Jews from Jesus’ resumé, then the need to be conciliatory is greatly diminished, which cannot be said of the early 70s when Mark wrote. So, yes, this could have been based on a real incident in the life of Jesus, but it probably wasn’t.

15 Tunc abeuntes pharisaei consilium inierunt, ut caperent eum in sermone.

16 Et mittunt ei discipulos suos cum herodianis dicentes: “ Magister, scimus quia verax es et viam Dei in veritate doces, et non est tibi cura de aliquo; non enim respicis personam hominum.

17 Dic ergo nobis quid tibi videatur: Licet censum dare Caesari an non?”.

18 γνοὺς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς τὴν πονηρίαν αὐτῶν εἶπεν, Τί με πειράζετε, ὑποκριταί;

19 ἐπιδείξατέ μοι τὸ νόμισμα τοῦ κήνσου. οἱ δὲ προσήνεγκαν αὐτῷ δηνάριον.

20 καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Τίνος ἡ εἰκὼν αὕτη καὶ ἡ ἐπιγραφή;

21 λέγουσιν αὐτῷ, Καίσαρος. τότε λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ἀπόδοτε οὖν τὰ Καίσαρος Καίσαρι καὶ τὰ τοῦ θεοῦ τῷ θεῷ.

22 καὶ ἀκούσαντες ἐθαύμασαν, καὶ ἀφέντες αὐτὸν ἀπῆλθαν.

(18) But knowing Jesus the wickedness of them said, “Why do you test me, hypocrites? (19) Show me the established (coin) of the census (the coin and its denomination used to pay the census tax)”.

(20) They showed forth to him a denarius.

(21) And he asked them, “Of whom is the image and the epigraph?”

(21) They said to him, “Of Caesar”. Then he said to them, “Give over the things of Caesar to Caesar, and the things of God to God.”

(22) And hearing, they marveled, and quitting him they went away.   

Honestly, this passage is too well-known to require any real comment. The cleverness of the ruse, the wittiness of the response, all of it is first rate. And we’ve already discussed the probable (lack of) historicity of the incident. The only comment to be made is to note that this is one of the first times that suggested the separation of Church and State. As such, this passage was often at the centre of the discussions between pope and secular rulers during the thousand years of the Middle Ages. And even before that, when Christianity was legalised by Constantine, and then made obligatory by Theodoric, this passage figured prominently as the two types of power tried to come to some sort of modus operandi.  

18 Cognita autem Iesus nequitia eorum, ait: “ Quid me tentatis, hypocritae?

19 Ostendite mihi nomisma census ”. At illi obtulerunt ei denarium.

20 Et ait illis: “ Cuius est imago haec et suprascriptio? ”.

21 Dicunt ei: “ Caesaris ”. Tunc ait illis: “ Reddite ergo, quae sunt Caesaris, Caesari et, quae sunt Dei, Deo ”.

22 Et audientes mirati sunt et, relicto eo, abierunt.



About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on March 27, 2016, in Chapter 22, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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