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After being asked whether it was right to pax taxes, Jesus repies:

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

Why is that an answer that "amazed" them? To a modern person, it sounds like He was avoiding the question! How would it have been understood in Jesus's day, such that they were amazed?

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The face of Cesar was on the coin so he is saying give Cesar back his coins, and give God what is his which is yourself. Your soul! Give it back to the one who created you. Therefore yes he avoided the question to avoid being caught in the trap but the answer he gave was of great literary and teaching meaning. Our souls are worth more to The Lord than coins (taxes) are to the Romans. –  user3517 Feb 16 at 6:14
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4 Answers

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The Pharisees were trying to trap Him. They thought they had an air tight dilemma. If Jesus says "pay the taxes," it will turn the common people (the people of the land) against Him. It would also turn the zealots against Him. If He said, "don't pay taxes," then the Herodians (agents of the king) have it from His mouth that He is fomenting rebellion. If they reported something like that with grounds, the arrest would have happened sooner.

Yes, on one hand, He is avoiding the question, but on the other He is sidestepping a trap. He split the horns of the dilemma. (Like the Euthyphro dilemma, "Is it good because God wills it or does God will it because it is good?" The answer is, "God wills it because HE is good.")

Also, the disciples of the Pharisees would have been well trained in midrash and the rules of Hillel. With Jesus' answer, I can easily see their thoughts grabbing the key word "image" in Jesus' question.

The thinking would then go like this:

Q "If you are to render to Ceasar what bears his image, then what are you to render to God?"

A: "You render to God what bears His image, and what bears the image of God is yourself (Gen 1:26,27)."

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Nice pull on the Euthyphro dilemma! There's no question in my mind that "image" is a direct reference to Genesis 1. –  Jon Ericson Feb 9 '12 at 22:59
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I have to give credit to William Lane Craig for the Euthyphro answer. I was listening to his podcast archive while at work last week. –  Frank Luke Feb 10 '12 at 2:32
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In addition to the fact that it was a loaded question from the Pharisees in which they were trying to trap him, Jesus' answer also ran completely counter to the spirit of Jewish nationalism that was the prevailing opinion of Jewish leaders at the time. Jesus avoided their trap and denounced the popular opinion, that is the source of their amazement.

The key thing to note in regards to Jesus' answer is the relationship between the 1st century Jews and the Roman empire. The Romans were an occupying force that had a say over every matter in Jewish life. Even the Temple was subject to this and still operating only at the mercy of the Roman officials in Israel. There were many forms of both organized and unorganized resistance to the Romans in and around the time of Jesus.

In fact, just 60 or so years after Jesus' death there was a major rebellion that did not go well for the Jews.

After decades of Roman rule, Jewish nationalism spilled over into open rebellion against Rome in a.d. 66. This First Jewish Revolt against Rome had disastrous consequences for the Jews and Palestine; it also affected the Christian movement because of the loss of influence of the Jerusalem church. Jewish unrest was deeply rooted in the long Roman occupation of their land, but several events precipitated a crisis. When the procurator Gessius Florus confiscated seventeen talents from the Jerusalem temple treasury, the Jews violently resisted. Riots broke out between Jews and Gentiles in Caesarea Maritima over a long-simmering dispute concerning citizenship, recently decided by Nero in favor of the Gentiles. Many Jews died in Caesarea, and the riots spread to other cities where similar tensions led to bloodshed. In June a.d. 66, the daily sacrifices offered in Jerusalem on behalf of the emperor and the Roman people ceased by order of Eleazar, captain of the temple. This action signaled open rebellion against Rome.

Holman Bible Atlas, Ch. 20

The consequences of this at the hands of the Romans were devastating to the Jewish way of life, especially in regards to religion.

The Jewish population suffered greatly, both spiritually and physically. The temple and its sacrificial system were gone; Jerusalem lay in ruins and was occupied by portions of the Tenth Legion. With no temple, the influence of the high priest and the Sadducees rapidly dissolved. Only the Pharisees survived the crisis, reconstituting the Sanhedrin at Jamnia shortly before a.d. 100.

Holman Bible Atlas, Ch. 20

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Why is the “give to Caesar what is Caesar's” answer so great?
Why is that an answer that "amazed" them?

You are making the interpretation that Jesus' answer was great: the text does say that the Pharisees who tried to 'trap' or 'entangle' Jesus 'were amazed' or 'marvelled'1 but the text does not spell out the reason why.

Other's here understand the 'trap' to be a question that would harm Jesus whichever way he chose to answer it, assuming that Jesus would face either:

  1. the people turning against him if he came out in support of paying
  2. the wrath of the authorities if he came out against

However the plain reading of Jesus response is that he does simply state that the tax should be paid (he doesn't only say that, but he does clearly say that), so the Pharisees amazement must have been because they were expecting the opposite response, and not because the response was somehow a clever way of wriggling out of their trap.

So, the answer 'amazed' them because they were expecting Jesus to reject the tax

This is well supported with a close look at the approach the Pharisees took:

16And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone's opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” ESV

  1. the Herodians would not have been interested in coming along if they were expecting the answer Jesus gave: they must have been anticipating something they could use against Jesus
  2. the Pharisees make a particular point of goading Jesus to tell the truth in his answer: Jesus enemies did not deny that he did good, but they interpreted his good deeds as a cover for an evil intent. They thought he would tell the truth and were trying to make sure he gave an answer by drawing attention to his truthfulness with evil-intentioned flattery
  3. the question is not about whether it is right to pay taxes to Caesar, but about whether it is legal. This only makes sense if the practice of paying taxes to Caesar instead of the tithes stipulated by the law was occurring. Jesus directly addresses this with his response:

    “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

The answer Jesus gives has amazing depth. As well as addressing the legal question the Pharisee's ask, Jesus:

  1. makes the point that Caesar already owns the what he is demanding of them
  2. by implication asserts that God also already owns the things He commands them to give to Him
  3. alludes to the image of God that Adam was created in: the suggestion is that God not only owns the taxpayers money, but also his very being: which must there be offered back in tribute


1 NIV and ESV translations

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Psalm 24:1 "The earth is the Lord's and everything in it," which nothing for Caesar.

The design of the trap is explained in the account of the incident in the Gospel of Luke (Ch. 20), but elided from the accounts in Matthew (Ch. 20) and Mark (Ch. 12). The spies were sent by the chief priests to "entangle Jesus in speech so as to hand him over to the authority of the governor (viz., Pilate)". The Pharisees and chief priests had received extensive knowledge of Jesus' words and deeds from their network of spies and were convinced that Jesus would condemn paying tribute (Caesar's tax). They didn't think Jesus would endorse Caesar's tax, which would have given them no cause to hand him over to Pilate, who was responsible for the collection of Rome's taxes in Judea. Jesus had previously persuaded tax collectors (i.e., Matthew, Levi, and Zaccheaus) to leave their duties to follow him. He had also equated the business of collecting taxes to prostitution and also told Peter that "the sons are exempt" (Matthew 17:26) from taxes.

Therefore, neither his disciples nor his enemies thought that Jesus would tell them to pay the tax. It would be inconsistent with the character of Jesus to claim that he avoided a simple affirmative response because it would cost him follower. He was no stranger to abandonment (Jn. 6:66) and his message was not one that was intended to pander to the powers that be.

Indeed, Jesus was also wise, spoke the truth, and, many times, left the audience to sit in his sayings. In this instance, if he said, "No, don't give one red cent of tribute (tax) to that thieving, murdering, war mongering, enslaving pretender to my Father's divinity (Tiberius Caesar claimed he was the son of the Divine Augustus) and usurper of God's prerogative as man's only law maker, he would have been made the fool by the chief priests, which was a state of affairs Jesus never would abide.

Jesus response to the question, "should we pay Caesar's tax?" turned the tables on his questioners. Give Caesar what is Caesar's but give God what is God's required them to try to determine who owns what. Those who know Scripture have no doubt, but they obviously didn't know Scripture or they would have seen that Jesus' response condemned Caesar's tax just as their bosses had expected he would but they were dumbfounded and befuddled. When they returned to the authorities and told them what Jesus had said, the chief priests knew he had condemned Caesar's tax with his render-unto-Caesar quip. So they chose to remove Jesus by force. When they took him before Pilate they translated Jesus' response for him. "We found this man perverting our nation (Rome). He forbids us to pay taxes to Caesar...He has been stirring up crowds from Galilee all the way here." So, Pilate crucified him."

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I have attempted an edit on your question. The more I attempted to sort through what you were trying to say, the more I realized how much of it is really just a thinly-veiled ad hominem strawman argument. I agree with the ultimate conclusion (which you state near the beginning), but I also think that there's another answer that fits the format better. –  swasheck Apr 11 '13 at 14:42
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